The Congregation as Patient

By Greg Anderson (Ed.D.)

Many years ago, Dr. John Savage posed the following question during a seminar I was attending, “If your congregation were a patient and you were her primary physician, what is your diagnosis when evaluating her health?” I love the analogy and think it provides a framework for church leaders to examine various seasons of congregational wellness and trauma and explore treatment options when dealing with the latter for the sake of a healthier future.

The Congregation as Patient

Jesus masterfully utilized parables and metaphors throughout his teaching ministry. He observed, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like… a farmer sowing good seed, a woman making bread, a treasure a man discovers in a field, a pearl merchant on the lookout for good pearls, etc.” How wonderful that He who
spoke in parables and metaphors is historically referred to by many as, “The Great Physician.” A physician assesses symptoms and attempts courses of remedy that improve the health of patients. Simply put, physicians are facilitators of healing of which Christ Jesus is Chief. Jesus is not only a healer of people, he is also a healer of families, neighborhoods, organizations, and nations. Discipleship bonded in love is his primary treatment. Ironically, he gave life so that others might live. He loves all, but he especially loves his bride – the church (Ephesians 5:25). It stands to reason then, that of all organizations on earth – Christ Jesus wants his bride to be the healthiest. Were His bride sick, surely He is willing to make her well. When contemplating his bride as a patient, what approach might He use should she experience trauma, pain, or injury? What would he have attendants of his bride do as leaders of her body? In the words of the prophet Isaiah, “Come, let us reason together…” (Is. 1:18).

Some of the following steps happen simultaneously. So, while the order is important, principles of healing are more important than absolutes. For example, a surgeon would not walk away from the table simply because it is 5:00 p.m. The principle of healing far outweighs strict adherence to when a workday begins and ends. Please keep that in mind as you read on.

it provides a framework for church leaders to examine various seasons of congregational wellness and trauma and explore treatment options when dealing with the latter for the sake of a healthier future.
Triage

The word triage is of French origin, being used in battle to determine medical priority to increase the number of survivors. That meaning hopefully does not apply to your situation! A more appropriate definition for most contexts is the determination of priorities for action.

It is critical to remember that an entire healing regimen is not determined during triage. You will probably rarely hear much about specific, desired outcomes at this stage. This is a comprehensive exam time to see which systems, organs, and body parts need immediate attention. More urgent needs are prioritized. While a broken leg is traumatic, a heart issue is more likely to cause long-term issues or death. There are no window dressing questions during the triage stage. There are no chasing rabbits.

Get to the heart of the matter. Be brutally honest. Give the patient the best possible opportunity for survival and eventually, a vibrant and healthy life.

Processing Question for Church Leadership:  What symptoms does our “patient” present?

Diagnosis

Diagnosis begins as soon as the first contact is made with the patient. This means while a patient is in triage, he or she is also being diagnosed. It is critical to note – if leaders miss the diagnosis, the next phase could be even more detrimental to the healing journey. A challenge at this stage is to not rush through diagnosis. During this phase, the patient should be prayerfully, carefully, and thoroughly examined.

Processing Question for Church Leadership:  Now that we recognize symptoms, what are our immediate and top priorities for action?

Treatment

A treatment plan is devised based upon the diagnosis. Treatment could involve something as traumatic as major surgery on the one hand or lifestyle modifications on the other. The severity of the treatment is generally equal to the severity of the symptoms. Obviously, you would not amputate a hand to cure a common cold. However, that might well be necessary if the hand is gangrenous and poses a greater health risk to the rest of the body. Treatment also determines the types of physicians who provide care. Specializing physicians discern various types of diagnoses and treatments.

He loves all, but he especially loves his bride – the church (Ephesians 5:25). It stands to reason then, that of all organizations on earth – Christ Jesus wants his bride to be the healthiest. Were His bride sick, surely He is willing to make her well.

Processing Questions for Church Leadership:  Are the right physicians or specialists in our midst, or should we seek specialized help?

As we reflect on our diagnosis and the severity of the symptoms – what treatment is necessary to begin the healing process?

Who are the specialists that need to lead the final diagnosis and treatment?

Recovery

Recovery takes time. Recovery is generally proportionate to the severity of the trauma and treatment. A patient in an automobile accident may take months to recover. Someone who stubs his or her toe may not even remember it a day or two later. Additionally, various types of trauma involve various types of rehabilitation, and rehabilitation involves expertise. A podiatrist does not serve as a therapist for head trauma. There is also a burden on the patient to make healthy choices during recovery. Even though treatment was administered, the course of action is fresh, and the situation may remain tenuous. Attention to detail remains warranted before moving to the next stage.

Processing Questions for Church Leadership:  As we reflect on recovery (our treatment plan) – who needs to be helping whom?

Do we have the right people helping the right people?

What is our response if our patient makes unhealthy choices during recovery?

Healing

Healing also takes time. Broken tissue or bone needs time to properly repair. Medications must be monitored to ensure proper dosage. Care to not press too hard on an injury must be observed. This is a challenging time in some ways yet a wonderful time in others. However, the patient is probably not yet ready for cartwheels.

Processing Questions for Church Leadership:  As we contemplate healing – what are our desired outcomes?

How do we hold patients and practitioners accountable during the healing journey?

Sustained Health and Healthy Choices

As the healing journey begins and is sustained, healthy choices dramatically decrease the likelihood of re-injury while greatly increasing the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. That does not mean the patient will perpetually remain illness or injury free. In the case of most churches, discipleship, prayer, study, service, missions, etc., feed the fire of spiritual health which propels a long term and more viable vision.

Processing Questions for our Church Leadership:  As we contemplate sustained health and healthy choices – how do we measure success?

What caused our trauma? Have we adjusted to mitigate a future occurrence?

What sustainability practices will we put in place that helps with long term, God honoring, and spiritually healthy continuity?

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