Six Symptoms of a Dysfunctional Church

If you want to hear about really sick churches, then stick with me on this post. If you are tired about many of us writing about the sordid state of congregations, I understand. Skip this article and I will return with more good news in the near future.

So what is a dysfunctional church? By definition, it is a congregation that no longer carries out essential biblical purposes. In other words, the church does not function properly; it is thus dysfunctional.

Unfortunately, I did not have to look far to find over 20 current examples of dysfunctional churches. In my quest, I found six recurring themes. In every one of the congregations, the church manifested at least three of these symptoms.

  1. Severe theological errors are pervasive in the church. I’m not referring to differences over minute matters of eschatology. These errors to which I refer were denials of the essential truths of the Christian faith. In some cases, leadership no longer held to the exclusivity of salvation through Christ.
  2. The church is known as a “pastor-eater.” The congregation often terminated pastors on a regular basis. At the very least, pastors felt the pressure to leave. Short pastoral tenure was thus normative.
  3. The congregation experiences severe conflict. Any group will eventually have some level of conflict: families; fellow employees; students; and churches. But dysfunctional churches take conflicts to a new level, often resulting in emotional outbursts by members and leaders.
  4. Hardly anyone in the community knows the church exists. One of the simple steps I take in many consultations is to visit businesses within about a mile radius of the church. I ask them for directions to the church. If no one has ever heard of the church in that close proximity, I know something is wrong.
  5. The church is declining while the community is growing. An example works better here. Suppose your church has declined in worship attendance by 3% the past two years. Now suppose the community in which the church is located has grown by 4% the past two years. The contrast between the two growth rates is stark, a symptom of a dysfunctional church.
  6. The church is “family owned and family operated.” One particular family, even if it’s an extended family, makes all the decisions in the church. Nothing gets done without the nod of typically the patriarch or matriarch of the family. The church exists largely to meet the needs of one family.

Of course, when I write articles about the negative state of many congregations, I am rightly asked about potential solutions. We are putting together an entire video series on revitalization this fall. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, let me hear from you. What do you think of these six symptoms? What would you add?

Posted on July 2, 2014

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Pat Pope says on

    And sometimes the church isn’t necessarily family-owned and operated as much as clique-owned and operated by some longstanding and high paying members who feel entitled by virtue of their offerings and/or their long-term service throughout the church. Not to downplay their contributions, but it would really be more admirable if they were humble enough to make room for others in the playpen versus hogging all the power to themselves and their clique. They take caring about the church to a whole new level when they act as if no one else but them knows what’s best for the church. At that point, their caring turns into selfishness and blind ambition.

    • That is frequently called “pay to play.” Generations older than me see nothing wrong it as they know that in charities and political parties (and churches too, unfortunately) one’s opinion is not considered unless one backs it up with a large cash donation. This is why the younger generations, if they attend church at all, are not given a seat near or at the table. They have not yet paid the admission fee.

  • Best_I_Not_Say says on

    I think I attended this church! And for #3, the board meetings became hostile shouting matches. Angry words spilled over to Facebook and into nasty internet gripe sites easily found when the church name was Googled during that time.

    Somehow, they still exist, but only because of income received from sharing facilities with secular groups. There are not enough members left to actually pay the bills, much less reduce the heavy mortgage.

    • That is such a shame. If deacons or other leaders are unwilling to keep confidences, then I’d say the pastor is fighting a losing battle and needs to move on.

  • Sherry Finley says on

    This is so true. I see most churches are guilty of at least 3 of these. We need to pray for our churches.

  • A church that is declining while the community is growing does not necessarily equate to dysfunction. Demographics are changing more rapidly today. Millennials are more ethnically and racially diverse than ever before. Their diversity engenders various means of self-expression. They are the least overtly religious generation in American history. Nevertheless, generally speaking, they are very open to change.

    Know that failure is not irreversible. There is much to be learned from failing. Everyone makes mistakes. The question is how do we respond to our failures? Part of the character of Christ is humble service, righteousness, kindness, generosity, obedience and endurance. It is the goal of the church to “put on” Christ. We need to stop prioritizing self and lead by serving. We must put others first by discovering their needs and generously meeting those needs. And, we must endure! Remember – Millennials are very open to change!

    Propinquity is paramount to spiritual growth. Jesus’ relationship with the Father is our guide. Prayer and Scripture connect us with Him and one another. Not just in the church, but in the world. And, it takes team work to continue to grow. For Together Everybody Accomplishes More!

    When a goal with purpose is central success is possible. “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Discipline matters! Perseverance develops strength of character, and proven character produces hope.

    “How happy are those whose way is blameless, who live according to the LORD’s instruction.”(Psalm 119:1)

  • Matcha says on

    I recently left a church that had pastor turnover every two to three years. While the pastors left graciously, they left because the church was deacon ran and while generous in monetary support of missions, could not connect to the immediate community nor did they want to try. Cannot pour new wine into old wine skins.

  • From over 3 decades of being a part of the church body, I would add the following:

    1. A pastor who asks for input by leaders and then gets offended if you are not a yes person. He does not take the concerns of seasoned Christians and congregation members to heart. Instead, drives them from the church as ones causing division.

    2. Pastor hand picks his board.

    3. Pastor has control over church finances and does not allow accountability except from those who are yes people.

    4. Pastors or those in leadership who pull out the “Holy Spirit” card in order to manipulate and intimidate. In order to maintain control and keep their workers in line, they give directives insistin that is what the Holy Spirit told me. There is no way to refute that unless you want to be labeled rebellious, unteachable, causing disunity, etc…… You are left with two options: line up and shut up or leave and be labeled. Church leaders then warn the congregation to not make contact because they could become like that person, attaining the same rebellious spirit.

    • What you’re describing sounds more like a cult than a church. No pastor should exercise that level of control (and lest anyone think I’m putting down pastors, I’ve been one for 19 years).

      • Maybe so, but it’s terribly normal in the pentecostal movement.

      • @Cathy: Yes, I”ve seen that sort of thing in Pentecostal churches, but it’s not unheard of in Baptist churches (or more specifically, churches that call themselves Baptist). Regardless of the denomination, it’s dangerous to let one man exercise that level of control. Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolutely power corrupts absolutely.” Alas, pastors are no exception to that rule.

      • Dana Schindler says on

        It isn’t unheard of in most denominations, unfortunately. I’ve seen it in three other denominations as well. The last pastor of the church I serve died and no one knew how to do anything. He had handled all finances, made all decisions, etc. They didn’t even realize it was inappropriate until they had to figure out what was going on. Thankfully, they had a great interim minister, so my job is much easier than it might have been.

  • Rhonda Headley says on

    My experience will go along with #6. I have very a very dear friend with whom I had attended church with in the past. We always just seemed to go to church together, my husband and she and her husband but it seemed that after the second church fell in turmoil, the blinders were removed from my eyes and I realized that the problem was not the church, but our very dear friends. He was in charge of the music and she was in charge of EVERYTHING else, including all the financial aspects of keeping the books, The Ladies Ministries, the children’s programs, all the special occasion programs, Homecoming, even to telling everyone what dish to bring and also she was her husbands right and left hand. She did everything except play the piano for him. I never felt that this was the way things should be handled but because of our friendship, I tried to stay out of it and got along well with everyone in the church as my husband and I had a bad experience years ago when he was church clerk, we never want to hold that position again. After about 9 years of this in 3 different churches, God placed my husband and I in an awesome Southern Gospel Music Ministry and has blessed us tremendously, not financially because we do many benefits and shut in ministries, but it is not about money God takes care of our needs when we have Homecomings and such, He more than supplies. We are still friends with this sweet couple and she has recently had a severe heart attack and has had to give up her job of 39 years and stop most of her church work. I think that the church should be under the Authority of the Pastor, ( not dictatorship) but there are those that when allowed to let the Lord lead the church, are placed in positions of making decisions for the better of the church and one or two people can not run everything in the church. This would begin as this couple and then they would bring their family in to be behind them. I pray that God has His healing hand upon my dear friend but can never attend church with them again, we are attending a church with a sweet loving Pastor and His family and a Precious church family that is growing and has a wonderful loving spirit of Christ when you walk through the doors. God Bless You.

  • Scott Kinnamon says on

    Thom, forgive me if you have covered this before and I missed it, but have you written about the Bible speaking of elders in a plural sense and the accountability and encouragement and rest that this structure affords? Typical SBC churches in my area are basically run by deacons and pastors serve at the pleasure of the deacons and congregation, but largely the deacons. I believe the Scriptures teach that elders are to lead in the spiritual shepherding and deacons are supposed to serve and support with physical things mostly, like finances. In many churches, deacons are acting as elders and forgetting what deacons do. At any rate, I think that single elder/pastor structures, even in small churches, is unbiblical. Your thoughts?

    • brianharmon says on

      My church has all these symptoms going on. One thing that has helped recently is that we started having two elders meetings twice a month which includes the pastor being present. We went through 4 pastors in a relatively short period of time. I have been an elder for several years, but me and whoever the pastor was at the time were excluded from the decision or discussion process. We just received a new pastor this winter and we are being more aware of things that need worked on now that we are meeting together regularly.Plurality of elders or deacons is very beneficial towards going to the direction of becoming a healthy church.

      • I disagree. The problem goes above and beyond church polity. If the elders in the church are power hungry or more interested in their own agenda than God’s glory, the church will be just as dysfunctional as any other church. To blame it on church polity is simplistic, because even a “plurality of elders” is made up of fallen human beings.

    • Bob Allen says on

      I can speak to this for a moment. Sometimes, a church ends up with a deacon body that feels they must administrate the church because the pastorate is a revolving door and the congregation looks to the deacons to keep the church together through the times without a pastor.

      I currently serve in a church with a history of short-term pastors, which is not uncommon in our rural setting. This is not to say that what they are doing is un-Biblical because scripturally speaking there are no references to deacons being in administrative leadership. I merely bring it up because this seems to be an issue of conflict within some churches. Scripture tells us that deacons are to be well-respected servants to the community of believers. It does not tell us exactly how that works. That is where the autonomy of the local church becomes so crucial. Each church is welcome to self-govern how they see fit, but ultimately they have to submit themselves to the authority of Christ as He is the head of the church.

      Too often, churches with a history of in-and-out pastors fall into a place of maintaining their niche in their corner of existence instead of witnessing in the power of Christ to a fallen world. It becomes about keeping the doors open as a place of worship instead of ministering to the kingdom. It can become dysfunctional if it maintains for too long and people begin to feel entitled in their church because “they are the ones that have maintained stability through the years.” Which in and of itself is a fallacy because God is the one who has allowed the church to remain open. He may have used deacons, elders, or certain families to do so, but it is ultimately God’s work, not the hands of men that made it happen.

      Ok…rant over.

  • Jack Leathem says on

    How about 2 more…

    1. The Staff seems more to be “Hired Guns” than Pastor/Ministry Leaders – Competition among the church staff can be healthy, but in a dysfunctional family it can be the worst. The worst of the worst comes when the Pastor sides with certain ministries over others because there can be more “tithing bodies” found.

    2. Effective Communication is Non-Existent – People talking behind others backs, Pastoral staff not on the same page, a lack of effective communication is a symptom of dysfunction.

  • Wow. #4 sure is a tough one to even swallow. Not knowing the church exists rests squarely on those in the pews on Sunday morning. Here is a statement I used not too long ago from the pulpit (because God gave it to me) and it still chews on my heart: “If you’re not inviting people to church, what does that say about your belief that YOUR church has value?”

    I’ve pastored at #6 before … ouch … thanking God every day that He moved me from that ministry into a place where I can actually exercise what He called me by His grace to do.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      I understand fully.

    • john mushenhouse says on

      mark 2:17
      When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them, They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.

      Thom I don’t understand why he doesn’t know this, but I understand fully why he ran from where he was called. Unless, he admits that he never heard the Lord calling him to that church. Then who will listen to a preacher who admits he misses the Lord on his calling to a church.

      Matthew 9:13
      But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

      Luke 4:18

      The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised,

      I am sure I will be banned from this crybaby powerless blog for encouraging you pastors to grow and be men of the gospel. Also for refuting your defeatist attitude.

      Jeremiah 8:22

      Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? So why is there no healing for my people?

      Psalm 23:1
      The LORD is my shepherd, I lack nothing.

      What are you lacking in working with any flock. The Holy Spirit. Biblical instead of man’s ways. Power, strenght, mercy or perhaps you love a so called sucessful ministry instead of the people you are to shepherd.

      Luke 15:4

      What man of you, having an hundred sheep, if he lose one of them, doth not leave the ninety and nine in the wilderness, and go after that which is lost, until he find it?

      Start obeying the bible instead of crying in a blog.

      Then you wonder why your sbc is quickly losing members after members with weak and unfaithful shepherds.

      • John,

        In Matt 10:5-15 (cf Mark 6:7-11 & Luke 9:1-5), we also see Christ’s instructions to His disciples regarding the spread of the Gospel.

        5 These twelve Jesus sent out, instructing them, “Go nowhere among the Gentiles and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6 but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7 And proclaim as you go, saying, ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons. You received without paying; give without pay. 9 Acquire no gold or silver or copper for your belts, 10 no bag for your journey, or two tunics or sandals or a staff, for the laborer deserves his food. 11 And whatever town or village you enter, find out who is worthy in it and stay there until you depart. 12 As you enter the house, greet it. 13 And if the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it, but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. 14 And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town. 15 Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town.

        Here it seems we have a clear mandate to spread the Gospel wherever we go but not to waste time preaching to those who reject the Gospel (vv. 14-15, cf Acts 13:44-48).

        It is neither helpful, nor charitable, to engage in ad hominem attacks against your brethren. We have no insight, beyond what is illuminated here, as to the details of their ministries. The church would be better served if we could remember this.

      • Mr. Mushenhouse, I’m going to ask you what I ask every other self-appointed critic on this site: have you ever been a pastor? If the answer is no, then shut your sanctimonious yap because you have absolute no idea what you’re talking about.

  • As a church consultant and intentional interim pastor, I have found that every dysfunctional church I have encountered had severe leadership issues. There were trust and honesty deficits between the pastor, deacons, and congregation. A poor decision was made in the past that fractured the unity. Typically it happens when leadership fails to communicate clearly or they make decisions based on their belief that they are not accountable to the people. When this happens people feel devalued and an “US” and “THEM” environment is created. The church is split and the only way to repair it is to humbly beg forgiveness and submit to biblical accountability. In every case I have encountered the division came down to leadership impatience and a lack of integrity.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Thanks John.

      • My wife and I were were recently asked to leave our church.
        The pastor had put a member up to be a deacon and the following vote prevented that from happening.
        Over the next 2 years we were constantly harnessed from the pulpit on our not loving our fellow church members and questioned on our love for our brother. The pastor said one Sunday he was putting the man up for vote again and there was a respectful cry of discontent at this happening and the member withdrew from the nomination. 14 people out of 22 have now left the church because they didn’t reconcile with the member,of the 6 left in service are oddly people who didn’t put their names on the ballot sheet as requested. The worst part for us is he is a great teacher and biblically correct in all his teachings but couldn’t get past his nomination being rejected.
        Alas I think out membership at churches is over with,to many problems for me.

    • Linda R. says on

      Dysfunctional churches usually, if not always, sadly begin with leadership. I agree with John with his dysfunctional church encounters in being severe leadership issues. In our experience there was no accountability and a thirst for power took over.

      • From experience, I resonate very much with what John wrote and Linda’s concurrence. However there is hope when members of the congregation wait on the Lord, bear witness to the truth boldly, love one another and persistently seek out the help of rightful authorities to correct the situation. (I’m specifically referring to what members can do since John already mentioned what leaders must do).

  • Related to number 6, our small rural church(80ish on Sundays) has a great main family. I have never had a problem with any exclusivity or negativity by any of them. And there has never been any sense of direct pressure to “keep them happy”. But over the last two years as I have gotten to know our surrounding community many people say, “Oh, your from ‘that familys’ church….” Even though the family is fantastic, love the Lord, and are very humble, due to the fact that they represent such a large percentage of the church body people make some bad assumptions. And the sad thing is, though they functionally serve in the majority of leadership roles, they are constantly trying to give other people their “jobs” because they don’t want it to just be their family, but too many people are just used to ‘that family’ doing all the work and won’t do it themselves.

    After about 2 years now, we are starting to see some changes in those attitudes, but it has been a slow uphill climb. So while I completely agree with the problems inherent in one family having too much control(and can use it negatively) in my case the negative perception is created not by their behavior, but simply by their numbers.

    The biggest challenge for me regarding that is helping that family develop a greater sense of being sensitive to the fact that visitors will have a natural perception that everyone already has their “group” and they are going to be outsiders. Which is a really difficult problem to address. Even when you are intentional, the reality that half the people in a small group are related has a huge impact. Obviously the answer is not to ask half the family to worship somewhere else, but I am currently at a loss in how to be extremely deliberate in combating it.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      Your challenge is unique, but much more positive than those situations where the family is controlling.

      • Bestnot2say says on

        Adam, Being from a large family your words sound so familiar. My family just recently left the church we had grown up in…was taught biblical principles, became Christ followers and served as Christ led. And many in this church have been told we left because we didn’t get our way…far from the truth. Reconciliation was tried for months to which we were told…that we needed to be removed…like a cancer. Other church members say we refused to stand our ground. So each of us left when we could no longer worship there as well as possibly hindering the Spirit within the church. In the last few weeks our family has received letters from the church stating our names would be placed on the inactive roll. If we would like to return, we would need to ask the church for forgiveness and they would consider our request…that hurt. Each of us are searching for Gods direction and some have found other places to worship and work…others of us are still searching. It’s been a difficult journey. We pray for this church and it’s leaders…our hurt is diminishing but it’s still there with tears. Several of us have read “Wounded” by Anne Graham Lotz…it’s helping us heal.

        Maybe we were the family that #6 refers to….I pray not!

    • wanda sellers says on

      We are Jesus’bride.He courted us HE won us.HE still loves us and cares for us.What if we acted the same. way toward our members and leades once we “got” as we did when we courted?! I’m so happy and blessed HE still feels the same towards me!

    • Yowza, Adam! You just described a church we left-minus the family being great. 🙁 We left our church because there was a central clique that revolved around the pastor and his family. If you weren’t in the pastor’s clique, you didn’t matter or exist. It was a pastor and three or four other families. Oh, did I mention there was a bullying issue? Yep, it was from the adults all the way down to the children. One member was driven from the church due to the bullying. Who was the person bullied by? The pastor’s kids and members of the clique’s kids. This was ignored and quickly swept under the rug. Before we left, we addressed our issues with the pastor and an elder. We were quickly marginalized and our concerns were marginalized as well. The pastor did not seem to care whether we were leaving or not. When we reminded the pastor that God chooses the members the church and not the pastor , the pastor started to mock us stating, “Pick me, pick me!” We will never forget his arrogance. When we left, we were shunned and gossiped about. We were even gossiped about to members of our new church, even though we made a point to not mention our past church. This church was more like a cult. It si small and has remained so even though the community has enlarged. Th pastor and the clique families’ kids are now grown adults. They have not changed, I’m afraid.

    • I guess my issue with churches that my husband and I have attended teeters on divine superficiality. We have encountered the overcompensating hugs, dry attempts of concern, and impertinent fellowship. It puzzles me when parishioners engage in situational camaraderie during church events only. It is as though they are basking in vainglory and sanctimonious delusions. I can not understand how individuals approach us if we miss a Sunday service but, neglect to make a simple phone call to check on our well-being. I can not comprehend the intentional cultural ignorance or remarks made by a Christian icon in the church community who refers to black people as a disorganized, chronically tardy people with a passion to share their foodstuffs. On the other hand I am equally disgusted with the patronizing and enabling of certain minority parishioners who have displayed erratic, disrespectful, disruptive behaviors in the sanctuary based on the premise of willful ignorance or social depravity. I no longer attend church with the fervor and the velocity to be surrounded by God’s people. I now prepare myself for flighty affections, empty accolades and whimsical responses. Fortunately, these annoyances are not reflected by the moral majority, but by a distinctive few who are determined to INFECT the entire flock.

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