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 one of my books, People Pleasing Pastors: Avoiding the Pitfalls of Approval Motivated Leadership that illustrates the process.

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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5 Leadership Insights I Wish I Knew 25 Years Ago

I’ve been in vocational ministry over 38 and my leadership roles have included my role as singles pastor, discipleship pastor, associate pastor, teaching pastor, church planter, and lead pastor. Although I’ve earned two seminary degrees and I appreciate what I learned in seminary, I’ve learned many key lessons that seminary never taught me. I wish I had known these 5 key lessons when I began  ministry.

  1. Silence from your team does not mean they agree with you.
    • Early on when I’d lead either staff, board, or volunteer meetings I tried very hard to sell ideas I was excited about. I would often present the idea in such a way that hindered honest input from the team. I’d enthusiastically share the idea, ask if there were any questions, and when none came I assumed everybody agreed. I learned the hard way that silence often did not mean they agreed with my idea. Rather, the team was simply reluctant to share their concerns. Only later would I find out that the idea was not a good one and lacked support. My overbearing “sell job” actually stifled feedback I needed to hear.
  2. Collaboration will get you further down the road.
    • This insight stands as a close cousin to number 1. I once thought that to prove my leadership mettle, I had to originate all major ministry initiatives and ideas. If someone suggested an idea, although I may have appeared to listen to them, mentally I would often dismiss their idea if it didn’t jibe with mine. Why? Because it didn’t originate with me. I’ve since learned that if I use a collaborative process to determine vision and major objectives, I got more buy-in and in the long run make greater progress.
  3. You probably can’t over-communicate.
    • Most people in our churches don’t spend the hours we do in thinking about church ministry. Because we spend so much more time thinking on these issues, I often fell into a subconscious trap assuming that if I felt I was over communicating about something, others must feel the same way. I’ve learned since that it’s almost impossible to over-communicate issues like vision, values, and core strategies. Although we created banners, book marks, and cool graphics to communicate our church’s current theme (Unified yet Unique), when I asked our church this past Sunday to quote that simple phrase, few could repeat it. That experience reminded me that although I thought I had communicated it effectively, I still needed to communicate it even more.
  4. Others mirror a leader’s emotional temperature.
    • The term for mirroring another’s response is called emotional contagion. Teams actually ‘catch’ the emotional state of their leaders. Early in ministry I felt that I had the leadership right to get angry, pout, or emotionally cut myself off from others if things didn’t go well. It was being authentic, or so I thought. While not discounting the importance of authenticity, I’ve learned that I must bring a positive and hopeful tone into the office each day. When I experience something painful and it’s appropriate to share it, say in a staff meeting, that sharing builds trust. But if I regularly bring negative emotions into the office, I set up a tone that others often catch and mirror, even though that emotion may have nothing to do with their circumstances. Such negative emotions can hinder a team’s effectiveness.
  5. Less is more.
    • I’ll never forget my first elder’s meeting almost 30 years ago. I had started a church in the Atlanta, GA area and we had just elected our first slate of elders. I planned the agenda for the first meeting. It was three pages long. I am not kidding. I actually still have memory traces of me racing through the agenda at a breakneck speed so we could check off all the items. The meeting was a flop. I’ve learned that less is more applies not only to meeting agendas but also to sermon prep as well. People in general absorb a few key ideas (or idea) much better than when we use the proverbial firehose approach.

What key lessons in your ministry do you wish you had known when you started?

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Should Pastors Tell Church People to Obey Them?

Several passages in Scripture pose challenges to preaching. Even so, we shouldn’t skip the tough ones. However, when we must deal with tough passages such as this one below, we must take care how we teach them. Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. (Heb 13.17, NIV) That first part, “Obey your leaders,” poses the challenge. How should we approach the “followership” concept this verse speaks to?

Should Pastors Tell Church People to Obey Them? Dr. Charles Stone

I’ve excerpted a section from my book 5 Ministry Killers and How to Defeat Them below that captures the essence of this verse.

“Obey your leaders” sounds quite strong. Certainly this does not condone dictatorial leadership, as Peter makes this clear in saying, “Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your good example.” (1 Pet 5.3, NLT) After all, God calls us shepherds, and shepherds don’t push—they lead. Unfortunately, in our world, where self is king and where those in spiritual authority have abused their power, many in our churches would struggle with a sermon titled “Obey Your Leaders.”

But that’s not the part upon which I believe we should focus. It’s the last part: “that their work will be a joy, not a burden for that would be of no advantage to you.” Often it seems ministry brings more burdens than joy. After a tough meeting I sometimes wish I could get away with giving an elder a swirly. Other times, in response to a critic, I’m tempted to use King David’s words as a club: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” (Ps 105.15)

Other translations render “that their work will be a joy” in these ways:

  • So don’t make them sad as they do their work. Make them happy. (CEV)
  • Let them do this with joy and not with grief…. (NASB)
  • Give them reason to do this joyfully and not with sorrow. (NLT)
  • Let them do all this with joy and not with groaning. (ESV)

A similar verse mirrors this one. Paul writes, We ask you, brothers, to respect those who work hard among you, who are over you in the Lord and who admonish you. (1 Thes 5.12, NIV)

Other translators render “respect” (Greek: oida) as “appreciate” (NASB), “be thoughtful of” (CEV), “honor” (The Message, NLT), and “pay proper respect to” (TEV). On the other hand, just as “obey your leaders” can sound dictatorial, these statements can sound like they promote the self-serving, egotistical, and narcissistic.

Don’t make us sad…Honor us…Respect us…Make us happy…Appreciate us…Give us reasons to be joyful.

These thoughts likewise might seem oxymoronic when contrasted to our ministerial call to selflessly give ourselves away. But no matter how they’re translated, these verses raise some important questions. Is it wrong to want our ministries to bring us joy? Would we be sinning or at best self-serving to expect from our congregations certain things that would make serving them more joyful, less burdensome?

Should we dare even broach these matters? Did one pastor correctly assess church folk when he said, “Most truly aren’t concerned with my joy”? Conversely, should we affirm the answer of several others that “My joy is from the Lord, not from people”?

I don’t suggest a simplistic solution to pastoral joy. However, God’s Word leaves no room for misunderstanding. He expects believers to respond to healthy pastoral leadership by taking concrete steps to help make ministry more fulfilling for His servants.

Perhaps the key to making this truth become reality in the church lies in this: the church must see us as servants first and foremost. When we model Christ-like servanthood, I believe we create an atmosphere conducive for those in the church to become good followers, without our having to demand it.

What do you think? What do you believe is key to making this verse a reality in the church?


“I just learned insight about how to encourage followership in the church.” (tweet this quote by clicking here)


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Introducing The 2018 Leadership Book Everyone Should Read

There is no shortage of leadership books available to read but Brian Dodd’s Timeless: 10 Enduring Practices Of Apex Leaders stands out. If you read Brian’s popular website Brian Dodd On Leadership, he frequently profiles Apex Leaders – those who are the best in their profession.  After years of research, Brian identified over 300 traits and practices of the world’s best leaders.  He then narrowed the list down to the 10 most common.

These traits make up the book’s content.  They are the following:

  1. Apex Leaders Build Great Teams
  2. Apex Leaders Are Humble
  3. Apex Leaders Continually Improve
  4. Apex Leaders Work Hard – Very Hard
  5. Apex Leaders Form Strong Relationships
  6. Apex Leaders Make Others Better
  7. Apex Leaders Show Consistency
  8. Apex Leaders Give Generously
  9. Apex Leaders Lead By Example
  10. Apex Leaders Deliver Results

After applying a biblical perspective coupled with modern-day examples to each practice, Timeless: 10 Enduring Practices Of Apex Leaders was born.

There are things great leaders have always done and will always do.  Brian takes these complex concepts and boils them down into practices any leader can do.

What also makes Timeless: 10 Enduring Practices Of Apex Leaders unique is the book is not made to be read and applied alone.  Each chapter contains a series of discussion questions.  As a leader, you can now sit down with other leaders and with your team.  Together, you can discuss what is needed to become the best leaders you can be and then collectively advance your organization’s mission and vision.

Any leader can get better.  Any leader can improve.  Timeless: 10 Enduring Practices Of Apex Leaders is your tool for going to the next level.

Click HERE and order your copies TODAY.  Timeless: 10 Enduring Practices Of Apex Leaders will help you become the leader you were meant to be.

The Cortisol Stress Flooded Church: 9 Signs and 8 Antidotes

Cortisol, the stress hormone, is often associated with negative effects that prolonged stress puts on our bodies. Those effects  include weight gain, anxiety, heart disease, depressed immune system, digestive problems, sleep impairment, and even effects on memory. But could churches be negatively affected by cortisol as well? That is, if the leaders and culture of that church are constantly stressed, and flooded with cortisol themselves, could it affect the church negatively? I think it can and does in many churches. Consider these 9 tell-tale signs of a church flooded with cortisol.

  1. Your leadership team seems to always be uptight, tired, and sick a lot.
  2. Little trust between staff, elders, and the people in general exists.
  3. The leaders incessantly push bigger and better programs and ministries. They often switch from one great idea to the next.
  4. Your staff experiences lots of turn-over.
  5. An atmosphere of suspicion and “the wary eye” seems to pervade the church and your teams.
  6. Staff meetings are conflict filled or staff simply don’t say much in meetings for fear they will get reprimanded.
  7. A heavy spirit seems to linger over the office and even the church itself.
  8. Tension and conflict fill elder and/or deacon meetings.
  9. You seem to focus most on problems rather than victories or stories of how God is working.

How many of these did you check? Granted, spiritual forces are at work here as well. It’s not just a biological thing. But if more than two of these are true of your church, you might need to take a good look at your church’s stress level. Your church may be flooded with cortisol.

How might a church dial down a cortisol culture? Consider these potential antidotes.

  1. Create a ‘do not do’ list for your church. Pare down what you do so that leaders and volunteers don’t feel run ragged. Do a few things well.
  2. Teach your leaders how to build trust. Here’s a recent blog on building trust. When we build trust, we help activate the trust neurotransmitter oxytocin in our brains that creates a feeling of safety and belonging. Here’s a video of a recent talk I gave on building trust.
  3. Build fun experiences into your staff calendar. Don’t make every encounter revolve around pressing ministry issues.
  4. If you are the main leader, dial down your own intensity. Take breaks during the day. Deal with your own stress. Take your day off. Disconnect from technology 24 hours each week.
  5. Begin your staff and elder/deacon meetings with praises and victories.
  6. Share stories in your services that point to God’s blessings and changed lives.
  7. Over-communicate with your church. When people sense they know what’s happening, they will tend less to assume the worst. When we assume the worst we become anxious and cortisol ratchets up.
  8. Smile a lot. Our brain has what are called mirror neurons (brain cells) that prompts us to mimic the intentional, goal directed actions of others. Model give body language to others that you want them to imitate. And, make it positive.

Do you think churches can be affected by cortisol in leaders? Why or why not?

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