Considering (and surviving) unhealthy Christian organizations, Part 1

Posted on The Resurgence by Ed Stetzer on September 19, 2012

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 were 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.”

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.

2. The leader is the only one who is allowed to think

The followers are to implement and nothing more. As the organization grows and the leader’s bandwidth does not, decisions are delayed and delayed because other leaders cannot make them. At one place, they refer to the leader’s office as “the black hole to which ideas go to die.” All ideas have to be approved by the leader, and since that leader thinks only he/she has good ideas, no ideas come from the people.

 3. The organization or church thinks everyone else is wrong and only they are right

Thus, there is no value in other people or groups—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 that they realize this was not true. This is one of the great lies that 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 because eventually the truth comes out.

5. People often know of the glaring character problems of the leader, but no one can speak truth to power

Often, I’ve noticed these dynamic leaders are known for their anger, yet the organization fears (rather than addresses) the leader’s anger. In the end, the leader is unquestionable due to spiritual, apostolic, ecclesiastical, academic, or some other power base.

6. Many times, the leader gets a pass for the fruit of his/her leadership because of some overwhelming characteristic: preaching ability, intelligence, ability to woo others, or more

Yet, the fruit remains below—a culture toxic to all who swim downstream. The leader is often seen (from the outside) as a great leader, but those inside know him/her as someone who is, well, more concerned about outside appearance than godly leadership.

To be blunt, I see this last issue more often than you might expect. Perhaps it is because of what I do, working with different denominations and groups. I am encouraged now to be in a healthier work environment. However, I think there is a significant issue out there: a lot of unhealthy Christian organizations are hurting those who serve within them.

This post originally appeared on Ed’s blog. Stay tuned for the follow-ups to this post, Parts 2 and 3, in coming weeks.