Saturday, April 16, 2016

Curing Congregational Learned Helplessness

Story told with permission. As always.

Are you in a church that seems to believe it is helpless, unable to contribute to God’s transformational work in the world, or even put on a potluck supper? Perhaps your congregation is suffering from Learned Helplessness. It’s hard work, but you can cure them of this ailment if you understand what it is and what you can do about it. 

From Wikipedia: 

….The organism seems to have learned that it is helpless in aversive situations, that it has lost control, and so it gives up trying. Such an organism is said to have acquired learned helplessness. …… The US sociologist Harrison White has suggested in his book Identity and Control that the notion of learned helplessness can be extended beyond psychology into the realm of social action. When a culture or political identity fails to achieve desired goals, perceptions of collective ability suffer. 

Generally speaking, learned helplessness occurs when a person or group comes to feel that they cannot achieve a goal or complete a task. I use the term loosely, so please don’t see this as my attempt to cross into psychology. It is simply a good term to use to describe what occurs when a congregation is taught that they are incapable. 

By ‘taught’, I do not mean intentionally instructed, but it is usually a more subliminal message that comes from an over-functioning pastor or small group of leaders. When the pastor over-functions, the congregation come to feel that they are ill-equipped to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, so they give up. When the leadership over-functions, the remainder of the congregation feels ill-equipped to participate meaningfully in the life of the church, so they give up. Eventually these leaders burn out or the pastor moves on, and the congregation is left to its helpless self. 

A client came to me despondent. He had been full of energy and ideas, but his new congregation would just sit and stare at him like he had three heads. Their first response to any idea, even a rather simple congregational event, was self-doubt and excuses. If one person would get excited, the rest would turn on them with a barrage of questions and reasons why it was not possible. They lacked confidence as a group.  What had happened? 

We strategized some conversations for him to have with his leadership, past and present. After a few weeks, we were able to discern that the pastor who served two appointments prior to him had severely over-functioned. He controlled everything. Everything. The congregation was pushed out of planning or managing anything. If they did participate, they were often chastised for not doing it exactly as the pastor had envisioned. Eventually they just gave up.  New people quickly learned this was a church where they attended, not participated.

The next pastor came in but only lasted two years. She didn’t understand the apathy and blamed herself for being unable to motivate the congregation. The experience harmed her spiritual self-worth and faith in her calling and she left for a new appointment as an association, unsure of her leadership abilities. 

My client needed to rebuild the confidence of leadership to accomplish tasks and make decisions. It was a slow process, but with intentionality, it worked. If you find yourself in a similar situation, or have some other congregational issue you can’t quite seem to put your finger on, consider a few sessions with Whole Soul Consulting to see if we can help you identify and solve the problem that is keeping your congregation from living up to who God has intended them to be. Visit us at for more information. 

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