Opinion: A Call for Comprehensive Assessment of the Vitality Pathway

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.

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Karl Larson

7 Comments

  1. Karl,

    Thank you for this push for us to do some inward examination in this area. Were you writing this simply as a “warning” of sorts, or did you have specific latrogenic tendencies in mind? I’m asking because I would love to hear some examples, if you have them and are able to share. Please know that I’m not asking to be antagonistic or to push back. Hearing examples often helps me better process information.

    Thanks again!

    • Nilwona,

      Thank you for your response. Below are two of the more problematic latrogenic tendencies that I have observed with the the Vitality Pathway.

      First, is the issue of anxiety. The Vitality Pathway begins with the Veritas Seminar. In practice this seminar highlights congregational weakness, not strength. The result is an immediate and dramatic heightening of anxiety. Anxiety is different from concern. Anxious congregations (like anxious people) tend to respond out of fear. Anxiety can motivate a congregation to change; however, it does so at great cost. Anxiety dramatically colors perceptions, creates divisions, and works against balanced conversation.

      Second, in practice the Vitality Pathway fails to honor the current leadership of the church. By “current leadership” I mean lay (not pastoral) leadership. Current leaders easily become discouraged. The very people who have worked so faithfully on behalf of the church (admittedly imperfectly) are told, at least indirectly, that they have failed and that they must therefore give way to new leadership in the name of “change.” The Vitality Pathway fails to recognize how critical current leaders are for moving the church forward. Current leaders are tempted to remove themselves from both leadership positions and also, at times, from the church itself.

      These are two of the more troubling latrogenic tendencies I have observed with the Vitality Pathway. The Vitality Pathway seems to assume that when issues such as these “surface” it is because they have been lying dormant in the congregation all along. I contend that these issues are largely “brought to” the congregation by the Vitality Pathway itself.

      I continue to believe the ECC ought to engage in a comprehensive review of the Vitality Pathway, taking into account all of the churches who have participated, to determine if my perceptions of the Pathway are in fact valid, or if they are false.

      • Thanks for providing that, Kurt, it’s very helpful! I don’t know a great deal about the Vitality Pathway, but I do believe that it’s always good practice to evaluate a program regularly – to ensure that it’s functioning the way it’s supposed to.

  2. I agree that evaluation is a good and healthy thing Karl. One clarification from my research on Veritas. You stated that: “While the Veritas Seminar intends to tell the truth about congregations”, this is not the goal or the outcome of the Veritas seminar. My research shows that the Veritas seminar gives space and common language that enables congregations to begin the difficult conversations that are needed, in order for them to move towards vitality. The Veritas seminar does suggest categories of vitality, but it is up to each congregation to discern where they find themselves in the matrix.

    • Corey,

      Thank you for your reply.

      If I understand your response correctly you are suggesting that the congregation itself, rather than the Veritas Seminar, is the one telling the truth. One might say that under the supervision of the Veritas Seminar the congregation tells the truth about itself.

      I contend that the supervision, or the framework, provided by the Veritas Seminar largely determines the type and range of the truth that is told. The perspective one has and the questions one asks go a long way toward determining the responses that result. My doctor can give me many pages of results from medical tests that speak of my health. It may all be true. However, that medical report does not tell the entire truth (maybe not even the most important truth) about my overall health. There are aspects of health and life that go above and beyond the issues about which a doctor would be concerned.

      Does the Veritas Seminar result in truth-telling? Or, does it result in a stunted, or slanted, version of the truth due to the particular perspective it advocates and the particular categories by which it functions?

      I would continue to urge the ECC to subject the Vitality Pathway, as a whole, to the same kind of evaluation that the Vitality Pathway calls upon churches to undertake. It is troubling that so little information is available concerning the actual results of the Vitality Pathway on all of the churches that have begun the program. If the slogan “There is no vitality without reality” is valid, then it certainly ought to apply to the Vitality Pathway itself.

  3. Thanks Karl. I agree that an assessment of the pathway would be helpful. I would also agree that the supervision or implementation of the Veritas seminar matters (I actually believe that my research showed that this is true.) I’m not sure I agree that the seminar or the facilitators are slanted towards a particular view or understanding. Could you say more about the seminar or your experience with it that gives you that impression?

    • Corey, Thank you for your response. My answer to the question, “Is the Veritas Seminar slanted towards a particular view or understanding of the church and congregational health?” is, “Yes, of course.” The Veritas Seminar is a product of human beings. Human beings always view reality: 1) from a particular perspective, and 2) through particular assumptions and expectations.

      N.T. Wright has been of great help to me in this area. For those of us who do not have the time, inclination, or quite frankly the skills to plow through books on epistemology, Dr. Wright has provided a helpful review of what he calls “Critical Realism” in his book, “The New Testament and the People of God”. If I understand Dr. Wright correctly he is making two assertions. On the one hand human beings, by necessity, approach reality: 1) looking FROM a particular perspective, and 2) looking THROUGH particular assumptions and expectations that act as lenses. Dr. Wright is no relativist. Some perspectives are better than others; some assumptions and expectations are more helpful than others.

      On the other hand, (Dr. Wright’s second assertion) human beings never arrive at the perfect perspective from which to view reality, nor do they ever so refine their assumptions and expectations so as to provide distortion free lenses. Therefore, we must always remain in a critical dialogue with others who view reality: 1) from differing perspectives and, 2) through differing lenses. While Dr. Wright is concerned about our knowledge of history, theology, and literature his methodology and categories do transfer to other areas. In Dr. Wright’s view the our great error is not that we are “bias,” since as humans that is a given. Rather, our great error is when we, believing we attained the perfect perspective and are looking through a distortion free lens, withdraw from critical dialogue.

      As the Veritas Seminar determines both: 1) the perspective from which the church is viewed (Healthy Missional, Stable, Critical Moment, and At Risk) and also, 2) the lens through which the church is viewed (Ten Missional Markers) it greatly affects what is seen. As I said perviously, the questions we ask, and the manner in which we ask them, go a long way to determine the answers we receive.

      1) Has the Veritas Seminar chosen the best perspective from which to view any particular church? 2) Has the Veritas Seminar provided the most helpful lens through which to view any particular church? How has the Veritas seminar determined that this perspective, and this lens, are appropriate for all churches? Does one size fit all? 3) Has the Veritas Seminar remained in the necessary dialogue with those who have other perspectives and use other lenses?

      I am not convinced the Veritas Seminar provides either the best perspective from which, or the best lens through which, to view and evaluate the church. It is my contention that these questions and concerns are worth pursuing by evaluating the entire Vitality Pathway in terms of its ACTUAL effects on ALL of the participating churches. To the best of my knowledge no such study has been undertaken. (I have asked.)

      N.T. Wright has a favorite saying, “The proof of the pudding is in the eating.” What are the actual results of the Vitality Pathway on all of the churches it has sought to help?

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