A Shared Mission of Healing

The Center for Congregational Health

Jan 31, 2022 | Center for Congregational Health

Keeping churches healthy, pandemic and all


By Les Gura

The Center for Congregational Health had directly helped churches — pastors, lay leaders, congregations — find ways to remain vital for nearly 30 years. Then came the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet Rev. Chris Gambill, director of the center, says a funny thing happened over the past 18 months. Churches, he said, figured out largely on their own how to stay connected with their parishioners via streaming and other means. But the leadership issues and internecine conflicts the center specializes in have, if anything, increased, Gambill says.

“A lot of conflict went underground for the first 12 to 15 months of the pandemic,” he says. “But then, as the pandemic continued, what we observed was our calls ramped up from congregational conflict. A lot of those, quite honestly it seems to me, got politicized externally. So there were many ‘do we meet, do we not meet in person; do we wear masks or not wear masks’ kind of issues. The conversations that were happening in the secular public arena just got transcribed into church.

“On top of that were the added stressors of illness and death from COVID affecting congregations.”

A nationwide network

The center, through Gambill and center project manager Beth Kennett—as well as a network of consultants and coaches—offers nationwide churches expertise to work through issues they are having. Among its many services, the group provides one-on-one education and support to lay and ordained clergy. It also helps churches create strategic plans, learn to work through conflicts and prepare for finding new ministers.

During the pandemic, much of this has taken place via Zoom calls, which Gambill and Kennett acknowledge are challenging. Kennett says the opportunity in recent weeks to return to in-person meetings has been helpful.

“What I’m hearing right now is also some of what I feel,” Kennett says. “And that is, everybody’s sick and tired of this. Pastors especially seem to be in a higher state of burnout than I’ve seen in my career. They’re spent. They’re tired of working in technology as well as in faith formation. It almost sounds like a kind of depression.”

For such calls for help, the center preaches the idea of taking a break, Kennett says.

“We have encouraged everybody who has contact with us to take advantage of vacation. The next few months are going to be hard for clergy and congregations as they come to terms with people not sitting in pews, and even when they come back, more people may not come back. And what does that mean?”

They know a good playbook

Rev. Zach Dease, pastor of Macedonia Moravian Church in Advance, says the clergy coaching provided to him by Gambill means more to him than he can imagine, especially during the pandemic.

“Chris is someone to bounce ideas off of, someone I can talk with about people struggling with trauma. Chris and the center are sort of a safety net,” Dease says. “I know I can rely on him for whatever support I need.

Sometimes, for example, it was venting about the frustrations of church when people didn’t want to follow safety procedures. The next week it was dealing with my own personal sadness. “It’s just sort of knowing he is there, whatever I need.”

Rev. Darryl Aaron, pastor of Providence Baptist Church in Greensboro, says when he arrived at Providence in 2017, he was replacing a pastor who had been with the church for 49 years. The center and Gambill, he says, “sat with our team and began to carve out a plan for how to engage the entire congregation with developing a strategic program.”

Eventually, Aaron says, six initiatives were developed that help provide direction for him as a new minister at Providence Baptist. It was critically important to have a valued partner in the Center for Congregational Health, he says.

“They know a good playbook to follow. They understood a strategic plan must have elements to get quick victories. They recognize a theology needs to be in place going forward,” Aaron says. His church, he says, adopted a practice of inclusion to “love without limits and serve with  a purpose. That took place under the leadership of Chris guiding us. We would never have gotten there without the leadership of that organization.”

Sylvia Oberle, a member of Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem for 30 years, has worked in different capacities with the center. Currently, she is part of a committee seeking a minister of faith formation and education; the center is helping her in her role as chair of the search committee.

“Churches can get all wadded up in their own feelings and emotions, tangled in conflicting views that can be very damaging and get in the way of thoughtful personal relationships and community relationships,” Oberle says. “It’s good to have people at the center who are so thoughtful and have all this insight and outside information to bring to the table. It helps us to see things in a different way.”

Thriving in ministry

Gambill says the work of the center has been expanding in the past couple of years thanks to two key $1 million grants from the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based philanthropic organization. The first grant allowed the center to work together with the Wake Forest University School of Divinity to support and train clergy in a program called “Thriving in Ministry.”

Thriving is based on four building blocks: everyday happiness, authenticity, meaning and purpose in life and work, and resilience. The first cohort of 18 participants finished its work recently, and a new virtual cohort has 47 participants during what is an 18-month program overall. The second grant is allowing for a “Thriving in Congregations” program that will focus on lay leaders to help their congregations thrive and flourish.

Gambill says the new work, and its timing amid the pandemic, is challenging but fulfilling for the center. With most churches now streaming their services even as they reopen to live audiences, questions about the future abound. He says although churches are rightly worried about the cost of their physical buildings, retaining parishioners and raising the money needed to survive, the virtual church also has benefits such as keeping parishioners safe, reaching a wider audience and offering a challenge that’s always been difficult for churches—change.

“We’re not going to be the same country we’ve been,” Gambill says. “And the same goes for church. It’s all about change, and lots of people are going to resist because it feels too frightening, too overwhelming.

“But churches thrive and survive when they lean into change. It’s a great opportunity to ask the question: ‘What is God calling us to be and do?’”


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