Six Symptoms of a Dysfunctional Church

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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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84 Comments

  • I pastored just such a church for almost 14 years. Senior Pastor helped to keep a lid on things but once he died the inmates began running the asylum. I tried and cried for about 4 years as the senior pastor before one Saturday morning while preparing for the Sunday service The Lord seemed to speak to me…”you’ve done all that I’ve asked. Move on. It is time to leave earthly kingdom building to earthly minded men.”

    I gratefully and graciously moved on. The Lord has since blessed with a new church plant and a loving church family. On occasion I bump into folks from the old church, none of whom do I hold any ill will. Their response is usually one of sorrow and regret, “like a divorce.” As we part ways I can’t help but praise The Lord as I think, “a divorce, not hardly, more like being set free from Egyptian captivity!”

    Stay the course Pastors, do what The Lord says to do when He says do it and He will make a way, GURANTEED!

  • That rushing sound was the sound of my breath being punched out of my gut. With the exception of #1, that’s our church despite 5 years of sweat, tears and prayers. Is there hope?

    • It often takes longer than five years to turn around a church that’s in a rut, but it can be done. W.A. Criswell said he was at First Baptist in Dallas for six years before he began to see even minor changes. Of course, the decision whether to say or move on is between you and the Lord, but I do encourage you to pray long and hard before you decide. After nine years at my last church I was about to call it quits, but I’m glad I didn’t, because those last two years were some of my most fruitful.

  • Melissa says on

    We suffer from 2,4 and 6. Our church has had a school/pre-school for the last 35 years and the director and her husband have served on the last 3 pastor search committees. Church leadership ran one pastor (who was actually making progress for the church) out of town, one promoted himself out of the church into Associational missions and we are now on our 3rd pastor in 10 years. The school takes priority over the church and interference in the school by the church is frowned upon. The church is dying and our family is looking for a church that wants to grow and has leadership that is not beholden to school directors and their friends on the board of deacons.

  • Anthony says on

    Thom,
    Thanks for another thought provoking post. Our church fits nearly all 6 but we are trying to change the spirit. In the spring our church worked through together, I am a Church Member. Everyone really liked it and it made people think. But still no overall unity in the church and we continue to stumble over #1,3,4,5, and major on 6. So, I am encouraged that the congregation wants to try Transformational Church. If we can just move a few degrees in the right direction I will be thankful. Is there much hope for a 40+- rural church that is dysfunctional? The church is just about a 100 years old. I would like to see it continue to grow. My family is wondering why I am so tenacious to make it work.

  • In my experience #2 and #6 are often related issues. The first church I pastries was in rural Iowa. The church celebrated its 150th anniversary while I was there. This church has a history of being a difficult pastorate. In the decade or so before I came the church had asked a man to resign because he was overly forgetful (it was discovered later that he had early onset dementia), and then saw a pastor nearly kill the church because the “power families” wouldn’t follow his leadership. The pastor immediately preceding me had a modicum of success but never saw any surge in attendance (the church never regularly averaged more than 65 in a given year). I say that for this purpose: strength honors strength. When my wife and I came to that church, with the same “power families” and the same mindset, we saw a magnificent response and after 5 years that church, known for its problems and “pastor killing”, was averaging over 145 each Sunday with a great AWANA program and small group ministry. It can be done but the pastor’s family must exhibit wise strength. Strong enough to face the opposition from “pastor killers” but wise enough to know when to be tender and sensitive to their traditions.

  • Hey, I used to pastor that church. How did you find out about it?

  • A church leadership should be mindful that “Remember your leaders who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” comes before “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.”

    The pastoral letters (and Hebrews, above) are filled with warning after warning to church leaders who speak empty words and are imposters of the gospel. Church leadership that fails to demonstrate repentance, reconciliation and restoration is not worthy of being followed, regardless of what they speak about.

    God will not be mocked.

    • The only words about God that I heard from church leaders were “God loves a cheerful giver” when asking for more money. Most of their words had to do with the current state (level of disrepair) of the parking lot, building, and especially the roof.

  • Franklin says on

    I always appreciate your listings and groupings. I wonder, however, if you are using the term dysfunction too broadly. As I work with churches I try to address malfunction (doing the wrong things) as well as nonfunctional (doing no things) along with dysfunction (doing things with improper motivation as a result of prior emotional injury).

    I have found that as distasteful as dysfunction is and as disappointing as malfunction becomes they are easier to correct and redirect than the nonfunctional state.

  • I’m currently pastoring a church with some of these qualities. It is tremendously difficult with gossip and back-biting more prevalent than outreach. I am so thankful that the power to change this environment rests not in me, but in God. Thank you for this article. It’s very helpful to identify the common dysfunctional areas. May God help us turn this around.

  • Dysfunction can be caused by bad leadership. This can be the result of leadership only listening to certain people. The fact that some church leaders only represent small blocs of people leads many of the younger generation to call for an elected board with some diversity of age and gender. It can also be that the leadership did not deal with a small issue while it was still small but let it develop into an open rebellion. While Americans in general don’t trust leadership or governing bodies, churches don’t always have leaders worth trusting or who represent everyone. Rarely does anyone see the agenda or the minutes of the leadership meeting. People may find out after the fact a small bit of what occurred. Pre-internet, a phone call the next day would be the only source of info. Few people even knew when the meeting would occur/had occurred or if they were permitted to attend or speak. Sometimes the rules are created as needed and subject to change at any time.

    • When you have people “in leadership”displaying an “Absalom” spirit by undermining the legitimate leadership of the pastor and people who are too intimidated by these people to take a stand against what’s clearly wrong, how can the pastor b an effective leader?