Unhealthy Churches Should Not Act Like Healthy Churches – Until They Are

WheelchairThere are a lot of books and articles about how a healthy church should behave.

That’s appropriate. We should always have a picture of our desired future in our hearts and minds.

But what does a pastor do with an unhealthy church?

I’m going to propose a radical idea that shouldn’t be considered radical at all.

Unhealthy churches should be treated differently than healthy churches.

Why? Because unhealthy churches aren’t like healthy ones. And acting as though they are doesn’t help them, it hurts them.

This was the #1 most-read NewSmallChurch.com post of 2013. Click here for the entire Top 10 list.

Some Churches Need a Spiritual ICU

Someone with two healthy legs is able to stand, walk, run and jump. But if your leg is broken, your doctor won’t tell you to act like it’s healthy. Treating a broken leg as though it’s healthy will hurt it, not help it. If the medical issue is serious enough, the patient is put in an Intensive Care Unit, where they can receive closer attention. The same goes for churches – no matter what size they are.

Unhealthy churches should be treated differently than healthy ones if they have any hope of becoming healthy. Some of them need a spiritual ICU.

But we don’t usually do that. Too often, we tell hurting, broken, unhealthy churches to get over it and start acting like their strong, healthy siblings.

Then we can’t understand why so many of them stay unhealthy or get sicker. And we end up blaming the pastor and/or the church, when all they did was try to follow our advice.


Some Good Ideas Don’t Work – At Least Not Yet

Here are some characteristics I’ve been told a healthy church has:

  • The pastor stops being the primary caregiver
  • The people do the work of ministry
  • The church trains the people who are here to reach out to the people who aren’t here
  • More time, energy and money is spent on ministry than maintenance
  • No hand-holding from the pastor

Those are great ideas. If the church is already healthy.

But implementing those principles too quickly in an unhealthy church is like trying to run on a broken leg. They’ll harm it more than help it. 

Some pastoral leadership books and blog posts should come with a warning label: DO NOT ATTEMPT IF YOUR CHURCH IS NOT HEALTHY! It would save many pastors from a lot of unnecessary grief.

So what are some of the ways in which an unhealthy church should be treated differently than a healthy one?


4 Starter Ideas for the Care and Treatment of an Unhealthy Church

1. More Personal Pastoral Care

So much of the current advice about pastoring seems to be about how to pastor less, not more.

That might make sense in a big and/or healthy church. But in Small Churches it can cause distance and distrust. And in an unhealthy church it can kill the patient – or the doctor (sometimes both).

An ICU has more doctors per patient than a standard hospital room. It’s only when the patient becomes healthier that they receive less attention from health care professionals.

Before a pastor steps back from hands-on pastoral care, we need to ask a very important question. “Is the patient healthy enough for this yet?”

I was a very hands-on pastor for many years. And I don’t regret it. Why? Because I had inherited a very unhealthy, broken church and they needed a lot of attention for those first years.

Now I’m far less hands-on. Why? Because part of the work I did during the hands-on season was to train others to do the work of ministry. Now the patient is healthy and does a much better job taking care of herself, with only the occasional doctor check-ups.


2. Fewer Demands on the Congregation

Too many pastors think the answer for a broken church is to push them to do more, more and more. That may be the quickest way to kill an ailing congregation.

There are a lot of very busy, very ill churches. As I mentioned in my two-part Bigger Fixes Nothing series, it’s foolhardy to add an additional burden to someone when they’re struggling to handle their current burden.

No, don’t coddle the church. But don’t push too hard, either. There are seasons when churches need rest more than they need exercise.

That happened in the first few years at my current church. They’d been through five pastors in ten years, each of which brought a new vision and a new set of activities to go with it. The church was worn out from trying to please each pastor.

So I gave them a rest. For a couple years, we worshiped, taught scripture and hung out at picnics, potluck, etc. After  a while, the patient got stronger and started standing, then walking on her own.

Today, it’s one of the strongest, most innovative and healthiest churches I know. But we wouldn’t be here today if we hadn’t slowed down for those years of much-needed, purposeful rest.


3. Short Bursts of Activity Followed By Long Periods of Rest

Once a church starts getting healthy, a wise pastor will protect them from the temptation to do too much, too soon.

A church recovering from ill-health and brokenness needs to be challenged. Then they need to rest. This helps them assess, heal and prepare for the next challenge.

As I mentioned in a previous post, a good pastor knows what a good doctor knows. We have to help people stretch beyond their own comfort, but not so far that it will break them.

Knowing just how far that is before giving them a break is another reason congregations need more personal pastoral care during these seasons.


4. Fill Them Up Before Emptying Them Out

Of the five marks of a healthy church, some fill us up, others empty us out.

Fill up with:

  • Worship
  • Fellowship
  • Discipleship

Empty out with:

  • Discipleship
  • Ministry
  • Evangelism

Yes, Discipleship is on both lists. It’s the bridge between them.

Discipleship fills us up with knowledge and training. Then it empties us out when we put it into practice.

When a church is healthy, those lists should be close to a 50/50 balance. But an unhealthy church tends to lean heavily, sometimes exclusively, towards one list and neglect the other.

Some churches are filling stations. They spend all their time inside the church walls, singing, having potlucks and the like. They may even get filled up with tons of bible teaching, giving them a false sense of healthfulness.

Other churches are so obsessed with working that they burn people out with activities, without giving them adequate time to get re-filled.

But let’s face it, 90% of unhealthy churches aren’t dealing with the problem of giving too much. They’re stuck on the first list. Because of that, many pastors make the mistake of trying to fix their church by moving them off the fill-up list entirely and getting them busy with outward-facing activities almost exclusively. This is very dangerous. (See point #2, above).

A church that is only doing emptying activities may think they’re healthy, but they’re not. We need to follow the example of Jesus who regularly pulled away from busyness to get re-filled.

A healthy human body needs to fill up through nutrition and empty out through exercise. So does a healthy church. In the meantime, an unhealthy church may need a little more filling up before they have something to empty out.


This is not an attempt at an exhaustive list. It’s a conversation-starter. So let’s start.

What ideas do you have for treating an unhealthy church differently than a healthy one?


So what do you think? Have you seen any good spiritual ICU ideas you can share with us?

We want to hear from you. Yes, you! Enter your comment right below this post and get in on the conversation.

(Wheelchair in the Ocean photo from Zader • Flickr • Creative Commons)

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24 thoughts on “Unhealthy Churches Should Not Act Like Healthy Churches – Until They Are”

  1. You certainly alluded to this, but I think one of the most important things is the pastor himself does not think of himself more than he should. Healthy pastor equals healthy church, at least most of the time. Or at least as a process.

    But like physical health which comes and goes so does the health of the church. All of a sudden out of nowhere I get a cold or the entire church gets sick. It’s often a fragile situation dependent on the Holy Spirit working within the church and the pastor.

    So going back to what’s in the pastor’s head, here’s my three aspirations for ministry: expectation, persistence, humility. I fail most at the last. Trying to be something that I am not, is prideful. I end up perpetuating my own sickness. Unhealthy churches do the same.

  2. One of the best pieces of wisdom in the entire post is the concept of filling and emptying, and that discipleship is both. Frankly, I suspect one of the biggest causes of unhealthy churches is that discipleship has been neither a filling nor emptying exercise. Most churches’ concept of discipleship is a course, curriculum, or program; that assumes they do any discipleship at all. I believe the key to effective, long-term, replicating discipleship is relationship. Jesus’ discipleship pattern seemed to be relational; so did Paul’s. Why do we think we can take someone through a 6, 13, or however many week class, etc. and call it discipleship? In his short, but practical, book, “With Me”, Lance Ford describes describes discipleship as a deep personal relationship that helps the disciple grow up in the things of folowing Jesus. That sounds pretty good to me. It sounds like it would produce healthy disciples. It might even be the fix for unhealthy churches.

  3. Great Post Karl and very good advice. One thing I have always struggled with when it comes to leadership and making decisions regarding which choices are right, is the fact that I have a very scientific mindset. I look at the world through the lens that says:

    If you do this, then this predictable and reproducible result will happen.

    But ministry is so much more like art than science, and sometimes (at least I find this to be true) this thing that I did over here and had such and such a result, will not work over there.

    What complicates things even more is that when I look at my Church, and I see it through the lens of past experiences and other such comparisons….what may have been a sign of health “then” doesn’t necessarily equate to health now.

    So I guess the big questions is how to you determine if your congregation is healthy? Are there really consistent marks across the board that portray the health of your congregation both as a whole and on an individual basis?

    1. More art than science. That may be one of the best principles for pastors to remember, Gary – especially Small Church pastors. And I think it also factors into my best attempt at a reasonable answer.

      Knowing if a church is healthy is like knowing whether-or-not a song is good or a painting is beautiful. Yes, there are some universal factors (notes, tempo, harmonies for music – worship, discipleship, etc for churches), but on a deeper level – the level of art – we just know it when we see it. Especially in a smaller church, where pastoring truly is more art than science.

      Actually, as I’m typing this response, it occurs to me that this would be a great subject for a future post. I’m gonna work on that. I may have an extended answer for this soon. Maybe in a post next week. Thanks for the nudge.

  4. Karl, love the insights here. Glad that God put it on your heart to help us look at things from the other perspective. Will be spending some time here, reading, learning, and praying for the Lord to prick me with what’s next.

  5. The pastor of an unhealthy church should look for attainable short term goals. Reaching these little victories will go a long way toward moving the congregation forward.
    Terry Reed
    Small Church Tools

  6. Very good and pertinent thoughts. My experience has been that small or larger, churches need to find worth in all people. I pastored, and have seen small churches who think they want to be healthy and grow. Really they just want to stay open and add more people just like them. I believe, as pastor, we are called to help them see this and grow into health. It is vital to rely on the Holy Spirit and model that to the congregation. I have also seen miraculous situations that began when people learned to welcome and include God ‘s children as they are. It is all about relationships.

    1. Thank you, Susan. I agree completely that too many churches “just want to stay open and add more people just like them.” I’ve seen that attitude in unhealthy churches of all sizes, both large and small.

  7. I pastor an unhealthy church. I’ve been here 5.5 years. I knew it was unhealthy when I arrived. Learned it was much more serious than I’d realized or been told. They’ve been unhealthy for at least 16 years before I came. The movement from unhealthy to healthy takes time and energy and, yes, pain. Just like the rehab therapy after a broken leg or major surgery. Primary evidence of unhealthiness here was the inability to make major decisions and deal openly and honestly with the problems, including spiritual problems, that were promoting and nurturing their condition. I’ve had to do some pretty major surgery organizationally, pastorally, and spiritually. I do not think this unhealthy church is going to recover and thrive again. The least healthy people are insisting “we” can save it. The most healthy people no longer believe “we” can save it. This may be exactly the moment God has been waiting for! On the other hand, God may also be leading us to conclude our ministry.

    1. I feel for you. And I’ve been there. I’ve been privileged to help a unhealthy church get back to health, but I’ve also had to walk away from an unhealthy church that had little or no hope of getting healthy. I pray the Lord gives you and the church discernment about what to do.

      1. Thanks, Karl. May I add this: unless the pastor is rooted in the love of Christ and drenched in grace, an unhealthy church can make a healthy pastor unhealthy over time. A previous church had that affect on me over several years. A skilled counselor helped me see that I was not depressed and urged me to get out. To my colleagues, do not hesitate to seek help — ministry coach, mentor, counselor, colleague support group, continuing education.

        1. Very good point. I’ve seen bad churches ruin good pastors – and vise versa.

          Your thoughts on this have encouraged me to look at writing a post about how to know if it’s time to leave an unhealthy church. I’ll probably write it within a week or so. It’s a question that doesn’t get addressed as often as it should.

  8. Great piece. Great thought in discipleship. I hate to add a complaint but I wish you had used a different picture. My experience says having folks in wheelchairs in your church is not a sign of unhealth but rather a fantastic sign of inclusivity, outreach and care. I wonder what a picture of unhealth might be rather than the wheelchair. But again, I get the sentiment of the pic and really enjoyed to article.

    1. Thanks for your kind words about the post. I agree that a church which welcomes and serves people in wheelchairs is a sign of health. I imagined the church in the wheelchair, not individual members. That’s one reason I chose an empty wheelchair, not an occupied one. But, as you said, you understand that was the sentiment.

      To tell the truth, this post was one of my hardest ones to find a photo for. I wanted a photo of a person with a broken leg on crutches to play off of the broken leg metaphor. That would also have signified that the ill-health was a temporary state. But in the rush to post, I couldn’t find a good one. I guess if that’s the biggest problem the piece has, I’m doing alright.

      Welcome to the conversation. I’m glad you liked the post.

  9. Thanks so much for this. I am in denominational work now and did consulting for a long and see too many pastors who want the outcome (new ways of being together and doing ministry) without the process work of helping folks get there. I have been a pastor too, so know how hard it is. We learn in seminary to preach and teach but those are only a tiny portion of the way to help groups grow and change.

  10. There is an abundance of wisdom and caring thoughts in so many of the above posts, which I applaud because any church is dependent on positive input from both Pastors and Congregation alike.!
    For a different slant on injecting “good Health” into any church which is searching for more input,more ideas, more active involvement, here are my thoughts and observations,concluded with workable suggestions.!
    1. Actively encourage physical participation in Family Services by TEENAGE SCHOOL STUDENTS? (or even younger) by getting them to read the Lesson for the Day. This has the effect of getting them (and keeping them) involved in the activities of the church. It also has the effect of those students being encouraged to invite their friends and family members to be there, to witness,encourage and applaud they’re participation. AND I MEAN APPLAUD!! There should never be a preconception, that it is not appropriate for hand clapping in a House of God!
    1.1 Applause will give the Students the mindset of “Gee, that was nice” “I feel good about that” “I;d like to do that again” etc Instead of a sombre walk back to they’re seat thinking “Thank goodness that’s done”!
    1.2 Such activity is also likely to instill in the minds of other students who were present “Wow, that was cool.! I think I would like to do that too”? Hence, more participation.!
    1.3 This type of “Family” Input is also likely to narrow the gap between Senior Members of the Congregation and our soon to be, young adults.
    1.4 It will also be therefore common, for Senior members to seek out those young people after the Service who may feel inspired to comment “Very well read, young lady/man” Such encouragement will never go astray on those young ears.!
    1.5 If that becomes common process within the church program, it doesn’t take long for new faces to start appearing in the congregation which equates to “Growth from within” !
    Hope this may be useful.?
    Mike Graham

    1. Hi Mike. Thanks for this. I agree with having young people participate in the main services. We have teens involved in everything from greeting to ushering to playing and singing on the worship team and more. They know they’re not just the church of tomorrow, but of today.

  11. Pingback: In Sickness and in Health: Healthy and Unhealthy Churches | Paradoxical Thoughts

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