Quit thinking of your church as a family

Consulting firm to congregation: “The most important thing (Name of Church) will ever do is end whatever amount of ongoing conflict exists as well as quit thinking like a family.”

Anthony B. Robinson in Call & Response blog:

What did the consulting firm mean by its blunt directive? Didn’t Jesus speak of “all those who do the will of God” as his kin? (Matthew 12:50). The consulting firm elaborated: “The purpose of the church is to transform both society and individuals to be more Christ-like. This concept goes way beyond family.”

This may be stiff but necessary medicine for many stuck or declining congregations. The purpose of the church is to change lives. That’s the “business” we are in. While some families certainly do that, forming and sustaining faithful and courageous people, the use of the “family” concept in congregations often seems to mean something else.

Many of the congregations that claim “We’re a family,” lose sight of larger transformative purposes and settle, instead, for the comfort and satisfaction of their members. The core purpose of a congregation -- growing people of faith and helping people and communities move from despair to hope -- gives way to lesser and even contrary purposes like keeping people happy. While it may not be a necessary outcome of the use of the family image, many congregations that gravitate towards it seem to make member comfort and satisfaction their de facto purpose.

And what of the other part of the consulting firm's recommendation: "end whatever amount of ongoing conflict exists." We often hear that congregations that are in a tailspin are congregations where there is conflict. But how do you put an end to that conflict? A new study of congregational health, FACT 2008, says:

Creating strong interpersonal bonds and purposefulness decrease the likelihood of conflict.
Interpersonal bonds -- bonds like a family?

And what are the most common sorts of conflict?

As in 2000, money, worship and leadership lead the way as the areas of congregational life most riled with conflict. Conflict about leadership is the most likely to produce serious negative consequences.

The same study reported:

[G]reater spiritual vitality [purposefulness?] exists in financially healthy congregations. Conversely, the worse the financial health of a congregation, the more likely it is to experience conflict.
Cause and effect isn't established. But my guess is that financial health is not the driver.

And if it's true congregations need to quit thinking of themselves as families, the Hartford study should give pause for a denomination heavy on small congregations:

Oldline Protestant congregations spend close to half their budgets on salaries and benefits.
Link to the FACT 2008 report here. (The Episcopal Church participates in FACT. These findings will be familiar to those following the Episcopal Church.)

Tom Ehrich in his commentary today puts these issues this way:

[Glenn] Beck does raise an interesting point -- namely, that some congregations probably aren't fulfilling a reasonable Christian purpose. Many are already as empty as Beck imagines wayward churches being. Consider, for example, congregations that only open for an hour or two on Sunday morning because they lost touch with their communities and stopped serving boldly. ... Consider congregations that are so starved for funds -- because members don't accept the biblical commandment to tithe -- that they can barely keep the roof intact, much less make a difference in their communities. ... Consider congregations that fuss endlessly about the perfection of their liturgies -- what words to use, what rituals, what clergy -- but don't see what Jesus saw: people crying out for healing and for justice.

Comments (7)

Great article -- family is a deadly term for churches - sets up all sorts of dynamics that are unhealthy - people have varying experience with families - not all good. Those with bad family histories often find church offering the family they never had - but eventually the church will betray them and leave them in a worse place. Community, gathering, ekklesia - but not family -please.

Yes. "Family" as used in the context of church too often expresses a longing to satisfy my or our emotional expectations. If this runs the show, the church dies.

God's family is about mission and transformation -- which might mean I/we have to change, too!

If churches should quit thinking like a family, should dioceses stop using family systems theory for parishes in conflict or transition?

Steve Ayres

Interesting article.

If the term "family" is unhelpful or even deadly per se, then I note that the Prayer Book steers us in the wrong direction, referring as it does to the inward and spiritual grace of Baptism as that which grants us "birth into God's family the Church" (BCP, p. 858).

I don't know. When I think of the Church community, I can't help thinking of the poem by Frost, Death of a Hired Hand.

"Home is the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.' 'I should have called it Something you somehow haven't to deserve"

I guess home/family seems a good fit for me when thinking of Church.

Pam Alger

I think it's kind of a paradox.

On the one hand, a church (parish/congregation) SHOULD have the kind of accepting love that we associate w/ the IDEAL of a "family."

On the other, a family sort of exists for itself---and a Christian parish/congregation can NEVER do that, and be true to the Gospel of Christ.

I think it's Both/And. Both "family" AND "not family, but missionary expedition": ALWAYS reaching out.

JC Fisher

...still giddy in hope that +Mary Glasspool will be excellent at BOTH aspects! :-D

I think I'd rather stop listening to highly paid "church consultants" than to stop thinking of church as family. ;-)

Paige Baker

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