Monday, September 15, 2014

Check the Congregation's DNA

Check the Congregation's DNA by The Rev. Dr. Charles Chandler
The mapping of the human DNA the master plan of all life is one of the major breakthroughs of modern medical science. It enables physicians to see the overall picture of a person's health. Vulnerable areas can be detected and through preventive medical treatment, life and quality of life may be extended.

In a sense, churches also have a form of DNA. Just as both healthy genes and viruses are passed from generation to generation among human beings, both functional and dysfunctional systems pass the hereditary information from one generation to the next through cells in organizations. This includes churches. Knowing the background and health of a congregation does not solve all problems. It can, however, reveal the need for wise organizational management.

Let me share two scenarios. A young pastor five years out of seminary accepted a call to a church made up primarily of older members. Though they had had a long linage of outstanding pastors, the church's growth had not met their expectations. Located in the "downtown" portion of a midsize city, they had determined to stay in their location in an effort to reach the changing community. Their building was badly in need of renovation. Most of the neighboring churches of varying denominations had fled to the suburbs.

During the first six months the new pastor visited in the homes of most of the membership. They wanted to know his vision for the church. He shared a few specific possibilities and asked what they would like to see happen. He included their visions with his list as he continued to visit, listen, and talk with families. A vision that was projected by the pastor was shaped by the people and within the first year the church voted unanimously to engage in a major renovation program. While most of the leadership of the church was old enough to be the pastor's parent or grandparent, they followed his leadership and the church took on new life and pioneered innovative social ministries that made an impact on that changing community. Though the church did not grow numerically, the decline slowed and the congregation found fulfillment in responding to the opportunities around them through helping to meet people's needs in the name of Christ.

Later, when the pastor did a study of that scenario, he learned that the church had been born through a bitter church split. The new church was formed by the group supporting their pastor - about 35 years prior to the young pastor’s arrival on the scene. Trust in their pastor was a part of their DNA. They did not "rubber stamp" pastoral leadership. The church leadership included professionals who were also leaders in the community. They questioned proposals and offered suggestions. But they were also willing to place strong trust in the leadership of their ministers. Together they shaped visions and met needs.

In the second scenario, an experienced pastor was called to a fast growing suburban church that listed "strong pastoral leadership" as their first priority for their next pastor. This pastor also spent time visiting in homes and listening to church leaders' visions. Though there was widespread support for some new initiatives, many efforts such as renovation of one of the buildings to better utilize badly needed space, and an effort to adapt the church's organizational structure to accommodate future growth, were sabotaged by a small group of charter members. Though this group did not represent the majority of the congregation, they succeeded in stifling the leadership efforts on the part of newer members as well as the ministerial leadership team. They wanted to hold the pastor and ministerial team accountable for the health and growth of the church but did not want them to have much if any input in decision making.

After leaving that congregation, the pastor learned more about their history (DNA). The church had been born through a reaction to a pastor. The mother church planned to start a new mission church. Most of the leaders who resisted the mother-church pastor's leadership jumped on the "new church start" bandwagon. Though the new church was presented (25 years later) to the new prospective pastor as a great missional venture, it was in reality a sophisticated church split in disguise. Those who joined the new church venture in reaction to the mother church's pastor soon entrenched themselves as leaders of the new church. Their mistrust of ministers brought resistance to most issues.

The small core of resistance challenged the new pastor's leadership and undercut his influence. It was only after learning more about their DNA that the pastor understood the dynamics of what had happened. Mistrust was in their DNA. This meant the congregation had some "healthy cells and some viruses.” It also meant the system was functional at times and dysfunctional at other times.
Knowing your church's DNA does not automatically mean that you will have a long and loving tenure. You may be terminated for helping to bring health to an unhealthy system. But you can make intentional choices that enable you to remain healthy at least healthier - in the midst of dysfunction.
Here are some important questions to ask when considering a new assignment; questions that might better prepare a pastor to make healthy decisions:

  • How did the church start? Was support of a pastor or a reaction to a pastor a factor?
  • What are the congregation's secrets?
  • Have the pain periods been worked through? Learn where the church has been and how it developed into what it has become.
  • Has the church been able to alter their patterns in the past? Or have their patterns become entrenched?
  • How did their previous pastors leave? Were they forced out as a result of behind-the- scenes maneuvers?
  •  Is there a pattern in how the previous pastors left? Talk with previous pastors to get their interpretation.
  • How does the church make decisions? Is the pastor's input valued?
  • Are the church leaders willing to help shape proposals?
  • Does the church accept new people? Are they allowed to be part of the leadership team?
  • Can the church let people go? If some feel "out of step," can the church leaders bless them as they go to another church where they can feel more "in step?"
  • Does the church accept responsibility for its actions? Or does the congregation become dysfunctional when initiatives are not successful?
  • Can the church accept change? Has the decision already been made to keep everythingthe same?

Self-differentiation is important in leading a congregation in relation to trust or mistrust. Self-differentiation is the psychological separation of intellect and emotions and involves the independence of self from others. This enables a minister to maintain a distance in the heat of emotionally charged discussions involving finger pointing and blaming while remaining connected.

A dysfunctional church still needs a pastor. It is equally important that the pastor be aware of the fact that the church is dysfunctional. Good questions for ministers already leading such congregations include:

  1. How well do I know myself including trust and mistrust in myself?
  2. Do I know how to be in contact with the situation without losing my own identity?
  3. Can I self-define (communicating of self to others) and self-regulate (regulating one’s own anxiety) sufficiently to avoid over or under functioning?
  4. Can I develop a plan that utilizes input from the lay leaders and communicate it? Does sabotage too much trust or mistrust baffle me or do I know how to handle it?
  5. Am I growing in my relationship to God?

If God leads a minister to a church, I believe God can empower that minister to provide

If God good servant leadership. It is presumptuous, however, to expect God to do for you what you refuse to do for yourself. It makes good sense to understand the obstacles you may face in the process of becoming a congregation’s leader. It is also a safeguard in maintaining your own emotional health.
In a 2012 study by Marcus N. Tanner, Anisa M. Zvonkovic, and Charlie Adams, Tanner reports that more than one out of four pastors an average of 28 percent among the 39 denominations surveyed say that they have been forced out of their church ministry position at least once. The personal attacks and criticism came from small factions within the congregations. Tanner found two main predictors of future conflict; recent church fights and shrinking congregations.

In one of the studies (Tanner, Wherry & Zvonkovic, 2012), the focus was on the stories of ministry couples who had been forcibly terminated. Quantitatively, these clergy scored high
in some cases above the clinical cutoff for Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

These couples also reported having experienced bullying tactics prior to being pushed out which indicated that forced termination was more than an event. It was also a process.

Often, a leader in the opposition group was thought to have been a close and trusted friend. The sense of betrayal – called the “Brutus effect” – added even more pain and resulted in a deeper distrust. Some of the clergy couples reported that:

  • They were forced to file for bankruptcy and move in with their aging parents.
  • They struggled with deciding whether to continue in ministry as a vocation.
  • They spoke about their lack of faith in God during this time.
  • Some with adult children stated that their children no longer wanted to have anything to do with the church following the forced termination of their parents.
  • The process of force termination usually lasted between six months and two years.
  • Tanner states that the back side of the storm is always the worst. Its strength and duration leaves a path of destruction in its wake, however, storms do die down at some point. The storms in our lives also come to an end. It is at this point that we pick up the pieces and begin the long process toward healing. With proper self care, counseling, friends, and through using our spiritual resources, wounded ministers can become even more effective pastors.
  • I’m convinced that any experience, as painful as it may have been, when given to God, has the potential of helping us grow strong at the broken places. It is important to remember that although good can come from bad it does not mean that bad is good!

The devastation cited above is all the more reason for you to do your homework as a minister and for congregations to do their homework as calls are issued and accepted. I often

hear the phrase, “It is a good church and a good minister, but, it just is not a good match.” That means one or both parties did not do their homework well. There’s no substitute for thorough DNA scrutiny.

1. Tanner, M.N. Back Side of the Storm: Clergy Families in Distress, Family Focus, Winter 2013, F15-F16. 2. Pastors’ Fight and Flight, Christianity Today, May 2012, 9.

The Rev. Dr. Charles H. Chandler holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Samford University, Birmingham, AL and Master of Divinity (M.Div.), Master of Religious Education (MRE), and Doctor of Divinity Degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. In 1994, Dr. Chandler led in the founding of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation (MTM), Inc., an organization which seeks to serve as advocates for clergy due to deteriorating employment or congregation-clergy relationships. The centerpiece of the ministry is the intense five- day Healthy Transitions Wellness Retreat for Ministers and Spouses led by professionals and held in various locations across the nation. Dr. Chandler has served as Executive Director of MTM since its inception. Dr. and Mrs. Chandler are the parents of four adult children. To contact email: or phone

The above essay was written out of a partnership betweenThe Episcopal Women’s Caucus (EWC) and The Network of Episcopal Clergy (NECA.) This project developed following a watershed moment when in January 2014 the Diocese of Newark passed a resolution seeking that their Bishop appoint a task force to explore Dignity of Work issues related to clergy and workplace bullying. This essay was written as part of a collection of essays written to begin to address the challenge of challenging calls and the issue of workplace bullying. While the views in this essays are the authors own and we acknowledge that no one essay will be able to identify all the issues involved, our hope is that in and through the collection of pieces we might support what has begun locally in the Diocese of Newark and more importantly, further the conversation in the wider Episcopal church. As these essays are both sponsored and being released jointly by both NECA and The EWC please read all the essays at The Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog and The Care for Clergy in Difficult Calls Writing Project.
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If you are a clergy person in the midst of a challenging call or you have gone through it and would like to see the beginnings of a set of resources that might support you, please see the NECA Resource Page
If you would like to write about your own experience of a challenging call or forced resignation for posting on the Episcopal Women’s Caucus blog please send your essay to
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