10 Telltale Signs of Bad Church Leadership

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The vast majority of church leaders get into leadership with good motives.

If that’s the case, then why do so many people end up leaving churches hurt, frustrated and angry? Why is church leadership often so toxic?

At the heart of the struggle is that most leaders who end up exhibiting poor leadership never intend to. It’s not like they woke up one day and decided to practice bad church leadership.

It just, well, happens.

That ends up leaving scores of people hurt, frustrated, and walking out the door. That’s true for congregational members, staff, and board members, not to mention new people who smell unhealth a mile away.

This isn’t even about leaders who fail morally. It’s about leadership styles that make everyday ministry dysfunctional.

As Henry Cloud and John Townsend say, “You get what you tolerate.” 

One of the best things you can do is to learn how to spot a bad leader. Here are ten telltale signs of bad church leadership.

You get what you tolerate.

1. No respect for boundaries

I hear this complaint a lot from church staff and volunteers. A senior pastor with poor boundaries ends up working until the last minute on his or her message, sending text messages on evenings and weekends, and pings their staff any time they have their next ‘brilliant idea’ or ‘big crisis.’

I get it. When you’re passionate about the ministry, it’s hard not to think about it 24/7. I lived that way for the first decade of my ministry, and it led (among other things) to burnout for me, and unnecessary fatigue for others.

Sure, you may be a driven leader, but driven leaders with bad boundaries drive people away. Sure, you may be a driven leader, but driven leaders with bad boundaries drive people away. CLICK TO TWEET

2. Treating people as a means to an end

If your style of ministry sees people as dispensable, you’re not really doing Christian ministry.

Speaking of driven leaders, it’s far too easy in ministry to see people as a means to an end.

Effective leaders remember that the goal of Christian faith is a relationship: A vibrant relationship with God, with others, and with yourself.

People aren’t a means to an end, they ARE the end.

If your style of ministry sees people as dispensable, you’re not really doing Christian ministry. If your style of ministry sees people as dispensable, you’re not really doing Christian ministry. CLICK TO TWEET

3. Poor time management

Another sign of bad church leadership? Leaders who can’t manage time.

Pastors and church leaders who are consistently running late, fail to meet deadlines, or cancel meetings at the last minute demonstrate a lack of respect for the time and energy of others.

No one feels this more intensely than volunteers. Few things are more demotivating than giving up your time as a volunteer only to discover the staff person responsible didn’t set you up to succeed.

The good news is this is fixable. Excellent time management is a leadership trait that can be learned (here’s a proven method).

The bottom line? Leaders who lack the ability to lead themselves will always have a hard time leading others.

They’ll often burn them out in the process too. The bottom line? Leaders who lack the ability to lead themselves will always have a hard time leading others. Often they’ll burn them out in the process too. CLICK TO TWEET

4. Using spiritual language to mask emotional problems

Often the leaders who claim the most spiritual maturity also exhibit the lowest emotional intelligence.

What makes it more confusing is that bad practices not only get veiled by good intentions, they often get justified for ‘spiritual’ reasons.

Often the leaders who claim the most spiritual maturity also exhibit the lowest emotional intelligence.

This shows up most often when a leader justifies his or her dysfunction with spiritual language—saying things like “Well, this is for God” or “I feel like God led me to do this” or “Don’t you know you’re called to give your all?”. There are a million variations of this, and they’re all equally manipulative.

Healthy never mask their emotional problems or toxic leadership with spiritual language. Instead, they own their shortcomings, admit their mistakes, apologize and correct their course. Often the leaders who claim the most spiritual maturity also exhibit the lowest emotional intelligence. CLICK TO TWEET

5. Sacrificing families on the altar of ministry

It’s almost axiomatic for a church leader to publicly state that they refuse to sacrifice their family on the altar of ministry. But then so many go on to do it anyway.

I get it. I almost did too.

But pastors’ families aren’t the only families to get sacrificed on the altar of ministry. Too often, the families of other staff or volunteers get sacrificed too.

Expecting people to be at church five nights a week (plus Sundays), having poor boundaries around texts, emails, and asks of key people, and no defined time off or even seasons where volunteers can take a break all factor in.

Pastors talk all the time about reaching new families. Perhaps it’s also time to stop sacrificing them by making them so busy with activities that they don’t have time actually to be a family. Pastors talk all the time about reaching new families. Perhaps it’s also time to stop sacrificing them by making them so busy with activities that they don’t have time actually to be a family. CLICK TO TWEET

6. Asking too much OR too little of volunteers

We’ve already covered the tendency of unhealthy leaders to ask too much of church members. Asking too much of people is a recipe for burnout and high turnover, not zapping the passion of those who don’t leave.

But another way to lead poorly is to ask too little of volunteers—to set the bar too low. High-capacity people respond to high levels of challenge. They want to know their serving counts, and that it makes a difference.

When you combine a high level of challenge with clear boundaries (you’re going to serve X number of hours a month for X amount of time with X resources to help you), you get a much healthier culture.

7. Having a staff payscale that makes no sense

If you read the headlines, you’d think a lot of senior pastors get lavish salaries. Few things could be further from the truth.

While perhaps 1% of churches overpay their staff, the vast majority have the opposite problem—they underpay them. Often, they vastly underpay them.

There’s also occasionally a third variant: The lead pastor is paid well (or overpaid) while everyone else works for subsistence wages.

Pay inequity in any form creates a myriad of problems.

First, you rarely attract great people when you pay poorly (and many churches just flat-out pay poorly). Second, the leaders you do attract struggle to make ends meet, and as a result, their family suffers (which ultimately impacts how they perform at their job, by the way). And perhaps most importantly, it’s unbiblical.

So what’s the answer? Simple: Start by paying a living wage. Not too high, not too low, but a reasonable if not comfortable standard of living for the community you’re in.

If you want to provide a healthy work environment, the baseline starts with fair pay. If you want to provide a healthy work environment, the baseline starts with fair pay. CLICK TO TWEET

8. Making the pastor the product

Ashley Woolridge, the Lead Pastor of Christ Church of the Valley, asks a piercing question: Why, in so many churches, is the pastor the product?

If you look at how many churches —not just megachurches, but many small and large churches—functionally operate, the pastor is at the center of the church. 

And before you criticize mega-churches, in reality, far more small churches are one-man or one-woman shows than large churches.

When it comes to church, team performance matters far more than individual performance.

Sure, some profile for a pastor is inevitable—things really do rise and fall on leadership. But leadership is more than just the leader. 

The healthiest church leaders use their leadership skills to develop the leadership abilities of the entire team, both on and off the platform.

A sure sign of bad leadership is a pastor who enjoys the platform and spotlight a little too much. When it comes to church, team performance matters far more than individual performance. CLICK TO TWEET

9. Making it all about the weekend service

If a church is mainly focused on its weekend service and neglects other ministry areas, you’ll always struggle to grow peoples’ faith, even if you grow the church.

A lot is riding on weekend services, but unhealthy churches will put almost all their resources behind the weekend service, neglecting almost everything else.

Good leaders will put their time and energy into developing robust kids ministry, student ministry, small groups, ways to serve the community and discipleship.

If a church is mainly focused on its weekend service and neglects other ministry areas, you’ll always struggle to grow peoples’ faith, even if you grow the church. If a church is mainly focused on its weekend service and neglects other ministry areas, you’ll always struggle to grow peoples’ faith, even if you grow the church. CLICK TO TWEET

10. Being too insider-focused

A frequent criticism of growing churches is that they’re all about evangelism.

A more pernicious danger, though, is the opposite: becoming a church that’s so insider-focused that it loses its mission.

While it’s easy to think that focusing on the needs of members at the expense of reaching new people will produce mature Christians, it doesn’t.

Churches that are insider-focused don’t produce mature Christians. They produce selfish Christians.

Great leaders resist the gravitational trend to focus on themselves and the people they’ve already reached. Churches that are insider-focused don’t produce mature Christians. They produce selfish Christians. CLICK TO TWEET

Become a Healthier Church

The good news is that health is something that can be learned. There are many unhealthy churches that have broken out of the status quo and become healthier. And there are, sadly, once-healthy churches that have moved in the other direction.

But if you’re motivated to improve, you can get healthier. Much healthier.

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