Dysfunctional Churches


When a person takes a close look at America's institutions these days, what he frequently finds is dysfunction. I am thinking of a judge who routinely walks into court an hour late and, even then, appears not to know what will greet her on the docket.  I am also thinking about a national immigration and naturalization policy that is in a state of shambles. (Those who wait for years to enter the country legally must take a back seat to those who enter illegally. Citizenship and benefits are established by place of birth, which means that a Mexican peasant can have her baby in this country, and the child is immediately entitled to state welfare benefits.)  I am also thinking of the trillions of dollars which have been allocated by the American taxpayer to remediate wrongdoing by business titans who will never be compelled to face a jury. I am thinking of a student who is accepted to Harvard Law School because of her race, while other students are equally, if not better, qualified than she.

The government is not supposed to have anything to do with our churches, but things are just as out of whack there.  Our churches radiate perhaps the deepest dysfunction of any American institution. I know, because I am a clergyman and have seen the phenomenon with my own eyes.

CooperComm is a business consulting enterprise in St. Louis, Missouri. It exists to help corporations and other business entities reach, even exceed, their potential. Part of the firm's purpose is to pinpoint areas of dysfunction. Symptoms of dysfunction are described on its website. I commend them to you for consideration. These symptoms are starkly visible in the churches I know.

Constant Crisis. Dysfunctional organizations seem to be perpetually in crisis. Jobs are not performed in an orderly manner. Projects are completed under the wire and sometimes not at all. I have known many professionals, including ministers, who simply cannot manage their time effectively and always have a bead of sweat on their foreheads. They will routinely show up late for appointments. One minister I know was responsible for the publication of a new church directory, but always offered a lame excuse concerning why the project was not completed.  Lay leaders, who serve as liturgists and officiants, are known to leave town without notifying anyone of their prospective absence, resulting in confusion and chaos on Sunday mornings.

Organizational Insanity. Dysfunctional organizations cause a sane person to feel that he is confined to the psych ward of a hospital. One reason for the feeling is that the organization, downwardly spiraling as it is, continues to do the same things over and over again while expecting vastly different outcomes. A church's membership may be on the wane for thirty years, when "suddenly" the fact dawns upon the  leaders that critical mass has been reached. They ask one another with extreme urgency, "What do we do now?" as if the problem is of recent vintage. So they form a committee to look into the matter.  The committee, as it turns out, is comprised of many of the same people whose misguided ideas account for the church's predicament!

Pluralistic Ignorance. A dysfunctional organization is the paragon of ignorance. Virtually everyone is clueless about what is happening and why. As the level of ignorance grows, the tendency to consider fresh insights lessens. The organization gradually loses its moorings and any recognition of what its goals are. A dysfunctional church which preaches "no creed but Christ" eventually transforms its message to "no creed" and begins to wonder why the minister spends so much time talking about Jesus.

Relative Success. A dysfunctional organization has a losing attitude. A company that is on the financial ropes justifies itself by pointing to businesses which are either defunct or already in Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Clergymen likewise justify huge membership and monetary losses by observing, "We are really doing pretty well. All the mainline churches in this city are in the same boat, even worse."

Sub-Optimizing. In a dysfunctional organization, nobody is really minding the store. Simple prudence suggests that the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. Sub-optimizing dictates the opposite – that the sum of the parts is less than the whole. If each department in a company is operating with optimal effectiveness, it does not follow that the company is doing so as well. What is often achieved instead is a territorial mentality, in which the overall goals of the company are lost. Departments do not work together, but compete against one another, resulting in a broadscale crippling effect. The choir can be glorious on Sunday mornings, with its paid director and soloists, although no one seems to have any idea how or why music bolsters the overall mission of the church.  Does music, in other words, take precedence over community outreach?  Or can the two perhaps work together?  What role is music to play in the primary goals of the church?  Nobody seems to think seriously about such questions.

Indirect Causes. Harry Truman kept a sign on his presidential desk that read, "The Buck Stops Here." In a dysfunctional organization, it stops nowhere. That is because what does or does not happen in the organization is expressed with passive verbs. "Growth is down." "Sales have decreased." Unfortunately, those responsible for growth are never identified. Rather "growth" seems to have a life of its own. A vital organization states, "The sales department did not make quota this year." A healthy church admits, "Our evangelism efforts failed." When nobody takes responsibility, remedial changes never occur.

"I'm Sorry" is OK. Forgiveness is the American way, but progress is too. When a person makes a mistake that further cripples an otherwise dysfunctional company, an "I'm sorry" is often the end of it. A banker who extends an enormously improvident loan cannot simply say to his colleagues, "Gee, fellows, I'm sorry." If and when an apology is sufficient, that bank is getting perilously close to locking its doors or to operating under new ownership. Although churches are institutions that try to teach and practice forgiveness, placing persons in positions of authority whose delays and mistakes continue to result in an "I'm sorry" is the zenith of foolishness. Nor do strong churches honor inveterate backsliders, even penitent ones, with positions of weighty responsibility in the false hope of encouraging their participation. Leadership is a treasure that is slowly, but surely earned.

Segmented Morals. A dysfunctional organization is hypocritical. Successful companies are those in which all personnel talk the talk and walk the walk. There is a remarkable consistency in them between ideology and practice. When a government has a policy of zero-tolerance for illicit drug use, yet knows that banks throughout the country depend heavily upon funds generated by the drug trade, the government places itself in a dysfunctional, no-win situation. It is somewhat as contradictory as a church which preaches that its sole mission is to do the will of God in the community, but then insists upon staying in a building which consumes the major part of its budget. Even when a seven digit offer is made to purchase the building, the offer is not accepted. Of course, no one ever asks whether holding on to the building may mean impeding the primary mission of the church.

Multi-Class Society. Class antagonism is often present in dysfunctional organizations. A hospital maintains a separate dining room for its physicians. This dining facility provides sumptuous meals on a daily basis. When the physicians are enjoying fried shrimp and porterhouse steak, along with bananas foster for dessert, the nurses, orderlies, chaplains, and low-level administrators are eating hot dogs for an entree and a chocolate chip cookie for dessert. Before long, a nurse's assistant remarks acrimoniously, "I work just as hard as those doctors and have to eat slop!" Tension is created. Teamwork is compromised too. It is the same feeling that one in a church receives when she drives to the parking lot and sees a parking space denominated "The Rev. Dr. James L. Jones."

Broken Behavior-Consequence Chain. A dysfunctional organization forgets about the power of reward and punishment. When an employee works hard and achieves success on a project, her effort should be acknowledged and rewarded. An organization should not make promotions on the basis of anything other than performance. Superficial distinctions, like race, gender, and ethnicity, create tensions and destroy team spirit.  Likewise, when a person who only sporadically attends church and does not bother attending Christian education events is seated on a vital church committee, the impression conveyed to others is that church attendance and Christian education are irrelevant and that one's failure to participate in them is inconsequential.

Speaking candidly, I am not certain that it is possible for a church, without immense assistance from on high, to break the cycle of dysfunction.  All the factors described above seem to play into and to reinforce one another as if they were part of a single engine of destruction. The problem becomes all the more challenging when the organization is an unenlightened democracy, where the blind lead the blind. Many churches have really given up on lay leaders as "spiritual overseers" and have accepted decision-making by committee, as if democracy were front and center in biblical writ.  I have often mused to myself that it is a shame that someone with ironclad authority, like a General Pershing, Patton, or Eisenhower, could not walk into a church meeting and bark, "This is so much crap and a waste of time. I am hereby relieving every one of his duties. Go home and pretend you're important there!  What we need here is not pretenders, but workers!"

May 23, 2011