What You Don’t Know about your Church May Kill You

Many pastors begin a new assignment and get blindsided from issues they never expected. When that happens, it can be deadly. I’ve found that creating a genogram of your church, called a family diagram in psychology, can yield much insight into how people may have perpetuated unhealthy patterns in a church. It’s simply taking a bird’s eye view of your church’s past, looking for connections, and drawing them out. I excerpted below a section from my recent book, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership that illustrates the process.

green grenade on a battlefield at dusk

I wish I had known about family diagrams before I began to pastor. If I had seen how dysfunctional batons pass from one leader or significant stakeholder to the next, I could have avoided a lot of grief— or least prepared myself to handle those issues better.

I recall one church I served where the founding pastor had been a father figure to many of the early members. He was “larger than life” from both the stage and in one-on-one relationships. Because many of the old-timers had come to faith through his ministry, most had never seen any other pastor lead. He had become close friends with many of the stakeholders, making himself available to them 24-7. The father figure he played loomed large.

When I arrived as senior pastor, my leadership style was not to give people 24-7 availability, except in emergencies, because I’d soon burn out if I did. I was also a ready-aim-fire leader, whereas he was known as a fire-fire-fire leader.

After about a year, I began to sense a weird vibe from some of the stakeholder leaders. It seemed that I couldn’t please them, no matter what I did. I felt befuddled. But as a clearer picture of the previous pastor emerged, I began to understand what fueled this tension. I realized that some leaders wanted the best parts of him— in me. They wanted a father figure who was available 24-7. One leader even confessed to me that he expected me to be a father to him.

They also loved his larger-than-life dreams that seemed to come “straight from the Holy Spirit.” It excited them, and many felt that church should be perpetually exciting. My vision, however, came more slowly through a more deliberate and thoughtful process, definitely not eliciting as much initial excitement as his did.

They had transferred the idealized former pastor’s strengths onto me, and I had failed to meet those expectations. Edwin Friedman captured this transference when he noted, “Institutions . . . tend to institutionalize the pathology, or the genius, of the founding families.” [Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Bethesda, MD: Friedman Estate, 1999), p. 199]

This founding pastor had left under difficult circumstances. As a result I also bumped into another unspoken script: a fear and distrust of strong pastoral leadership among some stakeholder leaders. Had I known how churches, like families, pass down dysfunctions, I could have better navigated those bumps.

If you’re a senior pastor, I encourage you to probe your church’s past to learn the hidden scripts against which you may be bumping. Take some key leaders and long-term members out to lunch and ask about the church’s history. Listen especially to the stories from the old-timers. The more you learn about your church’s past, the better you’ll respond to its dysfunctions. I’ve listed some questions below that you might ask these leaders to help you create a diagram.

  • What significant events, both successes and traumas, have marked your church’s history?
  • How has your church responded to traumas and crises?
  • What problems seem to recur in your church?
  • Does your church have any deep, dark secrets?
  • How did the church begin?
  • Was it from a church split?
  • Was it a plant from another church?
  • Are relatives of the founding families still in the church?
  • Are some of the founding members still in places of influence?
  • How long have pastors stayed?
  • What were the circumstances behind their departures?
  • How were their departures handled? How do people talk about the prior pastors?
  •  Is there an ongoing pattern of firing staff?
  • Have any recurring sins persisted in staff or key leaders (sexual immorality, financial malfeasance, gossip and so on)?

You’re likely to find some repeating patterns. Simply knowing what you’re up against and paying attention to these multigenerational dynamics can give you a head start in dealing with the patterns. While acknowledging the past, you can more wisely lead your church into the future, knowing that these past patterns still play a part in the present. As Pete Scazzero has often said, “To go forward, you must go back.”

Here’s a fictional example of how someone might loosely diagram a church’s dynamics going back several years or several pastors. (People Pleasing Pastors by Charles Stone, permission granted, InterVarsity Press, 2014). Click on the image so you can see it clearly.

genogram of a church

What impact have you seen that your church’s past has had on your ministry?

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27 Questions to Ask Before you Take a New Job

When a pastor considers a move to a new church setting or any leader considers a new job, he or she should do whatever is possible to define reality.  As Max Dupree, leadership guru and writer said, “The first job of a leader is to define reality.”

When I’ve considered a new ministry change, I’ve sought answers to key questions. And over the years I’ve compiled this list of 27 questions (actually 30) to ask a search committee and/or your future boss. If you’re moving into a non-ministry setting, you’ll want to tailor your questions to your unique setting.

New job stamp
  1. Why me? What about me interested your committee?
  2. What stories of God’s moving do people still tell?
  3. What’s not going well that needs changing or needs to go?
  4. What are the burning issues?
  5. What are the biggest obstacles facing the church?
  6. What’s missing?
  7. What significant events, both successes and traumas, have marked your church’s history?
  8. How has your church responded to traumas and crises?
  9. How would your community describe the church?
  10. What do you most hope that I will do?
  11. What are you most concerned I might do?
  12. What are the major obstacles I will face?
  13. What ministries are struggling? Which ones are shining?
  14. What will be deemed a success under my leadership?
  15. How do you see the church in 1, 3, 5 years? What kind of growth do you expect?
  16. Describe how you see our working relationship?
  17. What should I focus on? What should be my priorities?
  18. How is the current staff moral?
  19. What is your expectation for my spouse?
  20. What were the previous pastor’s strengths and weaknesses?
  21. How was his or her relationship with the staff and board?
  22. What do you wish he had done differently?
  23. What problems seem to recur in your church?
  24. Does the church have any deep, dark secrets?
  25. Have any sins persisted in the staff or leadership?
  26. How would you describe the church’s tolerance for change?
  27. What has caused recent people to leave?

What questions would you add to this list?

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The Defensive Leader: 5 Ways to Avoid Becoming One

Defensiveness: excessively concerned with guarding against the real or imagined threat of criticism, injury to one’s ego, or exposure of one’s shortcomings (Dictionary.com). Every leader at times has probably reacted defensively to another. I have and I regret every single time I did. Leaders naturally face situations that can easily provoke a defensive reaction. But seldom does defensiveness move our churches and organizations forward. So how can we avoid defensiveness? I suggest 5 proactive ways. 

Defensive Boxing Move
  1. Realize the negative effects defensiveness breeds.
    • When we react defensively to a co-worker, an employee, a board member, or a church member, seldom does good come from it. We can shut down the other person or we may incite defensiveness in them which can further escalate a conflict. We can lose the benefit of another’s insight. We can damage a relationship. If we often act defensively, we can create a reputation that can drive others away from us and from important information we need to hear. We can even lose our jobs.
  2. Keep your stress level low.
    • If stress stays at a high level for any length of time, our brain’s fight-flight mechanism gets stuck on hypersensitivity and makes us more prone to defensiveness. Prolonged stress even atrophies some parts of our brain, especially the area involved in memory. But if we manage our stress, the thinking part of our brain stays more engaged and our emotional part less sensitive. Sufficient sleep, time off, good friends, exercise, and fun hobbies can keep our stress low. In this post I suggest specific steps to lessen stress.
  3. Understand where emotions come from in your body and brain.
    • We get defensive when we feel threatened by someone and a domino effect begins in our bodies and brains. Simply knowing how this happens can help us pause before we react. Here’s how the process works.
      • Defensiveness starts with a stimulus: someone says something that makes us feel threatened.
      • Next, an emotion begins at an unconscious level. Chemicals course through our nervous system and hormones flow into our blood stream prompted by a brain structure called the amygdala. This happens within 1/5 of a second, without our conscious awareness.
      • Then we become conscious of an unpleasant sensation (the feeling) within ½ of a second. We feel angry, anxious, or fearful without even choosing the emotion.
      • Next, the thinking part of our brain comes online: we pay attention, we assess the situation, we interpret it, and we decide what to do.
      • THE SPACE (see number 4 below)
      • Finally we respond with some action in response to the feeling and our assessment of the situation. In our case, we get defensive.
  4. Recognize THE SPACE between stimulus and response.
    • THE SPACE is the moment in time between a stimulus (what someone said which resulted in an unpleasant feeling…anger, fear, etc.) and our response (defensiveness). That brief slice of time precedes EVERY choice we make. THE SPACE always gives us time to choose how we will respond. We are not captives to our feelings. We always choose what we do in response to circumstances and our feelings.
      So, when I get defensive, I can’t blame my wife, my kids, lack of sleep, the board, or Obama. It is my choice. However, we can lengthen that space with my suggestion in number 5.
  5. Create more space between stimulus and response by leaning into the resources the Lord provides.
    • Number 2 above, lower your stress level, is crucial to helping us create more space between stimulus and response. However, our ultimate source of strength lies in a growing and abiding faith in Christ. When the Egyptians were hot on the trail of Moses and the Israelites, the people started to freak out. But Moses wisely said in Exodus 14.14, The LORD will fight for you; you need only to be still. God’s supernatural resources, when we draw upon them, gives us the ability to refuse to react and resist defensiveness.

So, the next time you feel tempted to get defensive, consider these thoughts and look to the example of Jesus when he hung on the cross.

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. (1 Pet. 2.23, NIV)

What has helped you avoid defensiveness?

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Jesus’ 6-Step Strategy for Resolving Conflict

Conflict is unavoidable in relationships. Conflict isn’t necessarily sinful or destructive, but it can be depending on what we do with it. Jesus outlines a clear, specific, and workable process in Matthew 18. And, we simply can’t improve on what Jesus says. I’ve summarized into a 6-step process the essence of what I believe Matthew 18 teaches us.

Successful resolution

Before I suggest these steps, here’s the actual passage of Scripture.

Matt. 18.15   “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.  16 But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’  17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  18   “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19   “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.” (NIV)

  1. Determine if you really need to approach the person about the issue.
    • In verse 15 Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you.” In other words, we simply should drop some issues. If we can pray through them and commit to not using them against the other person, drop it.
    • But if you can’t, what might warrant taking the next step?
      • Go if the issue is seriously dishonoring Christ.
      • Go if the issue is damaging your relationship with the other person.
      • Go if the issue is hurting others.
  2. If you do, go with the right heart and attitude.
    • In verse 15 the Scripture says, “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” The win here is that the relationship stays intact, not necessarily that you reach a resolution, even though you hope you do find one. Ultimately the goal is not to win an argument or point out the error of the other person’s ways, but to reconcile. It takes a right heart to help make this happen. In this post I outline 5 ways to prepare your heart.
  3. Prepare for your meeting with the person before you go. Do your homework.
    • Assuming that you’ve arranged a meeting with the person, don’t go in blind. Give some thought to what you want to say. Proverbs 14.8 tells us that, The wisdom of the prudent is to give thought to their ways.
    • I’ve found that the acronym, DESC, provides easily recallable mental hooks to guide such a conversation.
      • Describe the behavior that caused the conflict.
      • Explain the emotions you feel/felt when it happens.
      • State the desired changed behavior (the solution).
      • state the Positive consequences the new behavior will bring.
  4. Go in private and in person.
    • We often miss this step yet Jesus is very clear on this when he states, “just between the two of you.” By going to the other person first it avoids prematurely pulling somebody else into the issue and stops potential gossip. Plus, a face-to-face meeting allows us to observe body language which experts say accounts for much more of a message than words alone.
    • However, sometimes it may be wise to seek counsel from an objective party so he or she can give us objective advice.
  5. When you meet, use grace-filled words.
    • If in our conversation with this person we put them on the defensive, the meeting’s over. Grace-filled conversation, however, can create safety and openness to resolving the issue. A great verse that speaks to this is Ephesians 4.29.
      • Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.
  6. If you reach a dead-end and feel the issue warrants it, enlist others to help.
    • Sometimes the issue is so serious that even after repeated 1-1 attempts to reconcile we must take the next step. In verse 16 Jesus says if we reach a stalemate, we must include others in the process. Often the leadership in the church should be included at this point. And then if the other party simply refuses to budge, the church must take more severe action (v. 17). Seldom do issues warrant such a drastic step. Yet, God sanctions such action for the sake of the unity in the church (vss. 19-19).

What steps would you add to this list that have helped you resolve conflict?

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Burnout: How to Dig Out

From time to time every leader and pastor faces burnout. The well runs dry. He or she becomes weary in well doing. He runs out of gas. She simply has nothing left to give. When we totter on the precipice of burnout, what can we do? As I’ve faced those times during my ministry, I’ve learned a few ways that have helped me dig out.

Match burnout
  1. Recognize the symptoms
    • Everybody’s burnout looks a bit different. Sometimes burnout comes from doing too much outwardly with over busy schedules. Sometimes burnout comes from an inner world in turmoil: worry, incessant anxiety, and fear. I suggest starting with self understanding. What does your burnout look like? Which of these factors might indicate you are burning out?
      • The joy you once had seems to have disappeared. You seldom have fun anymore.
      • You consistently sleep poorly.
      • You feel non-localized, free floating anger in your heart.
      • You catastrophize in your thinking, assuming the worse in people and life.
      • You easily snap, lose your cool with friends, families, or people in the church.
  2. Rest
    • After you recognize the symptoms, I’ve found that rest really helps. Whether it means taking time off, taking more breaks during your work day, getting more sleep, or trimming your schedule, the body and soul needs rest. Neuroscientists have coined a term for excessive wear and tear on our body due to prolonged stress and burnout, allostatic load. When we don’t give our body and brains time to rejuvenate, we prolong our burnout and its negative effects.
  3. Re-visit
    • Third, revisit your core values and mission. I encourage every leader to develop his or her own mission statement, their mission God has called them to achieve with His power. Most weeks when I do my strategic planning, I revisit my mission statement and personal values. If you’d like to see mine, you can click here. In this post I talk about the importance of developing your own personal values.
  4. Re-orient
    • The final step is to re-orient your time and effort to best live out your personal mission, without burning out. I suggest taking a half day alone to reset your goals and adjust how you use your time. Here’s a post on how to plan a retreat.

If you’ve faced burnout, what has helped you?

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