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6 Signs Your Church Is Dysfunctional

dysfunctional churches

In recent months, I have run across several people in dysfunctional churches and unhealthy 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 about dysfunctional churches when a couple I know was approached about working at a prominent Christian organization. They expressed appreciation for 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 dysfunctional churches: it often does good things on the outside while destroying the souls 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 about dysfunctional churches.

6 Signs of Dysfunctional Churches 

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.

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Ed Stetzer, Ph.D., is a professor and dean at Wheaton College where he also serves as Executive Director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. He has planted, revitalized, and pastored churches, trained pastors and church planters on six continents, has earned two master’s degrees and two doctorates, and has written hundreds of articles and a dozen books. He is Regional Director for Lausanne North America, is the editor-in-chief of Outreach Magazine, and is frequently cited in, interviewed by, and writes for news outlets such as USAToday and CNN. He is the Founding Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum used by more than 1.7 million individuals each week for bible story. His national radio show, Ed Stetzer Live, airs Saturdays on Moody Radio and affiliates. He serves as interim teaching pastor of Calvary Church in New York City and serves as teaching pastor at Highpoint Church.