Nearly 20 years ago, Rev. Scott Woolridge, associate regional minister for transformation in the Illinois/Wisconsin region, took his first workshop to help Disciples wanting to change how their congregations made decisions and handled conflicts.
Following the model developed by Healthy Congregations (an interfaith organization based at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio), Woolridge, and the 50 facilitators he’s trained since, apply family systems theory to church life.
This human behavior theory views groups as systems in which every member is emotionally connected to each other. This connection can support or hinder the system’s effectiveness, depending on the level of anxiety felt by the members.
For Woolridge, who worked as a psychology professor before answering a call to ministry, this model fits congregational life well. “In our society there’s a high level of anxiety functioning all around us. People come to church wanting something more, better, and different. Our job as church leaders is to minister to individuals coping with anxiety from outside our walls.”
The strategies this regional program presents help congregations in a variety of situations and can be particularly helpful when leaders are struggling with strategic planning. Discussing underlying anxieties and challenges helps the group “think more clearly about church life and feel more united as they move forward together,” Woolridge suggests.
Learning techniques for dealing with organizational “bullies,” de-escalating tense conversations, and helping others deal with long-held anxieties, are helpful in all kinds of personal and professional contexts but are critical in Church life.
For participants, conversations in Healthy Congregation workshops help to show similarities across experiences and provide tools and a vocabulary to help address those shared challenges. For ministers, Woolridge says, these tools “can make the difference between staying in ministry and leaving, because we provide a toolkit to see repeating patterns of challenging behavior and help reduce anxiety in the life of the church.”
After more than 100 experiences helping congregations work through visioning projects, Woolridge and other facilitators have supported congregations needing leadership development and conflict resolution. By stepping back to address underlying challenges and personal dynamics in the congregation’s system, leaders can find new ways to healthily cooperate.
“Our success or failure as ministers may hinge on how effectively we work in the existing family system of the congregation,” Woolridge argues. “It can seem like an impossible puzzle if you can’t see the bigger picture, but when we learn and apply these concepts, things can get clearer quickly.”
“For us in the regional church, it’s all about relationships and resources,” Woolridge says. “We care about the local church and its health and vitality. This program is our investment, not just in the congregation, but the individual leaders in the congregation. If the leaders are healthier, less anxious, and more effective, then we’ve been able to help. Even if people in the pews don’t know about this program, our work is directly applicable to the life of their congregation.”
To support the work of your regional ministry, you’re invited to give to the 2019 Christmas Special Day Offering, received in many congregations on Dec. 15 and 22.