What we believe about ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, directly determines much of what happens in our lives.

As the Mayo Clinic explains, “Self-esteem is your overall opinion of yourself – how you feel about your abilities and limitations. When you have healthy self-esteem, you feel good about yourself and see yourself as deserving the respect of others. When you have low self-esteem, you put little value on your opinions and ideas. You might constantly worry that you aren’t good enough.”

Sure, some experiences come to us regardless of our self-perceptions. On the other hand, much of what we experience has to do with what we believe ourselves capable of experiencing.

When I worked as a therapist, limiting self-perceptions were clear contributors to low self-esteem. These attitudes held clients back from trying new behaviors or receiving the good that came along.

Now, as I’m exposed to churches from various denominations through consulting, I’m seeing a very similar dynamic. Let’s call it “church-esteem.”

It’s hard to define, while it is also powerfully active in congregations. It has to do with their collective self-perception as a congregation.

Perhaps describing churches with varying levels will help. Churches with low collective church-esteem:

  • Don’t invite others to worship or participate in other ways with them, believing their church is a “less than” church.
  • Unconsciously turn newcomers away, subtly communicating they are ashamed of or embarrassed by their church.
  • Focus on their deficits – on who they are not and what they cannot do.
  • Regularly compare themselves to other congregations who appear to have more capacity to provide excellent programs.
  • Are nostalgic about when they used to be bigger with more programs, believing this means they are currently a poor excuse for a church.
  • Recite litanies of excuses about why they cannot do this or that.
  • Believe they are in their current poor state because of external forces around them, leaving them helpless when it comes to improvement.

By contrast, churches with healthy church-esteem:

  • Focus on God and God’s promises for providing what’s needed to be a faith community together.
  • Recognize their significance in God’s kingdom as an expression of the body of Christ.
  • Accept they are flawed, without being sucked into the pit of depression or catastrophizing.
  • Choose to focus on the gifts they are given, making the most of who they are.
  • Look to their history for positive DNA that forms their identity and gives heart in the present.
  • Regularly ask what God is doing, how the kingdom of God is breaking in and out around them.
  • Drop limiting language (“we can’t”), replacing it with possibility dialogue (“what if”).
  • Invite others to join them in the spiritual journey, believing they can partner together in faith.
  • Are focused on their calling, not the calling of the church down the street.
  • Consistently celebrate God’s good gifts among them, increasing their energy for life and mission.

I could go on with this second list describing healthy church-esteem. When it’s there, it’s palpable. When church-esteem is low, despair lurks around the corner.

What is clear to me is that congregations with mid- to high levels of church-esteem are those who are ready for congregational visioning.

They are poised to dream dreams and see visions for God’s calling. They are able to lift their eyes to the horizon and consider what’s next for them as a church.

Conversely, those congregations who pursue visioning with low levels of church-esteem can still identify a vision. But their vision will be flat, unappealing, uninspiring and bland.

We have to believe in ourselves as a church (because God does) before we believe God has a great work for us to do. So how’s your collective church-esteem?

There are some congregations who believe in themselves too much. Perhaps they were very “successful” at one time and still believe they are God’s gift to humankind (in an exaggerated unhealthy sense).

Perhaps they are doing very well now, growing arrogant. Given the vicissitudes of being church in our post-modern times, going too far in this direction is rare. More struggle with low church-esteem.

Perhaps the descriptions above would make for rich conversation in your next lay leadership team or staff meeting.

The discussion can easily move from assessing your church-esteem to considering what beliefs, practices or otherwise are holding you back.

Then a strategy for removing the obstacles, or at least changing your beliefs about them, can emerge.

Were we to believe what the Bible says about the body of Christ, we would walk around with silly grins on our faces all the time.

Congregations must learn to believe in themselves like God does, discovering healthy church-esteem.

Mark Tidsworth is president of Pinnacle Leadership Associates. A version of this article first appeared on Pinnacle’s blog and is used with permission. Tidsworth’s writings can also be found on his blog.

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