Congregational Health: Less Fear, More Poetry

By Heather Entrekin, Ph.D. - Des Peres Associate Professor in Congregational Health and Director of Doctor of Ministry

November 15, 2012
Baugh-Marshall Chapel, Central Baptist Theological Seminary
Shawnee, Kansas

“Exactly what is congregational health?”  I get this question a lot.  It may have something to do with the title I am honored to hold:  Des Peres Associate Professor of Congregational Health.  Often the question is accompanied by a look of anxiety and concern.  I have also asked the question myself of a number of friends and colleagues who are experienced and respected leaders in ministry.  You would be amazed how often the first response is a deep sigh or a long silence.

This is a question we wonder and worry about.  Many scholars and professionals in religion are studying and writing on the subject.  Here are some of their best answers:

Congregational health is about leadership that is humanly sensitive, professionally competent, spiritually healthy, biblically knowledgeable and theologically articulate.  This is part of the mission statement of Central Baptist Theological Seminary.1

According to the Center for Congregational Health, vital church life depends upon    focus in these four essential aspects:  communication, clarity of vision, conflict management and community.2

Mark Tidsworth, president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates, says it is about “living out one’s calling as fully and effectively as possible.”3

Author Christine Pohl names the practices of expressing gratitude, keeping   promises, living truthfully, and offering hospitality.4

Seminary educator and pastor Kathleen S. Smith, notes that it depends upon the     readiness and ability of an institution and its leadership to change.5

The list goes on.  These practices and values absolutely are essential for a healthy congregation and Central Seminary will continue to invest in vigorous, progressive preparation of leaders in these vital disciplines.

But there is something more and perhaps more urgent if the church is to fulfill its high calling to be good news for the world today and that is:  less fear, which opens the door to more imagination.

There is no shortage of fear in church life today.  In fact, fear often underlies the question about congregational health.  We experience the church decreasing in all the ways we have traditionally understood and measured health:  memberships, budgets, youth, visibility, respect, and influence.  No matter how brilliant the preaching, missional the vision, slick the Vacation Bible School package or smart the consultant, the decades-long downward slide of the church continues, not just in our own denomination but across religion and throughout the Western world. 

Studies of American congregations all reach the same conclusion:  All indicators of traditional religious belief or practice are flat or declining.  The only category getting larger is those who mark “none” on the question about religious affiliation. 6

Globalization, shifting demographics and the vast sweep of technology have changed everything.  We are in the midst of a seismic cultural upheaval, an era of rapid, discontinuous change of a magnitude that occurs only about every 500 years, according to religion expert Phyllis Tickle, the last time involving an invention by Gutenberg and a hammer in the hands of Martin Luther.  She describes that one as “wrenching, deconstructing, liberating, anxiety-producing, and world-rending”7 on its way to reformation and transformation. 

A new world is emerging again and a new church along with it, and we do not know where it is going.  Beloved church practices and assumptions that nurtured us in faith and looked as if they would endure forever have been up-ended.  For ministers and the seminaries charged with their educations, these are challenging days indeed.  Eugene Peterson’s confessional memoir speaks for many: “[N]one of us is sure of what we are doing much of the time…..”8

No wonder anxiety among church leaders, and seminary students seeking to become church leaders, is palpable.  It is so prevalent we have coined a new word for it:  neophobia.9  But fear does not become the people of God.  It is certainly not an indicator of congregational health. 

Every pastor knows the damage that fear can do at a church business meeting.  When elevated and chronic, the anxiety it produces tightens and strangles.  Peter Steinke is among those who have researched and written extensively about the ability of fear to cause an individual or a congregation (or a nation) to think in narrow-minded, reactive and predictable patterns and then to behave accordingly.  Where flexibility, openness and imagination are most needed, fearfulness fosters rigidity and polarization, turning people and communities inward.10  It works against the arms-wide-open, generous attitude of “embrace” that Miraslav Volff identifies as the essence of authentic life.11 

But it would not be the first time people of God were afraid when the reign of God erupted in front of them.  In a few days the church will begin retelling the Advent stories of Joseph, shepherds, and later, women at the tomb, and later still, the early church, all of whom needed to be told, “Do not be afraid.”  “The old has gone, the new has come!  All this is from God.” (2 Corinthians 5:17-18, NIV). 

Even so, we are likely to identify with the title of a book I could not resist in the airport the other day - Change is good:  You go first.12

God, it seems, has gone first. 

God, in Jergen Moltmann’s words, of inexhaustibly rich, creative imagination “from whom life upon life proceeds in protean abundance.”13

God in whom there is no narrowness, constraint, scarcity or deficit. 

God from whom all blessings flow.

If we are people in covenant with God, as we say we are, then we must engage in the creating and giving of life upon life with God that is, in Moltmann’s language, “like a great song or a splendid poem…for the communication of [God’s] divine plenitude.”14

But as any artist knows, it’s a messy, painful, failure-ridden process getting to the finished work.  This is why, in the words of sculptor Stephen DeStaebles, “Artists don’t get down to work until the pain of working is exceeded by the pain of not working.” 15   This is the uncomfortable situation in which much of Christendom finds itself today.

Just as a poet has to find courage to begin a sentence before knowing its ending, however,16 so the church must find courage to walk with God in unexpected, unexplored directions.  

  1. One direction may be acknowledging that “congregational health” is not all there is.  For all its ability to make meaning and deepen understanding, this metaphor, like any metaphor, has limits.
  • For example, it may justify and promote undue focus on self, an ecclesio-centric approach to mission when God, along with Karl Barth and others, may be pushing the church toward a missio-Dei identity and purpose.17   A congregational health metaphor may make it difficult to see that the church is an instrument of a sending God’s mission, not its goal.
  • Another limitation of the medical orientation of this metaphor may be too much faith in numbers and measures.

            Congregational health is a generative, sense-making and reassuring metaphor but it           has limits.

  1. More imagination may help us to see the already and the not-yet of a Holy Spirit breathing, or maybe sneezing, the church into new life - sometimes “taking the church out of church”18 as Tickle describes it, sometimes turning back to ancient practices, sometimes creating new traditions, and sometimes letting go. 
  • In Tbilisi, the Republic Georgia, the Baptist church worships with incense and beeswax candles and field daisies scattered on the floor for Pentecost.  The walls are covered with icons written by Zakro, an iconographer excommunicated by the Orthodox Church because of his originality and welcomed by the Baptists. 
  • In rural North Carolina, a priest serves mass at a Laundromat in a neighborhood of Latino immigrants who do not feel welcome in traditional churches.  First, he served 5 or 6.  Now people come from all over the county, sometimes without laundry bags.19 
  • In a run-down, inner-city neighborhood in Lexington, Kentucky, a young family does urban farming, sharing vegetables, painting their picket fence rainbow colors, and making their bicycle pump available to every girl and boy for blocks around.20 
  • At St. Greg’s in San Francisco, the Episcopal congregation worships on Sunday using Orthodox traditions and on Friday, clears the space for a Food Pantry that serves 9 tons of food to 1,500 people with wandering musicians and fresh flowers.21
  • In a pub theology group, a dozen or so people meet regularly to talk, worship, and pray and after a while do one of three things:  grow, break apart and multiply or cease, the group having served its purpose.22 
  • Some sit at home in front of computers yet gather in real time with worshippers around the world through avatars.  They are members of cyber-church Darkwood Brew, a “renegade exploration of faith,” whose tag line is “You may not like it.”23 
  • In St. Louis, a church closed its doors and sold its property when membership got too small and bills too high and suddenly discovered that they were worth $5.4 million.  They gave it away to other churches, their denomination and to Central Baptist Seminary for a chair in congregational health.                                              But that little congregation that used to be the Des Peres Baptist Church, that had loved God and one another for more than 40 years kept taking care of one another, sending birthday cards, visiting the sick in hospitals, and taking casseroles for funeral suppers.  They also continued to gather, not in a sanctuary any more but at a restaurant once a month.  More people came to the restaurant than used to come to church, and more faithfully. 

What exactly is congregational health?  There is no “exactly.”  There is God.  Do not be afraid.



1 CBTS Mission Statement,


Mark Tidsworth, President, Pinnacle Leadership Associates,

Christine Pohl, “Our Life Together:  Four Practices of Healthy Congregations,” Christian Century (March 7, 2012): 22-25.

Kathleen S. Smith, Stilling the Storm (Herndon:  The Alban Institute, 2006), ix.

Mark Chavez, American Religion:  Contemporary Trends (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 2011), drawing on the General Social Survey and the National Congregations Study conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago.

7 Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2008), 17.

Eugene Peterson, The Pastor:  A Memoir (New York:  HarperCollins, 2011), 8.

9 Susan Nienaber, “Neophobia,” Alban:  Building Up Congregations and Their Leaders, July 25, 2012,

10 Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership In Anxious Times:  Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 8.

11 Miraslav Volff, Exclusion & Embrace:  A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1996).   

12  Mac Anderson and Tom Feltenstein, Change Is Good... You Go First: 21 Ways to Inspire Change (Naperville, IL:  Simple Truths, 2007).

13  Jergen Moltmann, The Coming of God:  Christian Eschatology (Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2004), 338.

14  Moltmann, 338,339.

15  Stephen DeStaebles quoted in David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art and Fear:  Observations on the Perild (and Rewards) of Artmaking (Santa Cruz, CA:  The Image Continuum, 1993), 9.

16  Bayles and Orland, 20.

17 Craig Van Gelder and Dwight J. Zscheile, The Missional Church in Perspective:  Mapping Trends and Shaping the Conversation (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2011), 26,27.

18 Phyllis Tickle, Emergence Christianity: What It Is, Where It Is Going, and Why It Matters (Grand Rapids:  Baker Books, 2012), 59.

19 L. Gregory Jones and Kevin R. Armstrong, Resurrecting Excellence:  Shaping Faithful Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2006), 11,12.

20 Geoff Maddock and Sherry Maddock, “Home Economics:  Place and Neighbor” (presentation, Sentralized Gathering, Olathe, KS, September 26, 2012).

21 Tickle, Emergence Christianity, 6,7.

22  Tickle, Emergence Christianity, 118,119.