Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome – Part 1

by Ken Howard

Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome: An Introduction

Today’s post is part of a new multipart series.

Autoimmune Syndrome is one of the least-understood of human pathologies. The human immune system is the body’s active defense against infectious disease. When working properly, it responds to invading microorganisms, such as viruses or bacteria, by producing antibodies or sensitized lymphocytes (types of white blood cells) that attack the invaders and either kill them or expel them from the body. Under normal conditions, the body’s immune system cannot be triggered against the healthy cells of the body it protects. Autoimmune Syndrome occurs when the body mistakes perfectly healthy cells, tissues, or organs of the body for pathogenic threats, causing the body’s immune system to attack the perceived “invaders,” and kill them and/or expel them. It can lead to a wide variety of diseases include Crohn’s disease, juvenile diabetes, endometriosis, fibromyalgia, lupus, multiple sclerosis, narcolepsy, rheumatoid arthritis, and hundreds more.

Like its human equivalent, Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome (E.A.S.) is also a poorly understood pathology. It occurs when the body of the Church turns against its own.

When agents of healthy change come into an church organization suffering from Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome, they are perceived (correctly) as a threat to things as they are, which activates the organizational immune system, which in turn removes those threats from the organizational body. Just as in human Autoimmune Syndrome, a church organization suffering from Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome screens out of its leadership and its followership those of its members who would bring change that would help it become more healthy and strong, while screening into its leadership and followership those less likely to want – or perhaps even see – things that while they might make the organization more healthy in the long term, would require discomfort in the present.

Also like its human equivalent, Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome sets in slowly. It happens over generations, working its way through the organizational body until all of its systems are compromised. And like the proverbial frog in the pot who never realizes it’s being cooked and hops out because the water is being raised to boiling so slowly, church organizations that develop it seldom if ever realize what’s happening to them. The disease spreads so incrementally that it doesn’t feel like change at all, and by the time it has spread to every organizational system, the organization has been sick for so long that is begins to think of its condition as normal, simply because it has become the status quo. But while this status quo may seem like homeostasis, it is really an almost imperceptibly slow slide into death.

Unlike its human equivalent, Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome is infectious. It can spread across a denomination both horizontally (church to church or judicatory to judicatory) and vertically (congregation to judicatory, judicatory to denomination, denomination to judicatory, or judicatory to congregation).

But however long it takes and regardless of the vector of transmission, the result is always the same: a church that would rather die than change. And free will being what it is, this wish is often granted.

Sound serious? It is. Deadly serious.

Want to learn more?

Come back next week for examples of Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome at work in Ministry Discernment