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How to Spot Dysfunction

The Hard Reality of an Unhealthy Church Culture

By: Josh Roberie

Falling for Autumn

What season has your favorite weather? For me, it is Fall; hands down. Maybe if I had better abs, I would enjoy pool weather more. But as of now, I and my potbelly LOVE the feel and smell of cool crisp Autumn air.

The leaves are falling in Birmingham, and I could not be happier. My oldest daughter loves to collect these firey snowflakes. As she was showing me the best of her picks yesterday, I noticed each had dazzling color, as well as brown spots, and bits where bugs had chewed through their delicate wings.

If we are honest, it is the same with our hearts. Every soul has its bright spots as well as scars from disappointments, brown spots from being burned by a relationship, and even areas where life has eaten through our hopes. If this is true for each person, then it is also true for where people gather in deep relationships, like church.

The Real Danger

It can be hard to know what to do when the hard realities of an unhealthy church culture or ministry leader impact our lives. We can start, though, by being honest with ourselves, before we focus on what others can do better. There is a scripture in Psalms that has helped me get perspective on this:

“Its walls are patrolled day and night against invaders, but the real danger is wickedness within the city.”

Psalm 55:10

One of the keys to surviving a dysfunctional church culture or leader is not being able to identify what is unhealthy in someone else, but the ability to be honest with yourself.

Like Psalm 55:10 says, it can be easy to focus on problems outside of the city while ignoring the threat within the walls of our own hearts. In other words, it’s easy to point out what others are doing wrong instead of taking responsibility for what is wrong inside of us. Successfully navigating these turbulent waters of the souls takes a level of self-evaluation, many are not willing to accept.

A Difficult Question

I have had many conversations with church members and leaders who say their pastor or church culture is toxic or unhealthy in some way. If you are in a similar situation, then let me ask you a difficult question others and have asked me. It is a consideration that is essential for everyone in the process of reclaiming spiritual health after experiencing dysfunction.

Can you be honest about what attracted you to a place that is unhealthy? Are you able to come to terms with what is keeping you there even though you know it is not the best place for you? If you do not first identify what is going on in your heart, then even if you are in an environment you need to leave, you will find yourself in similar circumstances in the future.

That’s a tough one, but it is vital to moving forward in a healthy way. I can often tell how ready someone is to forgive and begin writing a new future for their story by how they are able to process this “honesty principle.”

Soul Medicine

Blaming others will never lead to growth in your life. While there may be people who are not doing the right thing, you always have a choice to take responsibility for yourself or blame others. Complaining and criticizing without adjusting on our end only covers up in pain and unhealth in ourselves. It doesn’t do anything to resolve the real issue. Unhealthy people blame others for their dissatisfaction in life. Healthy people take responsibility for the change they need.

If you have been hurt, you may not be able to tackle this issue right away. But doesn’t most medicine taste a little sour at first? To truly get healthy, we should be willing to take the medicine we may not like at first but will bring about the desired result in the end. We have to face the dysfunction in ourselves, so the unhealthy habits and perspectives we have developed in an unhealthy environment do not continue and impact ourselves and others down the road.

What do you think? I’d love to hear from you about this! Please leave a comment on Facebook, Instagram, or this post.

Further Reading on this topic:

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Church Culture Shift

Changing the Atmosphere of Our Faith

*I have previously posted two blogs and making a church culture shift. They have been so popular that I decided to edit them down and combine them into one post. I hope this makes it easier for everyone to get the full story in one post. Thanks for reading!

Sweet or Salty

Do you have a sweet tooth, or are you more of a salty snack person? I’m definitely in the sweet tooth category. My love for sugar was something my college roommate couldn’t help but notice. One day, he opened the pantry and asked, “How can you eat all of this junk?” 

“What do you mean?” I replied with a spoonful of Blue Bell ice cream in my mouth.

“Everything in here is full of sugar. None of this stuff is healthy for you.”

I went to the pantry door and looked in. Zebra cakes, mini chocolate bars, bags of chips, and other highly processed sugary foods stared back at me.

A light went off for me at that moment. Believe it or not, I thought I was eating healthy. This may sound surprising, but it is because of the standard I was comparing myself to. My diet was much healthier than what was typically on our family menu at home. But compared to my friend’s family, which includes multiple diabetics, these sugar snacks were foreign objects.

This situation showed me something significant about perspectives. I had moved out of my family home, but that culture was still influencing my point of view. Was it possible this was happening in other areas of my life as well? Maybe, in more ways than one, I didn’t just need to get out of some of my old environments but also needed to get their influence out of me.

The Soil of Our Souls

It is the same with our religious perspectives and church cultures. Our church cultures are the atmospheres of our faith, the soil where our souls are planted. Leading in an unsustainable way, or being rooted in a sick culture, does not wear you out immediately. But over time, the burnout and high turnover reveal that a change needs to be made. 

Often, culture influences our decisions and behaviors without us being aware. This can make it challenging to find a healthy rhythm for our lives after experiencing dysfunction of some kind. How do we make a change when we realize we need to change the atmosphere of our faith?

Five Steps To A Healthy Church Experience

I want to suggest a five-step plan for those in need of a church culture detox. This should be helpful even if your environment is not bad, but you are just looking for a new way of doing church life.

Step 1: Get out of the old culture.

Identifying there is a culture problem does not mean you are not part of it. Sometimes it is easier to see in others what we need to be seeing in ourselves.

That is why the first step is simply to get out of the old culture before you begin pointing out what is wrong in the old culture to others. If you genuinely believe you are in a dysfunctional culture, then the best thing you can do is move on so you can begin to heal in the right environment.

Step 2: Get in a new culture.

Breaking a bone requires a visit to the doctor’s office. It does not matter whether the incident was your fault or not. The same principle applies to making a culture shift. Detoxing from a dysfunctional culture includes slowing down for a season and changing your surroundings, at least temporarily.

Realizing you were headed in the wrong direction for you is not enough. You also need to discover the right path moving forward. A new environment does not only give you a place to heal but also time to download a new blueprint for life.

Step 3: Get the old culture out of you.

A change in scenery is helpful, but it is not everything. Although we may change environments, it also essential to allow God to transform the atmosphere of our hearts.

In the process of reclaiming spiritual health, your old behaviors may return despite your best intentions. We have to remove these old ways to make room for the new culture to take root. This shift is a process, not a switch. It is a wrestling match, not a quarter-mile drag race.

Step 4: Get the new culture in you.

Changing the atmosphere of our faith does not happen after reading a book or attending a conference. There is no course that, in and of itself, can take your soul from toxic to healthy. When it comes to culture, it is what is absorbed in a healthy environment, in-between teachings, and events that is most transformative.

Step 5: Thrive in the new culture.

Some tests are passed, not by your success and performance, but by your healing and transformation as a person. Your growth as a believer should not have a finish line. Instead, we should trust God with each step in our journey to draw closer to Him and become a better reflection of Him to those around us.

Trading exhausting religion for refreshing faith is not an easy process. It takes time to unlearn certain things while holding on to others that are beneficial. I hope these five steps help you on your way to discover a more authentic and enjoyable Christian experience.

Further Reading on this topic:

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Honor Is a Choice, Not a Response

How to Guard Your Heart in an Unhealthy Church Culture

Do you remember the first time you experienced a broken heart? Someone once told me if you are going to love, then you have to be willing to get hurt because it is impossible to love someone without them disappointing you at some point. While churches should not be a place of hurt, if you are going to serve in ministry and honestly give your heart to what you are doing, then at some point, the same advice applies. You are going to have the opportunity to guard your heart.

Three Kings

A great resource on this topic is the book A Tale of Three Kings by Gene Edwards. I read it regularly. It is like a vitamin for my soul. It tells the story of David’s life, and how he chose to honor even when those he was serving and eventually leading were dishonoring him (aka trying to kill him). If David can write ballads honoring Saul at his death, then you and I can certainly find a way to honor the difficult people in our lives as well.

One of my favorite quotes from this book is, “When Saul is chasing you, he is actually chasing the Saul out of you” (my paraphrase). When you respond to Saul with dishonor, you are becoming like Saul yourself. Finding a path to honor, no matter how painful, will cause you to become a better leader; like David.

What David Sees

What I learned from this book changed the way I view the principle of honor. A David always finds the Saul in himself and the David in others. A Saul only sees the David in himself and the Saul in others. Taking this approach focuses on the faults in others. It refuses to accept any other role other than a mistreated David. There is another way.

We guard our hearts, not by getting even, or denying there is a problem, but by honoring as we move in a new direction.

We must not allow feeling like a victim to excuse hurting others. If we want to avoid becoming the villain in someone else’s story, then we must not accept the role of a victim in our own.

What Honor Says About You

Honor is a principle that guides your life no matter what environment you are in at the time. There is research that states, not only does what you say about others say more about you than them, but it is also linked to your emotional stability. When you choose to honor even when someone doesn’t seem to deserve it, you are showing that you are honorable and can be trusted. Not to mention a more kind-hearted person on a path to happiness instead of despair.

Honor shows humility. When you honor, you are saying there may be more to the story than you presently know. It demonstrates you are willing to give God room to work in someone else’s life even when it is inconvenient for you. Honor shows that your hope is in a perfect God, even when you are working with imperfect people.

What Honor Is Not

Honor doesn’t mean we are not honest. Some want to “be real” and ignore the biblical principle of honor. Others mistakenly believe that honor means ignoring problems when something is wrong. Neither of these is correct. We must be honest in an honoring way.

That is what we are going to talk about next; how to be honest when there is something genuinely wrong, and a change needs to be made.

This blog is part of an ongoing collection of blogs I am sharing on Soul Gardening. This post is part 2 of 5 on the steps you should take before making a culture shift. You can read part one here.

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Cultures Problems

4 Keys to Diagnosing Culture Health

By: Tahe Governor

I came across this excellent article recently and thought it would fit nicely with the collection of blogs I am currently writing. I asked Tahe if he would mind sharing it on my site, and I am thrilled he is contributing. You can find the original post at yaresource.com.

How Are You Feeling?

You ever get the sense you don’t like the way things feel in your ministry or on your team?

Maybe you have excellent team members and a well thought out strategy, but still, something doesn’t feel right? It’s nothing you can point to specifically, but something just feels off.

You could have a culture problem. 

Why Culture Matters

Many leaders talk about the importance of culture. Pastor Chris Hodges of Church of the Highlands teaches that an organization is built around people, systems, and culture. If an organization isn’t healthy and growing, there is a disconnect somewhere between these three.

People is about recruiting, developing, empowering, and placing the right people in the organization.

Systems are about the structures and processes in place to support, grow, and deliver the vision of the organization.

Culture is the overall feel, mood, norms, and environment of the organization.

Pastor Chris goes on to say that though all are important, culture trumps them all.

Good News and Bad News

Your church has a culture, and your team has a culture. Your culture is either working for you or against you. You can have culture either by decision or default. And when it comes to the culture, there’s good news and bad news.

First, the bad news. The wrong culture can take years to change. Pastor Craig Groeschel has said changing the wrong culture will take two years, and if you can find out a way to do it faster, he’d love to know.

Now, the good news. You can change the wrong culture.

Four Keys to Building Culture

Culture is the product of what we Communicate, Demonstrate, Celebrate, and Tolerate.

Communicate

Culture begins with what you say. Communicating the values you have and aspire to have will give people language and a clear culture goal. 

Demonstrate

Though it is important to talk “it,” it’s vital to walk “it.” We, as church leaders, can, unfortunately, be the worst at communicating values we never demonstrate. Changing culture begins with changing you. People are most likely emulating the environment you’re creating. 

Celebrate

People will naturally gravitate towards what you celebrate. You can say that what matters most is seeing people’s lives being changed until you’re blue in the face– but if all you ever celebrate is attendance – that’s what your team will take note of.

Tolerate

Whatever you tolerate will dominate. You can communicate, demonstrate, and celebrate the right stuff, but if you tolerate the wrong things, then they will be what will always dominate the culture.

Being Intentional About Culture

It’s essential to see that even Jesus was intentional about building the right culture within His followers.

Communicate – Matthew 5-7; Jesus’ sermon on the mount teaching his followers what the values and ways of the kingdom are.

Demonstrate – Mark 3:14; Jesus called the disciples to be with Him so they would see what He’s like, and He sent them out to do the same.

Celebrate – Luke 10:20; Jesus didn’t want His followers rejoicing in spiritual power, which would have led to pride. Instead, He taught them to celebrate their salvation, which leads to humility.

Tolerate – Matthew 16:23; Jesus wouldn’t allow even wrong mindsets in His disciples. He would deal with it instantly, knowing little problems cause significant dysfunction over time.

Core Values

One of the most effective ways to provide clarity around building the right culture is core values. The core values themselves are not the culture necessarily, but provide accountability and clarity around what the culture should be. Think of core values as buoys in the ocean or guardrails to a roadway. They mark boundaries and keep the culture in check.

Core values can be both observational (things that are already happening and in place) and aspirational (things you desire to be in place but aren’t yet).

Examples of Core Values

Church of the Highlands

Love God
Love People
Pursue Excellence
Choose Joy

Life Church

We are faith-filled, big thinking, bet-the-farm risk-takers.
We are all about the “capital C” Church!
We give up things we love for things we love even more.
We wholeheartedly reject the label mega-church.
We will do anything short of sin to reach people who don’t know Christ.
We will lead the way with irrational generosity.
We will laugh hard, loud, and often.
We always bring our best.
We are spiritual contributors, not spiritual consumers.
We will honor Christ and His church with integrity.

Culture Questions

Here are some questions to help build values, and move your team or ministry towards the right culture.

1. How would you describe the culture of your team?

2. What would you say are the current values of your team? These can be words (i.e., integrity) or phrases (i.e., presence filled worship) or both.

3. What values are you in lack of that you’d like to see a part of your team?

4. Are you “tolerating” anything in your culture that is working against you? If so, what is it?

5. Think about a brand new person joining your team. What would you want them to feel by the time they left?

6. What’s your favorite thing about your team?

Where Culture Begins

The big takeaway? Culture begins with you.

The most effective tool you have for building the culture you want to feel is being the culture you want to build.

Tahe Governor is the pastor of Collective, the 18-30 young adults ministry of Bethany Church in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He carries a deep passion for young adults to come to a true biblical understanding of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and to lead them in living it out. Instagram: @tahegovernor / Facebook: facebook.com/tahegovernor.

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Pastors Are Human Too

What to do when your pastor lets you down

Stop me if you have heard this one before, but what should you do if you finally find a church with a perfect pastor filled with perfect people? The answer is simple; leave before you ruin it! There is no such place.

I love to see people thriving in healthy church environments. Unfortunately, every church and ministry staff has one fundamental problem: they all have people in them. The fact that we cannot have churches without people means we will all have to deal with some level of imperfection in our shared culture and leadership.

Great Expectations

Even in the best church staff environments, those you work for, with, and who work for you will have shortcomings. Expecting your boss or pastor to be perfect only reveals a lack of health in yourself. It is an unreasonable expectation.

So what do you do if you find out your leadership is imperfect, unhealthy in some way, or even dysfunctional? There are a lot of opinions on this, but I would say the first step is to remember they are only human. Pastors and leaders are limited by the same flesh and blood you have. They are on a journey and in a process just like you.

Those who have an unhealthy perspective of leaders expect them to be perfect while excusing the lack of imperfection in themselves. Our hope must be in God alone. No human was made to carry the burden of being perfect, so let’s not put something on our leaders that God doesn’t or we can carry ourselves.

Exposing Leaders

I used to pray flawed leaders would get exposed. Now those prayers are a little different. In humility, I now pray they will get exposed to the right things, people, and environments that will help them in their journey. I also ask God to expose the dysfunction in me so I can become a better reflection of him.

But Wait, There’s More

We shouldn’t stop there, though. We also need to consider the following five principles when we encounter dysfunction in our team, ministry, or leadership: 1. Pastors Are Human Too 2. Honor Is a Choice, Not a Response 3. Be Honest About Yourself 4. Hear Others Out, and 5. Find a Biblical Path to a Healthy Soul. This post is part one of five blogs I will be sharing on these principles in the coming weeks.

I hope you continue to join me on this journey of soul gardening. I’d also like to hear from you. Leave a comment on Facebook or Instagram letting me know your answers to the questions I asked in this article. Different opinions are welcomed and encouraged.

Further Reading on this topic:

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Culture Shift Part 2

Five Steps To A Healthy Ministry Experience

What is it about the home or culture we develop in that produces both great and not so great things in our lives? Often, this takes place without us even being aware. It can be challenging to find a healthy rhythm for our lives after experiencing dysfunction of some kind. How do we make a change when we find ourselves with the need to embrace a new atmosphere of faith?

I want to suggest a five-step plan for those in need of a church culture shift. This should be helpful even if your former environment was not bad, but you are just looking for a new way of doing ministry. Each situation is unique and requires the wisdom and leading of the Holy Spirit. I offer these as guidelines, not the final say, to help you reclaim spiritual health after experiencing dysfunction.

Step 1: Get out of the old culture.

This one sounds simple enough, but it is possible to complicate it. Some try to change a church culture from the inside out. Unless the senior pastor has specifically asked you to be an agent of change, then I do not recommend that approach. You may think you are helping the pastor with weaknesses he or she is not aware of in their leadership. In reality, you are creating two visions or di-vision.

Do not become the person everyone comes to with their complaints. That doesn’t make you a leader, influential, or even right about your opinion. It just means everyone knows you will listen to negativity and criticism of leadership without supporting the pastor. Remember, the wolf wears sheep’s clothing, not the shepherd’s.

If you genuinely believe you are in a dysfunctional culture, then the best thing you can do is get out so you can plant your heart in healthy soil. Don’t try to change the soil; work on healing your heart instead.

Step 2: Get in a new culture.

Too many times, leaders think identifying dysfunction qualifies them to decide what is right or wrong for everyone else. Then they use their influence to take others with them out of their old culture. This is where most people get off track or stop their journey completely. Identifying there is a problem does not mean you are not part of it. In actuality, you can very much be a part of the problem, while at the same time, seeing the problem in someone else.

The next step after getting out is not to create your own culture, point out what is wrong in the old culture after you exit, or to convince others to leave with you. Instead, you should get in a healthy environment so you can download a new blueprint. This is the best way to help others. You cannot just point out the wrong direction. You also need to know what is the right direction.

Comparing yourself to a problem or an extreme in one direction never leads to moving in the correct direction. Whether dysfunction is your fault or not, after experiencing it, you need to detox before you can begin to trust your new perspective.

Step 3: Get the old culture out of you.

You may have heard the saying, “You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.” Changing scenery is helpful, but it is not everything. Although we change environments, many of us do not allow the Holy Spirit to transform the atmosphere of our hearts.

Once you are in a new culture, you need to empty yourself of your old ways. You will find that even though you know how you want to lead and behave, some of your learned behaviors are ready to speak up louder than your good intentions. “Old habits die hard,” as they say.

We have to remove these old ways to make room for the new culture to take root. This shift is a process, not a switch. It is a wrestling match, not a quarter-mile drag race.

Step 4: Get the new culture in you.

Reprogramming your leadership and approaches to ministry does not happen after reading a book or attending a conference. There is no course that, in and of itself, can take your soul from toxic to healthy. We can create moments that impact people and bring healing. We can write material that points people in the right direction. But when it comes to culture, what is absorbed in a healthy environment, in-between teachings and events is what is most transformative.

Step 5: Lead in the new culture.

Leadership adds pressure, and pressure will bing the impurities of your perspective to the surface. Once you begin leading in your new culture, you will also realize what was useful in your old way of doing ministry doesn’t get the same results in your new approach. That means you will have to master the lessons learned in the process of getting the old atmosphere out and the new perspective in to lead well.

Leading effectively in your new culture affirms you have taken the necessary steps and avoided the short cuts to becoming a healthy leader. Now you are ready to become a culture creator yourself.

Short Cuts or Runaround?

When we try to fast track this process, we only extend it. Whether a toxic culture is your fault or not, you were still breathing the air of dysfunctional leadership. Taking a break and getting healthy is the most important thing you can do before trying to lead again.

It is like getting hit by a car and breaking your leg while crossing a street. Whether it is your fault or not, you will still need a cast and time to rehab. Then you will slowly begin to walk before you are running again. Don’t short-circuit your calling by taking a short cut to getting healthy. Take your time, walk in honor and humility, and before you know it, you will be back in the high life again better than ever.

You may be wondering if I think “getting out of the old culture” is the only option. The answer is, “No.” At the same time, if you are in a situation that is controlling, toxic, or the leadership is not open to anyone else’s opinion, then taking responsibility for yourself is always better than going on a public (or private) crusade to try and change someplace or someone else. In my next series of posts, we will talk about the steps you should take before making a culture shift. I hope you stick around as we continue the journey of soul gardening together.

* This post is part two of two on changing the making a culture shift to reclaim spiritual health. The first part covered why just knowing what you don’t want to be is not enough when a comes to changing our views on life and ministry. It also gives stories and illustrations to lay the foundation for the five steps you just read. You can read part one here.

The Soul Gardening Collection includes the following previous posts:

Confessing The Weeds in My Leadership
Reclaiming Spiritual Health After Experiencing Dysfunction


Further Reading on this topic:

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Culture Shift Part 1

Changing the Atmosphere of Our Faith

Do you have a sweet tooth or are you more of a salty snack person? I’m definitely in the sweet tooth category. My love for sweets was something my college roommate couldn’t help but notice. He has diabetes and eats a low sugar healthy diet. One day, he opened the pantry and asked, “How can you eat all of this junk?” 

“What do you mean?” I replied with a spoonful of Blue Bell ice cream in my mouth.

“Everything in here is full of sugar. None of this stuff is healthy for you.”

I got up and went to the pantry door and looked in. Zebra cakes, mini chocolate bars, bags of chips, and other highly processed sugary foods stared back at me.

At that moment, a light went off for me. In my mind, believe it or not, I thought I was eating healthy. This may sound surprising, but it is because of the standard I was comparing myself to. I was eating much healthier than I did when I lived with my Cajun home. Sure, I had snacks, but there were fewer of them. I also did not have all of the other fatty foods we usually kept in the house. But compared to the home my friend grew up in, where multiple diabetics lived, all of these foods were foreign objects.

A New Perspective

This situation showed me that even though I got out of my former environment, the old perspectives still needed to get out of me. I had to get in a new environment for the things that were wrong in my perspective to get confronted and then removed. Until then, I could not accurately self-assess the health of my perspective, because I would always be comparing myself to my old, out of balanced view. I needed to learn a healthy perspective first.

The other thing about the unhealthy food I kept in my college condo was that it wouldn’t have killed me on the spot if I would have kept eating it. It would take time to impact my health fully, but once it did, it would be too late to reverse the harmful effects.

The Soil of Our Souls

It is the same with our leadership perspectives and church cultures. These are the atmospheres of our faith, the soil where our souls are planted. Leading in an unsustainable way, or duplicating a poor culture, does not run everyone off or wear you out immediately. But over time, the burnout and high turnover will point to the fact a change needs to be made. 

Or maybe you have seen the scenario when someone blames their pastor or direct report for making their lives miserable only to move on and duplicate the same toxic environment they left behind in one way or another. Why is this?

It is like the boy who has a controlling or abusive father and swears, “I will never become like him,” but then he grows up only to repeat the same mistakes. This happens because we create what we are focused on. Trying “not” to be something is still focusing on it. Comparing yourself to what you don’t want to be often causes you to run to the same extreme in the opposite direction. Knowing what you do not want to be is not enough. You need to figure out who your authentic-self is if you are going to reclaim spiritual health after experiencing dysfunction.

This post is part one of two on changing the atmosphere of your faith by making a culture shift. The second part will cover five practical steps that can help you through this change. I look forward to sharing them with you in the next blog post!

The Soul Gardening Collection includes the following previous posts:

Confessing The Weeds in My Leadership
Reclaiming Spiritual Health After Experiencing Dysfunction

Further Reading on this topic:

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Soul Gardening

Reclaiming Spiritual Health After Experiencing Dysfunction

Have you ever experienced hurt, disappointment, or burnout in church ministry? What do you do when you discover that, while you may be producing good works, your soul is beginning to get sick in one way or another? Maybe you realize you are not a fit for the current ministry culture you are serving in and want to make a change. Many people struggle with moving forward when they have experienced dysfunction or want to find their best fit in church life.

It is possible to have a beautiful garden, but still, need to pull weeds. Pruning, trimming, and removing weeds is the only way to keep the plants healthy and the garden vibrant. In the same way, we can experience dysfunction in one area of a ministry while the ministry is still making in an impact for the Kingdom of God. That doesn’t mean the problem should be ignored. We need to pull the weeds so the garden of our souls can continue to thrive. As uncomfortable as it may be to bring these areas into the light, reclaiming spiritual health after experiencing dysfunction, is not only crucial to the Kingdom of God but for your soul and future as well.

This collection of blogs I will be posting over the next several weeks will show you how to find your personal path to health and also offer five principles for navigating a dysfunctional church culture. While it is easy to blame others when we experience hurt, the best response is to change the culture of our souls before we try to point out the problems in others.

Church Culture

Through the years, I have been fortunate enough to be exposed to a variety of leaders with different styles and perspectives on ministry and leadership. One thing that has most interested me in these conversations is church culture because this is what will inevitably impact the condition of our souls. I believe a healthy culture can make up for a lot of other things. It can help heal broken souls and create an environment of hope and expectation in the church, even if everything is not perfect. On the other hand, a poor culture can drown out even the best intentions and lead to wounding people and ministry burnout.

It is from these experiences I have decided to share some thoughts on what to do if you find yourself working or serving in a dysfunctional church culture. Maybe your church culture is not dysfunctional, but just different, and not a fit for you. What do you do when you want to embrace something new? The steps you take once you realize you want to reflect a new perspective in your leadership is vital. It is something I get asked about from time-to-time, and I think a conversation on this topic can help some people.

A Personal Journey

What I share in this collection of blogs will not be about changing the culture of an organization. Instead, we will talk about changing the atmosphere of our hearts. I will not point out what any organization can do differently, but what we can improve in ourselves to create a healthy emotional and spiritual life.

Dysfunctional, Different, and Dynamic

Working at the Association of Related Churches (ARC), I have come across many leaders who are looking to learn, live in, and lead a life-giving culture. Their previous culture isn’t always necessarily bad. They may just feel a kindred spirit or divine-connection with the relevant and refreshing way many pastors lead in ARC. Just because a culture is different doesn’t mean it is harmful or wrong.

Culture changes, and with it, church culture should change as well. What was effective in a previous generation of ministry, may not be able to get the job done in a new generation. For many, this is a contributing factor for reaching out to something new.

Some church cultures and leaders are dysfunctional in some ways but helpful in others. Leaders in this situation may know something needs to change, but not be able to figure out precisely what that is. I want to help with that by offering some guidelines on what to focus on and what to allow God to handle.

Last week’s post, There’s Something I’d Like to Say, was the first in the collection on this topic. Make sure to check it out if you have not yet. Next week we will walk through five steps to reclaiming spiritual health. After that, I will share five principles that will help you navigate a dysfunctional church culture. I hope you join me in this journey as we do some soul gardening!

The Soul Gardening Collection includes the previous post:

Confessing the weeds in my leadership.

Further Reading on this topic:

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There’s Something I’d Like to Say

Confessing The Weeds in My Leadership

The Parable of the Weeds

“He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”‘”

– Matthew 13:24-30 (ESV)

Soul Gardening

We have all experienced the wheat as well as the weeds of leadership. We have either lived through someone else’s wheat and weeds or guided others through our own garden mixed with both the good and the bad. I’ve always thought the master allowing the weeds to continue to grow with the wheat until the harvest was interesting. Why does God allow the bad of spiritual leaders to grow with the good? Why not pull all the weeds out now? 

Too often, we expect our spiritual leaders to be perfect. This is unrealistic and unfair. Once we find there are weeds in the lives of those that lead us, it can be easy to write off all people in authority. After experiencing hurt, some people’s initial reaction is to stop going to church or label Christians as hypocrites. It doesn’t have to be this way. All of life comes with both wheat and weeds. It’s possible to experience both the good and the bad of a church culture or ministry leader and remain thankful and honoring. 

At the same time, any leader who is not honest about and repents of his or her own imperfections is not being the best reflections of Christ they can be. We all need to attend the garden of our soul. The harvest will come, and God will ask us to give an account of the weeds in our leadership.

There’s something I’d like to say about my own weeds.

There was a time in my life when my words and behaviors towards people resulted in spiritual abuse. I was a Pharisee, legalist, and avoider of grace. This did not just negatively impact my own life but also those around me. In my role as a church leader, I caused hurt and pain in the lives of others. My weeds got in the way of the good I was attempting to accomplish for the Kingdom of God. 

Some in a similar situation may blame the culture they are in, the feeling of having no other choice but to do as they are told or even being a victim of abuse themselves. While these are genuine contributing circumstances for me and many others, I feel I must focus on my responsibility over factors that were in someone else’s control.

“It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.  

I am the master of my fate:

 I am the captain of my soul.”

-Invictus, by Nelson Mandela

At any point, during this time in my life, I could have taken responsibility for myself. Eventually, I did. This doesn’t wipe away my part in using people’s desire to please God to achieve my goals and validate my need for approval. It has, though, allowed for redemption to step into my story. I can now see God’s hand working in each of my past experiences to help me point people in a better direction. It has also helped me own the good in my past in a way I can always be grateful for while also learning from my “weeds.”

Seeking Forgiveness

Once I first decided to make an intentional change in my life and approach to ministry, I went to specific people I felt I owed an apology and asked them to forgive me. I also listened as they shared how my approach to being a church leader negatively impacted them. 

Eventually, I felt God say I didn’t need to track down each person involved in situations I regretted. This would be to put their healing in my hands instead of His. So I asked for and received His forgiveness, and prayed for anyone I have ever hurt to find the courage to begin the process of healing with God’s help.

A couple of years later, after I had a better perspective of my own involvement in these behaviors and ministry methods, I began blogging about my transformation and growth in how I related to God, church, and others. This opened the door to many more conversations with those in search of healing.

I now feel it is time to combine both of the previous steps I have taken in the past – to be public and specific. The goal is not to wallow in the past, but to help those presently struggling in similar situations and those specifically impacted in this way in the past.

With that said, I would like to offer my heartfelt and sincere apology to anyone I have ever hurt in my role as a spiritual leader. I am sorry for the things I have done and said that have caused pain in your life. I was wrong, and I am asking for your forgiveness. 

I am sorry I…

…was not careful with my words and said things that were extreme, mean, rude, and painful to others.

…felt it was my job to put people in their place instead of using my role as a leader to lift people out of the place they were in.

…was hypocritical in what I asked of others while making excuses as to why I was not required to do the same things.

… didn’t listen, because I assumed I already knew the whole story. Often, I gave ultimatums when I should have offered mercy. 

…used the scriptures to belittle, cut down, and categorize outsiders in a way that took away from their humanity and value as a person.

…judged people’s motives, thoughts, and intentions (as if I could know these things), instead of assuming the best and speaking to God’s best for them.

…marked people as rebellious and cut them off from relationship when they did not submit whole-heartedly, not only to God but to the customs of our group.

…flippantly questioned people’s salvation and sincerity in their commitment to God when they didn’t live up to my man-made standards or unrealistic expectations.

…created an environment of correction and outward performance in my ministry instead of encouragement and inward transformation. I made it hard, if not impossible, to be vulnerable, honest, and real. I gave no place for grace.

… allowed submission to authority to mutate into something other than what God intended. Instead of being a life-giving principle that brought safety and security in trusting God and the spiritual leadership He places over us, it became a gateway to control, fear, and intimidation. 

……thought it was my responsibility as a spiritual leader to be involved in every decision of the lives of those in my ministry (who they should date, where they should work, and even how they should spend their money and free time). In doing this, I replaced the voice of the Holy Spirit in people’s lives, and developed dependents on me instead of disciples of Christ. 

These things all feel so foreign to me now. I don’t think I am anything close to this person I don’t want to remember.

Why Apologize?

There will be those reading this who do not need an apology from me but are maybe waiting on one from someone else. Would you accept this apology on their behalf? Not for their benefit, but for yours. Whether it is a parent, pastor, church leader, or another person in a leadership role in your life, I believe if they could see things through God’s perspective, they would ask for your forgiveness.

Others may misunderstand why this needs to be said. Why bring this up if it was so long ago, and you are no longer this way? First of all, it is never too late to apologize, because time isn’t a substitute for, “I’m sorry.” If you’ve been through this, then you get why this is important. 

Secondly, owning my mistakes may encourage growth in someone else by helping them respond better to their shortcomings. Taking responsibility for our “weeds” (the bad in our leadership) is how we separate from them and shed new light on our “wheat” (the good that has taken place through our ministry). Denying our failures is how they get repeated.

Thirdly, I see these same behaviors in zealous young leaders too often. I believe their intentions are good, but I want to help them see there is another way, as I am sure they eventually will, as soon as possible. 

Moving Forward

Finally, unhealthy leadership can exist even in healthy churches and organizations. There can be great people doing amazing things in the same place where dysfunction is also present. Jesus talked about this in the Parable of the Weeds (I shared this at the beginning of the blog). This teaching shows us how to respond to unhealth in leadership. To take Jesus’s approach is to live in an uncomfortable tension between the wheat and the weeds in all of our lives. Healing from negative experiences in a church is never an excuse to attack others. Don’t try to pull up others’ weeds prematurely, even though it can be difficult to live with them.

In the same way, being a spiritual leader is not an excuse to turn a blind eye to your own faults, even though it is embarrassing to deal with them. Healing, as well as a lasting legacy, won’t take place if we continue to ignore the problem. If you are willing, let’s move forward together in forgiveness and restoration.

Further reading on this topic:

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Remember the Candlesticks

Misconception: Grace Is a Get Out of Jail Free Card

*What you are about to read is Chapter 3 from my book, Grace Is A Dirty Word. I put this together as an ebook about 3 years ago. It was the first free download I ever offered on my blog. Recently I updated it and am making it available for free when you subscribe to my blog. This is the last week you can get it for free. After this, you can get it amazon in paperback or kindle.

Going to Prison

I don’t have much experience with being arrested or going to prison. At least not that I would like to share at this time. I am just kidding. I’ve never been put in cuffs or had to ride in the back of a paddy wagon. I have unfortunately been pulled over for speeding.

Seeing the blue lights in your rearview mirror is one of the worst feelings ever. When this happens, you can try to argue, but you know you are guilty and without an excuse. Most likely, you will get fined with a ticket. On top of that, your insurance will go up because you are now a certified menace to society.

Every now and then, you get #blessed, and the officer lets you go with a warning. Although you broke the law, you’re let off the hook. That’s not only a good feeling but usually makes for a great story as well. It’s not possible to escape getting a ticket and not tell someone in the same way it is impossible to vacation at the beach without posting in on Instagram. There are certain laws to the universe that keep things together, and these are two of them.

My absolute favorite example of being caught red-handed and still being allowed to go free is from Les Misérables.

A Criminal and a Priest

 Jean Valjean was a homeless criminal when he shows up at Bishop Myriel’s door. Consistent with his nickname, Monseigneur Bienvenu (which means welcome in French) accepted Valjean, feeds him, and gives him a bed for the night. This behavior towards an outcast sounds like grace to me.

How does Jean Valjean repay the good Bishop after receiving this undeserved favor? He steals most of his silver and vanishes into the night.

When no one else would take him in, the Bishop did, and Valjean returns the favor by taking his most valuable earthly possessions. Man, that’s cold enough to make even Elsa shutter.

Later, as he is trying to leave town, the police discover the silver in Jean Valjean’s bag. He claims they were given to him by the Bishop, but the police know better. He is then captured and returned to the church for the truth to be discovered. At this moment, we see how far grace will go to love the unlovable.

An Act of Grace

When the police tell the Bishop that they found his silver in Jean Valjean’s possession, they were probably expecting him to thank them. That is not what happened. Instead, the Bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Jean Valjean. He even goes so far as to chastise Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks, the most expensive of all the silver, as well. The unexpected beauty of this scene is overwhelming.

The Les Miserable musical quotes the Bishop this way,

“But my friend you left so early, Surely something slipped your mind, You forgot I gave these also; Would you leave the best behind?”

Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables

With the police now gone, and Jean Valjean given yet another chance at freedom, Monseigneur Bienvenu leaves him with these words,

“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables

Jean Valjean was not given a mere chance to escape. He was granted an opportunity to become a new man. The real gift of grace is not that it gets us out of jail for free, but gets us out of our old identity for free – when we least deserve it.

This act of grace from the Bishop transformed Jean Valjean from a slave of sin into a slave of righteousness. The darkness in him was transformed into a light for others by the goodness of the priest.

This is what should happen when we accept the price Jesus paid for us on the cross.

Grace is Not a Free Pass

Jean Valjean might have received the silver for free, but it cost Bishop Myriel significantly. You see, grace is not a free pass. It’s much more than that. The beauty of grace is that it exchanges the priceless for the worthless so that which was once without value can become priceless itself. 

Jean Valjean had received grace when he was given a place to stay when no one else would accept him. That alone would be a great picture of how God welcomes us when we are unacceptable. But how do you explain the Bishop forgiving the theft after such a tremendous betrayal? And then giving him even more silver – his best pieces?

The Motive of Grace

The gift of the candlesticks shows us the motive of grace. God does not want us just to go free; He wants us to be free to be who He created us to be. Grace doesn’t stop giving until it brings out the giver in us. It is a light that pierces the darkness in us until we begin to shine as well.

The goal of grace isn’t to help you escape condemnation, but rather to transform you into a person that no longer desires the things that will lead to condemnation. Grace does not just set you free; it makes you new.

By every observation, Jean Valjean had earned his punishment. And while I’d like to see myself in the priest, I’m afraid it’s Valjean I identify with most. His number as a prisoner in the story is 24601. I think about that number often as a reminder of the fate that awaited me without grace. I was 24601, but now I am a son.

Like Valjean, we have all sinned, and therefore earned the wages of our evil deeds.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

-Romans 6:23

When we sin, we earn death. It is like going to work and getting a paycheck. The only difference is this is not a paycheck you want to cash. Death is the “reward” for our efforts of sin.

Grace is different.

The difference between grace and guilt is that one is earned and the other is a gift.

A Scandalous Exchange

No matter how hard we work, we will never be able to earn grace. Like the Bishop in Les Misérables, God gives it to us freely. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t cost him something. In fact, providing us with grace cost God everything.

When God sent Jesus to die in our place, he bankrupt heaven to pay our fine. He didn’t just give precious silver to redeem our souls. He gave His only Son. If Jesus was just a good man or a wise teacher, this would have been a tragedy, but He was much more than that. He was perfect in every way. Every intention, motive, thought, attitude, and action on his part was pure, yet in response, we gave him the most horrific death that humans have ever conceived.

God came to give us life, but we gave him death. Jesus healed the hurting, gave hope to those in despair, fed the hungry, and accepted the rejected. Our response was much like Jean Valjean’s. We, in turn for his acts of kindness, betrayed him with the cross. 

God left the beauty of heaven to make a way for us to join him there, and we respond by giving His Son the cruelest death imaginable. This may have always been God’s plan of redemption, but what does that say about us? More importantly, what does it say about Him that He loves us anyway?

I think it means He gives us grace, not as a get out of jail free card, but as an exchange. He wants to take slaves of wickedness and turn them into sons and daughters of righteousness.