6 Signs Your Church Is Dysfunctional

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Ed Stetzer shares six warning signs that your church may be unhealthy.

In recent months, I have run across several people in unhealthy Christian churches and organizations.

Having worked in some such settings myself, I have seen patterns that led me to start thinking…and writing. Maybe that is not such a good idea, but I think it is an important one. The issue continues to grow and, although such organizations can actually do good, the harm they cause to many others is immeasurable.

I started thinking about writing this article when a couple I know was approached about working at a prominent Christian organization. They expressed appreciation of how much good is done by this organization.

Yet, they were not interested because they knew people who worked there. And although everyone who worked there would readily say God was doing great things, they also used two phrases regularly: “we’re miserable” and “around here, you just keep your head down and do your job.”

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And therein lies the quandary of the dysfunctional Christian organization: it often does good things on the outside while destroying the soul of those on the inside.

So, how do you know if your Christian organization or church is dysfunctional? Let me share some signs I have observed:


1. The church or organizational culture does not value those serving, just those leading and the function of the organization.

When ministry leaders see people as tools rather than partners, the end result is that people are used to serve the purpose rather than being part of the purpose. They are the tools, but they don’t matter– only the leaders matter.

Ed Stetzer Ed Stetzer is President of LifeWay Research and LifeWay’s Missiologist in Residence. He has trained pastors and church planters on five continents, holds two masters degrees and two doctorates, and has written dozens of articles and books. Ed is a contributing editor for Christianity Today, a columnist for Outreach Magazine and Catalyst Monthly, serves on the advisory council of Sermon Central and Christianity Today's Building Church Leaders, and is frequently cited or interviewed in news outlets such as USAToday and CNN.

More from Ed Stetzer or visit Ed at http://www.edstetzer.com/

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  • ePHraimAg

    Great Article….Loved Reading, and in many respects, esteemly True!

     Thanks eD

  • Pastorp61

    Great article Ed. Been there & seen most of that!

  • DeCree

    I would like to say I was in a unhealthy organization which I think started out ok but eventally using my gift of discernment I began noticing certain things I.e. no one else ideas mattered only the leaders ideas was followed, I felt the leader was more concerned with outward apperance than ministry, never appreciated or thank those who worked hard in the ministry long story short yes you are accurate.

  • Seangunn777

    I waspart of an organisation whicch exhibited all those “symptom” but aat the time being in leadership myself, I chose to ignore the signs. Due to me not speaking out when I could see peiople being mistreated and abused, I saw many leave the church and God altogether. When this occurred all that was said that they never really “shared the same vision ” as the leaders. I am thankfull to the Lord that I saw the light when I was supposed to and left it.

  • Guest

    We’re in defferent continents and its just shocked me how accurate the atricle is regarding mine, my family’s and several saint’s experience is. Naturally the irony is that it’s growing… Saul had just won a battle and was victorious when the Lord rejected him and annointed another king during his reign…

  • Revkev57

    I have seen a rise in all of these among churches led by “The New Calvinist” coming out of seminary of late. It reminds of the way John Calvin led his part of the reformation in Geneva.

  • Tim Wright

    Our church would tell Jesus to leave our church!

  • Pastor_Staying Under

    Because “the star preacher syndrome” has been so pervasive, servant leader pastors often have to urge other leaders to take more initiative.  They often wait for the pastor to do the work because they have been trained only to follow and not empowered to lead.  When the empowerment comes, they don’t know what to do with it.

  • Rsickler29

    I suppose it is easy to blame the leader, who certainly is guilty; but, I put the bulk of the blame on the people.  People allow and support bad leadership … the American congress is a perfect example. 

  • Pastor Wayne

    Very true.  I’ve seen all of these – and more in most of the 8 churches I’ve been a part of in the last 10 years.
    It seems that many pastors view themselves as CEO’s or kings ruling over their personal kingdoms, rather than servant leaders and co-labourers with the rest of Christ’s body.  While they would claim that it is Christ’s Church, in reality and practice it is their church.  They are the supreme rulers and “lord it over” everyone in their kingdom.
    One pastor I served under went so far as to demand that all in church leadership sign an allegiance covenant.  Part of the covenant required the leaders to be “spies” and “snitches” reporting to him any negative comments about him which was voiced by anyone in the church.
    When I confronted him with improprieties and wrong-doing as the Bible directs us to do, he set about to destroy me and my reputation.  His tactics included gossiping and spreading outright lies about me and my family and to eventually get us to leave the church.  He set about to destroy anyone who disagreed with him and others also left (between 10 – 20% of the congregation).  We came to realize that we had been victims of spiritual abuse and many of us found a church with a pastor who had also been on the receiving end of spiritual abuse.  He started a church which ministered to those who had been spiritually abused.  Sadly, he also turned out to consider this HIS church rather than Christ’s and eventually perpetuated abuse to those under his rule.

    Where are the servant leaders who have maturity enough to hold their positions loosely and submit to Christ’s design for His Church?

    • PrescottJayErwin

      “… the 8 churches I’ve been a part of in the last 10 years.” WHAT!?!? A different church every 15 months!?!? Seems you need to choose a drastically different course for your ministry, brother.

      • Pastor Wayne

        “Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. . . ” Romans 14:2.  Yes, the LORD has led me to 8 churches in the last 10 years – only one of which I have officially been the pastor.  He has led me to be part of this many churches for His own purposes for what He was doing in those churches and for what He is doing in my life.
        One of those purposes was to open my eyes to how far removed the western church is from the Church He ordained and which the Apostles started and led.
        Most western churches are extremely disfunctional when contrasted to the New Testament Church and the Body Christ designed and desires it to be.
        Brother, you know nothing about my life, my walk, nor God’s call upon my life other than what I’ve shared here.  Why do you judge me and give me your assumed “wise” counsel?  Is it not enough to judge yourself against God’s Word?

        • PrescottJayErwin

          You know, I’ll receive that rebuke. Your ministry is between you and the Lord. I just know that more often than not, short-term pastorates are another sign of the Church’s dysfunction. (Having read some of your posts here and other forums, I notice that you’re rather pugnacious — quick to anger — sometimes. I wonder what that’s about.)

          (BTW: your citation is actually Romans 14:4, not 14:2.)

          • Pastor Wayne

            Once again, I only officially pastored just one of those churches, although the Lord had me in each church to provide ministry in various ways.  Hence, none of the others were “short-term pastorates,” although there was ministry (or attempted ministry).

            You are correct that all of those churches were extremely dysfunctional.  This is one of the reasons the Lord had me in each church – to help bring healing and correction to their dysfunction(s).

            As far as being “rather pugnacious,” perhaps I am, although most of my posts are usually given much thought, prayer, and re-reading, editing (and sometimes re-editing) before they are posted.  So, if I appear to you to be presenting “anger” rest assured it is not usually done quickly.  Also, I’m sure you’ll realize that it is easy for readers to attach their own emotions to words on a page which were not intended by the writer (as you are such a prolific contributor to a number of forums such as this one).

            As one who started in pastoral ministry close to four decades ago, it has been my observation that those who make such pronouncements, as you have, often are mirroring their own characteristics.  Perhaps your “wondering” should be more introspective.  If you wish to further discuss my “pugnaciousness,” feel free to contact me via my email as I desire to be open to honest, Spirit-led reproof or correction from a concerned brother (or sister).

            Yes, it is Romans 14:4 – a typo that my editing missed.  I guess I’m still human in a fallen world (Ha, ha).

            Concerning your earlier comment that I should “choose a drastically different course for [my] ministry,” there are many times I wish I could.  However, the Lord’s direction, type, and calling He has for me MUST take precedence over what I want.  Again, I’m sure (after reading many of your posts in various forums) that you understand Christ’s Lordship in the lives of His called-out ones.

            God bless you, my brother, as you continue to labour with Him.

          • PrescottJayErwin

            :-D))))     Thanks, brother.

        • Swillia46

          I don’t know anything about you, either, but your response sound like you are defensive and unwilling to listen to the wise counsel of others. Maybe you should find and remove the log from your own eye before you try to dislodge the speck from another’s. 8 churches in 10 years is evidence of a problem to reasonable people.

          • Pastor Wayne

            Yes, so were many of Christ’s actions.  I guess what Christ said is true – “Wisdom is justified of all her children.”  You might want to read that one in context – and maybe the log and speck one as well.

    • MyoungSr

      I have “been there” (endured what you describe as spiritual abuse). So, I relate.
       
      The (married) sr. pastor had just been through his second accusation of impropriety (with a female staff memeber).  We, the staff and board gave him the ‘benefit of the doubt’ through the first accusation and denials.  But the staff and board were split the second time he was accused by first hand witnesses and staff memebers and relatives – although he continued his denials.  Half of us believe he should have stepped down.   His stance was, “I didn’t do anything wrong”, and I am the LEADER here, so get over it or get out!  He used methods you described. My wife and I moved away.  But, we could not withstand the emotional beating he delivered through whispers, gossip, rumors and often from the pulpit.  I believe the sr. pastor was relieved when we and many other families left.Perhaps I can relate this:  There is no mandate, directive, command or doctrine in scriptures calling us to be ‘servant-leaders’.  There are only servants.  And I believe holding the non-biblical view of becoming a servant-leader is the systemic cause of abuse of spiritual authority.  When a person ‘in charge’ see himself or herself as the LEADER-IN-CHARGE, the dynamic can and often changes from holiness and humility to ‘high and mighty’.Disagree if you must, but, THE EXAMPLE set by Jesus was one of servant!  Period.  Godly men and women in the bible LEAD BY EXAMPLE of a broken, surrendered life, not by authority of their office or position.  They were humble and contrite before God and utterly dependent on God. 
       
      If anyone can find a biblical “servant-LEADER” who did not fall into temptation, pride and ruin, let me know.

  • http://www.facebook.com/PastorDanMoore Daniel Moore

    I have been on both sides of the pulpit as I came into the ministry at the tender age of 39.  I served in several churches and most pastors were wonderful shepherds.  In a couple of churches there were the cliques that frustrated the pastors’ attempts to lead biblically.  I only had one pastor who went off the rails and demanded total allegiance. 

    Ed makes a lot of good points here.  We are not professionals as the world deems professionalism.  We serve and lead by influence.  That also means as shepherds, we need to know our flock and its condition well.  I also believe that in studying the seven churches of Revelation, there are times when the congregation is so dysfunctional we have to allow the Lord to remove the lamp (let the church die…and move one to a different congregation).   

  • Cindyspoo

    Great article and look forward to more. I personally have been a member and leader in my church for 13 yrs. I “prided” myself for being involved in one of the most productive churches in my area. Then the more I started seeing the inside operation, the more the reality set in and that it was like any other corporation. I have been in school (Christian University) finishing my bachelors and have learned so much regarding church. I believe we have made church something Jesus never intended! I have resigned from this specific church and “detoxing” from the invisible ladder I was climbing. I want to pursue ministry but if it has to be a power or greed trip, I am simply not interested. My degree is in psychology and I see that more from the pulpit is “psychology driven” instead of “biblically driven”….honestly though, not sure how to turn the ship around. Until then, it’ll be me, the Holy Spirit and the word. Until the church wakes up and realizes what we have made it.

  • brog

    Great article, can see this in a lot of Christianity as a whole.  Am a pastor at a church that my denomination labels as the most dysfunctional in the state we are in.  

  • PrescottJayErwin

    #1 Sign Your Church Is Dysfunctional: “You allow human beings to be members.”

  • youthpastorswifeinlouisiana

    Great article. My husband is a youth pastor, among several other roles. We left our church in January. Every time we presented something new to the church, we were discouraged. It just seemed that unless a certain person came up with the ideas they weren’t good ideas. They continued to do things the way they always did things. They had a small church mentality. The pastor often said that it was not about the numbers. I think he was comfortable with the number of people that attended. The fewer the people, the fewer problems maybe. There was a certain group of people that were running the church, or at least that’s the way it seemed to us. In the 3 1/2 years we were there, the church didn’t grow. A few people joined but mysteriously stopped coming. Don’t get me wrong, we loved the people and we ministered to alot of youth and are still in contact with some of those youth. It had just gotten so stressful that it was hurting us more than helping. We needed to be ministered to and to grow. We just weren’t getting it there. Some churches are not what God intended. We need to take ourself out of it sometimes and just ask, “What would God have us do”

    • Pseudopunker

       your experience is almost word for word ours.  However ours didn’t end with us leaving, it ended with us being fired after talking to the lead pastor about our concerns with the church decreasing in numbers and the amount of young people hemorrhaging.  We also had tattoos, so that suddenly mattered after being at the church for 6 years.  It’s a sad state but the Lord was so good to bring us to a different church that has welcomed us in amazing ways.

  • Rev1963

    I Pastor a leadership led Church. This arTicle has goT me Thinking abouT The way we do Things. it has me searching myself. my own intentions!

  • http://www.facebook.com/rdadson Richard Abeku Dadson

    Ed I am seeing this in a lot of churches in Accra, Ghana. As you rightly pointed out the flock are believing in a Shepherd who really does not care about them, but building their own empires. Unfortunately their objective is very far from Christ’s Objective. We need to speak out and point out these flaws rather than to let the end justify the means. Let us continue to pray that the Good Lord gives us wisdom in the pursuit of what is right.

    • Heather_7

      This spirit of self serving egotistical psychopathic leadership is not only found in Ghana, but it is all over the world. Christ said you will know them by their fruit, and he also said that who-so-ever deceives the “little one’s” (his children) that it would be better for millstone to be hung around their neck and they be drowned in the sea…their time will come, and they will be judged according to their works since they did not believe in, nor preach, the true spirit of Christ.

  • http://www.jerrywatts.net NotSoYoung

    A great article Ed, and true.   Years ago, I was on a staff where the Pastor had an ‘insecurity issue’ and it manifested itself by demanding blind allegiance regardless of him being right or wrong.  “He was the pastor so he couldn’t be wrong.”  This is to say that everything you’ve written is ‘on point.’  
    However, I trust there will be a follow-up about the dysfunction which gives the other possibility, that is, of a church which has largely been dysfunctional since its inception.  For instance – a church which was born out of a split OR (try this) a church born when (years ago) another church performed ‘church discipline’ to a group of troublemakers.  This group went down the road to form another church.  Now, almost a half-century and over a half-dozen pastors later – this church is known for their trouble and NO PASTOR has left to go to another ministry. Every pastor, for one reason or another, has left either with no place to go OR left the ministry altogether.  Dysfunction is written into the DNA – and many people (pastors, staff, and members) have been damaged or destroyed in the melee’. 
    The entire truth is sad for good, the gospel, and God’s work.

  • Kim

    The handy definition of dysfunction is “unclear lines of authority.” At the other end of the leadership failure spectrum is the disengaged leader who exhibits zero emotional warmth or intelligence toward his underlings. If a leader is making everyone miserable it’s more likely that the leader is disengaged and it requires a different approach. But bottom line is that it’s ungodly for any of us to bow to a leader who exhibits unhealthy behavior. Matthew 18 is Jesus’ template for healing and dealing with it. There’s no excuse to be complacent and continue under unhealthy leadership once you recognize it as such. Of course, it’s much easier said than done to handle this problem Jesus’ way….

  • Guest

    Number 5 hit me between the eyes like a brick.  I recently resigned from a church staff (technical specialist) because the Sr. Pastor acted like a CEO/spoiled child rather than a pastor. . . and the church allowed him to do so!  NOT ONE had the intestinal fortitude to stand up and give him a big dose of truth with grace and return him to his place as pastor.  As I have regained touch with the local network of church musicians and production folks (I live in a large metropolitan area) I have discovered this church has been informally “black listed” by many gifted leaders.  They simply ignore their ads for employment and refuse to refer anyone to them.
    That troubled pastor has moved on and has been replaced by a wonderful man.  However, the stigma lives on due to the horrible culture and work environment that was created.  Sad.

  • Ruan

    All the points are very true…..actually these things can be seen in leadership when you are outside that ring,,
    but nothing much most of us can do except we pray be aware of this as leaders…(if you are a leader). There are instances that God uses these leaders to teach other would be leaders as well to learn from MISTAKES. To my experience, if the leader pursue his own vision God changes the leadership if he/she cannot bring forth God’s vision for that particular Ministry. They do no prosper – Jeremiah 10:21.
    – Ruan

  • Pastor Rodney

    While I have been a part of a few churches that may have had some shortcomings in its leadership, most churches are good. I have read most of the comments here and I see a continuos theme. The pastor is the bad guy and He will not allow me to do what I want to do. The pastor has to take counsel from a number of sources. A good Pastor listens to sound counsel and consults God and makes the best decision with the information at hand. It is good to seek counsel from within the church and outside of the church. I pray that most churches are healthy and good as opposed to unhealthy and abusive. Just remember, God called you to the church to bless it, not to get everything you want.

  • mourning

    Mr. Stetzer, I cannot thank you enough for bringing to light and confirming this unacceptable problem! I thought we were the only ones to have walked through this, unfortunately I see that we are not. My husband and I became friends with the Assoc. Pastor of our church and when he felt called to leave his position and start a church we felt called to go with him. There was no angry split, he was blessed by his pastor to go and we never saw any signs that made us worry this was anything but blessed. When we started the church, my husband now wore the Assoc. Pastor title, as well as Youth Pastor, Business Pastor, Janitor, and anything else that you could think of besides Children’s and Nursery. My husband was loyal and faithful to our Senior Pastor for 14 years, doing anything and everything he asked of him. The Senior Pastor had major (can’t stress that enough!) anger issues, he was volatile and verbally abusive, as well as controlling and manipulative. He also never wanted to deal with the people of our church, therefore my husband took all of the meetings, counseling appointments, dealt with the staff as the church grew, etc. Our pastor would preach 2 or 3 weeks in a row and then need a few weeks off to “recover”.   He would take golf trips, vacations galore, and all the while keep a heavy hand on all that went on and decisions that were made. Being that this was our first time as paid staff in ministry, we didn’t know any different and supported him fully in his behavior, making excuses when necessary. All that to say, there came a point where my husband and I disagreed with him on a person of interest for an important position, this person was fully unfit based on character issues well known, but he was our pastors friend therefore was hired. Our pastor exploded, beat us silly verbally for disagreeing with him and for over 2 years, without our knowledge, tried to run us out. The man hired was fired almost to the day a year later and in Feb. 2011, our pastor fired my husband (over the phone) because of a situation he got himself into with his temper and needed an out.  During the years the church was growing, our pastor continually hired family members for each position he could and in less than 3 months of our leaving, he promoted his son in-law to our position. After we were gone, we began to find out of others before us who were treated the same or worse and we are heart broken we were unaware. Honestly, we were blind~ blinded by his preaching ability, by how well he paid us, and by our own inability to leave for fear of hurting our children and losing friends. This is the cord of death! 
    Mr. Stetzer, as I write this to you, well over a year from the date of resigning, the hurt, the shame, the deep grief that still burdens our hearts is constant and heavy. The question that looms is, why does this happen? Not one person on staff or on the board came to our defense, no one asked questions, no one wants to know.  The good news is, our hope is not in a man! God spoke to my husband the morning he was fired; he had just come out of his “prayer closet” and was preparing for work when the Lord told him it would be his last day and not to defend himself. Within an hour our pastor called and told him to resign. Our pastor announced our resignation the next morning to the staff, before he had even told the board, and we read an “approved” letter to the congregation 3 weeks later that stated we resigned. The church has continued on, doing well, and we ask God daily why. God told us not to defend ourselves so we did not, but we expected that God would raise someone else to; He has not.  The damage that has been done to our children, myself, and more importantly to my husband, is unexplainable and while we know that God will make sense of this someday and use it all for His Glory and our good, we can’t help but wonder why He allows men like this to continue to be in a place of power and thriving in His church?  Less than a year before we were fired, our pastor said something profound to my husband; he said, “You have been a David to me and I have been a Saul to you.” This was the deepest moment of truth in our 14 years of service!

    • bob

      My heart breaks for your experience.  As a long-time senior pastor, I’ll admit that I’ve always struggled with Jesus’ teaching that tells us the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous.  Why are good people allowed to suffer and evil people allowed to prosper?  The only answer that holds any water is that this earth is fallen, God is sovereign and He will take care of this situation as He knows is best.  Our human side would like for us to be around to observe it.  In God’s wisdom, that may or may not happen.

      In either case, I will pray for God’s healing hand on your broken hearts.

  • http://TheRecoveringLegalist.com/ Anthony

    My name is Anthony. I am a pastor, and I am dysfunctional. We should start a support group. 

  • ephremhagos

    There is no church whatsoever which, being the epitome of apostasy by the standards of Christ’s self-revelation for “true worship” of God, is functional. It is doomed!

    (Matt. 16: 13-28; 26:64; 27: 50-56)

  • Julie

    As a Deacon’s wife I will share:leader would detect a deacons weakness( individual with a people pleaser personality who is easily manipulated) The leader manipulates with flattering words to the deacon( someone with auto repair occupation-“fix it”mentality)making empty promises for three years in a row. The use of this inroad to entice him brings some difficulty to the Deacons marriage. Church leader then tells his deacon well you can have her go get 7 sessions of counseling, that should take care of it.(fix it approach!) I prayed with this wife several times.

  • Julie

    JULIE CONTD.. WE HAVE RETURNED TO OUR FORMER CHURCH WITH STRONG LEADERSHIP.. SENIOR PASTOR SPEAKS FROM THE PLATFORM SAYING THERE WILL BE NO MANIPULATION EVER

  • HollyKC

    My church scored a 5/6 on the previous listings of the charactistics. If you don’t fall into the ring of leadership; you are just another number. If you step forward, but don’t conform to how the ring of leadership thinks, you are outcast. If you go against the grain and actually argue against the way of thinking of the ring of leadership, you are labeled a black sheep and words of “warning” about you spread like wildfire throughout the congregation. You are shunned by leadership in any of these cases, and you lose those friends who are on the outside with you that long to be in the ring of leadership. They will not be seen speaking to you as this might tarnish their reputation and decrease their chances of making it into the ring of leadership. After 6 years at this church, I’ve experienced all of this and I’ve all but given up completely on church. Time to move on and give it one more chance.

  • Joe Vargas

    Thank you for your very insightful article. It has provided some great wisdom as my family and I deal with the flight of staff from our church. If anything I blame my own ignorance of how staff was being treated by leadership or lack of. As I went down the check list I found myself nodding in affirmation at every point. I pray for the hurt, pain and stress caused by the hubris of the Church. It is alway amazing how leadership is intentionally blind and deaf to their own actions.

  • God’s Got This

    We are in a church where all six are present with number 6 being the most obvious of all. It is such a heartbreaking situation. Looking forward to follow up articles for help. Fervently praying.

  • Robin

    Yep.. Hit the nail on the head with this article for sure! We have to remember.. Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden light… And He came to give life more abundantly.. So ANY church or religious organization that sucks the life and joy out of serving and being apart of.. Well.. It’s just not functioning biblically or under Godly authority. Spiritual Abuse and Dysfunction of this nature is NOT the design God has for our lives.. Period. If it doesn’t line up with the Word.. It is NOT of God