Eight Essential Qualities for Healthy Churches

In the last post on our December book of the month I shared a list of 10 characteristics of Unitarian Universalism author Michael Durall identifies as limiting our growth.  These ten reminded me of another list but I couldn’t place it until now.

In the book Natural Church Development Christian A. Schwarz identifies “Eight Essential Qualities of Healthy Churches.”

  1. Empowering leadership
  2. Gift-oriented ministry
  3. Passionate spirituality
  4. Functional structures
  5. Inspiring worship service
  6. Holistic small groups
  7. Need-oriented evangelism
  8. Loving relationships

At first I was thinking it would be useful to take Durall’s 10 growth inhibiting characteristics of Unitarian Universalism and envision what the opposite might be.   Instead I offer this list “essential qualities” from the Natural Church Development.  To me this drives home the point that there are some perennial issues churches deal with.  We can Poo-Poo UUism all we want, but some of it is just the challenges of leading the church.

Next post I’ll share some thoughts on this list of eight qualities.

How does this list strike you?  Anything surprising?

3 thoughts on “Eight Essential Qualities for Healthy Churches

  1. I have heard before that many of the challenges we face are common to all churches. I agree with that. The issue for us, however, is how UU’s uniquely meet or fail to meet those challenges. I think Durall’s ten characteristics (previous post) may give some insight into our unique challenges in this regard.

    For example, let’s consider “empowering leadership.” UU’s are pretty good at setting ambitious goals – that is always easy. The role of leaders in our church (lay and ordained) is to “empower” their congregants to meet those goals. What does that mean?

    Leadership is not about making decisions. Anyone can make decisions. Some people can even make good ones. Good leaders, therefore, waste little time on deciding things. Instead, they spend most of their time articulating a vision for an organization, inspiring people in the organization to embrace it, and empowering people to find ways to achieve it.

    As one with some leadership experience both in and out of UU’ism, I think some of the essential characteristics of empowering leadership are:

    A. Building consensus on important issues so that people can go forward to achieve goals without fear of anger or conflict within the congregation. To build this consensus, leaders need to recognize that ours is a church and not just any old “non-profit”. As such people don’t always act with “reason and intellect” when it comes to important congregational issues. They act emotionally – because, “IT’S MY CHURCH”. These emotional needs must be compassionately understood, respected, and “co-opted” to achieving the congregation’s goals.

    B. Articulating a vision and leading from that basis. Some would say “No, the congregation should arrive at the vision on its own.” True to some extent but, in the best organizations, the group vision often springs from the leader’s foundational vision. This happened in my congregation. We were frozen in indecision about some important issues for a number of years. The leaders of the church one year collectively decided that in that year, the congregation would make a decision. They then developed a discernment process and saw it through with the congregation – leading to the needed decision. At the outset, many in the congregation were skeptical the discernment process would work but the leaders believed we could come to a decision and it was their vision and faith that made the decsion possible.

    B. Providing clear and useful guidance when needed. We say we respect all points of view and out of this respect we don’t want “to tell people what they should do.’ First of all, we do not respect all points of view on all things. I have heard people in my own congregation contemptuously dismiss the strongly-held beliefs of others (especially if they are outside the “liberal box”). Leaders should recognize that and also recognize that, sometimes, people want their leaders to lead or at least suggest in what direction people should go. Leaders of the most democratic organizations do this every day. In the process, conflict is sometimes created but, in the long run, such guidance helps people come to an informed and reasonable decision – because the guidance is offered by those who, at the outset at least, are more informed and experienced and whose views are generally respected.

    C. Supporting the minister. In the UU church, it is especially important TO SUPPORT THE MINISTER. Recently, I lay-led all of the services at my church during the month of July when our minister is off. I got some insight into HOW HARD HER JOB is – and I was just doing one small part of her job that month. The experience also reaffirmed that the minister is the key resource in any congregation seeking to grow and thrive. The minister inspires us, the minister guides us, the minister helps us avoid common conflicts and the minister helps us navigate the uncommon ones. The minister can only do this, however, if we trust her / him to bring that professional expertise to bear to help us. The role of all church lay leaders should, first and foremost, be to support the minister that the congreation has called. Those who arrogantly or naively dismiss a good minister’s gifts do so at their own peril.

    D. Supporting volunteers. Leaders who ask members to take on important tasks and then fail to support them by guiding them, offering insight from experience, and managing the conflict that may arise from the task at hand are simply bad leaders. Why should people take on challenging tasks if the end result is nothing accomplished except more dithering conversation and more conflict?

    E. Making church work fun. People don’t come to church to engage in stressful work or drudge work. People come to enrich their lives. Church work should be part of that enrichment. It can be if church leaders recognize that making it fun IS THEIR PRIMARY TASK. I think we often fail to make it fun because of too great a focus on the process and problems rather than vision and strategy. It is easy to fix that – leaders just need to shift focus.

    There’s lots more to this – these are just some ideas I’ve formed from being a leader – and I’ve been both kinds, good and bad.


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