The Rev. W. Joseph Mann: Is Your “Health” Cup Half Empty or Half Full?

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I recently attend a remarkable summit on health and spirituality hosted in Raleigh by the North Carolina Council of Churches...

I recently attend a remarkable summit on health and spirituality hosted in Raleigh by the North Carolina Council of Churches. Some 200 people from various communities and communions in North Carolina gathered to talk about how churches can contribute to health. The keynote address was given by Gary Gunderson from Methodist LeBonheur Healthcare in Memphis. Gary has worked for years in the general area of public health and its intersection with faith, and is renowned for his achievements. He addressed the group on the themes of his book, Leading Causes of Life: Five Fundamentals to Change the Way You Live Your Life (Abington Press, 2009), co-written with The Rev. Larry Pray.

Flickr/bergiusIn the book and in his address, Gary argues that too much attention has been paid to the leading causes of death. We know those causes, and we tend to focus our energy on these deficits. In doing so, we forfeit the strength of our assets. So Gary delineates Christian assets to counter the deficits – what he calls the five causes of life: connection, coherence, agency, blessing, hope.

  • By connection he means the ways people in churches live into community—“a thick weave of relationships.”
  • Coherence means meaning and purpose in life—a world of meaning. The church offers such coherence as it tells and lives the Gospel of Jesus Christ and narrates his life, death, and resurrection.
  • Agency has to do with the “human capacity to do.” Agency exists when an individual feels some empowerment and ability to affect the world.
  • Blessing is a little more difficult term to explain, but it means “generativity”, our understanding that all Christians have been placed in families that can span generations and eons. So we praise famous men and women and pray for the future eschatological connection of all who live today and will live tomorrow.
  • Finally, Christians live in hope, a hope that sustains us and enables us to continue the networking of relationships in and through the church.

Gary’s work relates closely to John McKnight’s thoughts on asset-based community development. McKnight, like Gunderson, criticizes the way that social reformers tend to move into a community and determine that a community lacks things: schools are failing; there are too many drug addicts; too many teenage girls are having babies out of wedlock; crime is rampant. Instead, McKnight writes that the glass is not half empty but half full. His research looks at a community not in terms of its deficits but of its assets, and maps them: the presence of Scout troops, underground organizations, churches, nonprofits, and key individuals who are making positive contributions. Creating solutions that expand on a community’s assets – on its strengths – is a far superior thing than complaining about its deficits.

We who are invested in clergy health could see the glass as half empty. We all know the spiraling costs for health care and the burdens these costs place on individual pastors and on churches. We are all becoming familiar with our clergy health deficits, and how as a group, we pastors are not as well in many ways as the rest of the population in North Carolina. But it is not a Pollyannaish thought to also say we have great assets. We have connection, coherence, agency, blessing, and hope – these are basic parts of the church’s life. The glass is half full when we reclaim Wesleyan community and accountability. We have assets of hope when we remember our call first to be disciples of Jesus Christ and then to ordained ministry, trusting in the One who makes all things whole.

So perhaps the real challenge lies in recognizing there are two glasses. There are parts of our communal and individual lives that have fallen short of the glory of God. Because of this, confession and renewal remain part of our Christian vocabulary. But we do not live in fear, for through Christ, we are more than conquerors. Ultimately the glass is full, even over-flowing.

The Rev. W. Joseph Mann
Executive Director
Leadership Education at Duke Divinity


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