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Disillusioned by the Church

When organizational culture makes you wonder if you belong

Lisa could not believe what she was hearing.

The worship pastor at her church was clearly a very gifted musician. On Sundays, he consistently produced the highest quality worship program she ever experienced. Unfortunately, it was evident his quest for musical perfection came at a high relational price. Simply put, Peter was a jerk. He unapologetically bullied people, using guilt and shame to manipulate others to do what he wanted.

After another member of the music program quit the ministry, Lisa finally decided to address her concerns with her supervisor, the senior pastor. “Why does Peter get away with treating people this way?” she asked tentatively. Immediately, the pastor shut down the conversation with a curt reply: “Because I don’t want to have to find a new worship pastor, and neither do you.”

Lisa was shocked, angry, and discouraged. The church’s written core values clearly stated the organization expected staff to have “proven character and proven ministry.” Yet here was Peter, assembling a superior product on the weekends that somehow excused his appalling interpersonal behavior toward others throughout the week. If even the senior pastor was unwilling to address the problem, Lisa felt powerless to serve as an agent for change. What can I do, she wondered, and how long can I keep working in this current environment?

At some point in ministry, most leaders will become frustrated by some part of their church’s organizational culture―also described as a church’s DNA, personality, or simply “the way we do things around here.” Frustration can arise from many issues, including:

  • Lack of alignment between stated and actual values
  • Inconsistent application of policies
  • Unhealthy leadership behavior (e.g., moral or relational)
  • Incompetence or dysfunction sanctioned to avoid conflict
  • Leadership ceilings that cannot be rationally explained
  • Differing interpretations or understandings of critical terms (e.g., traditionally common words and phrases that are defined differently by the user, such as “team,” “missional,” “gospel,” or “authority”)

As a leader, if you find yourself becoming discouraged by some part of your church’s culture, here are some suggestions to help abate some of the internal and external tensions you may be experiencing:

Determine the nature of the issue in question.

Is this a rare or isolated incident, or is it indicative of a broader systemic problem? Both need to be addressed, but the rare occurrence is usually easier to resolve. In addition, evaluate whether the tension you are experiencing is rooted in differences in personality, preference, or culture. You may be a carefree West Coaster―or a vocal Southerner―who has taken a position in a New England church where people may be more emotionally reserved.

Organizations have distinct personalities that are an amalgamation of both the people within them and the culture around them. In my experience, personality “fit” between a leader and the organization can be one of the greatest sources of conflict and frustration, yet it is rarely considered during the ministry placement process.

Pay attention to your gut, but don’t rely solely on your own perception.

Something is causing you to feel uneasy, alarmed, angry, frustrated, or discouraged. Do your best to analyze what exactly you are feeling, and what specifically is triggering those emotions. Be aware of possibly projecting past negative experiences onto your current situation and relationships. Enlist the perspective of wise outsiders who know you and can ask clarifying questions about you and the situation. Compare what you are observing within your church to your understanding of biblical principles. If needed, take a break and get away from the church and the issues for a bit, allowing time to gain emotional distance and additional perspective.

After this analysis, you may still be the only person who sees the issue as you do―which can feel especially disconcerting as you question both your perspective (“Maybe it’s just me?”) and everyone else’s (“Why doesn’t anybody else see this?”). Resist any urge to spread negativity to others in an attempt to bolster your position. Remain grounded in prayer, asking God to reveal any blind spots in your own perception and in the perception of others.

Weigh what you can live with, and what are deal-breakers.

Ask yourself, how big of an issue is this to me? Is it something that must be addressed immediately, or can it wait? Can you fulfill your ministry effectively even with these concerns present? The answers to these questions will be different for every leader depending on her personality, highest values, place within the organization structure, and even season of life. You may decide, for example, it is more beneficial to overlook certain issues for a season so as not to disrupt the personal or professional lives of your family members.

Change what you can.

If you have determined there are issues that need to be addressed, start by changing what you can within your own sphere of influence. For instance, if you are the children’s ministry director and you have detected a culture of gossip within your church, you can start changing the overall organizational culture by helping the leaders within your ministry understand―and teach―what gossip is, why it is detrimental, and how to handle it within your ministry. The outward ripple effects from your own domain can be very powerful and should not be underestimated.

Talk with organizational influencers.

Beyond your own sphere of influence, raise the issue with others possessing credibility in the church. Start with those with whom you have the closest working relationships, asking for their help in shaping their own areas of influence. If you decide it is necessary to take your concerns to those at the top of the organizational chart, be sure you have spent adequate time in preparation and prayer. Remember: your role is to be faithful to what God has called you to communicate, and you cannot control the other party’s response. Be prepared with your own contingency plans depending on the results of your conversations.

Note that the higher you address your concerns, the more crucial it is for you to have completed a thorough analysis and emotional work, so as not to be viewed as a discreditable outlier. Whenever possible, have documentation (i.e., data detailing facts, dates, and trends, organizational policies, written constitution and core values, and transcripts of conversations) to give additional support to your concerns.

Consider a change in ministry.

There are times when―despite your best efforts―you realize change is not going to happen, or it will not happen at the pace at which you feel it needs to for your own ministry effectiveness. In those cases, consider whether it’s time to make a change. This might look like a change in position or ministry within the church, or a change to a new church entirely.

Pray earnestly and seek wise counsel about the best course of action. If you feel God directing you to leave, do so graciously. Humbly voice your concerns to the appropriate parties, shake the dust from your feet, and move on. Leave ill will behind. Continue to seek the best for the church and your relationships within it. Provide the information and resources needed for your successor to succeed. Trust God will bring healing to your heart, and that he can redeem any difficult situation or transition.

Organizational culture is a powerful force. My prayer and trust is that God will direct you―as a woman of influence―to the right actions, time, and place to make a difference.

For more information regarding church culture and ministry effectiveness, here are some additional articles to use as resources:

The Root of Ministry Effectiveness

Diagnosing and Changing Church Culture

Angie Ward is a leadership teacher, writer, and coach. She and her pastor-husband, two teenaged sons, and one very spoiled beagle live just outside Indianapolis.

August14, 2017 at 12:15 PM

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