When a church or minister is in need of an intervention

Bill Wilson

Bill Wilson

“Intervention” is an award-winning reality show about addiction and the extraordinary lengths it can take to face one’s unhealthy compulsions. Each episode chronicles the efforts by family members and friends to bring health to someone who is destroying their life.

The extreme measures documented in the series often work. Most of the people portrayed since the program began in 2005 remain sober.

Intervention may also be necessary for congregations – and clergy – that determine they no longer want to continue down a path of dysfunction and destruction. Such a process may lead churches into the most painful and intense emotional journey they have ever experienced. It takes courage, deep spiritual resources and an undying belief in the power of prayer and divine presence.

We only intervene with someone or some group when we love them. You and I see destructive behavior every day in our culture – and in the lives of clergy and congregations. However, the only time we are moved to action is when someone or something that we love is threatened.

If you love your church, or your minister(s), then you may find yourself at the place of considering an intervention that is fueled by that love. God can use that love and the power of facing the truth to bring health and healing to God’s church and those he has called into ministry.

“Too often calls for help go out only after the conflict has become intractable and beyond resolution.”

How do you know when an intervention is called for? My experience as a pastor and my current work as a church health consultant lead me to several observations.

For clergy, the behaviors that spell trouble often mirror the signs that indicate dysfunctional behavior in general:

  • The person becomes increasingly isolated, abdicating leadership.
  • Behavior becomes disjointed and irrational.
  • Secrets become standard fare in dealing with the congregation.
  • Triangles are formed (talking about others rather than to others).
  • Signs of depression, addictive behavior or emotional extremes become apparent.
  • Work habits suffer, meetings and appointments are missed. There are long stretches of time when the individual disappears.

Likewise, there are times when a congregation’s behavior merits an intervention. An intervention may be called for when the following descriptions apply:

  • The congregation breaks into “camps” or divisions; factions of people take sides on all issues.
  • Talk is primarily about one another rather than among and to one another.
  • Speculation and assigning motives to others is rampant.
  • Triangles (two arrayed against a third group or person) abound.
  • There is widespread demonization of those in disagreement.
  • Biblical methods for dealing with conflict (Matthew 18 and elsewhere) are abandoned.
  • Secret meetings are held.
  • Signs of depression emerge, such as declining energy, decreasing financial support, declining attendance and spiritual lethargy.

What does an intervention for a clergy person or congregation look like?

First, there must be the cultivation of a spirit of brokenness and humility.

God is able to accomplish great miracles when God’s people acknowledge their sinfulness, abandon their rationalizations and justifications, stop their blaming of others and own their mistakes. For inspiration, read David’s story again and again.

Second, the congregation or congregation’s leaders must come to the point that they acknowledge there is an issue that needs to be dealt with.

Breaking through denial and blindness is often the most difficult issue you will face. Without an overt act or public failure, it is often hard to admit that things are off track and headed in an ominous direction. Too often, that sort of honesty is missing in a dysfunctional congregation.

Speak the truth in love, but persistently speak the truth.

Third, you need an interventionist.

Generally, this means someone from outside the congregation who is relatively objective and able to guide a process with a lower level of anxiety than those immersed in the system. A skilled interventionist with a track record of working in highly intense situations is a gift from God. He or she functions as a congregation’s Nathan as they speak the truth in love and guide you through the necessary steps toward healing and recovery.

Fourth, you need a process that is healthy.

Recovery from dysfunctional conflict or behavior is never quick or easy. You did not get into this situation overnight, and you will not emerge from it instantly. Beware of those who want to bring healing to your congregation or clergy in a weekend or a single worship service. Certainly, there will be breakthrough moments, but genuine recovery from dysfunctional behavior is best measured in months and years rather than days.

A church split, clergy firing or clergy flameout often impacts a congregation for a generation. Repeated often enough, dysfunctional behavior becomes imbedded in a congregation or clergy’s DNA. Changing those patterns takes time and great endurance.

Finally, the time to act is sooner rather than later.

Few things are more heartbreaking to a pastor than to have a married couple show up in the office asking for help for their broken marriage, only to find that the conflict is in its last stages and no amount of pastoral care will reverse the damage. So it is with congregations and clergy. Too often calls for help go out only after the conflict has become intractable and beyond resolution.

If you think your congregation or minister is in trouble, humbly but proactively raise the possibility of seeking professional care.

To become an agent of intervention is serious business with many consequences. Hopefully, it is above all an opportunity to see God’s healing hand at work.

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