Church Enshrinement Syndrome

Published in the TCN Professional Journal - Fall 2022
Enshrine = To preserve or cherish as sacred. --Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary

Diagnosing Church Enshrinement Syndrome
Now it’s coming together. I’m finally recognizing what’s happening in churches after listening to some of their stories. It’s like a virus has infected their churches, constraining spiritual energy and missional progress. Some aspect of their collective lives as churches has become enshrined, freezing into place that which shall not be changed. The leadership of these churches recognize something is afoot, that something is holding them back, but they haven’t yet diagnosed what’s blocking their ministries. It may have come down with Church Enshrinement Syndrome. 

Typically, Church Enshrinement Syndrome (CES) afflicts churches who are on the downward side of their life cycle. We are forever in the debt of Martin F. Saarinen, along with the Alban Institute who published his work on The Life Cycle of a Congregation in 1986, for this developmental approach to understanding congregations. Like human beings, congregations typically move through “stages of life,” over time. Though four stages are growth oriented while the next four are oriented toward decline, there is the opportunity for renewal at every stage. Decline is not inevitable, unless congregations do not recognize their need for renewal, avoiding the spiritual work of renewal. 

Saarinen’s description of this Congregational Life Cycle1 describes the context in which CES is likely to strike. Those churches who crest the Life Cycle, trending toward maturity, aristocracy, and bureaucracy while also consciously or unconsciously avoiding the work of renewal, will often turn toward enshrinement activity to help themselves feel better about their situation. By enshrining something or someone, they maintain a connection to more hopeful times, living off the fumes left by experiences long past. When CES takes hold, treatment first requires recognizing the problem (diagnosis). The following four enshrining activities are typical symptoms of CES, though a church need only have one to warrant a diagnosis. Describing these symptoms should give us the eyes to see CES is present and active.

Enshrining the Ghosts of Pastors Past
Many churches associate that wonderful season of “success” in their history with the tenure of a particular pastor. They remember the magic in the air, when pastor and church were so synchronized and complementary, leading to growth in every metric. This in itself is not harmful, when churches are able to bring closure to that pastorate. Churches infected with CES, though, find ways to keep the ghost of that former pastor alive, haunting the ministries of each subsequent pastor. Constant comparisons and disappointment with the current situation often drive subsequent pastors to early departures. Who can live up to enshrined memories? Ultimately, this form of CES, though it is comforting in a dysfunctional way, constrains spiritual energy and missional progress.

Enshrining Rituals (Worship Style) and Structures
It’s funny, and not funny. As churches descend the downward side of the Life Cycle, they tend to latch onto anything that can increase security, a sense of stability. Their approach to worship is a ready place to look for this security.

Those of us who minister in many kinds of churches from various denominations recognize there are many approaches to worship. Sincere Christian people clearly can worship in many ways, experiencing the presence of God. But when CES infects a congregation they grow adamant, fundamentalist one might say, in their belief about what constitutes effective worship. Changing anything about order of service, or adjusting the bulletin in any way, or leaving out certain elements, could result in riotous behavior.

Church structure is akin to worship when CES is in play. Committees become power centers, influencing in outsized ways. Maintaining and observing the structure itself, the form of governance, becomes a keen focus of these churches. You may remember the old phrase, “when the tail wags the dog.” This is the classic case of the structure driving the church, rather than the mission driving the church. 

Enshrining Church Buildings and Property
This happens slowly over time, but once it is in place, all you-know-what breaks loose when the shrine is threatened. First, a Sunday school class settles into one room in the building, claiming it as their room. Second, that class is named, attaching a metal engraved name plate beside the door. Third, this named class places pictures on the walls which hold great sentimental value for them. Fourth, this class experiences losses, with some of its members dying while others move away, adding grief to the emotional mix. Fifth, this class drives a metaphorical stake in the ground, defying anyone to suggest it move or adjust in any way as church needs change. Thus, a room in one’s church building is firmly enshrined.

Of course, enshrining buildings and property is not limited to Sunday school classes. Choir rooms, sanctuaries, youth rooms, child development centers… church parlors, libraries, or history rooms… Wherever on church property this happens, CES constrains spiritual energy and missional progress.

Enshrining Long-Tenured Clergy and Staff Persons
Everybody knows you don’t criticize this person. This is the pastor or staff person who has served faithfully for years, doggedly showing up, putting in the work. Though often these persons are huge assets for churches, sometimes they remain beyond their effectiveness, regardless of their chronological age. (They can be young people.)  

Many times, personnel committees (whatever your denomination calls them), are unwilling to accurately evaluate enshrined living clergy or staff persons, fearing the blow back. When new pastors come into these situations with enshrined staff persons, they quickly learn where the power lies in this church. Though that staff person is ineffective, the enshrinement allows that person to remain, drifting along. These pastors must either risk their own tenure by confronting this enshrinement in various ways or accept this as a limiting factor on the mission and ministry of this church. 
Recognizing CES is the first step toward treatment, but simply recognizing its presence is not enough. Church leaders need to understand the dynamics driving CES.

Though certainly every church’s dynamics are unique, there is one powerful dynamic influencing every church right now: GRIEF. There is the general low-grade grief in every church system just below the surface due to the exceptional volatility in our world. Every church must deal with this grief in some way. But when it comes to CES, there are two more specific griefs contributing energy to this syndrome – personal and corporate grief. Personal grief is the accumulated and unprocessed grief of older persons who are experiencing significant losses, like the death of a spouse, declining physical health, and the loss of their friends. Unsurprisingly, these persons are sometimes driven to latch onto something in the church system to help them anchor while the grief-swirl is in full swing. Corporate grief refers to the sadness accompanying the loss of people who used to be part of one’s church, along with the loss of “the kind” of church one used to be. Personal and corporate grief, when unaddressed and unresolved, often give energy to the human tendency to seek stability during crisis, manifesting as CES. If you don’t think these dynamics are powerful, perhaps you haven’t been in church leadership long or often. Go there carefully, yet go there you must, in order to liberate your church for missional advancement.

Choose Missionally-Focused Driving Questions
Every church is asking and answering one big question, followed by a subset of smaller questions. In churches where CES has become part of the culture, the context was prepared for welcoming CES partly because of mission-drift, focusing on the wrong questions, allowing them to drive church purpose. 

Since people in churches are generally caring, they don’t want to upset or offend others who have a stake in their church. This is simply decent human caring. At the same time, left unexamined, this caring can go to extremes, becoming the driving force in the church, resulting in church leaders consistently asking, “How can we avoid upsetting or offending anyone, especially those who will speak up and make noise when they are upset?” Over time, a culture arises in these churches which is focused on avoiding upset.

One might think this is innocuous or insignificant, but it’s not. The problem is that the true mission of the church drops down the priority list.

When shift in focus is recognized, church leaders can rise to the occasion, choosing and promoting the right questions. “How can we be about God’s mission to transform us, our church, and our community?” 
Preserving shrines has little to do with the mission of God. Shifting the question toward mission opens the door to un-enshrining and un-freezing what’s been off limits due to CES.

Courageously Confront CES
Church leaders must courageously address CES. Sometimes it’s the pastor alone, but more often it’s the pastor who draws in lay leadership to activate the leadership of the church to respond.

With patience and care, there may come a time when CES requires direct confrontation. When skilled church leaders do it, confrontation often is not harsh – firm, but not harsh. It may be that pastors arrange meetings with certain persons in the church, along with the personnel chair directly addressing the issue. Groups of church leaders may each take part of the problem, addressing it individually. However it’s specifically approached, these church leaders are directly confronting CES. When the first two interventions are in place, they stand on a solid foundation to identify the inconsistency between enshrinement activity and missional movement.

Accept the Loss of Those Who Prefer Shrines Over Mission
Fortunately, when church leaders carefully intervene, those who have been infected with CES are most often to move toward healing and recovery. They enter rehabilitation, so to speak, laying aside enshrining activity.
On the other hand, there are those who prefer shrines over the mission of the church. Rather than share the building as a ministry asset, they prefer to protect its pristine qualities, preserving its use just for us. Rather than help that staff person move toward retirement or find another place to serve, they bow at this person’s feet, neglecting the call to join God’s transformational mission. Rather than break up with the pastor long gone, they hold onto that relationship, avoiding this current reality with its challenges. 

Those determined to resist healing and growth are likely to leave your church when you implement interventions 1-3. Church leaders need to recognize this, accepting the possibility of member-loss when they don’t allow CES to drive their churches.

Just for the record, these kinds of losses, though not preferred, are acceptable. This is the right reason for people to leave a church…because it’s pursuing God’s mission. Accept these losses and move on in faith, hope, and love, becoming greater expressions of the body of Christ as we go, faithfully engaging with the God who is constantly creating new life. 

1 Congregational life cycle assessment is based on the work of Martin F. Saarinen, Alice Mann and Gil Rendle who have all published material through the Alban Institute