“The Church Doctor will see you now.” The church had a bit of grimace on her face, but she shuffled in and hopped up onto the paper-covered examination table.

“Tell me,” the doctor said. “What seems to be ailing you?”

The church shared her symptoms. Lethargy. Uncontrollable membership loss. And an unmistakeable rumbly in her tumbly.

Over the years, as a metaphorical church doctor, I’ve found that most unhealthy churches struggle with one or more of three common contagious church viruses. These viruses are so potent and so infectious, they can create a congregational pandemic from as little as one meeting. And when one of these contagions manifests symptoms in a church, the prognosis of palliative or hospice care can only be reversed by intentional, immediate, and generally costly treatments.

Three Common Contagious Church Viruses

Presented in no particular order … each are infectious and left untreated will ultimately result in a church’s demise. Each of the common contagious church viruses will be treated in a separate post.


Symptoms: Lack of energy; low, underlying conflicts; murmuring; inability to launch (or even seriously entertain) new ministries, events, programs, or initiatives; general grumpiness, malaise, and/or defeatism.

Diagnosis: Negativosis is almost always related to self-interitis (see Part 3), but on a personal level. A member won’t like the way something is being done or something that’s been said, such as the illustrations the preacher uses, the color of the new carpet, the funding of new furnishings in the nursery (“that high chair was good enough for my grandchildren!”), or how strong the coffee was during the fellowship time this week. The pastor, board chair, or secretary may receive poison emails and/or pen letters (often anonymous) lodging “formal” complaints about this or that. The locus of Negativosis can often be traced to individuals in small groups such as the choir, Sunday school classes, or committees.

Prognosis: If left untreated, Negativosis will spread from the individual to the small group, to the board, and ultimately the disease will infect every person in the congregation, including the leaders. As the virus spreads, you should expect a precipitous drop in returning visitors and guests and an increase in the level of general conflict.

In addition, those who recognize the contagion will wisely choose to exit the congregation rather than continue to be exposed to those who have contracted, and are spreading, the disease. Typically, those who leave will be some of your strongest, most able leaders. As the congregation’s health and resources declines, existing ministries will suffer and become impotent, whereas new ministries will be nonexistent.

Ultimately, Negativosis will so weaken the congregation as membership declines that the church will be unable to sustain itself. Death of the congregation is the inevitable result of untreated Negativosis.

Treatment: There is no magic pill to treat Negativosis and it is exceptionally difficult to reverse the symptoms once they have taken root in the congregation. At the first sign of the virus, leadership must confront the individual/group about the negativity to nip it in the bud. If negativity continues, then the only treatment is to either remove the infected individuals from the congregation, or else to quarantine them completely by removing them from any leadership positions, severely limiting their congregational circles of influence, and as much as possible excluding them from activities, committees, meetings, etc.

Prevention/Inoculation: The best way to prevent an outbreak of Negativosis is for the church to have a strong mission, shared values, and a compelling and inspiring vision. However, it takes more than just having a mission, vision, and values. The congregation, beginning with the leadership, must continually put the mission, vision, and values above all else. The pastor must preach about it. The leaders must teach about it. And together, they must make 100 percent of their decisions in support of it.

But even that is not enough. The church must see meaningful results and hear the stories of those who have been moved, touched, inspired, and who have experienced life-transformation through the ministries of the church. Only when the members are excited, motivated, and inspired by the difference the church is making in the community will there be an effective inoculation of Negativosis.

How has your successfully battled Negativosis? Share your treatment plans in the Comment section below and help other churches in their battle against the disease.

See also: Part 2 and Part 3.