The Dysfunctional Church

Every person in the world is dysfunctional. Sinful. Fallen. Broken. Messed up in one way or another. It's natural and universal. A consequence of the Fall. Part of what it means to be "human."

That reality extends to every family. Some families appear less dysfunctional than others, but we all have our issues.

Alas, that reality also extends to every church. Churches are made up of humans. And human families. Thus churches (small "C") are dysfunctional as well. Some more than others. Some more obvious than others. But they're all dysfunctional in one respect or another.

Churches tend to reflect the personality--and pain--of their leaders. For better or worse. As Jesus said, students do not surpass their teachers, but become like them as a result of their training (Luke 6:40). Churches tend to reflect their leaders. Churches as a whole (and as individuals) tend to become more and more like their leaders as time and training progress. They take on the personality and preferences--and, unfortunately, dysfunctions--of the leadership.

As a result, some churches are codependent. They define love in unhealthy ways, and tend to behave in overly passive or excessively caretaking ways. They need to be needed. They try to please everyone. They use blame and shame to manipulate others (and themselves). They pretend a lot, and fake a lot. They learn to hide negative emotions in the hope that others will like them.

Some churches are passive-aggressive. I've already written a little about this here. Dr. Daniel Hall-Flavin says, "Passive-aggressive behavior is a pattern of indirectly expressing negative feelings instead of openly addressing them." A passive-aggressive person or church will not practice Matthew 5:23-24 or Matthew 18:15-18, but will try to manipulate others behind the scenes through gossip, rumor, shunning, stubbornness, resentment, sullenness, etc.

Other churches are obsessive-compulsive, displaying perfectionism, excessive devotion to work, rigidity, stubbornness and dictatorial tendencies. The OCD church prefers things it can control and categorize, and can't tolerate messiness. This kind of church will be impatient with things--and people--in process. It will often reflect an elitist and legalistic attitude, approving people and programs that are extremely structured and predictable, while avoiding or condemning those that aren't.

A narcissistic church will display grandiosity, a self-focused lack of empathy for others, and a self-righteous and self-promoting attitude (toward the church, movement, denomination and, sometimes, toward a powerful, often famous pastor or program). This church must increase while others decrease--in numbers, reputation, influence, etc.

Some churches reflect a Histrionic Personality Disorder, marked by pervasive attention-seeking behavior, including shallow or exaggerated emotions. These churches (and their leaders) are always up-in-arms about something, always jumping on new bandwagons, and always exciting. They can give the appearance of a "Spirit-filled" church, because they appear vivacious and dynamic, but tend toward self-aggrandizement (or exalting a particular experience or "manifestation") rather than glorifying God.

A church may also tend toward Borderline Personality Disorder, which is characterized by extreme and variable moods. Borderline churches see things in black and white. They either love you or hate you. They can be generous, giving, helping churches, but if a person or organization doesn't live up to their expectations, they will quickly turn the opposite direction and will have no trouble vilifying or persecuting those they previously put on a pedestal.

Unfortunately, these are not all the possible dysfunctions of a church. And, of course, God is capable of compensating for, overcoming, or healing every dysfunction (though we must cooperate with him in that process, which is sometimes a problem for us). But we may be assured that a church will not exceed its leaders in any of these areas. If I, as a pastor, do not let God deal with my obsessive-compulsive tendencies, for example, I should not be surprised to see those traits arise in my church, and even hinder its progress (which is yet ANOTHER good reason for a pastor or elder to regularly see a capable counselor, which I blogged about here).

On the other hand, maybe one of the reasons God raises us up as leaders and draws like-minded (and" like-dysfunctioned") people to each other is so we can help each other and learn from each other as he heals us and conforms us more and more to the likeness of Jesus Christ.


  1. Kelley and I are blessed daily by your blogs and feel are lives have been blessed because of your leadership. We greatly miss you and the lovely Robin.

    Doughertys * I guess this really isn't

  2. Thanks, Jeff (and Kelley). It's an encouragement to know you read and enjoy my blogs! Love to your family!

  3. Hi,

    My husband and I just left a Borderline Personality Church. Once we decieded to step down from our leadership roles we went ahead and resigned our membership as well as we knew what coming next. We have watched several other members fall from the pastor's grace due to stepping back from leadership roles and the "shunning" and negative comments were awful.

    Thank-You for your blog - it refirms that we are not selfish horrible people like a few members have already made us feel. We just want to be in a healthy church where we can worship and serve the Lord as he commanded us to do. Now we know what to be on the look out for as we visit other churches.

    God Bless You!
    The Pinsons