“Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and the kingdom of the sick,” Susan Sontag notes. “Although we prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.”1 Potentially, congregations can be members of both kingdoms. Health is a process, not a thing or state. It is ongoing, dynamic, and ever changing. Health is a direction, not a destination, a once-and-for-all property.

Congregational leaders are the key stewards of the congregation as a unit in itself. They, by virtue of their positions in the system, can most promote congregational health. More important than any of the conditions congregations face is the capacity of their leaders to make clear and effective responses to the conditions. On what specific items or forces, then, will they need to focus in order to impact the health of their respective congregations? What generally influences congregational health? Seven health promoters do—purpose, appraisal and management of conflict, clarity, mood and tone, mature interaction, healing capacities, and a focus on resources.

Sense of Purpose

Healthy congregations are purposeful organizations. They have a clear direction. They keep asking, What is God calling us to be? What is the meaning of what we do? They have a working vision that conveys the message that together they can influence their future. Vision always requires revision. Health is a continuous process, and healthy congregations keep at the work of visioning and re-visioning. The vision needs to be realistic yet challenging. People will hesitate to follow leaders who avoid stressful conditions and will not take clear action. Leaders create conditions that make something new possible.

Appraise and Manage Conflict

Healthy congregations use their resources and strengths to manage conflict. They do not let conflict fester. They have the wisdom to face the tensions and stresses that befall all living systems. A “sense of coherence” is a major determinant of a group’s, as well as an individual’s, ability to move toward or to maintain health. Three interrelated parts compose a “sense of coherence”:

Meaningfulness: A congregation has an overall sense of purpose. The people are willing to take up a challenge. Because life matters, they involve themselves in what is done. They make a commitment because a situation is worthy of investment. They believe the outcome of their response is of value.

Manageability: A congregation has a sense of control, a sense of being able to influence events. The people believe they can, as far as possible, shape their destiny. They believe the resources are available to act effectively. They believe their response will lead to valued outcome.

Comprehensibility: A congregation judges reality soundly. Knowing there is little danger in viewing the world as a challenge, they must make sense of confusion and change. They use information as a stimulus for growth. They believe the valued outcome will be health promoting.

A high sense of coherence helps people to appraise tension more realistically and less anxiously. It allows people to make more resourceful responses to challenges and stressors.


One thing the physical body is quite clear about is what is self and what is not self. The entire immune system devotes itself to preserving the body’s integrity. Likewise, healthy congregations are always working on clarity, whether clarity of beliefs, direction, or responsibility.

Healthy congregations will work for concreteness and specificity. They are clear about what is and what is not beneficial to their well-being. Less healthy congregations will allow more fuzziness, indecisiveness, vagueness, and secrets or disguises.

Mood and Tone

Moods, attitudes, beliefs, and feelings can affect the body. Mind moves matter. Consciousness interacts with cells. Mood and tone affect organizations as well. Better functioning congregations are more energized. Their interactions are charged with spontaneity, intensity, and wholehearted involvement. Less healthy congregations appear “stuck,” less energized, permeated with a depressive mood, and pessimistic in outlook. Unlike the healthy congregation, a less healthy one exhibits fewer signs of hope, minimal chances to be playful, and little regard for the future.

Mature Interaction

Organizations function well when they attend to growth processes. In a systems approach, the growth process that receives major attention is the person’s capacity to be a self in a relationship system—to grow as a mature person. One of the great tasks of leaders is to foster such growth. Author Robert Greenleaf, known for the concept of “servant-leader,” observes, “The best test, and difficult to administer is, Do those served grow as persons? Do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”2 Healthy congregations are obviously invested in the growth of people. They are not devoted to how people failed or who is to blame. If invested in growth, healthy congregations will have leaders devoted to learning.

Healing Capacities

Healing is the body’s potential to repair and regenerate itself. The body can heal itself because it has a healing system. Congregations also have healing capacities. They possess strengths and resources. Healthy congregations are known for renewing and regenerating themselves. Like natural organisms, congregations live through a series of births and deaths, agonies and ecstasies, or ebbs and flows.

Healing and illness processes move from challenge to response back to challenge, from disturbance to regeneration to collapse and back to stability. What is natural, though, can be hampered by our own meddlesome yet opposite actions—rushing the healing process or retarding it. Healthy congregations will neither anxiously hurry nor slow down the healing process. Because it is a natural force, healing knows its own fitting time. Healthy congregations let their strengths and resources carry them through their woundedness.

A Focus on Resources

Healthy congregations focus on the healing resources, not the disease process. Congregations can promote greater health by focusing on past resources or by developing potential new ones. A focus on disease, pathology, and weakness only cripples its efforts. The focus on strength, options, and resources empowers.

Adapted from Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, copyright © 1996 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go toour permissions form.

1. Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor (New York: Vintage Books, 1977), 1.
2. Robert Greenleaf, Servant Leadership (New York: Paulist Press, 1977), 13.


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