6 ways you can help unhappy church families

Dec. 30, 2016 | by Brian Thorstad

I’ve done some writing in this blog on the subject of dysfunctional church systems, which I’ve referred to casually as “unhappy church families.”  By whatever name, these congregations are often characterized by one or more of the following:

  • Unofficial heads of the family – Someone other than the pastor is the leader.
  • Triangles – Three are involved where it should be only two.
  • Identified patients – The problems of the group are blamed on one person.
  • Perennial victims – This individual manipulates without bullying.
  • Alliances – “I’ll join your battle if you’ll join mine.”
  • Extreme homeostasis – An unreasonable resistance to change.
  • Enmeshment – If one member is miserable, we should all be miserable.
  • Co-dependency – Needing to be needed by (and control) the needy.

So what’s a pastor to do? Are we helpless in the face of such problems? Not at all. The following are six things you can do to help change an unhappy church family:

See the system. Seeing the system that exists in your congregation is the first step toward becoming God’s instrument to change things for the better. If you’re not sure you’re seeing the problems clearly, ask your leaders who have been around longer than you have. Do some explaining of the above characteristics; your leaders will speak up and identify the people and problems for you.

Join the system. I don’t mean that you should join in the dysfunction; I mean that you must really get to know people, you must love them and you must like them and they must know it. Paraphrasing Erdahl’s Law from Lowell O. Erdahl’s 10 Habits For Effective Ministry: “The pastor who is properly bonded to his people can get away with just about anything; the pastor not properly bonded to his people can’t get away with anything.” 

I’m not suggesting you try to get away with something bad but I am insisting that you must connect with people before you can challenge them.

Challenge the system. You can challenge the system gently by simply asking questions: “Does she always act like this when not enough people sign up for her events?”  “Why do we have to walk on eggshells around Fred if he’s a godly man?” “Why is it acceptable here to stand up and call names during church business meetings?”  “Has the church ever disciplined Ernie for how he treats the church’s pastors?”

Challenge individuals. There are good people in our churches who are behaving badly simply because no one has ever challenged them to change. The Apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews (1 Corinthians 1-3 and Hebrews 4-5) insisted that their readers grow up. We can do the same, reminding our brethren that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they are response-able (responsible) for their own behavior.

Use teachable moments. A teachable moment can be:

  • A crisis – Like a key player in your unhappy system becoming ill or getting fired
  • A conflict – When a difficult person is in a dustup with someone other than you and comes to you for help
  • Re-configuration – When a troubled and troublesome individual leaves the church, moves away or dies.

Pay the price. Systems do not change without resistance. In many cases, the man or woman or group which challenges the system is going to face fierce opposition. Bullies and manipulative perennial victims are accustomed to the system functioning the way it always has. They are furious with whoever changes the rules of the game.

I am not suggesting that you should run from this challenge. I’m suggesting that you should bravely face it with your eyes wide open and your dependence upon God alone.


Topics: Conflict, Consulting, Leadership, Pastoral Care, Personnel & HR, Turnaround

Brian Thorstad

Brian Thorstad is a Redevelopment Transitional Pastor. He is the author of Heaven Help Our Church! (A Survival Guide for Christians in Troubled Churches) and Redevelopment: Transitional Pastoring That Transforms Churches.

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