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One news story after another has revealed lurking cases of abuse in faith communities that, from the outside, looked vibrant and whole. These stories can be disorienting. They leave us asking difficult questions. How can I know if a new church community is a safe place? When is it right to extend my trust to the leaders of a church? If I’m serving in leadership, how can I tell whether my own community is a good place for people to find their spiritual footing?
In the spirit of supplying a framework for discernment, I’d like to offer seven signs of an emotionally healthy church. But before we look at those, we have to ask: What is emotional health?
What Emotional Health Isn’t
When we think about a church community, we might be tempted to use a broad term like “health” to describe any number of good things. But emotional health is more specific. It’s sometimes helpful to define it in terms of what it is not:
- Emotional health is not doctrinal correctness.
- Emotional health is not numerical growth.
- Emotional health is not financial sustainability.
- Emotional health is not cultural influence.
These are easy distinctions to make, but they bear repeating. A growing, influential, financially sustainable church that teaches good doctrine is not necessarily emotionally healthy. None of these measures of vitality is bad in and of itself, but it’s easy to overlook other dynamics when we feel drawn to the “glow” of such successes. We need to exercise careful judgment about what the church is really like. What effect does it have on the lives of its members? What social culture does it develop? And does that effect and that culture promote emotional health, or not?
What Emotional Health Is
Although it’s a contemporary term, I believe we can use the phrase “emotional health” to describe realities that lie at the heart of spiritual life. To use a biblical phrase, the goal of life in Christ is that “we . . . might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4 NRSV). That “newness” comes from the power of Jesus’ resurrection, and it is meant to be pervasive. God intends the renewal of our whole person, including our emotional life. We find our health, wholeness, and personhood as we are drawn into deeper union with God through Christ.
The aspect of that renewal that we emphasize with the phrase “emotional health” is the change that comes about in our feelings and our relationship with our feelings. Notably, this does not mean that dark or difficult feelings always become positive and enjoyable because of Jesus. Instead, emotional health consists in being able to maturely and confidently navigate the whole range of feelings that God has made us capable of feeling. As disciples, we bring our feelings into the presence of Jesus, and they bear his influence over time.
An Emotional Ecosystem
Navigating the full range of our feelings is not a simple matter. In a church, like in an individual person, “emotional health” is not one thing that obviously is or isn’t there. Instead, it’s a shorthand that describes several interrelated realities, which might be there in varying degrees. It’s a composite with distinct parts. For example, some people and churches may be able to navigate joy well but have more difficulty with sorrow.
In that way, emotional health is like an ecosystem. When an ecosystem is thriving, there’s a diverse array of plants and animals, which depend on each other and sustain one another’s life. If you introduce just one change in the ecosystem, it may take time to see the effects for good or ill. But if you see multiple red flags, you know that there’s danger for the whole system. Conversely, if you see several different species doing well, it can be a sign that the whole system is working together in the right way.
In order to discern emotional health in a given community, it can be helpful to look at distinct “species.” To that end, here we offer seven possible indicators of emotional health. This list is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather to provide a meaningful sample of different ways that the church can get it right.
Artists and the Arts are Celebrated
The arts might be a counter-intuitive starting point for a discussion of emotional health. But the arts have a potent capacity to speak to our emotional core. Think about how moving certain songs or films or paintings have been in your life. The arts minister to us at the level of symbol and association, and they can speak where words fall short. Communities are more emotionally attuned when the arts are celebrated, and when artists have elbow room to do their work.
On the other hand, when artists are shoved to the corners of church life, it communicates that their work is of little value. Not only is this disheartening to the individual artists, it deprives the church of her imaginative and emotive faculties. When didactic ministries like preaching and Bible study are divorced from the arts, they feel lopsided—as though we were making disciples of brains rather than whole humans.
Art enlivens the church, concretizing her witness and teaching. It renders the word of life in multiple dimensions of experience: color and sound, space and time. Multiple media all have their place in the life of the church: visual arts, music, dance, architecture, writing, and more. Even so-called “secular” art can be used by God to renew our imaginations and feed our souls. Artists are cultivators of the sensitivity and openness needed to maintain emotional health throughout a community.
There’s Room for Dark Emotions
The language of joy can stir our spirits in a powerful way. Even outside of any specific faith context, people love singing about feeling great. Pharrell Williams’ bouncy, clappy, good-vibes hit “Happy” was the best-selling song in both the U.S. and U.K. the year after it came out. I clapped along that year, but one of the lines also stuck out to me: the suggestion that “happiness is the truth.” In some churches, it can feel like reversing that statement is assumed: The truth is happiness. If you believe the good news, you’ll be happy.
The disturbing corollary to that assumption is that if you’re sad (or angry, or depressed, or anxious) there’s something wrong with you. You’re not believing in the right way. A one-dimensional “happy-clappy” church culture is an unsafe place for anyone who is in the grip of darker emotions. It also encourages people to be dishonest with themselves and others about the ongoing presence of dark emotions as part of life with Christ.
The language of happiness, comfort, and delight that pervades many of our hymns and worship songs is entirely appropriate. But we also need songs of lament and quiet contemplation. We need conversations that make room for anger and distress without judgment. We need pastors who are honest about their own experiences of darkness.
Women are Included in Leadership
Although any discussion of differences (or, indeed, similarities) between men and women is contentious, I’d like to start in a zone perhaps off the beaten path for many students of Scripture: neuroscience. Although patterns are no excuse for stereotypes and every individual man and woman is different, patterns are still helpful to trace in the data. A summary of brain science research from Stanford Medicine notes that “Women . . . retain stronger, more vivid memories of emotional events than men do. They recall emotional memories more quickly, and the ones they recall are richer and more intense.” This distinction is relevant to the leadership culture of a church.
Communities where women are barred from meaningful leadership miss out on many things. Not only do they halve the field of gifted leaders to develop, but they have to function without the strengths and contributions that each individual woman could bring to her sphere of influence. In most communities, the leadership skills of any particular woman likely have more to do with her own personality, effort, and inclinations than with her being a woman. At the same time, it’s worth considering what goes missing in a leadership culture when there are no women in it.
As we’ve seen, neuroscience suggests that, in general, women’s emotional memory functions more vividly than men’s. If so, then an exclusively male leadership team may be prone to “emotional forgetfulness.” In contrast, a team that includes women will be better positioned to discern the emotional weight of what is happening—and what God is doing—in a church community. That clarity will bless men, women, and children.
Conflict Isn’t Spiritualized Away
In an earlier post, we looked at why Christians are so often bad at conflict. Although conflict can be difficult in any community, one temptation unique to religious communities is the lure of spiritualizing conflict. To spiritualize a conflict is to invoke spiritual terms in order to justify one’s own position. There are a limited range of circumstances in which this may be appropriate, such as giving testimony under persecution. However, adopting the stance of the righteous sufferer is often a convenient way to escape dealing honestly with one’s own emotions.
Dallas Willard writes, “Combined with a sense of righteousness, strong feeling becomes impervious to fact and reason . . . One’s feeling of righteousness does not mean he is right and actually should alert him to be very cautious and humble” (page 125). Emotionally healthy churches are marked by leaders’ and members’ willingness to question their own sense of rightness in moments of conflict.
Leaders Know How to Say and Hear ’No’
Writer Amy Simpson describes her experience volunteering at various churches: “By now, I’ve learned to draw reasonable boundaries based on my gifts and my limitations. . . . At the same time, I believe I faced more pressure from church staff members than I should have. Church leaders were more than happy to accept any volunteer effort I was willing to give. They never stopped asking for more.” Simpson is not alone in this regard.
Many leaders are what we might call “boundary illiterate.” They don’t know how to read their own need for boundaries, nor are they able to shepherd others into doing so. It’s understandable how people end up in positions of influence without this kind of self-knowledge: Those who are driven, committed to action, and well-intentioned often are able to produce results that meet real needs. That capacity to get the job done commends them to others and establishes a reputation that people bear in mind when thinking about who’s qualified to lead. All of this can happen without any personal experience forcing the up-and-coming leader to reevaluate their personal limits.
However, limits do exist: both for the leader and for those under their care. The boundary-illiterate leader will impose burdensome expectations on their followers instead of the “easy yoke” of Christ (Matthew 11:30). That posture can lead to burnout and graver spiritual problems. On the other hand, when a leader learns to read their own limits, they find the freedom to let go of the neurotic need to perform. Destructive habits of self-medication seem less attractive when one can rest and attend to the needs of body and mind in healthy ways. In an emotionally healthy church, people feel the freedom to say “no” to their leaders’ requests when saying “yes” to Jesus and his priorities requires it. The people of God are served even better when they learn to say “no” from their leaders’ example.
Ministry Serves the Whole Person
If the arts help our ministries serve the imagination, then it stands to reason we also need a way to serve the mind, the body, and even the social context of our people. In his ministry, Jesus primarily ministered through verbal teaching and through miracles of healing. Those healings were incredibly diverse. Jesus delivered from unclean spirits, from all kinds of bodily ailments, and even from death itself. These healings often restored not just the body, but also the mind, and in several cases allowed the healed person to return to a social context from which they had previously been excluded.
It is worth asking: What kind of needs are people allowed to have in your community? In what ways does your church minister to physical health needs? To financial needs? To emotional needs? To intellectual needs? When we inhabit Jesus’ care for us, it empowers us to care for each other in all of these dimensions. That’s not to say that organizations and services outside of the local church don’t have their place; local clinics and municipal food pantries serve the common good. But a genuine concern for whole human beings keeps churches from treating people as means to an end or cogs in a particular ministry project machine.
That’s not to say that churches or church leaders have to do everything. Pastors in particular need to embrace their limits and model healthy boundaries, even as they seek to take a holistic approach. Like primary care providers, local church leaders are sensitive to each aspect of life, but also may have good reason to make a referral to a specialist on occasion, directing people to resources provided by others.
You Feel Emotionally Safe Here
The final sign that a church is emotionally healthy is your own feelings about it. Our feelings are fallible, but we also shouldn’t underestimate the importance of intuition. If your gut is warning you that something is off, even if you can’t say what it is, pay attention.
On the other hand, if you feel a sense of connection and safety at church, that feeling itself is a good sign. It’s not enough by itself: Many communities where some people have felt safe at first have been scenes of grief and abuse later on. But, in conjunction with appropriate discernment along more “objective” lines, feeling safe can be a confirmation in your spirit that you’ve arrived somewhere good. No community is perfect, but by God’s grace, there are many communities where it’s possible to breathe easy, to find healing, and to grow.
- Ask: In what ways does my current faith community demonstrate emotional health? How is our ecosystem doing?
- Or, if, like so many right now, you find yourself in between faith communities, ask this: What would it take for me to extend my trust to a new community and its leaders?
- Pray: Let the Lord convict you on any point where you can grow in protecting the emotional health of your community. Pray for your church to be well.
- Act: Choose one of the “species” of emotional health. What’s something you can do in the next week to safeguard it or encourage it in your community?
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