Top Ten Ways to Encourage Immaturity In Your Congregation

“It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
-Colossians 1:28

A major vocation for Christ-followers is to become mature in Christ. One of the ways God helps us mature is to place us in communities of faith (churches) wherein we are shaped and formed, growing more mature. It’s funny though, how many clergy and church staff manage themselves as if the goal is creating immaturity in our congregations. When we look at congregations through a Family Systems Theory lens, we know that everything and everyone is connected. When we make a change one place, we are making a change in the entire congregational system. So, we are always shaping the culture and emotional system of our congregations. Inadvertently then, and with positive intent, we frequently find ourselves contributing to immaturity in the congregational system. In order to cultivate immaturity even more effectively, implement this top ten list of behaviors.

Giving away your days off & vacations
Clergy, along with others in the helping professions, are notorious for over-functioning. It feels so good to be needed! Giving into this seduction, being on all the time, teaches other disciples in the church that their role is less needed. In fact, they are less needed since they have called a super-person as pastor or staff person. This lowers responsibility and opportunity for everyone in the congregational system, sending the message, “you are off the hook,” when it comes to ministry. Besides, our theology teaches that God is omnipresent, and we are God’s representatives in our pastoral roles. By giving away our time off, we subtly teach that we are like God…omnipresent. Stating the obvious, we are not God. So when we over-function we are assuming position and influence which is beyond our pay grades. When we do, we cultivate dependent and immature disciples who believe there’s not much room for them in God’s movement.

Knowing the answers; providing them regularly
A great way to encourage immaturity in others is to do their thinking for them. Helicopter parents are experts at nurturing immature children. How did you grow more mature? By being spoon-fed all you need to know to address every situation in life? No, you grew because you were in an environment which encouraged your growth. Clergy and church staff who know all life’s answers, or even everything about what this church should do, rob other disciples of the opportunity to strengthen their faith. Faith comes by living faithfully, reflecting on our faith, and eventually internalizing faith. If you want to remain the center of attention, surrounded by disciples whose brains are on autopilot, then keep telling people everything they need to know. They will thank you for it…for a while.

Personalize what church members say
When we do this, we take the learning opportunities and transform them into something about us, rather than about others and their growth. When we make it about ourselves, then it relieves others from personal responsibility and growth opportunities. To encourage maturity, we reflect back to them the meaning of what they are saying or doing. The classic question rising out of this process is, “What does this say about how we are church with one another?” When we personalize what others say, we turn defensive, passive-aggressive, directly aggressive, or withdrawing. This behavior is self-focused, rather than raising up the spiritual and emotional dynamics of the church system which are always at play. Differentiated and centered clergy and church staff see every interaction as opportunity for disciple-development, leading to maturity.

Make “niceness” a bedrock value – over love or honesty
What a great recipe for immaturity. When niceness is a higher level guiding principle for our church than honesty and love, then we are sure to keep things light, shallow, and insubstantial. Of course, you would also want to avoid reading the gospels in your faith practices. Jesus, as described in the gospels, didn’t show much regard for niceness. Instead he loved people so much that he rather be honest than nice. Sincere seekers resonated with his authenticity and genuine love, responding with great interest, and even affection. Growth resulted, leading to maturity. Value niceness over honesty and love to sustain immaturity.

Look for secrets and then cherish them
Every faith community has history; the kind of history wherein embarrassing or even traumatic events occurred. These events are emotionally charged, needing an outlet. When congregations avoid, deny, or otherwise “stuff” them away, their energy will leak out somewhere. Daniel Goleman describes the outcome of emotional secrets well in his book Social Intelligence, “Like secondhand smoke, the leakage of emotions can make a bystander an innocent casualty of someone else’s toxic state.” Churches who maintain secrets, avoiding the light of Christ shining on their darkness, cultivate a context where toxicity leaks out somewhere in the system. Secreting behavior is driven by fear – the opposite of faith – which contributes to immaturity.

Cultivate a “guarding” mentality
This immature congregational practice is also driven by fear. Guarding what we have, protecting our turf, and otherwise clutching things tightly to our chests…these are people-shrinking-behaviors. Maturity involves opening up to God’s Spirit, to the present and the future. Immaturity involves shrinking back, withdrawing, and defending our own. When we are driven by faith, we have no need to guard our church.

Select a few people to over-function
I remember the pastoral size congregation with whom we consulted about ten years ago. Jill (name changed) was their patron saint. She did most everything in the church. When she died, much wailing and gnashing of teeth followed. Few knew how to do the basic functions of this church. Was Jill’s over-functioning her fault? Everyone in this congregation was complicit in the system. The others enjoyed being able to send responsibilities to Jill, while Jill enjoyed the attention and the privilege of criticizing the others for not serving. This was a perfectly reinforcing system…at least until Jill died. Soon thereafter that church was taking applications for a new Jill (unofficially). They wanted to return to a steady state of a selected one (or more) to over-function, creating an opportunity for the remainder to under-function in a perfectly complimentary way. The role of clergy in this church is to praise the exceptional sacrificial service of these over-functioning disciples.

Protect everyone from discomfort
Isn’t the goal of ministry to keep as many people happy as much of the time as possible? If not, they may leave and go elsewhere, taking their participation and offerings. This mistaken notion of ministry, along with the intense fear of losing those we have, drive clergy to say, “peace, peace,” when there is no peace. We mistakenly believe that keeping the peace is valuable ministry. Jesus Christ, as described in the gospels, did not seem to care about keeping his disciples happy. Never did he promise this, nor did he go out of his way to cultivate their happiness. He promised eternal life, discovered through grace and living one’s life according to his teachings. Sheltering congregations, the best that we can, from the vicissitudes of life cultivates shallow, immature disciples.

Try to keep pastorates short
This is an excellent strategy for cultivating immaturity. Just when the pastor and congregation have been together long enough for the shine to wear off, tension is released through a pastoral move. When pastors stay longer, the tension in the system which is about the congregation’s growing edges has to be addressed. When pastors leave sooner, then they conveniently become the scapegoat, carrying the blame for our issues and growth areas with them out into the wilderness. When this rotating-pastor-scenario becomes the norm, we consistently release the pressure valve every few years, maintaining our ability to avoid looking in the mirror. Our issues are really the pastor’s issues, so send her/him packing every few years and we remain happily immature.

Focus on individuals rather than the system
Have you heard the saying, “There’s one in every church?” Typically we usually mean the angry guy, or the complaining person, or the naysayer, or any other number of roles. It’s like congregations develop roles for people and then unconsciously recruit people to fill them. Each of these roles function to do something for the congregation which others find distasteful or unappealing. The angry guy carries the anger of the church, while the complainer is the designated hitter when it comes to expressing their disapproval. These roles take the pressure off others when it comes to dealing with their anger, displeasure, or unease in healthy ways. So, when clergy believe this behavior is about the individual doing the behavior, they accommodate the system which allows everyone else to shift their strong emotions to these designated people.
This is my top ten list for maintaining immaturity in congregations. Perhaps you can improve on it. Family Systems Theory helps us interpret the system, providing opportunities for growth. May we have the eyes to see and ears to hear.

Mark Tidsworth, President