Evangelization Leadership Making Church Matter

Healthy and Unhealthy Churches

July 24, 2015

This week we finished up our participation in Parish Catalyst, a four-part gathering of parishes all about parish excellence. Conceived and conducted by our good friends Bill Simon and Claire Henning, this first class of 12 parishes (they called us a cohort) was all about gathering dynamic parishes from various parts of North America, and providing an environment in which frustrations are shared, ideas inspired, and outcomes celebrated. We were so blessed to be a part of such a wonderful experience, which hopefully many other parishes will participate in the coming years.

Over the course of this week I have been giving much thought to why some parishes work and others do not. The parishes we were with are all successful, some remarkably so, though situated in very different parts of the country, and with varying degrees of resources and challenges. Meanwhile thousands of parishes, as well as Protestant churches everywhere, are failing.


The why question seems less obvious than the how question. When a parish is not working, it is not working in identifiable and clear (at least to those willing to acknowledge the truth) ways. Here are a few (there are others):

  1. Declining Attendance and Income

That’s an obvious one. If people aren’t coming that’s a problem. Another is regulars who start becoming less and less regular. Of course, money follows people, so declining attendance is a harbinger of less income.

  1. Lack of Joy

How joyless our parishes can become, how rote and lackluster our participation in worship seems, how automatic and effortless our programs and services can be. When this is characteristic of the culture of the parish, it’s more than ennui: it’s a serious symptom of bad health.

  1. Gossip and Complaint

Churches that are not healthy are inevitably hotbeds of gossip and complaint, beginning with the staff themselves. Gossip and complaint become the currency of trade and the conversation of choice, destroying any remnants of trust and making genuine teamwork impossible.

  1. More Meetings Than Ministry

An unhealthy parish probably (not always, but probably) has lots of meetings. And they accomplish nothing (c.f. Patrick Lencioni’s wonderful book Death by Meeting). Or worse, the meetings are characterized by unhealthy conflict, unspoken misalignment, and cynicism that divides and ultimately destroys.

  1. No Fruit

The ultimate test for any organization or effort is fruit; is it producing anything? Our churches should be having an impact on their communities and they should be making disciples. If that is actually not the case, then they are sick and probably dying. And they should die.


These are all signs of lack of health, but they’re not the reason for it. The reason parishes are unhealthy is lack of effective leadership. That is not meant to be an indictment of the sometimes genuinely loving and pastoral efforts of many pastors and parish ministers. It is not to say in many instances they are working hard and doing their best. It is only to say that in a period of seismic changes in organized religion, your best might not be enough.

But that need not be a death sentence. Whoever you are and whatever kind of parish you have, there are people in your pews and your community who can help you and coach you as a leader. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge your problem and by all means seek the help that is available.


For another take on this see “The Anatomy of a Sick Church”@ thomrainer.com

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