Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Toxic congregations, problem parishes, difficult people ... or just the human side of Christians living together in community?

My office at work is in the wonderful Ecumenical Centre library, one of the pluses to this is that next to the coffee machine I get a sneak preview of new and donated books before they are catalogued. A title on toxic churches caught my eye the other morning, but when you're in a library you have to be disciplined and not pick up and start reading every book your eye lands on. It's hard sometimes!
However, the issue of churches and church organisations sometimes being difficult environments is one that interests me and I found this post on the wonderful Prodigal Kiwis' blog very interesting. They point to Dr Sara Savage's writings: The Human Face of the Church: A Social Psychology and Pastoral Theology Resource for Pioneer and Traditional Ministry, by Sara Savage and Eolene Boyd-Macmillan.

Also interesting was this brief (Dec. 2006) Church Times article by Sara Savage, The Darker Side of Parish Life, which ends with this:

As a psychologist, I am sorely tempted to give advice. If the parish system could be condensed into a single “patient on the couch”, my advice would be:

• Stop clinging to the positives. Let them float on the water. What can survive, will survive.
• Face into the negatives. Develop the means to deal with them; use the resources that exist.
• Trust the process of change. Change is necessary and will occur whether it is welcomed or not.
To welcome change is to trust that the Church always has been, and will continue to be, a wise householder bringing out treasures both old and new.

Here’s the excerpt from the book quoted by Prodigal Kiwis:

The sociologist Max Weber observed a cyclical process among religious movements that he called ‘the routinization of charisma’. Weber argued that any great vision requires a human process to carry it through time, sometimes in the form of ‘a man, a mission, a movement, or a monument’. Even with the Body of Christ, the life-giving charism has to be embodied in a routine – in some form of human organization. Yet, life-giving visions do not fit easily into neat boxes. So, the very process that gives the vision continuing life also begins to kill it. When the maintenance of the institution (which protects the charism) becomes the institution’s primary purpose, the death of the charism is on the horizon. Only a spiritual revival or reform will re-ignite the gift. In our era, fresh expressions of church and the re-traditioning of familiar forms of church march alongside many initiatives to re-ignite the gift…”

So why are churches such difficult organisations? There are lots of reasons but Sara Savage says this at the end of a section entitled the norm of niceness in her Church Times piece:

How best to express leadership in this emotion-laden context is a mystery for many. This kind of problem arises less often in secular organisations, as these have the freedom to be hard-hearted and weed out the “wrong” people. The generous, trusting (naïve?) tendency in parishes may go a long way to explain why churches are so often less effective as organisations than their secular counterparts.