NASHVILLE, Tenn. – A couple I know was approached about working at a prominent Christian organization. They expressed appreciation for how much good the organization does, but declined the offer because they knew people who worked there used two phrases regularly: “we’re miserable” and “around here, you just keep your head down and do your job.”
I have encountered a number of people recently who work in similarly unhealthy churches and Christian ministries. Dysfunctional Christian organizations often do good things on the outside while destroying those on the inside.
Let me share some signs you might recognize if your church or organization is dysfunctional.
1. The church or organizational culture only values those leading and the function of the organization, not those serving. When ministry leaders see people as tools rather than partners, people are used to serve the purpose, rather than being part of the purpose.
2. The leader is the only one allowed to think. Followers are only supposed to implement, not anything more. All ideas have to be approved by the leader, and since the leader thinks only he/she has good ideas, no ideas come from the people. If the organization grows, but the leader’s bandwidth does not, decisions are delayed because other leaders cannot make them. At one place they refer to the leader’s office as “the black hole where ideas go to die.”
3. The organization or church thinks everyone else is wrong and only they are right. Thus, there is no value in others. There is a narrow group of the acceptable and the “others” are not just wrong, they are stupid. Arrogance is almost always a mark of an unhealthy Christian organization.
4. People rationalize that the good they are experiencing is worth the abuse they are receiving. Often, it is not until they have stepped away from an unhealthy situation when they realize this was not true, and is one of the great lies Christians are led to believe – that the end justifies the means. Dysfunctional organizations are towers of cards, looking and maybe doing good now, but they will fall.
5. People often know of the glaring character problems of the leader, but no one can speak truth to power. Many of these dynamic leaders are known for their anger, and the organization fears rather than addresses the anger. In the end, the leader is believed to be unquestionable due to academic, spiritual, ecclesiastical or some other power base.
6. Many times, the leader receives a pass for the negative fruit of his/her leadership because of some overwhelming characteristic: preaching ability, intelligence, ability to influence others, or more. Yet, the fruit remains below the surface, creating a culture toxic to all who swim downstream.
If you are in an unhealthy Christian organization I would encourage you to consider that God may want you to leave it. My own standard is this: Will staying here hurt my walk with God or harm my family? Being at a place that “makes a difference” sounds good, but if you end up with a confused spiritual life or broken family, it is just not worth the price.
If you believe you need to leave, start praying and looking for another ministry opportunity. This recognition of a different future will likely ease the daily pain and struggle, and help you face each day.
However, if you believe God wants you to stay:
1. Don’t be afraid. Fear makes you cower rather than live in courage. Recognize you are in an unhealthy organization, but don’t become an unhealthy servant.
2. Make a difference. When I served in unhealthy places, I simply asked, “What can I do here, now?” And when you are not scurrying about in fear, you can get much done for the Kingdom.
3. Speak truth. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about the culture, and when appropriate, the leadership. There will probably be some pushback, or even retaliation, but as you tell the truth with grace and humility, you may be heard – or it may reveal that you need to go.
4. Recognize the Lord may have other reasons for keeping you in your position. Perhaps you have another ministry in your city or church. If that is the case, contribute where you can in your job, recognize how it provides for your family, but focus your energies on that calling. I know some who continue to work in unhealthy organizations, but stay out of a devotion to their local church ministry or other calling. They endure the unhealthy organization to pursue their calling with joy.
These are not easy answers. It may be some who are struggling in their places of service and don’t know where to turn. I encourage you to pray and seek the Lord’s wisdom in your calling. It may be that you will be called to do some difficult yet courageous things.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Ed Stetzer is president of LifeWay Research. This column first appeared on his blog at EdStetzer.com.)