I spoke recently with a ministry leader who had resigned from his church staff position (a large church) because of the dysfunctional culture that he sensed. Having left the "system," he now realizes that it was a great deal more dysfunctional than he thought, and he is so glad to be out of it. When we are in a "closed" system that is dysfunctional or toxic, we may sense that not all is right, but it is when we get out that we realize how dysfunctional it was. This applies to staff systems as well as whole congregations where there is significant dishealth. Such dysfunction can be part of the historic DNA of the church, a dysfunctional board, a dysfunctional leader, or a "church boss" who wields unhealthy power and has a personal agenda.
These same dynamics play out on church boards!What are some of the signs of a closed and dysfunctional ministry system?
One: There is great pressure for people to think in similar ways and not to have independent voices. In closed systems, independent opinions that go against the "group think" are a threat and are not valued. Often, independent thinkers in ministries are either labeled as troublemakers or spiritually immature. Certainly, it is not safe to disagree significantly.
Two: Questions about the status quo are seen as disloyalty. This is especially true for senior leaders who are insecure and do not like their paradigms or opinions to be questioned. As long as one keeps the party line, you are "in." If you ask hard questions, you are marginalized.
Three: Candid dialogue is not allowed. Usually, it is the senior leader who sets the tone here. In closed systems, candid dialogue is a threat rather than a valued part of the culture. The reason is that such dialogue will inevitably challenge the standard line.
Four: In closed systems, senior leaders often protect themselves from accountability or questions. They hide behind a spiritual veil that sounds good but keeps people from getting too close. And they surround themselves with people who will agree with them and those who don't usually don't stay: either because they know how dysfunctional it is or they are marginalized or let go.
Five: When independent voices appear, or when someone steps out of the prevailing culture, there is great pressure put on them to get in line and conform to the standard opinions. It is a family system thing, and any threat to the prevailing culture brings pressure for conformity. Those who are deeply vested put pressure on independent voices to conform and get back in line. This is why, in dysfunctional staff situations and congregations, independent thinkers often leave. They see the system for what it is and know it is unhealthy.
Seven: The most telling moment for those who get out of such systems is how free they feel once they are out of it. And even though they knew it was unhealthy, they realized once out how unhealthy it was. Those who leave are also a threat to those who stay, who, at some level, feel that those leaving are not loyal. They have violated the family system.
If any of these characteristics are true of your staff or the ministry, you are to consider the possibility that you are caught in a closed and dysfunctional system. None of this has anything to do with a healthy church, staff, or board. Nor the love of Jesus. It is simply an unhealthy and dysfunctional family system played out in a congregation. And it happens all too frequently. Once out, people recognize how toxic it was.