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People today have profoundly mixed — and dysfunctional — views about leaders.Especially spiritual leaders. On the one hand, we idealize them. We project onto them qualities of wisdom, spiritual zeal, and impeccable morality. We really want them be close to God, to exemplify the virtues that we struggle to live out. We want them to be uber competent in their role, but we also want them to exemplify all the virtues and character qualities that we deem to be important. We want them to be larger than life! To think about them struggling with the shameful things we struggle with robs us of the hope that we can “get over” our problems.
There is a word for this: childishness.
This is what kids do. They adore the adults around them, assign them magical qualities, and feel the need for the adults around them to be all-knowing, and completely virtuous. Part of the process of growing up involves becoming disillusioned about our parents and teachers … discovering (often to our great dismay) that they are human and flawed, just like we are. After recognizing this, we learn to come to terms with it, and begin to relate to them in a more mature way.
But there’s another side to our view of spiritual leaders, which, by the way, is the inevitable consequence of idealization and projection: we are quick to judge and condemn them when we see their flaws. There is a secret part of us that loves to read about the downfall of people in high positions. We naturally resent hypocrisy, so when people in positions of moral or spiritual leadership are found to be lacking in the very qualities they espouse, we have no mercy.
We want our leaders to be air-brushed models of morality and spirituality. We react strongly when we see their flaws. More than once I’ve heard the truism stated: “If you want a spiritual leader you can admire with no reservations … make sure that person is dead.” That way, you don’t have to worry that you’ll find out things about them that let you down.
But wait! That’s not even a safe strategy: I’ve found out things about Gandhi, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that I sort of wish I hadn’t known.
Maybe we should amend the saying: If you want someone you can admire with no reservations, make sure that person is dead … and then don’t study their life too closely. Learn too much about them and you might just discover that they were human after all.
I have a better idea: how about we adopt the perspective that the writers of the Bible seem to have adopted — stop making human beings the heroes of our stories, and let them be flawed characters. Let Jesus be the hero and model, and be okay with flawed human leaders like the confused disciples, pricklish Paul, wavering Abraham, prideful David, and so on.
How about we give our spiritual leaders — and ourselves — an important gift: the gift of humanity. We still hold them to standards of teaching and living; but we let them be human, with strengths and weaknesses, with admirable qualities and limitations.
Several years ago I was invited to consult with a church whose pastor had been accused of misconduct. The pastor went through a process of repentance and restoration (which unfortunately was cut short, but that’s another story). In the course of this work, I preached a message to help people come to terms with his leadership and teaching, in light of the knowledge of his struggles and sins. You can see the video above.
I hope this sermon can help you — and others, if you share it — develop a more spiritually-mature, discerning view of spiritual leaders.
Before watching, note this important qualifier: By giving a message like this, I’m NOT intending to give leaders a “pass” on the need to exemplify what they teach.Far from it. One of the foundational principles in the Thriving Leader Blueprint program I run is that the power of our influence comes from our being — our very lives — not our words. You can read more about this in my article: “Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It.”
The message above is for the rest of us, for those on the receiving end of spiritual leadership and influence, who are trying to come to terms with the humanity of those leaders, when they (inevitably) fail to live up to this.
We are in desperate need for spiritual leadership. We need religious leaders to be spiritual leaders. We need parents to be spiritual leaders. We need teachers, coaches, therapists, managers to be spiritual leaders.
The term “spiritual” and “spiritual leadership” mean different things to different people: let’s not get hung up on various definitions. Here’s what I mean when I use the term: “Spiritual leadership” is leadership that emerges from the heart and soul of a person who has done the hard work of inner transformation through spiritual connection. It is based on that person’s attunement with the Spirit of God, and therefore it flows naturally from who they are.
Spiritual leadership carries a certain authority, but that authority emerges organically. It flows from the respect we engender when people see our integrity and feel our love. It is not about how we project our strong personality to others, how we charm, flatter, or impress them. These are all stratagems of the ego — projecting the strength of our personality, our confidence, enthusiasm, intelligence, persuasiveness, or appealing to the ego of the other person through charm and flattery. It’s not about crafting a certain kind of persona that is calculated to get people to like us, or want to be on our side, because they only see our strength and cleverness.
Spiritual leadership emerges when we drop our pretense, and dial back the tendency of our ego to dominate. The focus is instead on the Spirit, on the True Self that is touched on through our soul. Some might call this “leading through soul.”
It’s hard to define this, but you know it when you see it.
Spiritual leaders have authority, but that authority coincides with a certain tenderness and vulnerability. They have enough humility to not need to be the center of attention, and not to project certainty when there is not certainty.
Spiritual leadership involves a blending of qualities that might seem opposed to one another. For example, spiritual leaders are often characterized by humility and openness to others and other ideas … while also exhibiting a steely resolve. There can be a sense of urgency, but without the accompanying anxiety that often dominates high-energy organizational cultures.
“He who has found authentic peace within himself is in a position to assist others who are still seekers, but he who has not yet transcended mere theories and erudite studies about peace can only give them some more thoughts to add to the burden that they already carry. … He who is unhappy in himself, or whose home is discordant and unhappy, can show the way to happiness only out of the intellect, not out of experience.” – Paul Brunton
The influence of spiritual leaders flows from who they are … not what they say, and not from a few selected behaviors designed to “make a statement.” This is the heart of what Gandhi was offering to the world when he said, “My life is my message.” This is the heart of what Martin Luther King was offering to the world when his speeches calling for civil rights were clearly emerging from his own pursuit of civil rights, and his own sacrifices and willingness to face risks and dangers. This was what gave Nelson Mandela the authority to speak and influence people … because he had lived what he talked about.
None of these leaders were perfect. They all had their flaws, as does every human being. The point is that their power emanated from something within them that was deeper than skill or personality. They were able to motivate and encourage others on a path because it was a path that they themselves were taking. In that sense, they were offering moral leadership … leading by example as well as by words.
But spiritual leadership encompasses that, and goes even deeper. It involves having strong character, and leading by example, but there is something more. That “more” is the leader’s understanding of of spiritual realities, experience of personal transformation as these realities are lived, and the ability to articulate them to others. People around the leader, who themselves are seeking to live in attunement with the Spirit, as opposed to the ego (what the apostle Paul called “walking by the Spirit” or “keeping in step with the Spirit”), will recognize and resonate with the leader whose own life manifests that attunement.
“If we merely repeat the words of our teachers, we become like parrots and our own teaching will be empty, without direct experience.” – Frans Stiene
People in our time are desperate for these kinds of leaders. This has been true since the beginning of time, but it seems especially important now. I don’t have the interest or ability to diagnose what’s happening to churches in our culture, or with followers of other religions, or the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.
But I fervently believe that all people have a spiritual core, and when political, community, or religious leaders fail to recognize and develop this core within themselves, they will fail to nurture it in others, and the culture will be impoverished. The religious organizations will diminish in power, and eventually in size as well.
Anyone living in our culture today is vulnerable to addiction — including pastors. And anyone struggling with addiction needs recovery — including pastors. But recovery is hard for pastors; harder than it needs to be.
Recovery is hard for pastors for many reasons. Because of their position as spiritual leaders, pastors have a hard time admitting to problems in their lives, and reaching out for help. This is partly the result of pride, but it’s also the result of the system we have created in the church today. Pastors aren’t stupid: they realize that being too open about their problems — or open to the wrong people — could get them fired.
So they don’t get the help they need. And more often than not, when they do seek help, they do so in secret, and their fear and shame about discovery often hamper their recovery efforts.
Leadership Journal recently published a great article by Amy Simpson on Pastors in Recovery. She did a lot of research for this article, including reaching out to me, and I’m grateful to be included in the article. There is a lot of good stuff in this article!
I’ve noticed a theme in the lives of leaders I work with — most of whom are involved in church work: they are overwhelmed.
They are overwhelmed by the demands of church ministry, they are overwhelmed with the needs they encounter, and they are overwhelmed by the amount of information available to them. There is a virtual flood of ideas washing over them every week for how to do their work better, new conferences to go to, new programs to implement, and on and on. They struggle to manage their time, because there is a never-ending que of messages to respond to, emails to process, messages to prepare for, and problems to deal with.
To be clear: the issue of overwhelm is more than just about feeling busy. Busyness is not new … people have always felt busy. Remember that Henry David Thoreau felt so overwhelmed by the busyness of life that he needed to withdraw from the world and move into a cabin in the woods. He did this because life had become too hectic … and this was in the 1800s! This was before electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, the Internet, cell phones.
The problem of overwhelm in church ministry runs deeper than just full calendars and long to-do lists. This is a crucially important point, because if we misunderstand the problem, the solutions we try to solve it won’t work.
When it comes to pastors and other church leaders, I think there two bigger issues going on.
1. Overwhelming needs in the lives of people we serve
One is that leaders are faced with tremendous need and brokenness in the people they work with. It doesn’t matter what ministry setting we are in … we will find deep brokenness and dysfunction everywhere. We are as likely to encounter extreme sexual immorality in the sheltered rural community as we are in the city … drug abuse in the upper middle class community as in the working class community … relational brokenness and abuse in the suburb as in the urban core.
To put it mildly, the needs are overwhelming. Continue reading Overcoming Overwhelm in Ministry
Teen drug use freaks parents out more than just about anything. Parents desperately want to keep their kids safe and healthy, and when they find out – or even suspect – that their kids are using drugs, they don’t know what to do. The two most common mistakes are the opposite extremes:
Some parents under-react, making excuses for their kids and/or denying reality. They may not be sure what’s going on, and may choose to not learn more, because they don’t want to know. They may try to pretend nothing is happening, while their child is headed down a very destructive path.
Other parents over-react. Their fear causes them to lash out, react with hysterics, and try to enforce punishments that are either too unrealistic to be followed through on (like being “grounded” for a year), or so serious and damaging that they escalate hostility and push the kids further away. Parents who over-react tend to make decisions that harm their children, damaging their relationship, and driving them into addiction, rather than steering them away from it.
There’s got to be a better way. Continue reading Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol
The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines belief as: “A state or habit of mind in which trust or confidence is placed in some person or thing.” The experience of addiction messes this up for Christians, whether they want to admit it or not. They say that they “trust God” to help them be happy in life, and to help them overcome their addiction … but somehow this “faith” doesn’t seem to be working. Why not?
My experience of addiction and recovery has forced me to admit that professing to believe something doesn’t mean I really believe it. It has forced me to be attentive to situations where what I observe and experience in “real life” don’t fit with the set of beliefs I espouse.
In 12 Step language, recovery is a process where people “come to believe” in a Higher Power who can help them overcome their addiction. It’s not assumed that anybody is doing this when they start. It’s a process … and it takes time. And for people who come into this process with a set of beliefs about a “Higher Power” already established, the scary reality is that part of their problem is likely that some of those “beliefs” are inaccurate and destructive.
Religious people hate hearing this. They want to think that their spiritual life is all fine, just the way it is. In fact, they think that recovery should be easier for them than for “non-religious” or “non-Christian” people … because they have the spiritual part all figured out already. But what if they don’t?
Suppose I believe that God is a magic fairy and that if I ever get into a big problem, I can spin around in a circle four times and say “help me help me help me fairy God” … and then all my problems will be solved. I am very earnest and sincere about this … and I go to a church that teaches this as the correct interpretation and application of the Bible’s promises about prayer.
But then suppose I come into a recovery program with my life in a shambles and my addiction raging out of control … but I still have this belief about God and the spiritual life. It should be obvious that the magic fairy prayer beliefs need to go. They aren’t working … and in fact are keeping me from doing the things that would work.
So when we go into recovery, it’s wise to go into the process holding our “beliefs” loosely. Maybe our beliefs are wrong. Maybe our beliefs about who God is, and how God relates to us, are more a part of the problem for us than part of the solution. Maybe some of these beliefs reflect the dysfunction of the family members, church life, and traumatic experiences that shaped us in early life.
To me this is part of the genius of 12 Step recovery. By keeping the God language vague and recognizing that “coming to believe” is a process, 12 Step recovery offers Christians a golden opportunity to ask themselves important questions about their spiritual life.
I find it sad and ironic that this aspect of recovery — the recognition that our spiritual beliefs need to be looked at and will likely undergo some changes — is the great wisdom of the 12 Steps but is also the reason why so many Christians don’t like the 12 Steps.
I come from an evangelical, Bible-based Christian denomination, and I’ve met a lot of people who don’t like the 12 steps because of the language in Steps 2 and 3. They won’t go to a 12-step program which talks about a “Higher Power,” and “God as you understand God”. They want to go to a Christian program, which specifically talks about Jesus Christ. They see 12 Step spiritual vagueness as a threat, and assume that if Jesus isn’t mentioned by name in the steps, that somehow He will be ignored in the process of recovery.
I have come to a place where I see this broad, non-specific language about a higher power as a good thing. I was a pastor for many years. I had concrete beliefs about God, and devoted my life to studying this belief. I had the impression that I understood the pure, unadulterated image of God and that I was giving the “true gospel.” But at the same time I was struggling with addiction.
After being in recovery 12 years, I’ve come to a place where I see things differently now. I see how important the language in this step really is. This language allows people of all spiritual backgrounds to be able to take part in the 12 step program, but it also forces those who already have a belief in God to really dissect that belief and figure out what might have been missing in the first place.
The 12 steps asks us to turn our lives over to God as we understand God. If we don’t understand who God is, how can we in any meaningful way turn our lives over to God?
The great news
Here’s the great news: it’s okay to do this step by step, and it’s okay to do this imperfectly, knowing that “more will be revealed” as we continue the recovery process. As we continue the recovery journey, we will “come to believe” in new and deeper ways, and thus “turn our will and our lives” over to the care of this God in new and deeper ways.
The work of spiritual leadership includes providing spiritual care … what people used to call “The Care of Souls.” This care involves ministering to people in the crisis times of life, but it’s much more than that. It is also about helping people grow spiritually. It’s about equipping them to go through the normal ups and downs of life. Helping them navigate through life as it unfolds.
In this regard, I think the care of souls is similar to the work of spiritual direction. Spiritual direction, though a very historic practice, seems to be coming into its own as a special discipline these days, with special schools, workshops, and certification programs. Formerly known mostly in Roman Catholic circles, it’s now being practiced in a variety of Protestant settings as well.
David Scheuneman describes spiritual direction like this:
“Generally speaking, spiritual direction refers to a relationship in which one person assists another’s spiritual development. It takes various flavors, sometimes called spiritual friendship, mentoring, guidance or counseling, depending on the context. It can be formal or informal, professional or casual.”
I’m familiar with the work of spiritual direction – having worked with spiritual directors during several periods of my life. I hope it’s not a slight to them to suggest that their work is what many pastors have done since the time of the early church … and it’s something that pastors could be doing today. I find that many pastors want to do this kind of work … in fact providing this kind of spiritual care to people is what attracts many people into ministry. But not many pastors are doing it, for reasons I’ll get to later in this article.
What’s helpful about envisioning our ministry in terms of providing soul care and support to people is that this is full-orbed ministry. In other words, we’re talking about something that is more than just crisis care, and it’s more than just helping people with the “spiritual” parts of their lives.
I’d like to quote at length from Thomas Keating on the work of spiritual directors. Notice the psychological sophistication as he describes the issues people need to address in spiritual direction. Keating is not simply telling us to encourage people to pray and read their Bibles more.
“Any sign that you are upset is an invitation to ask yourself why you are upset and not project the blame on another person or the situation. Even if they are to blame, it won’t do you any good until you solve the real problem which resides in you. The fundamental work of the spiritual director is to encourage and guide people to submit to the divine therapy which allows the unconscious emotional material of early life that led to the drive for security, esteem and affection, and power symbols in the culture to be evacuated.
“Each of us has a significant dose of the human condition. In Catholic theology we call it the consequences of Original Sin. We come into the world not knowing what true happiness is but needing it; not knowing what true affection is but needing it; not knowing what true freedom is, but needing it. We bring with us into adult life the way we as children coped with impossible situations, either through repression of feeling or by compensatory programs for happiness that could not possibly work. The stronger those needs, the more frustration when they were not fulfilled.
“Into this universal human situation Jesus comes saying, “repent” which means “change the direction in which you are looking for happiness.” Human happiness is found in the growth of unconditional love. The work of spiritual direction is to help us to become aware of the obstacles to divine love and the free circulation of that love within us. This requires the cultivation of a non-possessive attitude toward ourselves and other people. Gradually we learn that God is the true security, God truly loves us and with this love, we can make it even if no one else seems to care.”
I don’t know about you, but I love to work with people at that deep level of human experience. But I don’t really find that I do it very much as a pastor … and I know I’m not alone. Few pastors today really get into this kind of deep soul work with their parishoners. In fact, I believe that one of the reasons for the growth of “spiritual direction” in Protestant settings is that in our churches today, pastors aren’t able to offer this level of care to people in their churches.
What is that? I think there are three reasons for this — two obvious, and one not-so-obvious:
1. There’s not enough time to do it
This is the most obvious reason why pastors don’t do the work of deep spiritual care. We are too busy with other things, and our churches are too big to allow adequate time to devote to this work. It’s not scaleable … there aren’t enough hours in a week for a pastor to offer this kind of care to people in churches with hundreds, let alone thousands, of people.
It takes time to hear someone’s story, to learn enough about their life that you’re able to make sense of the complex questions and struggles they are working through. Who has time for doing that, when there are so many other church tasks that need to be done? (More on that in a minute.)
2. We’re not trained for it
Doing the work of spiritual direction well is an art and a skill, and it takes training. Many of us have been trained by seminaries that prepared us to be theologians and preachers, with a couple of pastoral care classes thrown in to help us deal with marital conflict and death. To get into the deeper issues of someone’s life would move into the category of “counseling” … something that most pastors are not trained to do.
In fact, I would suggest that not only are pastors not trained to do counseling, they are trained not to do counseling! Do you see the difference? In books, seminars, and conferences over the years, the message drummed into my head as a pastor has been: “Meet with someone once or twice about an issue or question … but don’t establish a long term counseling relationship. If they need more than that, refer them to a trained therapist. Let counselors do the counseling.”
This advice makes good sense from a strategic perspective, and seems consistent with Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the role of spiritual leaders (apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastor / teachers) is “to equip God’s people” for works of service. In other words, we aren’t the ones who are supposed to be doing the ministry, we are equipping other people to it. We are called not to be shepherds, but to be ranchers … to help equip people in the church do the shepherding.
I don’t know. Look around at the church in America these days. I think what’s happening is that there’s not much shepherding going on by anybody. And so now we’re professionalizing it, and sending people people to spiritual directors. Is this really what we should be doing?
3. We struggle to balance providing soul care to people with the demands of “running the church organization”
I have also found that it can be a challenge for a pastor to care for people on that level, when the pastor is also charged with the responsibility of building the ministry of the church. There have been times when my task of building the church’s ministry seemed to clash with the task of caring for the souls of people who were volunteering to serve in various capacities. Sometimes what they needed was to stop serving in those positions, because they were getting burned out, or needed time to heal from another life crisis. This is to say nothing of the challenge of how to balance my time — as the church gets larger and more complex, providing leadership to it takes increasing time and attention.
So what do we do about this?
I will be the first to admit that this article is more about me venting and thinking out loud than it is about providing a clear-cut solution. Here’s some ideas:
1. Implement the Richard Baxter model of one on one visits with all members of the church as part of the lead pastor’s job. Richard Baxter, in the book “The Reformed Pastor” described his approach to this issue, which involved a plan and almost fantatical devotion to a system of annual “church visits” that he would do with members of his congregation. I remember reading the book and wondering how meaningful those kinds of visits would be today … it seemed like he was mostly spending that time preaching to them and challenging them to be more devoted. Not sure this would work for me today, but you’ve got to give him credit for creating a plan and doing it. In that book he (rightly) emphasizes that life-change is not the automatic result of listening to a bunch of sermons.
2. Keep churches small enough so the pastor is able to devote time to providing this kind of soul care to church members. I’m not sure what to do about the fact that people seem to like big churches. This would mean doing things — like more strategic church planting by hiving off members — to actually keep the size of churches down. Can churches afford to do this? Pastors and church buildings are expensive.
3. Figure out ways of providing this kind of soul care to groups of people, rather than simply doing it one on one. This is actually happening in the spiritual direction movement, where people are establishing “group spiritual direction.” I know that some people might struggle to share all the things going on in their lives in a group context … they might prefer to talk one on one about some “touchy subjects.” But strategically, doing things in groups would make this much more powerful, as the leader would be able to reach many more people within the limits of his or her time.
4. Figure out ways of better equipping and training leaders within the church to do this kind of soul care. In other words, get more people who are gifted and trained to provide spiritual direction. Make this a mainstream part of the church’s life. I have one reservation about this — I find that people have a desire to be able to connect with the person doing teaching in the church. In other words, it’s helpful if you can combine the work of teaching with this kind of care.
We’re paying more attention these days to the subject of bullying. Maybe we’re just more sensitive these days, but more likely it’s because the problem is getting worse. Kids’ participation in social media means that they are exposed to more of their peers, and therefore more bullies. Not only that, but the dynamics of electronic communication lend themselves to bullying. (If you don’t believe me, just observe the “discussions” that happen in blogs and message boards for a while … notice how the level of discourse quickly devolves into name calling and snarky comments.)
Bullying doesn’t just happen among kids … adults do it too. In fact, some would argue that kids are doing it more these days because it’s being modeled more these days by people like us. This is really sad when you think about it … especially when you think about it happening in church.
And it does happen in church, doesn’t it? Does it ever! I see it a lot. Sometimes people lash out because of insecurity, sometimes because of fear, sometimes simply because of pride and a desire for power. Sometimes people use bullying tactics under the guise of exercising spiritual authority.
You’ve maybe heard the story of kids who are playing outside, while their moms is working in the house with a window open. She hears them yelling and name calling, and decides she has to intervene. She calls out the window: “What are you kids doing?” One of them responds: “It’s okay mom, we’re just playing church.”
Dr. Louise Hart on Bullying
There’s a great article in a recent Hazelden newsletter about bullying, which is an excerpt from Dr Hart’s new book on the subject. I’m going to quote it at length here, because she does such a great job at describing the characteristics of bullies and their victims. As you read this, see if you can identify any of this in behaviors you see in your church:
Characteristics of Bullies
Bullying refers to words or actions expressed to gain power over another person, as in the saying “Might makes right.” This urge to dominate, to be superior, underlies child abuse, date rape, domestic violence, workplace violence, and hate crimes. The need to dominate contributes to the imbalance of power.
Bullies can be characterized in a number of ways:
- aggressive bullies who are hot-tempered, strong, impulsive, and confident
- passive bullies who are insecure and have personal problems; they tend to follow the lead of aggressive bullies
- bully-victims who have been bullied, then bully others
- pure bullies who are well adjusted but just enjoy dominating others
Some bullies are children who themselves have been bullied, although that’s not true for all. For some, bullying might be a way of dealing with situations at home that they’re having trouble coping with. For others, they may have poor social skills or learning disabilities, making it hard to fit in with other kids; for these children, bullying provides a sense of control to satisfy their own sense of powerlessness.
Characteristics of Targets
Any child can be bullied, but there are often some common characteristics of targets:
- passive victims who are anxious, fearful, and socially withdrawn (sometimes with good reason), making them appear vulnerable.
- Experts have named many types of passive victims, such as: –vicarious victims who feel vulnerable, sympathetic, and guilty when there is bullying around them –false victims who feel they are being bullied, even when they are not –perpetual victims who have been bullied so much that it becomes part of their psyche
- provocative victims who arouse negative responses from those
- around them
- bully-victims (see above)
School Principle Ron DeBoer writing about bullying
Another great article on bullying just came out in The Banner, written by school principle Ron DeBoer. Listen to his recommendation for how schools need to deal with this:
Schools need to develop deliberate strategies to both prevent and respond to bullying. Schools need to communicate clearly to parents that no forms of bullying will be tolerated; they need policies and processes with escalating consequences for bullies. That may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often adults in a position to respond to bullying don’t acknowledge it as anything other than a teenage rite of passage.
Good stuff. I agree completely. But it also makes me think: WHAT ABOUT CHURCHES?
Read DeBoer’s paragraph again … and this time substitute “churches” for schools. Do you agree? Do you think that churches need to take more of a stand against bullying in all its forms? I do.
Stepping up our commitment to fight bullying
I’m working on a book right now about Overloaded Leaders. One of the reason for pastors being overloaded is that they get burdened by dealing with conflict … including conflict that is directed at them. One of the important — but often overlooked — tasks of church leaders is to protect the community of the church. The church needs to be a place that is safe and loving. When people violate standards of love by gossiping, criticizing, name-calling, and general intimidation … it’s time to step in.
We can talk more about “How” and “When” to step in later. But right now the most important issue is this: do we agree that it’s an important issue? Do we agree that it is our job to protect community health? Are we willing to make that an important part of our task as leaders?
If pastors agree to this, then the next step is to ensure that they are not alone in that conviction. This needs the ownership and commitment of boards and councils (which are, unfortunately, often the places where we see bullying behaviors in churches!). Deal with that by teaching, intelligent confrontation (when necessary), and sometimes just holding on until some destructive “leaders” end their terms on the board. Then, when the church leadership can be united in its commitment to healthy relationships — and no tolerance for bullying in the church — then the community can be much stronger, more united, and more fruitful in ministry.
Small groups (like home Bible studies, Care Groups, and the like) have an upper size limit of 10-15, depending on the people involved. The reason is obvious, and it’s pure sociology. We can only relate meaningfully to a small group of people. Beyond that size, relational dynamics get too complex and we naturally sub-divide into smaller “groups within the group”.
Churches without associate program staff rarely grown beyond 200. The reasons are more complex, but sociology also plays a big role.
Listen to what John Agno has to say about the sociology of groups, and think about what this means for churches:
According to “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, to be someone’s best friend requires a minimum investment of time. More than that, it takes emotional energy. Caring about someone deeply is exhausting. At a certain point, at somewhere between 10 to 15 people, we begin to overload. Mostly, it’s a question of our available time and energy.
For example, if you belong to a group of twenty people, there are 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to ‘know’ the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden.
The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. To have more than 150 people in a group reduces the ability of each member to be sufficiently familiar with each other that they can work together as a functional unit.
Above 150, you have to impose complicated hierarchies and rules to command loyalty and cohesion. Below 150, it is possible to achieve these same goals informally based upon personal loyalties and direct person-to-person contacts.
When things get larger than 150, people become strangers to one another. When your group gets bigger than 150, you begin to get two or three sub-groups or clans within the larger group. Above 150 people, there begins to be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice.
How the 150 number applies to churches gets complicated, because church size is also heavily affected by facility space, the nature of the church programs and organizational structure, and the leadership and communication skills of the pastor. If nothing else, it’s helpful to keep in mind that people gravitate to a medium sized “communities” (ranging from 40-75) in churches, regardless of the worship attendance of the church. This is because people probably have 50 to 100 people outside the church who already play a key role in their lives … and if the social limit of most people is about 150, that leaves space for 40-75.