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“I never thought we were a dysfunctional family, but maybe we are.” That’s what the lady said to me after she had told me all the things that were happening in her family with her children and grandchildren. She and her husband were hard-core church members – the salt of the earth, but her family was a mess, and she wanted me to pray for them. Tearfully, she humbly confessed that she was spiritually drained and had been unable to pray for some time.

Most people are of the opinion that their family is fairly normal. It’s quite a shock if they ever realize that “normal” families are dysfunctional. Family therapists understand this. People in dysfunctional families, even severely dysfunctional families, assume that their families are no different than the next guy’s family. One result of this false assumption is that the family’s dysfunction is passed down from generation to generation.

Church families suffer the same delusion. Most churches are dysfunctional in some way and at some level, and most church members would argue that their church is a  “normal” church. Unfortunately, if dysfunction is the norm for churches, they are correct. They just don’t realize, or won’t admit, that they are dysfunctional.

In churches, dysfunction takes on an array of forms and combinations of forms: unresolved conflicts that span generations; personal agendas that ignore biblical mandates; unhealthy communication patterns; distrust of leaders and one another; weak and ambiguous structure; a continuous turnover of pastoral leadership; a lack of purpose and focus on mission; entrenched traditions; and a resistance to new methodologies, among many other things.

Many churches are like functional alcoholics. They have a serious problem, but somehow manage to function. They are functionally dysfunctional!  They somehow maintain a level of functionality and, therefore, don’t recognize their unhealthy way of doing church as a “problem.” 

Pastors who step into these churches face many challenges. One of the biggest challenges is avoiding being drawn into the dysfunction and becoming another participant in the drama that is always being played out in these unhealthy churches.

Dysfunction is a spiritual black hole that has an enormous gravitational pull. It’s a powerful negative energy that sucks people in. Pastors, and other leaders, who enter the picture without an understanding of the church’s unhealthy history, will easily be drawn into the ongoing dysfunctional drama. 

Dodging the dysfunctional draw is tricky and tiring. Leaders must be constantly on their toes and alert to the traps and tripping points that are strewn everywhere. They must avoid the toxins that have become inherent in the DNA of the church. Highly dysfunctional churches unleash harmful amounts of “pastorcides” into the church environment. That’s one reason for high levels of pastoral discontent, burnout, and brief pastoral tenures. 

Resisting the dysfunctional pull might involve: avoiding alliances that alienate others; not becoming a policeman by stepping into conflicts one doesn’t understand; refusing to become angry and retaliate when criticized, especially from the pulpit; and recognizing one’s own dysfunctional traits and tendencies, which could potentially contribute to and help perpetuate the dysfunction. It is imperative to resist the temptation to “fix” everything and everybody.

As always, Jesus provides a great example of leadership at this point. In Luke 12, Jesus is preaching and teaching some important truths about the Kingdom. (He never allowed himself to get off point.) Right in the middle of his message, someone interrupted him with one of those “Scratch your head, where did that come from?” kind of statement or question we as leaders often get.  It was a demand really: “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the inheritance with me.” 

There was a dysfunctional black hole there that Jesus totally avoided. The way Jesus responded to this request should serve as an example to all of us who lead people in broken and unhealthy relationships. He replied, “Man, who appointed me a judge or an arbiter between you?” In short, he told the man and those who were listening, “That’s not my job. That’s not what I was sent to do!” And he went right back to teaching, using that request as a springboard to teaching further truths about Kingdom living and the way to spiritual wholeness and health. 



User Comments – Give us your opinion!
  • phil holmes
    Dysfunctional leaders seem to be attracted to dysfunctional ministries. The key to their survival in that ministry is to perpetuate the dysfunction. A healthy leader avoids toxic ministries. If you find yourself repeatedly drawn to ministries that are unhealthy then a visit to a professional counselor is in order. To quote the song, you're "Lookin' for love in all the wrong places." Get help!
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Hal West
Hal West spent 33 years as a pastor with an emphasis on creating effective change and transition in a traditional church setting. He is the President of Compass Coach and Consulting (compasscoachandconsulting.com) whose mission is to assist pastors and churches find the road to success. He has authored 3 books. His latest is The Pickled Priest and the Perishing Parish: Boomer Pastors Bouncing Back (CrossBooks Publishing, 2011)
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