Healthy Responses for Church Leaders: What is “Health” Anyway?
This is part 6 of an ongoing series. Find the rest of the series here.
Healthy Response #6: Focus on SYSTEM not symptom
Have you ever thought about how difficult it is to define the word health? Even if we’re just talking about physical health. Who is more healthy: a baby with a cold being cared for by loving parents and siblings, or a 19-year-old male subsisting on a diet of junk food, video games, and too little sleep – but no discernible illnesses? What does it mean to be healthy?
Health is kind of one of those “you know it when you see it” kind of words, isn’t it? Maybe this is largely because health is systemic and not a single or static condition. In 1948 the Constitution of the World Health Organization defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”  This definition is debated today, but it speaks to the way in which health is the byproduct of the healthy functioning of inter-related systems.
What might it mean for a church to be healthy? Is a healthy church one that is conflict-free? Is a healthy church one in which everyone gets along with each other? Is a healthy church one in which everyone knows everyone else and they’re all just “one big happy family”? Is a healthy church one that is growing in both membership rolls and its bank account? Sometimes the way we talk about congregational leadership, you might think this is what we’re after.
However, think about a family you know that never disagrees with one another. Is that “family harmony" a symptom of healthy functioning … or do they just have a tyrannical parent who squashes all differences of opinion? Or are they so disconnected from one another that nobody really knows what’s going on in each other’s lives? Or do they present a public face in which they never disagree, to mask a messier reality behind closed doors? There can be a lot of reasons – systemic reasons – in which a particular symptom appears.
Churches are like families in that they are complex emotional systems of interlocking and interrelated relationships. Because of this, churches are – predictably – a bit of a mess! Occasionally this mess of relationships produces some symptoms that might look a little suspect and scary. Occasionally it produces symptoms that – on the surface – appear to be healthy, but are only masking what lies underneath the surface. The symptom doesn’t always tell you everything you need to know about its cause.
One of the one-liners I quote often from Dr. David Wray is, “The presenting issue is rarely the issue.” (Someone else may have said that first, but in my mind it’ll always be Dr. Wray’s quote.)
While it’s great for leaders to be equipped to respond to crises and “symptoms” of unhealthy behavior, it’s a good leadership practice to focus more on the whole system rather than particular symptoms.
My good friend, Dr. Quinton Dickerson, a semi-retired cardiologist and life-long supporter of medical missions in Guatemala, shared something with me that has helped me think about the way I am approaching congregational care these days. He describes it this way (those with weak stomachs – be warned!):
If a child comes into clinic with chronic diarrhea, the medical team springs into action. They hydrate the child, give her medicine, and attend to her care. Their care of her is quick and efficient – thank God for doctors, nurses, and medical professionals! However it is also costly in terms of time and resources. This is the level of intervention.
If a medical evangelist goes to visit a family in a village, they can ask a mother, “Do you let you children drink from the faucet?” If the mother answers, “Yes,” they can inform her that tap water in that village often causes chronic diarrhea. They can teach her and her family how to not drink tap water, and instead boil water over a fire to disinfect it and make it drinkable. This effort is also costly in terms of time and resources, but not nearly as costly as a medical intervention. It is also much more “cost-effective” in the long term. This is the level of prevention.
A medical evangelist goes into a village, consults with the village leaders, conducts a thorough investigation of that village’s water supply, and partners with that community in the construction of a new well. The entire community now has access to clean water, and none of their children get chronic diarrhea. This is quite costly on the front end of things, but is the most “cost-effective” method of achieving health care in the long run. This is the level of health promotion.
What does any of this have to do with congregational care and church leadership?
I think a lot of how we think of pastoral care is actually care that’s happening at the intervention level of spiritual health. And God bless the ministers, elders, and others who know how to respond to crisis! There are moments in all of our lives in which we need immediate intervention.
But do we realize that our teaching and training are also pastoral care? Are we using those opportunities to give people access to resources and knowledge that will help them take control of their spiritual health and be more prepared to avoid or withstand spiritual crisis?
How is the entire culture of the church also part of our pastoral care strategy? Are people in healthy relationships with one another? Is there a free exchange of ideas and compassion flowing across the congregation? Do people feel like they need to “put up a front” or are they free to be themselves? Are our small groups and ministries helping to create caring and compassionate communities in which our people can discover their identities as God’s people?
I imagine anyone reading this wants their church to be a little healthier. Looking for a place to start? Start by focusing less on symptoms and more on the system.