A Firm Foundation

What makes for a healthy church? We tend to think of healthy churches as those that are undoubtedly successful. With people coming to know Christ, exponential growth, a popular lead pastor, innovative ministries, a great worship team and a solid social media presence, many churches today are clearly being blessed by God. 

But success is not always the same as health. Focusing on success alone reflects easily measurable affirmations that a church is doing something right without an intentional focus or an understanding of the possible longer-term negative consequences that can occur with such a narrow outlook. Successful churches, as I have come to witness personally, are not the same as healthy ones.

An Intentional Focus 

For almost 40 years as an industrial-organizational psychologist, a senior manager at Microsoft, a management professor and a consultant, I have worked with Fortune 500 companies, Christian institutions and large and small churches in some state of meltdown. In almost every case, Christian and secular alike, these organizations were successful. But that success often had the malignant side effect of masking underlying problems. Success didn’t breed success with my clients as much as it masked dysfunction. 

At the beginning of any consultation, I tell my clients that dysfunction is always functional. Churches, just like businesses, often think that they can power through chaotic times, and then, when things get to some sort of normal, they can move out of survival mode to be more intentional in their leadership. The problem with that sort of thinking is that it’s hard to weed out the dysfunction because it becomes ingrained in what gets noticed and applauded. 

Four years ago, I was part of a four-person team investigating the claims against Bill Hybels, former senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, of inappropriate behavior toward several women. I knew almost nothing about Hybels or Willow Creek. Besides, I also had little personal insight into what it takes to lead a megachurch. I agreed to be part of the team not because I was interested in adjudicating the actions of Bill Hybels, but because if the allegations were credible, then it was likely—as is often the case with a fallen leader—that the church itself, the staff, the elders, the culture, the reporting structure and even regular attendees likely played some enabling role in the functional dysfunction. 

This deep-seated enablement is exactly what we found and noted in our report. While our findings that the allegations were credible grabbed headlines around the world, the most meaningful aspect for me was how Willow Creek’s new leadership listened to our organizational recommendations. Even though they would be less in the limelight, they would create a healthier church culture. 

Since then, I have continued to consult with churches and Christian organizations, as well as teach healthy and sustainable spiritual leadership over the years to approximately 30 megachurch pastors as part of their graduate coursework at Wheaton College. While there is plenty to learn from the mistakes of others, I have been blessed to have a front-row seat to observe incredibly capable pastors who, in some cases, have taken on churches that were on the brink of failing and brought them to a place of health.

So, let’s ask the question again: What makes for a healthy church? The answer is straightforward yet profound. Churches must be intentional about wanting to be healthy. Yet, the daily pressures and cultural expectations on large and small churches alike align more with the secular world’s expectations of celebrity CEOs, athletes, actors and musicians. But it doesn’t need to be this way. While working with pastors, churches and other Christian leaders, I have come to rely on five biblical values that can lead to spiritually healthy churches when prioritized over their more worldly opposites.

  1. Substance Rather Than Success 

Everything a church does has some importance. Rarely does a church take on a ministry, preaching series, volunteer activity or media engagement that doesn’t seem to have value in furthering God’s kingdom. But as the opportunities multiply, churches inevitably take on too much, overburdening staffers. 

Mission statements are supposed to help delineate what a church focuses on, but with a pithy three-sentence structure such as “Love Jesus. Serve Others. Change the World,” they are often too encompassing—and thus too amorphous—to guide decisions about what to invest in. Without a clear vision, churches are either rooted in their past, focused only on immediate needs, or chasing after some shiny innovation that appears to be successful at other churches regardless of the context. 

On the other hand, spiritual health starts with a church committed to discerning the will of God to become a Christian institution of substance. Such a church commits itself to the weightiness of its work. They think in terms of kingdom legacy, investing in ministries rather than merely funding them, understanding that the work of the ministry is just as important as the outcome. And there is holistic integrity to such investments—ministries driven by a clear, overarching small set of commitments do not occur at the expense of other ministries or people.

But all of this starts with a churchwide discernment process. Ruth Haley Barton writes in Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership about discernment as a place of deep listening and response to the Spirit of God within and among us. It is a slow communal practice that invites God to lead rather than seeing decision-making as merely a rational exercise.

That discernment process creates a vision of what the church will look like in three to five years, shaping a more focused and strategic planning process with specific goals and practices. In providing direction, such plans specify what the church will do and, equally important, what the church will not take on at this time. Such clarity helps to communicate a strong vision that—because the discernment process was comprehensive—will both motivate the church community and minimize misunderstandings by focusing the church on a smaller number of agreed-upon activities. When substance takes precedence over success, no one gets the glory except God.

  1. Servanthood Rather Than Star Power

Without substance, the celebrity culture drives much of what we expect from pastors. It’s not enough these days for pastors to preach well and serve their flock. As traditional churches have given way to stages and auditoriums, pastors often take on a public persona akin to being a performer. Apart from preaching, pastors are expected to have a magnetism on camera and some active social media presence for the rest of the week. But the vast majority didn’t sign up for this. When they started, they wanted to be servant leaders, making a difference in the lives of those they serve. 

Pastors yearn for a sense of integrity between the backstage of their lives and the front-stage persona. The pressures to perform have a substantial personal cost when pastors cannot work from a place of deep spiritual centeredness. We are a culture enamored with the idea of strengths, yet as Christians, we know we cannot lead from our own strength. However, there is no room for self-doubt and humility for pastors who are pushed to be stars. 

I am convinced that pastors have major moral failures because they can no longer be seen as failing at small things, being human, acknowledging their limitations, and being part of a grace-filled community that, in turn, ministers to them. Pastors who work from a false persona develop an external shell to protect their vulnerability. But as that shell hardens, their slow spiritual death is hidden even from themselves as they turn into the empty rock stars they never wanted to be. 

A healthy board of elders encourages its pastors to minister from a place of deep authenticity, knowing that the church’s long-term health will mirror its pastoral team’s spiritual health. Boards must have the strength of character to say “no” to unnecessary expectations put on pastors. And at times, they need to protect pastors from themselves. While being accountable to their elders, pastors also need to have others in their lives who offer confidential support as well as accountability. They need people who love them enough to call out a front-stage persona that is in danger of becoming spiritually empty. 

  1. Stewardship Rather Than Sacrifice

Healthy churches don’t just focus on the needs of their lead pastor; they also recognize that their staff deserves a workplace where they, too, can experience life more abundantly. Ministry is a call to sacrifice, and there is something to that—God calls us to do difficult things in service to his kingdom. But that call doesn’t mean we can justify toxic workplaces that consume people as they seek to serve God. To that end, healthy churches focus on stewardship rather than sacrifice: articulating and rewarding reasonable expectations while not minimizing bullying behavior. 

Healthy churches don’t treat staff as the minions of the lead pastor. As with other management professors, when teaching leadership I don’t dwell on the individual characteristics of a leader. Instead, I prefer to talk about “leadership culture,” which is more about the functioning of a leadership team. Lance Witt, a former Saddleback Church pastor and founder of Replenish ministries, writes about stewarding leadership culture in Replenish: Leading From a Healthy Soul. Reflecting on the fast-paced world of Saddleback, he wrote that the often-unclear expectations crushed staff. To increase clarity, he and his leadership team created a covenant they all agreed to abide by. It included such weighty topics as praying for each other and not backing down from voicing concerns, as well as showing up on time and having fun. Minimizing interpersonal conflict by laying out agreed-upon rules of engagement, the covenant was a form of stewardship for individuals, the leadership team and the church.

Stewardship also requires church leaders to invest in their wellness “banks,” ensuring they have personal resources to draw upon when tough times come. Burnout occurs when we are drained of resources that help us cope. Taking a walk, lighting a candle or doing yoga are short-term breathers that do not replenish resources and subsequently do not minimize burnout. But spending time with loved ones, investing in relationships and doing meaningful things inside and outside of work—especially those we feel called to—can replenish us. 

Pastors need to steward themselves by cultivating a rhythm of intentional spiritual practices. They need to read Scripture for their own souls and not just for sermon prep. They need to set aside time for vulnerable prayer. Extending these practices, pastors need to honor the holy rhythms of the Sabbath and the Jubilee year, prayerfully developing day-in-day-out and year-in-year-out practices and boundaries to their harried lives. It’s not uncommon for pastors in healthy churches to create and commit to a rule of life that is an intentional schedule of practices for personal spiritual formation. But it’s not just about prayer, Scripture reading and other disciplines. In Crafting a Rule of Life, Stephen A. Macchia takes a holistic approach to personal renewal, focusing on time (spiritual renewal), trust (relational renewal), temple (physical renewal), treasure (financial renewal) and talent (professional and vocational renewal). 

Lastly, healthy churches have pastors who invest in healthy family relationships. Too often, those in Christian leadership must decide whether to deal with an important and timely issue at church or go home to their families. It’s hard to fault a pastor who stays late to minister to s