May 2011
Caring for Each Other

So You Think You Don’t Know One…

Perhaps this story sounds familiar…

Father K was called to his new ministry as rector of St M's. During his first few weeks, he bumped into a "wall" of secrecy about financial issues in the congregation and learned that the Search Committee had not been entirely open with him about past financial matters.

As he continued to minister with this congregation, he heard vague reports of other surprising and delicate historical issues regarding a previous rector. It seemed to him that this congregation held many secrets about their past. Finally, someone told him that this previous rector was mysteriously and suddenly assigned to a small mission congregation in a remote region of the diocese. As people began to open up to their new rector, he learned more about the previous rector's behavior patterns. People whispered about "a drinking problem." Fr. K was at a loss about what to do to help the congregation move forward, to break the culture of secrecy and begin to heal.

Addicted people worship and work within every congregation. Addiction is like divorce, joblessness, and parenthood: Not every congregant experiences these issues, but at any given moment, some portion of the congregation is entering into, moving through, or emerging from them. In every congregation will be found active addicts, recovering addicts, families/friends of addicts, and potential addicts. The wisdom of Family Systems Theory sheds important light on how a congregation is affected by all of the human experiences that happen to its members, including the experience of addiction.

Many congregations promote health and recovery for people affected by addiction or the addiction of a loved one. Clear vision, appropriately open communication, and participation in community-wide programs of prevention and recovery (for example, educational events, 12-step programs, support groups, early-intervention programs) are common in such congregations. Usually the bulletin boards, tract racks, prayers of intercession, and weekly calendars of these congregations reflect a firm compassion and hopeful tone about addiction and recovery.

Unfortunately, the opposite kind of congregational culture is also evident in communities of faith. Through shaming or denial or gossiping, the issue of addiction is pushed out of sight. Significant energy may be spent in keeping secrets, both about present and historical realities. Often, these congregations of denial/shame are carrying secrets about addiction in a prominent congregants’ family, a church employee, or a member of the clergy or clergy family. Sometimes, the fact of addiction may itself not historically be verifiable, but the impact of addiction is unmistakable.

As a family system, a congregation will carry within its core identity (its DNA, if you will) tenacious patterns of denial, abuse of power, secrecy, and dysfunctional communication. These patterns are comparable to those of the “codependent family” of an addict. Some of these patterns and symptoms are:

  • Indirect communication (“triangling”) as the “norm” 
  • Lack of transparency, secret-keeping (about many matters in congregational life) 
  • Isolation, including refusal to participate in community/denominational life 
  • The absence of clarity about roles and responsibilities in church governance 
  • Frequent scapegoating, gossiping, favoritism 
  • A culture of manipulation and power-struggling 
  • Tolerance for inappropriate behavior (for example: tantrums, dishonesty, snooping) 
  • Excessive care-taking and assuming of responsibility for others 
  • Idolization or demonization of clergy and/or leaders 
  • Denial of important congregational realities (e.g., attendance patterns, finances) rather than facing them 
  • Image-obsession, relating to buildings, reputation, or prominence of congregation 
  • In-group mentality, cliques, and barriers to integrating new people into leadership 
  • An atmosphere (often observed by visitors) of dread or gloom or negativity 
  • Disproportionate attention to internal matters as opposed to outreach and mission 
  • Patterns of ignoring or suppressing new ideas and new possibilities 
  • Projections and assumptions about other people’s motives, with no “check-it-out” patterns 
  • Lack of programming for spiritual nurture and Christian Formation for all ages 
  • Chronic tensions and conflicts which are not acknowledged and dealt with 
  • Unrealistic expectations or unfair critical attitudes towards clergy and other leaders 
  • Resistance to congregational ministry reviews, program evaluations, long-range planning 
  • Failure to hold one another accountable for responsibilities assumed

Sound like a church you know? To one degree or another, all congregations manifest some of these symptoms (as indeed, all congregations are influenced by the health or unhealth of its members), but codependent congregations manifest them more often and more intensely. We are speaking of a continuum on the “congregational wellness” spectrum. We believe that congregations are called, as the Body of Christ, to move into ever-greater health and joy, no matter the vantage point from which they begin. You don’t have to be sick to get better. We are people of resurrection. We can live in hope.

In times of congregational anxiety (transition in leadership, financial difficulties, building programs, tensions within the community, denominational controversy, exposures of financial malfeasance), patterns of codependent behavior that may have lain dormant can be re-kindled with surprising intensity. These moments of anxiety present fertile opportunities for congregations to reflect courageously on the quality of their life together. Indeed, these moments of anxiety are times when change is especially possible. When life is in flux, when things that were are no more, when current patterns cannot be sustained, new life is made possible.

What does this new life look like? Once again, drawing on the wisdom of addiction recovery, new life depends on:

  • Truth-telling (without scapegoating) 
  • Reaching out beyond the congregation: to community, denominational leadership, external resources 
  • Entering a time of self-examination, in the form of reviews, leadership development, planning, discernment 
  • Offering programs of spiritual nurture and a norm about full participation in them 
  • Owning/acknowledging the congregation’s REAL story, in all its complexity 
  • Building new processes for communication, conflict resolution, norm development, governance  
  • Clarifying and communicating about, roles/responsibilities and expectations of one another 
  • Evaluating current policies and practices, and adopting of new ones 
  • Adopting of methods of assuring accountability and mutual responsibility

Congregations CAN change and grow in health, joy, and fruitfulness. Just as addicts can become sober and clean, congregations can find health and wholeness in the bold determination to be ever more whole, as they accept the truth, turn to new practices and adopt new ways of living together.

Chilton Knudsen is the retired Bishop of the Diocese of Maine. She was Pastoral Care Officer in the Diocese of Chicago and worked with clergy and congregations in crisis. Her writing includes Pastoral Care for Congregations in the Aftermath of Sexual Misconduct and, with Nancy Van Dyke Platt, So You Think You Don’t Know One? Addiction and Recovery in Clergy and Congregations (Morehouse Publishing, 2010).

This article is part of the May 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Caring for Each Other