Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome – Part 7

This is the final post of a multipart series on Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome.
Click here for last week’s post.

Recovering from Ecclesiastical Autoimmunity Syndrome

By Ken Howard

For the last several weeks we have reviewed the causes and symptoms of Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome. Now we turn toward how to treat it. What follows are a collection of ideas about attitudes and practices that might help stop the downward spiral of E.A.S. and start the upward journey toward congregational and organizational health and vitality.

  1. Admit That We Have the Disease. Think of it as joining Autoimmunes Anonymous and beginning something like a 12-Step process of recovery (step one: admitting A.E.S. has taken control of your corporate life). Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome is not only an allergy to change, but also an addiction “to the way things are.” But it is worse than most other addictions, because we are born with it. Our addiction to homeostasis is part of our (sinful) human nature. Like any other addiction, the first step is admitting we have the disease. It’s also perhaps the hardest step, because since we have never not been infected, we don’t really know what “healthy” is, often mistaking the behavioral symptoms of E.A.S. as an heroic defense of “tradition.” Faith-based communities and organizations often have to get very close to death before the reality of the disease breaks through our denial, and sometimes not even then. So start by recognizing that your congregation or organization has E.A.S. and realize that you will always be in recovery.
  2. Vision-Guided Experimentation. V.G.E. is a practice we discussed in a post earlier this year. But in a nutshell, it involves getting behind the WHATs and HOWs our traditions to the WHYs they are designed to protect.  The goal is to discern your congregation’s or organization’s “WHY of WHYs” – the transcendent VISION that is its ultimate purpose and reason for existence. Because once you know that you can start experimenting like crazy without losing your way until you find a way of being that works.
  3. Resist Hierarchy – Get Horizontal. The 3-Fold Orders of Ministry were not always a vertical hierarchy (or even 3-Fold). They were actually 4-Fold, including the order of laity, and non-hierarchical, each with its own field of responsibility and none better than or above any other, and all accountable to each other. Returning to that model of mutual accountability would be helpful in fighting E.A.S.
  4. Support Subversive Vocations – Vocational Deacons and Bi-Vocational Clergy Rule. If we’re intent on preventing and treating E.A.S., these particular modes of ministry are helpful to have around. Because they both have one foot in the congregation and one in the community, they are able to bring in outside voices that can challenge us and keep us honest and responsive.
  5. Not So Fast – Consensus Voting Cultivates Fresh Voices. When your leadership body is deciding important issues, don’t “call the question” too quickly. Instead, specifically encourage those present to bring to the table differing points of view and then LISTEN to them. If you do, surprising things happen. Delaying decision and looking for value in those voices may bring the minority around to the majority point of view. But it’s also possible that the majority may discover a shared blindspot and wind up agreeing with the minority. Even more exciting, the respectful dialogue this approach engenders may bring to light a broader approach that neither majority or minority had foreseen.
  6. Thinking Outside the (Ballot) Box – The Matthias Method for Selecting Leadership. Similarly to the principle behind consensus voting, another way to cultivate fresh voices that might expose our blind spots is to employ the very biblical approach to leadership selection the apostle employed in the book of Acts that resulted in the selection of St. Matthias. That’s right: drawing straws (casting lots). One congregation I know has done it for more than 40 years. Each year at their annual meeting, when it’s time to replace leaders that are rotating off, every voting member’s name goes onto a slip of paper and into a basket, and one of the (non-voting) youth of the congregation simply picks the needed number of leaders. The result has consistently been bringing into leadership those who might otherwise consider themselves “unworthy” and with them a wealth of new ideas.
  7. Stamp Out Operational Endowments. Endowments often are the worst thing that can happen to the vitality of a congregation or diocese, killing stewardship, along with the need to grapple with their changing contexts and innovate in response. Even using it only for outreach diminishes the felt need of the congregation to care for the community. The only way to accept an endowment and avoid this devitalization is to isolate it entirely from operating expenses, using it only for congregational – or better yet, community – infrastructure projects.
  8. Re-Thinking Clerical Discernment, Vocational Training, and Continuing Education. Denominational authorities need to begin a bottom-to-top (not top to bottom) review of how clergy are selected, trained, deployed, and engaged in continuing education. This would include finding a new paradigm for discerning for ordination that moves beyond screening out troublemakers to screening in truth-tellers and innovators. Seminaries would need undertake a similar redesign: abandoning multi-year residential education in favor of shorter and more flexible vocational training, bringing their curriculums and educational approaches into the 21st century, and de-DMin-izing the clergy by refocusing advanced degree programs away from the obscure and the arcane toward contributing to innovation in ministry.

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Do you have an innovative idea for preventing Ecclesiastical Autoimmune Syndrome? Send it to Who knows, we might just feature you as a guest author on the Faith eXperimental blog!