Every church has a culture. But how do you know if your church culture is toxic?
More importantly, how would you know whether you’re creatinga toxic church culture as a leader?
I’ve interacted with many church leaders (and readers of this blog) and the sad reality is that there is no shortage of toxic church culture stories and experiences.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it certainly isn’t always that way.
Leaders are the architects of culture.
You create a culture whether you intend to or not.
Part of shaping a healthy culture is being aware of the signs of toxic culture and the signs of health. I blogged about the early warning signs that a person may be toxic here. But organizations have different signs than individuals do.
So how do you know if your church culture is toxic? Believe it or not, the Bible gives incredible practical advice. The longer I lead, the more I use Galatians 5: 16-23 as a health check for me personally and for anything I lead. It describes what’s healthy and what’s not, for me as a leader and for the church.
Below, I outline 6 warning signs that are practical applications of that text.
1. The Politicians Win
One sure sign of a toxic culture is that you have to play politics to get anything done.
You know things have gotten political in your church when:
Decisions rarely get made the way they’re supposed to be made.
Most decisions happen outside of meetings or any agreed-upon process.
You can’t get a yes without offering something in return.
You have to continually lobby to be heard.
If you’re always jockeying, lobbying and courting favour to get the right decision made, it’s a sign your organization is unhealthy.
In the local church, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there’s sin.
When you do what you say you’re going to do the way you said you’re going to do it, you bring health to an organization.
2. What Gets Said Publicly Is Different From What Happened Privately
Another sign things are becoming toxic is when what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately.
When there’s spin on every issue and nothing can be said publicly without ‘agreeing’ on what gets said first, things are bad.
For sure, there are times where a situation is delicate and you will want to ‘agree’ on what gets said publicly to honour everyone involved, but in too many organizations few things that get done privately can be announced the same way publicly.
And to be sure…when you’re crafting any kind of a public statement, you want to pay attention to the words you use and perhaps even find agreement on them.
But the end product should never be the opposite or even different than what actually happened
I have good fortune of being part of several healthy organizations. I love it when people pull me aside and ask (in hushed tones), “So what’s the real story?” and I get to tell them “Actually, that is the real story.”
Living in that kind of culture really helps you sleep at night too.
3. You Deal With Conflict By Talking About People, Not To People
The golden rule of conflict is this: talk to the person you have an issue with, not about them.
In too many churches and organizations, the opposite is true.
People talk about people rather than to them.
The church should be the BEST organization in the world in dealing with conflict. Often, we can be the worst.
The next time you want to talk about someone (i.e. gossip), talk to them instead. If you can’t or won’t, there’s something wrong. Pay attention to that.
Want to know what’s wrong most of the time? You’re gossiping. That’s what’s wrong.
Trying to resolve conflict by gossiping about the person you’re angry with is like trying to extinguish a fire with jet fuel. It only inflames things.
Sure, occasionally you need advice from a friend about how to approach a situation. When I’m in that situation, I try to assume the person we’re talking about will hear everything I say. Even if they don’t, the fact that they could speaks volumes.
Do I always get it right? No, but it’s a great integrity check, and I try to live by it.
If you want more, I outline 7 steps for dealing with conflict in a healthy way in this post.
4. Church Fights Are Normal
Conflict is normal. Church fights shouldn’t be.
Yet so many congregations are in perpetual fighting mode. One day it’s the music. The next it’s the carpet. The next it’s some staff member everyone ganged up on.
Failure to get point #3 right above is the way churches come to see fights as normal.
Another reason churches fight regularly is because personal preferences have trumped organizational mission.
Essentially, members decide that what they want is more important than what others want or the church needs to make progress.
When that happens, it essentially pits one selfish person or group against others.
And when that happens, everything dissolves.
If your church is in conflict there should zero mystery as to why it isn’t growing.
5. There’s An Entrenched ‘Us’ And ‘Them’ Mentality
The church should always be a ‘we,’ not an ‘us’ and ‘them.’
Fundamentally, being a Christian causes us to die to ourselves and rise to something bigger than ourselves.
Some Christians forget that.
Whether the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality exists between factions in your church or between your church and the community, it’s always fatal to health and growth.
The job of a leader is to raise vision high enough and urgently enough for all of us to become bigger than any of us.
United, the church will always accomplish more than we will divided.
6. No One Takes Responsibility
So who’s going to fix your church?
Anybody but me.
As long as things are someone else’s fault, things will never get better.
A final sign your church is toxic is that no one takes responsibility. Instead, people just blame everyone else.
You can blame the culture, the pastor, the leader or anybody, but until you take responsibility, things will never get better.
Blame is the opposite of responsibility. Leaders who stop the blame cycle and take responsibility have the potential to usher in real change.
But, you say…”I’m not responsible for all of it.” True.
But you’re likely responsible for some of it. Own what you can. Own all you can.
If no one else does, still take responsibility.
You’ll get healthier. And if they don’t, you’ll leave and will eventually join a healthier church.
Health attracts health.