Congregational-health expert terms churches 'in crisis' - Word&Way

Congregational-health expert terms churches ‘in crisis’

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. (ABP) — During his installation March 18 as president of the Center for Congregational Health, Bill Wilson said churches and ministers are "in crisis." That's a breath-sucking observation from the head of an organization that has dealt with struggling congregations for nearly two decades.

"We've got to help congregations figure out how to do church that works," Wilson said during an interview in his office in Winston-Salem, N.C. The center is a joint venture of Wake Forest University Baptist Hospital and the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.

Wilson said with many churches spinning their wheels in a culture that discounts them because they haven't stayed relevant, "vigilantism" among frustrated members is showing its head.

"Frustrated with the church's inertia, some members are taking matters into their own hands," Wilson said. "They've tried to effect change through the church's own pathways and can't get anywhere. So they say, 'If you won't listen to us, we'll have a palace coup.'"

Such feelings are more likely to boil over if a church has no personnel committee, no review process and no way to air a grievance.

Concerned members are labeled "disloyal" if they speak up, so they "have to take the law into their own hands," Wilson said. That, he warned, "almost always ends badly. It's never clean, never healthy."

The Center for Congregational Health started in 1992. David Odom, now in leadership development with Duke University Divinity School, was its first president. Wilson, 55, on the job since September 2009, is just its second.

Wilson said he is eager to "illustrate what a dynamic, diverse and energizing entity this is; how it does what a lot of other groups can't do, which is cross many, many boundaries and unify people around the idea of healthy church; healthy clergy."

Center staff offers six defined streams of ministry: coaching, consulting, intentional interim pastorates, leadership development, spiritual formation and emotional-intelligence training.

Consultants provide outside help for a congregation in strategic planning, helping members to consider options, clarify their mission and vision and to retool, revamp and rethink staffing and ministry models.

"We're not selling a book or program," Wilson said. "We're selling leadership.

"This is actually one of my favorite things to do," he said. "It's usually with people with low conflict and high dreams."

The center's staff often is involved in conflict resolution, and this may be the area for which the Center for Congregational Health is best known.

Staff helps congregations "which need an outside voice to guide them through the wilderness." Wilson said this is where the 911 call comes, to say, "We need help."

Wilson said he has seen a spike in recent months in both the number and depth of conflict.

"We are in epidemic status, Code Red, DEFCON 4, however you want to say it," Wilson said. "We are in pandemic mode in terms of conflict in local congregations."

"Church is reflecting the anxiety in the culture that has to do with political, economic and social turmoil," he said. "You can't turn those voices off when you walk into the sanctuary."

The economics of congregational giving has created "a huge amount of stress."

Clergy are taking pay cuts, having benefits reduced and travel limited "while their work load in this climate is escalating."

Wilson said pastors dealing with more people struggling with job loss they might have a chip on their own shoulder because of their stress. Their teacher wives are burdened with larger classes and less security and their church is struggling to pay even reduced bills. All the while there is the unspoken charge that if the church isn't doing better, it must be the pastor's fault.

The center has trained more than 2,000 men as intentional interim pastors to help congregations through difficult transitions.

Interims from the center have been accused of leading churches to disassociate from the Baptist State Convention in favor of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina — and vice versa — but Wilson said that is "absolutely not true." He said the center offers any church a list of men who have been trained as intentional interims, and the church chooses.

The interim is trained to guide the church to make its decisions "but not to influence them," Wilson said. Instead, the interim guides the church to clarify its identity and help the church go where it decides it wants to go.

"This is an amazing, one-of-a kind organization," Wilson said. "No other organization in the country has this particular constellation of services. There is a genius to it that North Carolina Baptists are responsible for and I hope they take great pride in it."

Wilson said he was not looking for a change from his pastorate in Georgia when the Center search committee called. First Baptist Dalton had just completed a $15 million building project. He had a great staff and the church loved him.

But the job description read as if someone had been reading his mail. It fit him precisely in the areas he likes best; "to help congregations get healthy, do their best, dream their dreams."

Norman Jameson is editor of the Biblical Recorder. This article is adapted from a feature story on the newspaper's Web site.