When people leave a difficult and painful church, they often ask in counseling, “Is this normal?” “Am I crazy or over-reacting?” “Is this unhealthy church leadership?”
It’s a difficult question to answer without knowing all the details. However, I’ve been in that situation, and I’ve found it helpful to share what I’ve been learning since then.
Shortly after I completed my previous ministry role at my church, a wise ministry friend who knew our church and the characteristics of others like it, warned me: “It’s going to take you a few years to see things more clearly and understand the problems with what you just experienced.”
He knew from experience that when you serve on leadership in a chaotic and mistrustful church environment, you often are put in confusing positions where you don’t know how to respond. Too often you are taught that “our way is the best way and our critics are our enemies. ” Additionally, you often have seen what happens to those who disagree with church leadership and some of the ugly responses they have endured.
I didn’t really believe the serious concern from my pastor friend at the time, but I do now. Church leadership dysfunction hurts church leaders, and, even worse, it hurts the flock. Unbiblical leadership cultures mess with your head as a leader and unfortunately people get hurt when it’s not properly addressed.
Here are some warning signs of unhealthy church leadership. These characteristics should not exist in a church environment, but, sadly, they do.
1. Leaders won’t apologize or admit to clear mistakes. Churches and pastors make mistakes just like you do, and humble pastors and leadership teams apologize—privately, publicly, and specifically. I have heard of pastors who repeatedly lose their cool and curse at their staff, explaining it away as “intensity” or “drive to succeed.”
If you dare to confront these issues, you might be labeled as a complainer, soft, or unsupportive of leadership. Unhealthy churches are so driven by the insecurities of worldly success that they can’t admit mistakes without also finding a scapegoat such as a board, staff member, or policy that is to blame.
2. Leaders can’t give clear answers and seek to marginalize critics. A church in our area recently filed a lawsuit to silence its critics. Thankfully, they have chosen to drop the suit. However, churches can exaggerate, threaten, manipulate, or withhold information to marginalize their critics too. God calls elders to have integrity and give a clear answer, not spin. Some churches even have a practice of requiring non-disclosure agreements. Churches need to avoid these types of practices if they care to have the trust of the flock.
3. Former leaders just “disappear” without explanation. When a high percentage of former staff can no longer vouch for the character and health of the church leadership, they often disappear quickly. Most often this is because they are troubled by what they have seen as a staff person and are often conflicted about how to respond. This is a major warning sign. If former staff and elders are removed with little to no explanation, it is generally safe to assume they have lost confidence in the church leadership.
4. Leaders protect what they value the most, and develop a theology to protect it. A church that cares most about their reputation will often mislead the congregation to protect their image. A church that cares most about finances will get very angry if someone threatens their ability to acquire funds or if you question expenditures. If control is the issue, then unreasonable requests will be pressured upon unassuming leaders. The insecurities of a church leader are revealed in conflict. Healthy church leadership will be more focused on serving the church instead of protecting what they personally value.
5. When you’re out, you’re out. A friend of mine commented recently about his church experience and why he never returned to his former church saying “When you’re out, you’re out.” Unhealthy church leaders rarely interact with any former staff, and they seek to erase and transfer any remaining influence that former staff has at the church. Those who leave healthy church staffs want to continue those relationships and feel that they can.
It doesn’t have to be like that.
This past week, I sat in a peaceful business meeting at our church, and I didn’t feel like I was lied to, berated, or manipulated at all. For 30 minutes, the pastor and elders took questions, a few that were even difficult because our pastor had to admit that he made a mistake in overlooking an elderly members concern. I don’t trust him less because he admitted his mistake; I trust him more. I was proud that he has the character to say “I’m sorry.”
If you have been burned by an unhealthy leadership culture, the first step is to recognize it and speak into it. If you can’t stomach it anymore after a season of praying for reform, find a place where you see this kind of humility. It does exist. If you are wondering, “Am I crazy? Is this normal?” Talk to someone and sort through it. Please remember: It is a beautiful thing to find a pastor who is humble, available, gracious, and committed to primarily influencing his flock for God and God’s glory. Many exist. Find that for the good of your soul.