A toxic church exists when “doing” becomes more important than “being.” In a toxic church, service to God is viewed as keeping church systems functioning, God’s blessing is seen as bigger budgets for bigger buildings to accommodate more people, and looking successful replaces love as the key ingredient. In a church like this, the church building is the place where God resides, and ministry success is measured by offerings received and the number of seats filled. A healing church speaks of Christ residing in people, not in buildings or programs. It encourages participants to be real and genuine, not appearance-oriented or performance-driven. As pastor and author Jerry Cook states, “Love means accepting people the way they are for Jesus’ sake.” When churches emphasize loving, caring, and “being;” staff associates can enjoy being part of a healing organization. However, when they emphasize performance, appearance, and “doing;” associates risk being abused by the organization’s wounding dynamics.
On the surface, it is impossible to know if a church functions as a healing or wounding organization. Even internally, the situation can be masked. This puts a prospective staff associate in a vulnerable position. It is only through active involvement that an individual can really discern the true nature of a church organization. If a person looking to work for a healing church joins one that is toxic, he or she is in for a rude awakening.
One young man’s experience while interning as a staff associate illustrates this dilemma. He had entered a church leadership program that promised senior pastor mentoring, Bible study, and a closer walk with Jesus, but once on the job, he discovered that his church was not the organization it had appeared to be. Instead of being loved and cared for, he was treated like a slave and expected to facilitate the church’s promotional agenda. To his dismay, he realized that he had become indentured to a corporate minded leader intent on developing a growth-oriented organization. He felt betrayed and used. He ended his internship and stopped attending church. He explained that he loved God, but no longer viewed church as a safe place. Given his experience, it is hard to disagree.
Obviously, not all churches are religious machines. Most ministerial organizations genuinely desire to love God and serve people. However, toxic churches that put organizational success above the needs of people do exist and their numbers are growing. Staff associates who work for toxic churches are in danger of being exploited and mistreated. While there is no way to tell from the outside if a church is a toxic place or a place of healing, I believe the factor that most often plays a role in making a church toxic is when that church exchanges their spiritual paradigm for a corporate mandate.
Corporate Mandate vs. Spiritual Paradigm
God is Spirit, and His ways are unsearchable. His blessings, although very real, are not always tangible or even visible because by nature they are spiritual and organic. God’s blessings are not to be measured or analyzed, they are meant to be experienced and lived. Churches that forget this in favor of qualifying and quantifying God’s blessings ultimately abandon a “spiritual paradigm” in favor of a “corporate mandate” that measures success in terms of ever-increasing assets. A corporate mandate is appropriate if the goal is measurable success; not so if the goal is to love God and serve people. This is because the aim of a corporate mandate is, above all else, to benefit the organization. Success for these organizations is defined in financial, material, and numeric terms. The feelings, hopes, and needs of people are of little consequence under this mandate. Of prime importance is making sure that the organization survives and thrives. A church, however, is called to embrace a spiritual paradigm, not a corporate mandate. As disciples of Christ, we are commanded in John 13:34 and 1 John 3:23 to love fellow Christians in the same manner that Christ loves them. Churches are called to exercise faith, trusting God to lead, guide, and provide. They are not to measure, strategize, or lean on human understanding (Prov. 3:5-7). When a church organization becomes preoccupied with such things as promotion, production, and ministry image, it abandons a spiritual paradigm.Churches do need to be organized. Whenever people come together there must be leadership, rules, and structure. The distinction between a healthy church and one being run under a corporate mandate is that instead of being served, people become slaves to a mindset that puts organizational need above the needs of people. Embracing a corporate mandate elevates the importance of the organization and motivates leaders to depreciate the value of loving God and serving people. Once this occurs, the organization takes on a self-serving mentality; meaning, whatever needs to be done to protect the organization is legitimized and spiritualized.
There are many ways for a corporate mindset to overtake a church. For example, it can happen when the hard work connected with a season of growth causes the church to lose sight of its original purpose. This happened to one church led by a pastor whom we will call Tom. He started the church by espousing such ideals as unconditional love and acceptance. The church’s vision statement emphasized joy, community, and commitment to Christ. The church grew because Tom was committed to these ideals. Everything went well until the church became prosperous enough to purchase a building. Once the building was purchased, it became Tom’s obsession. Money, remodeling, and filling seats were all he could think about. Subtly, ministry packaging and a promotional agenda became more important than caring for people. Today, the vision statement hangs in the foyer as only a sad reminder of what the church used to be. The promotional agenda still operates as a demonstration of what a church can become.
What happened to Tom and his church is not uncommon. Many churches begin by espousing spiritual and relational goals only to end up embracing a corporate mandate. It can happen slowly and imperceptibly, that in the name of doing “God’s work” conscience is violated, integrity breached, or a situation manipulated. Such things happen all the time. For example, on any given Sunday it is not uncommon for senior pastors to garner emotional testimonies that “capitalize on the emotional bonds that…take advantage of people’s warm feelings.” This is done in the name of leading people to Christ or raising money to continue the church’s ministry. Manipulating emotions for the purpose of scripting a desired response is antithetical to the teachings of Christ. Nevertheless, it is often accepted and justified as being in the best interest of the church. Leaders who use these techniques are blind to the fact that in so doing, they are exchanging a spiritual paradigm for a corporate mandate. For these leaders organizational success may not be the stated goal, but it becomes the goal by default. In this environment, the staff is especially vulnerable because the goals of the organization are set, not by associates, but by the leaders in the power structure.______________________________________________________________Broken Hearts Shattered Trust identifies causes while compassionately embracing both sinner and sinned against.For a free copy of the book please send an e-mail with your
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