Defining Healthy in Church Leadership Culture

I remember talking with a young hurting pastor just after he resigned from his church. For several years he had attempted to restore a dying church into a healthy church. The church brought him in with some definite goals they wanted him to achieve. They knew their very existence depended on change. He felt he had almost a mandate.

The church began to grow. Things were exciting – or so it seemed. But, with every change there was growing resistance. Eventually only a few people with power still supported him. Even those who once supported him refused to back him with changes they had previously agreed were needed.

He was continually reminded this was not “his church”. He felt it was best he leave rather than divide the church. (This church has a long history of short-term pastorates.)

In the course of the conversation he asked some sobering and honest questions.

He asked, “Is there really such a thing as a healthy church? Are there any healthy church staffs? And, what does healthy even mean in church leadership?”

Great questions. And, after working with dozens of churches, I understand why he would ask them. Sadly, I hear from pastors continually asking similar questions. There are many unhealthy environments in churches.

But, yes! There is such a thing as a healthy church staff and leadership culture. There are some healthy church environments – whether a single pastor and all volunteers or multiple staff members. Large church or small there are healthy cultures. They may not jump in the air every day with enthusiasm, as the picture with this post indicates, but people do enjoy being a part of the team.

In the purest form, the case could be made the church is always “healthy”, because it represents Christ. We are promised nothing will ever destroy what Christ has established.

But, local churches are made of people. And, some of those people, even well-meaning as they may be sometimes, work together to form unhealthy environments. Others work together for the common good of honoring Christ and form healthy environments. I’ve seen and been a part of both.

I’m often asked questions such as this – on how we know when something is healthy. This is always subjective, but I have certainly learned you know when something is unhealthy. I don’t know if I can define healthy in a single definition, but I’ve given the issue some thought as it relates to the working environment.

A healthy church culture doesn’t mean…

  • There aren’t bad days.
  • There won’t ever be tension or stress.
  • That everyone always agrees.
  • There aren’t relationship struggles.
  • All problems are solved.
  • The pastor is always right.
  • Problems or issues are ignored.

Work is still work and people are still people. Being healthy doesn’t not mean there aren’t real struggles at times.

A healthy church culture does mean…

  • People can disagree and still be friends.
  • Tension is used to make relationships stronger.
  • Meetings are productive and purposeful – not burdensome and certainly not hurtful.
  • Rules add healthy boundaries – empowering creativity rather than stifling or controlling.
  • You work as a team to find solutions.
  • The pastor, staff (and their families) are never attacked publicly or continually stabbed in the back.
  • The rumor mill is never allowed to form the dominant opinion.

Those are just a few of my observations.

Have you been in an unhealthy church or organizational environment? Have you been in a healthy one? What would you add to either of my lists of observations?

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15 thoughts on “Defining Healthy in Church Leadership Culture

  1. My heart breaks even typing this. Our family is going through the unhealthy part. Everything has changed in the blink of an eye.
    Pastors not willing to apologize when they belittle the staff or the individual.
    Pastors who’s temper is completely out of control with anger. No one wants to talk or share. Just hurry and get out.
    Volunteers being told “if you don’t like it leave”.
    Has to remind you and others who is charge, pointing out title.
    Things shared in private is heard in the hallways
    And “joked” about.
    No one wants to say anything because they are scared of dividing the church or hurting the children.
    The leaders are older. And they just don’t want to deal with it.
    When I read the article, I couldn’t help to think,
    “Where was our unity? Where was the fellowship? Where is the back bone?”
    We have since left the church. No longer even affiliated in that domination. We even had to forfeit our license because we are no longer there.
    I might have seen the worse if this is the worse.
    But I do ask that all the leaders that read this,
    Please treat your volunteers with compassion and listen. They know things probably because they are walking the ailses and talking to the people.

    Treat your staff with equality, Ofcourse we all know you are in charge, but the bottom line, God is in charge of you. If a plan isn’t right. Through prayer, He’ll be there to let not just you but everyone know.

    Keep things that you say with others in secret. This is another way you can loose members and trust. Trust me it will get back to that person that shared information in that meeting with, the devil loves stuff like this. I’m pretty sure he looks good in a 3 piece suit and his pretty white teeth, to take our eyes off his serpent tongue.

    My thought out of all of this, a healthy church,
    Requires check – ups. And that is the Pastor and counsel, deacon, Sunday school workers Etc.
    Making sure everyone is train and is doing things right. Including the Pastor. He’s the shepherd, the church his sheep. If he isn’t doing well, the church won’t either.

    I’m sorry it’s long. Also, please forgive me, of missed words lost my glasses and doing this without it.

  2. Really good stuff here Ron. I am blessed to be in what I believe to be a healthy church environment. Here are some hallmarks that I think are necessary:
    1. leadership that is "teachable"
    2. willingness to try things and be wrong, viewing it as an experiment that we learn from rather than an epic failure
    3. staff that "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" instead of competing with one another
    4. staff that values the strengths of others and understands the weaknesses in themselves
    5. leadership that trusts the staff and is willing to both challenge and encourage them
    6. relational connectivity, rather than positional authority, is what is leveraged for influenced
    7. a comprehensive understanding, from both staff and leadership, that Christ is the head of the church (not them)

  3. Excellent post Ron, I am a seasoned pastor in the midst of the same struggle this young pastor went through. My prayer is that young pastors like the one you mentioned do not give up or become jaded because of a bad ministry experience. Thanks for your part in keeping that from happening.

  4. Ron, my heart goes out to this young pastor. I believe that a healthy church is one that is first and foremost operating as a church and not as a country club. I think the heart and soul of a healthy church is a burden for the lost and a desire to reach them by enabling its members to use their gifts to reach that end. It has been my experience that churches become unhealthy when our objectives become more self serving rather than Kingdom Building.

  5. Ron, this is a post that really got me thinking. It brought a number of questions to mind, which is what I believe a good post should always do!

    As I was reading your list of characteristics of a healthy church, it struck me that this list could apply to any corporation, government office, school, or club. And perhaps that's a good thing.

    But as I thought further I wondered if there are also marks of a healthy church that are distinct and particular to a church. For example, in a healthy church is there a commitment to praying together? Is there a commitment to evangelism? Is there an atmosphere of releasing spiritual gifts?

    As I say Ron, any post that gets me thinking deeply has done its job. And once again, your post got me doing that!

    • Great thoughts Scott. And, yes, I was talking simply about the organizational culture. Your questions are better!
      Twitter: Ronedmondson

  6. Ron,

    Great lists. It is sad how many unhealthy churches there are. I have served in both as a non-senior pastor. On a church that is large enough to have a multiple staff members, I would add that healthy environments don't allow for jealousy among staff when certain ministries are successful. I know of too many situations where jealousy turns into a King Saul campaign against David. It is important to foster an environment where everyone in the church realizes they are on the same team.

    Twitter: steveperky