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Systemic Issues And Ministry Fallout

September 12, 2012

Source: via Julie on Pinterest


In recent years we see more and more books and articles on ministry disillusionment and burnout.  The reason for this is because there truly is a high rate of “fall out” in the world of Christian leadership.  If we hope to address this sad reality we have to go deeper and ask the question: Are there systemic issues that infect churches and organizations which fuel the dangerous slide toward spiritual and emotional disillusionment in the life of the leader? Unless the systemic dysfunctions are named and addressed, the leader will struggle in a structure that continually undermines sustainable and joyful service.

Allow me to walk you through a list of assumptions.  If these statements are true, then the very culture Christian leaders work in is at cross-purposes with the inner wholeness they so deeply need and desire. Sadly, I suspect the statements that follow are true of most organizations. It’s a dangerous slide.

1.  Our Consumer Culture: Leading a ministry in a consumer culture, where measurable results dominate the landscape, makes it very difficult to prioritize and strategize the ongoing work of spiritual formation. The slow work of transformation is preempted by numerical and programmatic success. Many leaders and organizations alike have become addicted to bigger is better and the need to achieve assumes an idolatrous hold on the soul.

2.  Employment and Performance: In this culture of success, leaders are managed as employees, which places the bottom line on performance, effectiveness and accomplishment. Without realizing it, we develop and then operate under a scorecard that overlooks the leader’s need for soul-care. The spiritual maturity of the leader is assumed to be of crucial importance but nothing is put in place to nurture and secure this as a primary outcome.

3.  Management Trumps Mystery:  The slide continues as the primary ministry strategy is built around thinking, planning and action that is focused and organized around programmatic models and tactics. The leader comes to believe that being is doing and gives up mystery for management.  As long as this approach is working, the leader is affirmed and continues to put his or her eggs in this basket. It can go on for years before the backlash occurs and the leader realizes they are on the wrong path.

4.  Relational Trust is Lost: In a performance-oriented system, trust and deep relationships are unintentionally traded for results. We say we are in community but the authenticity needed for such depth is trumped by the need to succeed and look good.  Leaders are no longer functioning in a place of emotional safety and transparency. They experience a disconnect from the very people they serve. True community has become fatally compromised in the life of the very person who leads the community.

5.  Compulsive Ministry Patterns: When the leader becomes defined by what they do (and not who they are) they often succumb to insecurity, drivenness and faulty motivation in ministry. At this point, he or she is no longer living into their true calling and turns to patterns of pleasing and the need to succeed as a way to find the affirmation they long for. Instead of listening to the Father (as was modeled for us by Jesus), they listen to myriad other voices that feed their identity and ministry direction.

6.  God Is Gone And Pressure Is On: When spiritual formation is no longer at the center, leaders lose the art of spiritual discernment. They resort to business models of decision-making. We seek to find answers to problems through data, analysis and our own wisdom rather than prayer and dependency on God. In the end, the ministry becomes a man-made system that is overly dependent on one person, the leader, to keep it going. At this point, the at-risk nature of the work begins to bear down on the leader and the outcome takes them to places they never anticipated.

*            *            *            *            *

If you work under the assumptions stated above, a time will come when ministry will no longer hold the luster in once had. The systemic issue is clear: The culture Christian leaders serve in is prone to steer them to pursue career dreams and ministry ideals for the wrong reasons. To avert the associated dangers, something needs to be in place long before this misdirection sets in.  It is for this reason that I feel every leader needs the gift of wisdom offered by a seasoned spiritual director… someone who will help them process their union with Christ amid the dangers that ministry exerts on the soul.  (I have written extensively on the topic of spiritual direction in my previous blogs and would encourage you to backtrack if you desire more input on this important topic.)

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  1. In churches that bear the symptoms you describe there are often unhealed wounds in the history of the church that facilitate corporate dysfunction. The wounds need to be treated, the offenses repented of and a new path for the future needs to be defined. In many cases there can be a significant change in the spirit and culture of the church when church leaders address the root problems involved. A book like Healing the Heart of Your Church by Dr. Kenneth Quick goes a long way to restore the health of dysfunctional churches.

  2. This is a core problem, and I’m not sure it can be fixed. Mix all of what you wrote with larger salaries, and what people are rewarded for is performance and management. People follow money. It takes a strong leader to stick to the core value of formation first.

  3. Well done Morris. You’ve identified the real underlining issue that sabotage the ministry of many pastors.

  4. Cliff Meyer permalink

    Good analysis.

    I realize there is a need for record keeping, but unfortunately many of the systemic dysfunctions are supported and encouraged by things such as Annual Report.

    Soul formation is not quantifiable. It can’t be reduced to a static, so is there a solution that would say “we value this” that can be applied to things like annual reports where there is always a desire to look good (partly because some of the systemic dysfunctions you have mentioned)?

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