Cracks in the Casita: A metaphor of ministry failure

By Ira Hall

The Disney movie Encanto presents a gifted family, organized to serve its community, grappling with the internal dynamics of its mission. It provides a surprisingly great picture of a hidden threat to the health of churches & other ministries. This article will contain major spoilers of the major plot points of the movie, so proceed accordingly.

THE MISSION

Each member of the family Madrigal has been given a special gift as part of the family magic. The mission of the family is to use their gifts to serve their town. The head of the family, Abuela, sings,

“We swear to always Help those around us…The world keeps turning, But work and dedication will keep the miracle burning.”
-Abuela’s Mission Statement

With this anthem, the key dynamic of the family is established. A group of individuals, each endowed with a supernatural gift, dedicated to serving the wider population to advance this spiritual power. This creates a great illustration of what many churches and ministries seek to be. An organization focused on the Great Commission, serving the community of believers and reaching the larger community with the Gospel.

The protagonist, Mirabel, has not been given a gift and, as a result, seems to have no role in the work of the family. When she has a vision of dangerous cracks threatening their magical house, Abuela is quick to silence her warnings & reassure all that the magic is fine and all is well. Abuela does not want to alarm the people who depend on them.

This moment sets the course of the movie. Abuela knows something is wrong, but her commitment to preserving the work sets her against any voices and forces she sees as threatening the family’s ministry.

This mirrors a frequent tension in churches or ministries. A focus on integrity slips into protecting the appearance of integrity. Rather than admitting to cracks, the goal becomes to preserve the outward strength of the ministry and the accomplishment of the work. This is especially true when it comes to key members with important gifts.

THE GOOD ONES

The most visible work of the family ministry rests on Mirabel’s two older sisters. First is Luisa, whose great strength is relied on throughout the village.

“Was Hercules ever like “Yo, I don’t wanna fight Cerberus”? Under the surface, I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service.”

Luisa’s lament

Mirabel quickly learns that Luisa, the strong one, is nervous about something. When confronted, Luisa at first denies that anything is wrong. She feels she must always project strength and confidence. That has become the problem. She is overwhelmed by the pressure of being strong enough and is feeling moments of weakness. She worries whether she will have any worth if she fails. The family culture attaches such importance to gifting and service that not having a special gift leaves you without value.

Beside her is Isabella, whose perfection and beauty inspire the town.

“What could I do if I just knew it didn’t need to be perfect? It just needed to be? And they’d let me be?”

Isabella’s lament

Mirabel’s outreach to Isabella, her perfect sister, uncovers another secret. Isabella resents the pressure to always be perfect and beautiful. She is unable to be herself nor express who she really is. As with Luisa, Mirabel is able to hear and see her sister for who she is beyond her gifting, resulting in healing and reconciliation.

Ministers always have weaknesses that they can feel pressured to conceal and ignore in favor of fulfilling the mission. Called to use our gifts for others, our organizational structures must not lose sight of the fact that the servants themselves need to receive care and ministry.

Every member of Christ’s body has been given a gift. Focusing on the gift rather than the person has destroyed people and entire ministries. Overemphasizing the more visible gifts like pastor-teacher or evangelist has wrecked many on the rocks of ego, while others with less visible or understandable gifts find themselves neglected or marginalized. Paul explicitly taught against this tendency, arguing that those that seem to have less honor should receive more while the gifts that more naturally attract honor have no need of it. (1 Cor. 12:22-24).

“I think it’s time you learn
You’re more than just your gift.”

Mirabel’s journey is uncovering weaknesses and needs in the family, and this quickly makes her a problem for the family leader, like her uncle before her.

THE BAD ONES

Abuela’s son Bruno’s gift of seeing the future often included the announcement of unwanted events. Ranging from inclement weather and hair loss to the demise of a pet fish, his gift caused him to be considered a doomsayer and even a cause of misfortune. As his niece tells Mirabel,

“It’s a heavy lift, with a gift so humbling. Always left Abuela and the family fumbling, grappling with prophecies they couldn’t understand.”

Bruno is gone, and the family rule is, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno.”  He is viewed as disloyal, with Abuela proclaiming, “Bruno didn’t care about this family!”  In reality, Bruno never left the family but has been hiding in the walls of the house. He has tried to stay connected to the family and has been trying to patch the very real cracks that are appearing behind the scenes.

Mirabel and Bruno find a bond as loyal outsiders who are perceived as threats. When those who speak uncomfortable truths or ask questions about the health of the institution are marginalized and pushed out as threats to the blessing of the mission, these dynamics begin to cause cracks. Rather than address the development of unhealthy patterns, the internal pressure is often increased in the name of protecting the ministry.

Scripture says that “faithful are the wounds of a friend,” and many churches and ministries have deeply harmed themselves by silencing rather than listening to internal critics or questioners. Not every criticism is accurate, but listening to such voices can help reveal internal dynamics that might be rooted in good intentions but no longer expressed in healthy ways.

FIXING FOUNDATIONS

“Luisa’s losing her powers, Isabela’s out of control because of you. I don’t know why you weren’t given a gift, but it is not an excuse for you to hurt this family!”

Abuela to Mirabel

Mirabel’s revelation of Louisa’s weakness and Isabella’s imperfection brings the wrath of Abuela. Abuela sees Mirabel’s disruption as the problem. As she lashes out at Mirable, the house shakes, cracks, and begins to collapse. The house is destroyed, and the magic is gone.

“I was given a miracle…and I was so afraid to lose it, that I lost sight of who our miracle was for.”

In the aftermath, Abuela realizes that she has caused the fatal issues. Mirabel’s revelations of weakness were bringing strength, while Abuela’s refusal to acknowledge her own wounds as well as those around her had cracked the foundation of the family. Mirabel affirms Abuela’s own pain and weakness, furthering the healing. Abuela’s reconciliation with both Mirabel and Bruno begins the path to a new foundation. The family comes together in new honesty and love.

The next step is accepting outside help. The illusion of strength to outsiders has been shattered, but the outsiders are motivated to support, not abandon the family. The town shows up to help rebuild the house.

Lay down your load. We are only down the road. We have no gifts, but we are many. And we’ll do anything for you.”

As the house is rebuilt, Abuela and Mirabel, now sharing leadership, admit, “it isn’t perfect, [but] neither are we.”

MADRIGAL MINISTRY METAPHOR

The family Madrigal illustrates the complicated internal dynamics of ministry, gifting, service, and mission. In the last few years, many large ministries have struggled or, in some cases, even collapsed. Watching the trajectory of these stories, these themes are often present.

  • An attempt to silence & purge internal critics as a threat to the mission.
  • A strong internal pressure to produce and conform.
  • A strong central leader who refuses to admit to internal flaws & weaknesses
  • Increasing these dynamics as the cracks grow wider.

A subtle but dangerous shift can occur when the focus of an organization becomes centered around protecting the integrity of the organization more than the integrity of the mission itself. While leadership will still claim and believe they are protecting the mission,  defensive protection rather than outward focus is occurring. This causes the organization to become insular, losing the ability to accept help from outside or gain strength from loyal voices inside. In an ironic twist, it is the very fear of losing that can often cause the loss.

To preserve an ongoing healthy ministry environment requires constant humility and stronger faith – faith in the fact that we are given ministry through grace. Abuela and her family were given a miracle to be of service, but the miracle was a gift, not something they had earned by their service. When we think the blessing of our church or ministry is based on how successful we are in our service, we have turned our ministry into an idol we are serving.

For those of us who are the “Abuelas” of a church or ministry, we would do well to learn the lessons of healthy service in blessing. May we build & maintain churches and ministries that pay attention to the cracks that are inevitable and the voices that can remind us of our imperfections and weaknesses so that we may grow and experience God’s grace in our weaknesses. Just like the family Madrigal.