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Fifteen Characteristics of Dysfunctional Churches

Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.

Number 95

 
1) Abusive Relationships
 
Abusive relationships are found when the organization (or parts of it) seek a Scapegoat (an individual or a group) designated to suffers pain for others or the organization. Anyone who chooses not to share in the Scapegoating will also be scapegoated and or face severe consequences (e.g. rejection, blame, physical and/or emotional abuse, censure, et al) for rejection of that role. Dysfunctional organizations tenaciously maintain the Scapegoat role, for without it, they would be unable to project their dysfunction on others but would have to bear the pain of the dysfunction themselves.
 
2) Perfectionism
 
This goes beyond merely seeking excellence. Instead, it is a controlling tactic by which individuals or groups replace a healthy sense of trust and spontaneity with a legalistic, over-zealous, destructive focus on minute defects of others, their leadership styles, their procedures, the organization, et al.
 
Mercilessly drawing attention to otherwise irrelevant minutiae, it directs energy from focusing on the big picture to an over-attention to details. Bureaucracy-perpetuating constitutions, detailed bylaws, and detailed policies and are all part of a dysfunctional organization's on-going prescription for aggravated conflict as they simply provides more ammunition for those enforcing the perfect way of operation.
 
3) Rigidity
 
Rigidity, like Perfectionism, relies on unbending rules and strict adherence to various "objective" standards (Constitutions, Policies, Doctrines, supposed denominational dictates, the "right" way). The main purpose of the bureaucracy (formal or informal) is to enforce and enlarge control over others while squashing spontaneity and risk taking. No surprises are allowed…although those in or seeking control may instantaneously and repeatedly change any dictum or direction without warning. However, hose being controlled must do everything the "right" way.
 
4) Silence
 
People don’t speak up at appropriate times in appropriate situations with appropriate people. Results: Repeated "unanimous" decisions that get undermined, sabotaging supporters.
 
5) Repression
 
Unspoken rules that it is not "Christian" to express feelings of disagreement, dissent, or anger. Instead, one must hide how one really feels or suffer censure for expression of emotions. Instead of expressing feelings, feelings must be hidden. Result: Repression ultimately must be released in episodes (or series of episodes) of uncontrollable anger and hostility.
 
6) Rationalization and Denial
 
Groups or individuals re-work truth and reality to fit their distorted view of situations, individuals, and other groups.
 
7) Triangulation
 
Triangulation is using "go-betweens" to communicate indirectly with other parties. Results: Unsuspecting, but sympathetic message-bearers become entangled in an unwanted destructive web of blame, anger, and miscommunication. Result: They become uncomfortable with their roles and jump ship.
 
8) Double Messages
 
Such duplicity or "two-faced" aspect is exemplified by people whose actions always have an opposite "flip side." Some examples: "I care/get lost;" "I love you/don’t bother me;" "I need you/You’re in my way," "Yes, I accept you just as you are/Why don’t you change!".
 
9) Lack Of Fun/Anti-Spontaneity
 
Dysfunctional churches can’t loosen up, let go, play and have fun. Being overly serious, humor will be seen an un- "unrighteous" and "undignified" church activity. When play is attempted, people get hurt…the deeps wounds experienced endure for decades as warnings to others to avoid use of fun humor. Any humor that is used is used to hurt (e.g. "low blow", humiliation, double messages, etc.)
 
10) Martyrdom
 
High tolerance by individuals or groups to bear abuse, pain, and extreme sacrifice for the organization. No real atmosphere or opportunities exist in the organization for expressing pain, loss and providing healing mechanisms. Designated martyrs are made to feel "deserving" of their pain.
 
11) Entanglement: The "Hooterville Syndrome"
 
This is the situation where everyone knows everyone else’s business but the information is never accurate, relevant, timely or constructively directed.
 
12) "We Care" Syndrome
 
An extension of the double messages mentioned above, dysfunctional individuals and organizations will often claim to care but, when given opportunity to assist, have other "priorities and needs" which will cause presented needs to go unmet on a regular basis.
 
13) Elevations of Dysfunctional Leaders
 
When certain attention-seeking individuals can’t find attention in their family, job, or elsewhere, the church becomes a convenient—and easy—place for such "attention addicts" to get their attention by becoming a Chairman of a congregational group. By not saying "no" to such incompetents, the church succumbs to an inordinate amount of incompetence, incomplete tasks, and other types of associated narcissistic fallout.
 
14) Inability to Grasp a Positive Vision.
 
Those entrenched in perfectionism, procedures, victimization and control will be too pre-occupied to deal with positive things such as present and future organizational vision. Instead, there’s a self-defeating zealous preoccupation with the past and present which leaves no possibility for deliberating regarding the future.
 
15) Dysfunctional Expectations of the Pastor
 
The general disrespect for the Pastoral Office, testified by an on-going succession of short-tenured pastors often indicates that either one or both of the following dysfunctionalities are present and operative in the given congregation.
      
a) Clerical Reductionism

Clerical Reductionism is when pastors are stripped of all appropriate authority. Instead of being encouraged and supported to carry out their ministry to the fullest appropriate extent, dysfunctional churches minimize the expectations of the pastor.

Activities are monitored in a legalistic manner with a clear intent to control--and limit--proper pastoral authority. Common monitored items may include the number and types of pastoral visits, whether various congregational policies are precisely followed by the pastor in every respect, limiting the pastor's "voice" in congregational affairs including those which are specifically pastoral responsibilities, micro-managing church office expenses, etc.

 
 b) Clerical Expansionism

Some passive dysfunctional congregations will compensate for their passivity by placing on the pastor the expectation to carry out all the responsibilities and functions of the ministry single-handedly. In these dysfunctional situations, the preacher is more than just a preacher.

He's the janitor, Sunday School Superintendent, Choir Director, Chairman of boards and fellowship groups, initiator and coordinator of every new ministry activity, and doer of everything in the church as others passive watch and judge. Pastoral spouses often are enmeshed unawares and/or unwillingly into this unhealthy "expansive" view of the pastoral office.

Young upstart pastors and their spouses fresh out the seminary, as well as pastors who start a ministry in a new location, are especially vulnerable to dysfunctional clerical expansionism.

Of Course...

Certainly every church has some of the above dynamics to one degree or another. However, the greater the number and intensity of the dynamics, the greater the degree to which the church can be characterized as "dysfunctional" and characterized by conflict.
 
Resultantly, the likelihood that the church will resist changes, pastors and their well-intended ministries, and other attempts and programs designed to address the various dysfunctions may also increase.
 
What Can You Do?
 
If the congregation you serve shows the above characteristics, the ministry can, at times, be a frustrating experience. However, if the pastor is aware of the congregational dysfunctionality, he may be able to keep his head above water and provide valuable, healthy, proactive leadership to address these marks of dysfunctionality. Here's a few suggestions:
 
1) Recognize that the dysfunction is the congregation's dysfunction.

It existed long before you arrived there. It isn't your fault. But you may be the God's chosen instrument to address the dysfunctionality and bring the congregation to real healing which only God can give.

 
2) Know and understanding your boundaries.
 

Dysfunctional churches are extremely effective at projecting blame and shame on pastors and other leaders for maintaining healthy boundaries. Study what appropriate, healthy boundaries are and consistently observe them.

 
3) Encourage your family to maintain healthy boundaries, too.
 

The pastor's spouse does not necessarily have to be chairman of the Women's group, Youth Director, Music Director, organist, and congregational secretary. Neither do children of the parsonage have to be "super saints" and present at every single congregational event.

These kinds of pastoral family involvement are often done either 1) out of an unbridled excitement and love for the Lord and/or 2) to avoid fear, guilt, shame and disapproval, may, in the long-term, do more harm for the church than good. Indeed, in more cases than one may want to admit, such involvement can be characterized as "rescue" behaviors which perpetuate the dysfunctions.

Instead, consider using your best gifts for ministry in other than congregational settings (e.g. denominational ministries, local social and/or Christian ministries not directly tied to your congregation, etc.). Remember, the ministry of Christ requires people to become "world Christians." Isn't that the vision you really want your congregation to capture? Model it--to your congregation's health!

 
4) Get a life...for you and your family outside the church.
 
Learn the joys of self-diversification and do yourself two favors 1) Enjoying--without guilt--the many activities which God offers pastors and their families in this world, many of which are not church-related and 2) Solidifying a healthy base for continued mental health and wholeness in what is sometimes a difficult ministry.
 
5) Continually clarify biblical teachings on the ministerial office.
 
Since it may be perceived as a conflict of interest to do so yourself, invite a trusted denominational official preach on what the office of the ministry is, what it does, and its relationship to the church. Clearly discuss the points you would like discussed in the sermon (or sermon series) with the denominational official so that they can be of maximum assistance to set forth a positive, scriptural vision for ministry.
 
6) Promote the scriptural understanding of lay ministry.
 
Emphasize the important role of the laity in their auxiliary ministerial capacity to work along side the pastor under his oversight. Ephesians Five is especially good for this. Keep it simple and reinforce the key concepts which Paul mentioned which make for a healthy Body of Christ.
 
7) Intelligently practice intentional ignorance.
 
Sure you know how to change the light bulb. But does that mean that the pastor should change it? Encourage lay involvement by letting it stay dark until a lay person discovers and fills the need.
 
8) Put aside your perfectionist tendencies.
 
They'll just make you irritable, impatient, and frustrated. Everything doesn't have to be done right now. There is, as the writer of Ecclesiastes noted, a time for everything. And, one might add, there's a right person to do everything, too. When the right time and the right person come together, you are on the right track to congregational health. Wait for it. Be patient. Wait. It will come. Be patient. There is no hurry!
 
9) Expect conflict.
 
Passive congregational members, like many adolescents, will do anything resist responsibility, including attack the one urging the responsibility. That's OK. After all, didn't St. Paul say that one should not desire to be an overseer unless he could manage his family well? Know you know why! But, without conflict, there is no renewal. Expect conflict...but expect god's promise of unparalleled renewal to result from the experience.
 
10) Continually encourage people to make a positive, significant difference for the Lord.
 
Besides prayer and the other nine suggestions above, this is perhaps the most positive, ministry-impacting strategy one can use to slowly transform and dysfunctional congregation. Share it with visitors, new members, current leaders, and the entire congregation. Encourage them to make a difference then let them do it--and watch the Lord put some real "G" forces into your congregation's ministry!
 
With deepest prayers to your congregation's health!
 
Thomas F. Fischer

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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:47 PM