What happens when a congregation’s boundaries aren’t healthy? (And some ideas for a vaccine)
By Rev. Amy S. Zimbelman, Conference Minister
As I write this, I got my second Covid vaccination today, one step ahead of the general public as a credentialed faith leader. (Yay for connecting in person again FINALLY!)
Well before vaccinations, physicians knew that people who had an infection one time recovered more quickly if infected again—and these people were said to have “wise blood.” The Covid vaccine is, of course, giving me “wise blood” without the disease—it’s training my body to recognize Covid so that if the real thing comes, my cells will have the information they need to neutralize its threat it before it takes over.
As Peter Steinke writes in his book Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, congregational bodies are very similar to human bodies. Anxious and destructive forces are constantly a threat to our congregations. And just like in our individual bodies, the church community needs to be clear about what is self and what is not self. Is that new ministry idea in line with our mission and vision? Who should become a leader? Is that negative behavior something we want to tolerate? In other words, our church organism needs a healthy immune system. We need wise blood.
But what happens when a threat starts taking root in our congregation: a wave of gossip and hurtful criticism finds its way into the mouths of many congregants, or a church treasurer singlehandedly makes financial decisions to punish a pastor he doesn’t like, or a leader sexually harasses a congregant? (All real-world examples unfortunately.) How does a congregation function like a good immune system and say, “We love you—but no, that’s not who we are”?
In some denominations, the “immune response” would come primarily from external entities, like a vaccine. In the Methodist Church, for instance, if a pastor committed misconduct, the bishop and district superintendent would be responsible to deal with it.
But Mennonite polity (polity: form of government, a.k.a. how power works) is much more grassroots, in the anti-authority tradition of the Radical Reformation. Unlike Catholics, Methodists, or Episcopalians, Mennonite Conference Ministers and MC USA staff can influence congregations but hold minimal power of accountability. In Mountain States Mennonite Conference, conference-level leaders can grant or remove credentials but they cannot hire or fire anyone, or remove any leader (elder, church chair, treasurer, etc.) no matter how serious the offense—rape and murder included.
So who keeps the church healthy when general anxiety or a real threat take hold?
The answer comes from within the body: leaders in the congregation are tasked with this work.
Because of these power dynamics, I’ve seen that mature, courageous church leaders who are in tune with the congregation make all the difference in the health of Mennonite churches—both formal leaders like pastors and elders, and informal leaders like church matriarchs and patriarchs who may have no official title but are often extremely influential.
The upside of this form of polity is that no one is coming in from the outside and telling a congregation what to do. The tricky part about this polity is that no one is coming in from the outside and telling a congregation what to do. It gets particularly tricky if the destructive force is a well-loved, longtime pastor, or a core member who donates a substantial amount each year. We see from the MAP List how hard it can be for congregants to hold their own friends and even family members accountable. Do I listen to these accounts of sexual abuse from a woman I barely know, or do I trust my cousin’s story who’s pastored this church for years?
With all this in mind, here are some healthy lifestyle measures that might strengthen our churches’ immune systems:
What if we clarified and updated our policies? Executive Leadership of MC USA and MC Canada just announced this month that they will be re-vamping their documents to create a comprehensive and consistent approach to responding to pastoral and non-credentialed leader misconduct, resources for congregations in responding to misconduct, and guidance for safe sanctuary policy and prevention measures. I’m so grateful that MC USA recognizes this need for clarity and consistency and is acting on that need (even if the documents won’t be up for affirmation until 2023 and I wish it could be sooner!).
In the meantime, do we want to reevaluate Mountain States’ policies? Should our policies allow conference-level leadership to step in and make some tough decisions after a formal investigation verifies a church leader’s misconduct? (In nine of 16 MC USA conferences this could happen, but not in ours.) What else could we change structurally to better protect survivors of abuse or harassment in our congregations?
What if we strengthened our training and education of all congregational leaders (not just pastors)? We just purchased a new training for volunteers working with children that we’ll be offering to all churches in our conference, which is a great start. But what would our churches look like if every leader in a formal leadership position received training on topics like the specific responsibilities/best practices of their leadership role, and recognizing and responding to harassment, discrimination, and abuse, both sexual and non-sexual?
For instance, did you know that if your male pastor is repeatedly bullied about his sermon it’s a hurtful situation, but if your female pastor is repeatedly bullied about her race or her pregnancy it’s hurtful and illegal since she’s a federally-protected class of people, and it must be handled differently by her employer (the church leadership board) according to federal law? Local church leaders who understand these nuances are better able to help a church function with robust immunity and foster healing after hurtful events.
What if church leaders were more connected—with each other and with HR professionals? What do the finance people at Beth-El know that your church’s finance people could learn from and vice versa? What if everyone on a church leadership board had a Human Resources professional on speed dial so they could get the advice they need, since they are essentially functioning as the HR department in their church, usually without that professional background? What other connections might help?
As we see with the tragic stories shared by the MAP List, certain types of harm keep getting repeated in our churches, and no conference is immune. What if we rolled up our proverbial congregational sleeves, got a shot or two, and wisened up our blood?
What do you say?
Email me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org.