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Fifteen Characteristics of Dysfunctional Churches
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- 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
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 dont speak up at appropriate times in appropriate situations with
appropriate people. Results: Repeated "unanimous" decisions that get undermined,
- 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/dont bother me;" "I need you/Youre in my way,"
"Yes, I accept you just as you are/Why dont you change!".
- 9) Lack Of Fun/Anti-Spontaneity
- Dysfunctional churches cant 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 elses 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
- 13) Elevations of Dysfunctional Leaders
- When certain attention-seeking individuals cant find attention in their family,
job, or elsewhere, the church becomes a convenientand easyplace 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, theres 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
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
- 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
- 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
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
- 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
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:47 PM