Ten Warning Signs your Church Culture is Rotten

One of the common refrains we hear when a church implodes is “I just didn’t know.” Sometimes that ignorance is willed or a legal cover, but for most folks, I think it’s true. Even plugged-in participants, church-rats, and lay leaders are just unaware of what a church in trouble looks like. Here’s 10 warning signs (in no particular order) that indicate you’ve got real problems – adaptive challenges or maybe even a rotten culture – doing real damage to your church.

  • Lead, then Leave. Think about the folks who have served on your governing board or who volunteer heavily at your church. Are they around, a year, 3 years, or 5 years in the future or did their leadership lead them out the door? If so, a hard look needs to be taken at expectations placed on them and/or what they are finding out about what’s really going on as they get more involved at the church. Chewing up your leaders is a surefire way to sap the impact of every ministry: a tragic end, given it can be avoided by listening to their experiences.
  • Getting a Steal. Can’t believe the pastor didn’t negotiate harder or that you scored a master’s level Director for Christian Education to come on for 29 hours (knowing they’ll work 40) so you didn’t have to cover benefits? Well, here’s some news. That’s not “good stewardship;” it’s petty and reveals an insanely unhealthy relationship to money in your church. If a living wage is not your baseline…if treating your staff like people isn’t important…if paying people what they’re worth isn’t an enacted value…then we’re all gonna’ need you to tell us what Jesus meant when he said to love your neighbor as yourself and God with all you have.
  • The Shelf. Churches are infamous for putting innumerable hours into doing surveys and assessments, or spending big $$$ for consultants, only to not act on what they reveal (or even sometimes, to even read them). Wondering what became of that worship styles survey from 2005? How about that tedious denominational assessment on your theology that caused you to get to brunch after the Baptists in 2009? Or the 2016 consultants report that pinpointed the source of your chronic staff dysfunction? I’ve never been to your church, and I can tell you where they are. They’re on “the shelf” – the graveyard of data that needs to be resurrected if you’re going to keep your doors open past the year of our Lord 2030. Now why would someone bury data that important? Because it says something someone didn’t want you to see, like your pastor’s sermons are “uninspiring,” your “love the sinner, hate the sin” theology is worse in practice than in theory, or maybe that staff member everyone loves is actually the one who stirs up drama and helps stage the pastoral coups. Data is helpful, but also dangerous, so unhealthy churches make sure it is in the back of the scariest basement room, praying the shelf falls out of the wall the night before the basement floods.
  • Broken Toes. Do various ministries keep stepping on each others’ feet? Did your youth group do a mission fundraiser for Haiti the month before the mission committee’s Haiti benefit? Did Adult Ed do a class praising a new book that the pastor labels heresy in the sermon the same day? Maybe your lay leaders and/or staff aren’t communicating. Maybe they can’t even stand to be in the room with each other. Maybe, they even are trying to beat everyone else to the punch for the prestige of being first. These are all big problems. You better heal those toes, and teach people how to dance together…or at least take off their boots.
  • One Program to Rule them All. Churches often have unhealthy relationships to their programming (you may call them ministries, areas, or departments). But, when one is idolized about all others, it’s a really bad sign. It leaves other programs to jockey for the leftover resources and creates hierarchies in the leadership and staff. I once saw a church decide in principle that their Mission Department would always be the last budget to be cut, even after someone said, “So, we’d be willing to fire our staff and send them to the food bank we support through the Mission Ministry instead of reducing our Mission budget?” Maybe it’s Worship or Youth, or Small Groups at your church, but if you’ve got a Program Idol, you better smash it and rethink how and why you always devote resources to one aspect of the Christian Life to the neglect of others.
  • Mission “to,” but not “with.” If your idea of providing Christian care for others is writing checks to poor people, developing nations, or the oppressed, you’ve got a foundational problem. If there’s only one thing we can take form Jesus’ ministry, it’s that presence is transformational. Every relationship Jesus builds is a comfort to the oppressed and a warning to the oppressor: the Kingdom of Heaven has drawn near! That incarnate message flipped his world upside down, and it will still do so today, but that means a lot of churches have to rethink writing checks as their sole means of being God’s hands and feet to the world. Just like the “getting a steal” mindset above, this practice betrays an unhealthy relationship to money, and is rife with paternalism and privilege. Show up with the people you want to care for, not as short-term mission tourism, or to present a check and grab a photo op, but to listen, and even to just hang out together. It’s transformative, and will show both partners how they can care for the other.
  • Filibuster Sermons. Ever get home after worship and realize that despite all the words coming out of their mouth, the pastor didn’t actually say anything in the sermon? Sometimes it’s hard to find the words, especially in midst of perpetual tragedy, but I’ve seen more than one pastor filibuster in the pulpit to placate their conservatives and liberals, their traditionalists and contemporaries, or their white supremacists and anti-racists. Better to say nothing, than to deal with their angry comments should you say something true, but “controversial,” I guess? If you pastor is filibustering in the pulpit, they’re either feeling heat from someone or have just given up. Either way, it’s not just a pointless sermon that you should be worried about, but whether honest interpretation and speaking truth are less important than pleasantries and false peace in God’s house.
  • Access Denied. Ever tried to get some simple info only to be told repeatedly “It’s complicated” or “I can’t share that with you?” Seen the eyes darting around the room or pointed straight at their shoes when you ask, for example, how the governing board felt about LGBTQ weddings at the church, how much money the pastor makes, or where those darn surveys ended up? You’ve got a culture of secrecy, and while there’s a good bit of confidential info that can’t be shared in a church, there’s even more that can and should be shared if for no other reason than transparency.
  • “&” Job Titles. If you have a Director for Mission & Communication, a Coordinator for Adult Education & IT, or a Pastor for Youth Ministry & Contemporary Worship, then you know the danger of the “&.” Unless those descriptions are written for a very unique person already in mind, you’re setting your church up for failure. Mission & Communication require very different skill sets. If you can run IT, you’re probably not gonna’ be crazy about your Adult Ed administrative work. And if you’re an pastor doing Youth Ministry, there’s no universe in which you should be running weekly worship to boot. The “&” implies more, but it’s actually less. Get rid of the “&,” focus your positions, and most importantly adjust the expectations of your congregants as to how various ministries can and will be supported in a time of diminishing attendance and giving.
  • The SNL model of Pastoral Staffing. Every year, Saturday Night Live brings on a few new faces, often to replace the ones they got rid of from the year before. A lot of churches do this exact thing with their pastoral staff, usually their Associate Pastors or Assistant Ministers. They chew up one year’s hire(s), and then move on to a new victim…errr…pastor. Now some pastors are steeple climbers, and they’re gonna’ bounce around every 2-3 years before they get to a steeple large enough to contain their greatness, but the majority of pastors are caring people who want nothing more than to put down roots in the church and community. So, if you are losing pastors on the regular, it is absolutely not because you’re “just so great at molding them that everyone else comes and poaches them.” It’s because you’re grinding their bones into dust. Stop, figure out what (or most often, who) is chewing them up, fix it, make amends, and then make it better for the next one, who’s hopefully there at least as long as Adam Sandler was on SNL (5 years if you’re keeping score at home).

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