Saturday, December 13, 2008

In Healthy Congregations Leaders Provide Immune Capacities

“Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” I Corinthians 15:58

This column’s title is curious. “Now what’s he talking about?” you might wonder. Immune capacities? Say what?

Let me be clear: this is not hard to understand in the cold and flu season. Some of us, myself included, have already wrestled with one “bug” this autumn. It’s miserable, right? And those viruses sure can hang on!

So here’s the question: What causes infections? The quick, obvious answer is: germs or “bugs”—right? But that’s really only half of the reason. The other reason is that we are vulnerable hosts. We get sick when two things happen: a virus attacks AND our immune capacities are “down.”

Our bodies are always being assaulted by viruses, germs, cancer cells. If that’s all that caused illness, we’d be sick all the time. But fortunately our bodies have wondrous defense systems that ward off the bugs. And, thankfully, most of the time our immune systems are strong and sturdy. But when they weaken—when we grow weary or malnourished in any way—opportunistic invaders can gain a foothold.

The same holds true in congregations. Congregations face multiple threats every moment of every day. Some of these are large and easily identified: demographic decline, economic recession, a neutral if not hostile culture, etc. Other threats come in the back door, though. The “cells” (members) of the Body of Christ can act like viruses, attacking the host.

I’m not just talking about specific individuals in the church—although there are persons who fit the bill. “Persistent troublemakers” can be found in every congregation.

But even more seriously, there are virus-like traits that all of us display from time to time. We all have moments when our anxieties overflow into the Christian community. We’re all tempted to form “triangles,” bypassing the person we need to speak with and conversing instead with a third party. We all, on occasion, operate secretly rather than openly and above-board.

There are enough obstacles and viruses assaulting the congregation to make it sick most of the time. But, thankfully, our congregations are not sick all the time. Why is that? It’s because God protects us from such viruses, largely through the leaders God raises up in each congregation.
Leaders provide immune capacities in the Body of Christ. Leaders resist forces that undermine a congregation, forces that take our eyes off God’s mission, forces that tempt us to act in under-handed ways. God graciously gives us leaders who are “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord” (I Cor. 15:58).

But “immovable” doesn’t always sound like a good thing, does it? We associate being immovable with being inflexible—and that’s not always good in a leader, is it? The kind of immovability the apostle Paul speaks of, though, is about holding the line against forces that threaten Christ’s church. In I Corinthians 15 Paul is defending the reality of the resurrection in the Christian life. It doesn’t get more basic or foundational than that! Leaders provide immune capacities when they are clear and “immovable” about what God’s word and God’s mission is for us—and when they’re willing to resist any and all forces that threaten that. That’s a wonderful sort of “immovability.”

But what does such “immovable” leadership look like or sound like? Imagine some brief exchanges between a virus-bearer (V) and an immovable leader (L):

V: “Some of us are having a secret meeting to talk about problems with our church staff.” L: “Isn’t that why we have a Personnel Committee. Why don’t you take your concerns to them, or better yet, speak directly to the staff members who trouble you?”

V: “If our congregation starts this new worship service, I know some members will leave.” L: “I’m sad to hear that. But we’ve been carefully considering the new worship service for a long time. It will enhance our ministry, and as a congregation we have decided to do this for the sake of our witness in the world.”

V: “I’m so worried about the economic recession! We need to cut our spending and stop giving away so much money to missions beyond our congregation.” L: “Now is not the time to panic. God has not abandoned us. God is still blessing us. We need to act out of our hopes, not our fears.”

Do you see how, in each of these examples, leaders increase the “immune capacities” of congregations? It’s amazing! Thank God for leaders who know when to be flexible and when to be “steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord.”

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

1. Reflect on your own experience with illness and your immune system. When are you most vulnerable to a cold or flu bug? How do you shore up your bodily immune capacities?

2. Recall a time when you or someone you know acted like a “virus” in your congregational system. What was the outcome? Did the “virus” encounter a steadfast, immovable leader—and, if so, what happened?

3. Why is it challenging for leaders to provide immune capacities in the congregations they serve? How can we encourage such leadership in our communities of faith?

This is the ninth of an 11-part series of articles, based on the Healthy Congregations training materials by Dr. Peter Steinke. Bishop Larry encourages church councils and other leadership groups to use these articles for devotions/discussion as they meet together.

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