In the 1840s, Oliver Wendell Holmes, father of the famous Supreme Court justice, was studying medicine in Paris. Mortality rates in European hospitals for women giving birth were at 10–35%. For a thousand years it had been believed that during childbirth toxic substances were released from deep within the mother’s body, causing fever and death. The unchallenged belief of the day was that these women died of “puerperal fever.”
Dr. Holmes theorized that the source of the infections was actually the hands of the physicians themselves. Doctors would come straight from working on cadavers to delivering babies without washing their hands or cleaning their instruments. They brought pathogens from the lab to the clinic. Dr. Holmes’ suggestion that the physicians were themselves causing illness was dismissed. Doctors would not consider the possibility that they were transmitting pathogens to their patients. Only with the work of Louis Pasteur, some twenty years later, would doctors accept their role in transmitting disease and change their procedures in caring for their patients.
This response comes from one who is both hopeful that the Vitality Pathway can assist the church I serve and concerned with the actual effects the program has on all of the churches in which it has been implemented. I was first introduced to the term “latrogenic” by Eugene Peterson. “Latrogenic” (“brought forth by the healer”) refers to a disease contracted in the process of being treated, especially by a doctor. While the ECC’s Vitality Pathway has resulted in renewal for many congregations, the experiences of others suggest it may also result in “latrogenic” complications.
The Vitality Pathway, like everything else devised by human beings, is flawed. Being flawed does not disqualify it from being useful. It does, however, mean we need to approach this program with both hope and care. My concern is that the possibility of “latrogenic” tendencies in the Vitality Pathway is not currently being considered, discussed, or addressed.
The Vitality Pathway begins with the Veritas Seminar and the admonition to “tell the truth.” While the Veritas Seminar intends to tell the truth about congregations, I have been unable to find materials that evaluate, or tell the truth about, the Vitality Pathway itself. Specifically, what is the range of experiences of all of the churches that have begun the Vitality Pathway? It is tempting to highlight those churches that have profited from this program. But what of those situations where the Vitality Pathway has failed to help churches produce the desired results?
In light of the Covenant’s promotion of this pathway as appropriate for all churches in the denomination, the Vitality Pathway has a responsibility to inform prospective churches of the full range of outcomes that have actually resulted from this program. It has the further responsibility of mitigating disruptive and divisive consequences that may result.
Therefore, I would urge the Evangelical Covenant Church to undertake and widely disseminate a comprehensive review of the effects the Vitality Pathway has had on all of the churches in which it has been implemented, including those churches that have dropped out of the program for any reason. If the Vitality Pathway is truly sound, it will withstand the scrutiny of a comprehensive review. We ought to apply the slogan “there is no vitality without reality” to the Vitality Pathway itself.
The majority of the women who gave birth in Paris hospitals in the 1840s would have praised the physicians who cared for them; the voices of the 10–35% who died in the hospital were not heard. This illustrates why it is crucial to go beyond highlighting those who thrive to consider those whose experiences range from problematic to damaging to fatal. The Vitality Pathway assumes that churches that do not benefit from, or are injured during, this program have difficulty solely because “toxic substances have been released from within.” This assumption needs to be interrogated.
Karl B. Larson serves as pastor of the Evangelical Covenant Church in Aurora, Nebraska.