Saturday, February 28, 2009

In Healthy Congregation People Develop Caring Relationships and Empower Others

“We now want to return to the gospel, which gives guidance and help against sin in more than one way, because God is extravagantly rich in his grace: first, through the spoken word…second, through baptism; third, through the holy Sacrament of the Altar; fourth, through the power of the keys and also through the mutual conversation and consolation of brothers and sisters.” Martin Luther, Smalcald Articles, III:4.

When Luther wrote these words in 1537 he came close—very close--to placing our relationships within the Body of Christ on a par with Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. Caring relationships and loving conversations with other Christians are almost sacramental in the life of the church.

A Network of Connections

In itself the church is a gathering together of God’s people—a sharing of goodwill, energy and gifts of the Spirit. It’s not far-fetched to define the congregation as a “network of connections.” This tracks with the language of the New Testament which consistently favors organic—not mechanistic--images for describing the church, most notably as “the Body of Christ and individually, members one of another.” (I Corinthians 12:27)

Yet even within this lovely image there is place both for differentiation and togetherness. God doesn’t fuse us into a formless “blob.” The Body of Christ consists of members who are wonderfully diverse, but also connected inextricably, one to another.

Our challenge is to find balance between our identities as members of one another and the relationships that give us life. “How can a separate self relate with others in a healthy way?” asks Dr. Peter Steinke, in his Healthy Congregations training materials.

Steinke points to four ways that members of the Body of Christ relate to one another:
· Playing together. “If you cannot get connected to others through relaxation, spontaneity, and letting go,” notes Steinke, “ the only alternative is to connect through hostility or ‘dead seriousness.’”
· Touching one another, verbally as well as physically. Words we share are “touching” when they convey support, care, and comfort.
· Mirroring--simply looking into one another’s faces so we can tell whether we regard one another as important, noticed, and valued. How vital it is for us to know one another’s names and call each other by name!
· Nurturing connects people. There’s a reason why church suppers are so popular. “Half of Jesus’ parables,” observes Steinke, “are about food, feasts or farming.”

The Difficult Business of Helping

Helping one another, though, isn’t always as simple as you’d think. There are ways of “helping” that wind up hindering the growth of both the helper and the one being helped.

If our helping of one another always takes the form of fixing or rescuing someone, we could be tending to our own needs more than to the needs of the one being helped. Ask yourself: am I driven by compassion or by my own anxiety at seeing someone who is hurt?

There is a kind of helping that dis-empowers the one being helped. Some helpers have a sick “need to be needed.” Their tendency to over-function can foster an unhealthy dependency in the one being “helped.”

It’s important to watch for this sort of behavior in our congregations. Peter Steinke suggests that overly-needy helpers can be spotted by their tendency to
· Listen ad infinitum to a friend’s problems
· Volunteer for every job that needs doing
· Stay up all night to do a project
· Do others’ work for them
· Try to provide the perfect environment
· Please others at the expense of their own well-being.

Another example of unhealthy helpfulness is when leaders of a congregation adapt to the weakest or most disgruntled members of the church. When such leaders try to appease or satisfy the chronically anxious or complaining, the whole congregation usually suffers. Writes Steinke: “Healthier functioning on the part of leaders involves keeping their focus on a goal, a direction, not the noise of the needy.”

So what should be our goal in helping others? The founder of the modern servant leadership movement, Robert Greenleaf, has provided this helpful test: “Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”

Bishop Larry Wohlrabe

For reflection and discussion:
1. How well does your congregation play? Touch? Mirror? Nurture?
2. What connects people in your congregation?
3. How can you tell if your desire to help someone is motivated more by compassion than by your own anxiety?
4. Recall a time when leaders (perhaps in an attempt to be “helpful”) adapted to the weakest or most unhappy members of your congregation. How did this affect the whole congregation?

This is the final in 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. All eleven articles are available for download on the Northwestern Minnesota Synod website:

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