Self-Inflicted Wounds

Recently I was reminded of a Charlie-ism, a saying of the late Charles Siburt, who had a knack of compressing a great amount of wisdom in a few pithy aphorisms. Since I did my Doctor of Ministry work under his leadership, I heard many of his sayings first-hand. One was “Most wounds are self-inflicted.” And how true that is for leaders–at least, I can give testimony of this piece of wisdom.

I wondered if this might also be true of congregations. As I have coach and counselled churches and their leaders through the years, I have come to realized that getting churches to quit doing the counter-productive things was nearly as important as helping them do the right things. For example, if a church is not collecting basic information on visitors, then there can be no follow-up. Or if a church is not tracking individual attendance, then, they cannot be proactive in caring for people who are thinking about leaving.

While pondering the meaning of Charlie’s statement, it occurred to me that Peter Wagner in his book The Healthy Church (Regal, 1996) gave a list of what he called “Church Diseases” and, as I noticed, most of them were self-inflicted. Here is Wagner’s list with a quick explanation:

Ethnikitis happens when a church finds itself in an changing neighbourhood and refuses to adapt to serve the people who now actually live in their community.


People Blindness occurs when we look past the different kinds of people around us. The people are there but we, for various reasons, seem not to be able to see them.


Hypercooperation happens when a church works harder to get along with other believers rather than focusing on God’s mission .


Koinonitis is the disease we experience when our local fellowship is too tight to let new people in.


We suffer from Sociological Strangulation when the potential of growth is there but we can’t keep up with leadership and structural development to support growth.


Arrested Spiritual Development is the condition where long-time “disciples” of Jesus have not progressively grown into becoming like Jesus..


Saint John’s Syndrome is apathy, or “lukewarmness.”

Wagner was being somewhat playful in naming his “diseases,” but his goal was to help us do critical self-reflection and assessment in our work as congregational leaders. My point in sharing is that it’s possible in congregational life for most wounds also to be self-inflicted. And this leads me to another Charlie-ism, “If you can name it, you can manage it.”



The Quest for Church Health

A perfectly healthy church is an ideal that will not be realized this side of heaven. However, a church can choose to participate with God in becoming more whole and complete. Accordingly, no matter where a church is now, that church can make a commitment to allow God to heal it, to love it, and to lead it to becoming more like Jesus.

Family therapists know they cannot help a family if no one in the family is committed to getting well. Likewise, a church will only become healthier if a critical mass of the members is committed to the journey.

Along this journey to deeper health, it may be helpful to have some signposts and markers for what a healthy family looks like, and, correspondingly, this would be true of healthy churches. According to Curran, Traits of a Healthy Family (Minneapolis: Winston Press, 1983; adapted slightly), a healthy family will:

  1. Communicate and listen to each other
  2. Affirm and support one another
  3. Teach respect for others
  4. Develop trust
  5. Have a sense of play and humor
  6. Exhibit a sense of shared responsibility
  7. Value a sense of right and wrong
  8. Have a strong sense of “family”
  9. Have a balance of interaction among the members
  10. Have a shared religious/spiritual core
  11. Will respect the privacy of one another
  12. Foster family table time and conversation
  13. Share leisure time together
  14. Admit to and seek help with problems

While no church is perfect, any church family can become better at expressing the above values. However, this will require intentionality and effort from everyone.

Is Your Church Healthy?

Church bulletin blooper: “Is life killing you? Let the church help.” The church secretary was not intending to say that the church could help kill you. However, there are some settings in which life in the church is harmful to people’s spiritual health.

A church will never attain the status of being perfectly healthy. Churches are full of people and consequently will exhibit the health of it members. As such churches will be more healthy or less healthy on a continuum.

So what are some of the traits of a healthy church. A healthy church will value people and their contribution to the larger good of the church family. These churches value traditions that celebrate people. They are places where people can talk freely, not as if people are walking on eggshells. In these churches people can hear strong messages from others without merely reacting to those messages. In these churches values and explicit expectations are consistent.

However, unhealthy churches are characterized by a grim atmosphere where traditions continue which suppress the human spirit rather than set it free. In these churches there reigns a chaotic value system and implicit expectations new members can only guess at.

When churches find themselves in this state, they have a tendency to avoid outside intervention. It is as if everyone knows something is wrong, but no one but the fringe members have the courage to say so. These situations however will not improve without outside help.