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The Nursing Home:
A Metaphor For The Church???

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 79

We’re all familiar with the Scriptural metaphors: the Bride of Christ, the Body of Christ, sheep, etc. Each of these have value in themselves and a very special breadth and depth of meaning and significance for those of us who are called to serve this Body.
 
I’d like to suggest another metaphor for the church. No, it's not borne out of Scripture. It's borne out of observation, speculation, and a bit of tongue-in-cheek "sad-but-true" sarcasm from, of all people, a social worker.
 
 
The Church As A WHAT!!!
 
Recently my wife came and shared with me how one of my her co-workers, an nursing   specialist for the State of Michigan and also a niece of a preacher, recently remarked to my wife, "You know, churches are like nursing homes."
 
"Like what???" my wife replied incredulously. "Like nursing homes." she continued. "They have high functioning people and low functioning people, people who need lots of care and others who, though they can function to varying degrees, need special kinds of support. They are often demanding, loud, messy, and many can’t even do the simplest of tasks without a fight with the caretakers.
 
 
"Consider the caregivers," she continued. "How much patience does it take to put up with the constant barrage of overwhelming neediness every second of every day they are working. They know most of these people will probably never get better--no matter how much they help them. The workers will always have to make their beds, clean their rooms, pick up spilled drinks, clean up their food, give them baths, and even change their diapers."
 
Is It Really So Far-Fetched?
 
At first I, too, was taken aback. To compare the church to an nursing home seemed, at best, crassly irreverent. At worst, it appeared downright blasphemous. But even in the most irreverent things, there can be a grain of insight and truth.
 
Certainly this analogy is not intended in any way to deride anyone associated with these very necessary institutions and homes which offer such wonderful, appropriate care for people with special needs.
 
I don’t believe that all churches are like nursing homes. But I do believe that some passive, anxious, and conflicted come dangerously close to mirroring the helpless dependencies found among some residents in nursing homes.
 
In many nursing  homes it is expected that the caregivers answer every single beckoning. If they don’t, the caregivers—no matter how diligent they have been to the residents—will receive a humiliating "guilt-bath" through member triangulation, indirect comments, putdowns, and petty complaining. It just seems that the more one cares and the more energy one expends, the greater pressure and expectations that others have of the caregiver.
 
 
Come On Now!
 
Certainly not all nursing homes are like that. And, I would add, many of us pastors know some very, very pleasant and God-fearing Christians in these facilities who are some of the most remarkable people of faith.
 
Yet, the degree the dependency cycle and the dynamics described above sometimes comes embarrassingly close to the types of dependencies seen day-to-day in some dysfunctional Christian congregations...or among individual members or in groups of members in healthy congregations.

What About Your Church?

Do you have a conflicted or anxious congregation? Do you sometimes feel more like an nursing  social worker than a seelsorger*?
 
Some of the questions you might ask yourself are…
  1. Do you sense the overwhelming level of unrealistic expectations that the leader place on you?
  2. Do you sense a great deal of apathy, bitterness, or unfocused malaise in the direction of the ministry?
  3. Do you find your efforts to motivate the flock to carry through on assignments habitually unproductive?
  4. Do you sense an overall lack of initiative in your congregation—even in those who are considered leaders?
  5. Do you find that the people seem to be unable to "catch" any vision other than that of having their own needs met by the pastor’s continuing self-sacrifice?
  6. Are you feeling burned out and exhausted from trying to pick up everything that others leave undone or unattended to?
  7. Is your spouse telling you that you are "over-functioning"? Are you still denying it?
  8. Do you really feel God is in control of the church or are you trying to intervene too much, too often, so that the church—and you—don’t have to feel the pain of ridicule, failure, and rejection?
  9. Are you feeling like you’re their "foster care worker"? If so, what things can you do to healthily deal with this situation?

Be Careful How You Care!

In speaking of how to extend empathy to others, a Buddhist proverb teaches,

"When you cry…cry only with one eye."

As "seelsorgers", i.e. those who care for souls and shepherd the flock of God, we certainly cannot nor should we shut off our genuine caring for God’s people. Each time we minister to others the ministry of Jesus Christ is incarnate in us. Our calling, as was our Lord's, was to heal the sick, bind up the brokenhearted, and proclaim the Day of Salvation to all people.
 
Bear One Another's Burden
 
On the other hand, we must recognize that healthy congregations become healthy as they come closer to the Biblical metaphors of the church. Congregations cannot be healthy if they don’t model Christian boundaries, Christian limits, and Christian responsibility to oneself—and others.
 
"Each one," as Paul said in Galatians 6:5 (NIV), "should carry his own load." We must bear one another's "burdens" ("boulder" is the meaning of the original) so that with our appropriate help, they can carry their own "burden" ("knapsack" in the original).

What Help Is Appropriate?

At least two criteria that may be helpful to keep pastors from over-functioning in their caring ministry to the hurts, needs, and tragedies which occur in the lives of those whom their ministry touches. The two criteria I suggest are

1) Who is it really benefiting most? and

2) Is your assistance given freely?

Is It Given Freely?

Jack Redfield in his best-selling Celestine Vision series indicated that there are four ways people manipulate and control others. He calls these ways of controlling interactions between people "control dramas."
 
These four control dramas are:
  1) "The Poor Me" by which individuals control others through pity, 
2) "The Aloof" by which people control others by threats of abandonment,quitting and/or leaving, 
3) "The Interrogator" who, by his "Why didn't you do that...!" questioning evokes guilt in others, and  
4) "The Intimidator" who just crashes into peoples lives and terrorizes them into submission.
 
Control Dramas
 
In their manifold interactions with parishioners, Pastors are seemingly in an endless deluge of "control drama" interactions.
 
If the pastor is a people pleaser, he may succumb to running to the "poor me" every time they cry "wolf." Or, if the pastor is scared of rejection and disapproval, he may unnecessarily cave in to the ploy of the "Aloof"'s trap. He also may respond to the Interrogator's call if he's motivated by guilt or, if motivated by terror, he might drop everything to settle the intimidator down before the intimidator gets totally out of control and spreads rampant chaos throughout the organization.
 
Of course, it's no secret that pastors may also use these control dramas on others. Too many times pastors may respond to the appropriate ministry needs of others by using the control dramas on them...with the expectation that the Pastor will not only minister and help them, but will take control of their lives and make everything OK for them.
 
 
Who's Benefiting The Most?
 
Taking care of others' lives is dangerous business...especially when pastors enjoy it. The strokes, the ego trips, and the feeling of being needed are all dangerous--albeit perhaps well-intended or unintentional--displays of a "caring" ministry.
 
One of the greatest problems is that the more the pastor does, the more people expect for the pastor and the more the pastor expects people to respond to his control dramas.
 
A second  is that the more pastors enjoy these strokes, the more deeply enmeshed in a control drama they become. Do pastors enjoy it? You bet they do! Considering all the positive the reinforcement and feelings of importance the pastor gets, when one asks the obvious question, "Who is benefiting most in this exchange?" the answer is,   "The pastor, at the expense of the people."
 
The Right Motivation
 
Paul, in II Corinthians 8, wrote that God loves a "hilarious" giver. This type of giver, as the Macedonians exemplified, did not give out of compulsion (i.e. being intimidated) or out of a feeling of "duty" (i.e. being interrogated). They did not give because they were trying to "woo" back an "aloof" manipulator with their money. Neither did they give because of some "poor me" quick-sell sob story by a slick evangelist.
 
What motivated their giving? Simply their joyous gratitude of being the Lord's. That which they gave was to the Lord. It had no promise or expectations of return or reciprocation. It was given freely, graciously, without any expectations of control or "strokes".
 
They gave out of the recognition of Jesus' teaching in Matthew 24, "whatsoever you have done to the least of these my brethren, you have done it unto me." When we're really doing things for the Lord, we have no expectation of return, honor, etc. A pure and simple reason for our ministries of caring, as St. Paul indicated in the last verse of I Corinthians 15, because we know our labor for the Lord is "not in vain." Indeed, we are called (as are all Christians) to love as Jesus loved us...without control, manipulation, merit, or expectations.
 
 
How To Avoid The "Dependency Syndrome"
 
How can you lead a healthier ministry for yourself, your congregation, and most importantly, for your Lord?
 
First, minister for the right reason. As far as humanly possible, minister without expectation of privilege or power. Freely it has been given you. Freely give.
 
Second, recognize others' control dramas. They are traps designed to manipulate you. Don't let the expectations that others' control dramas start to mess with your mind and your ministry.
 
Third, do as Jesus indicated in Luke 21:14 "Set your mind." Know who you are and be confident of it. In this way you will minister out of a confident strength based on your relationship with God, not others.
 
Finally, direct the church to understand that all are members of God’s household—not a foster care home. Even as God gave "some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers," (Ephesians 4:11 NIV), He gave these offices to His church to keep congregations from becoming dysfunctional, dependent and needy organizations...like some nursing homes.
 
 
The Best Way To Care
 
What's the best way to care for God's people? Genuinely, without expectation of reciprocation of any kind. Of course, if they wish to acknowledge your ministry, allow them to do it. But don't cajole, manipulate or extract it from them.
 
Perhaps an even more important way to care is to heed Paul's teaching that the reason God gave "pastors and teachers" and other offices in the church was "so that His people would learn to serve and his body would grow strong" (Ephesians 4:12 CEV). 
 
The result, of course, is that the body of Christ "may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13 NIV).

How beautiful the Body of Christ is when the people are not dysfunctionally dependent on the pastor, the pastor is not dysfunctionally dependent on the congregation, and the whole body ministers in the free-flow of God's grace! 

This healthy expression of the Body of Christ, as Paul acknowledged, "grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Ephesians 4:16 NIV). 

Perhaps the Contemporary English Version describes this healthy expression even better. "Christ holds it together and makes all of its parts work perfectly, as it grows and becomes strong because of love" (Eph. 4:16 CEV).

Food For Thought
  1. In what ways does Paul’s (really the Holy Spirit’s) blueprint for the church differ from an nursing  home?
  2. In what ways does Paul’s blueprint differ from your congregation's current practice?
  3. What changes in your ministry style and focus can begin the transformation from passive dependency  to a healthy, vigorous, joyful Body of Christ?
  4. What prices, for the kingdom of God, are you willing to pay to begin this transformation so that the people will have a clearer understanding of Law and Gospel, Word and Sacrament???
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:50 PM