One of my favourite activities to do with my kids is pitting together new Lego sets, and making new creations from blocks. Recently, as we assembled a larger set, I was reflecting on the earlier steps in the instructions. I noted how the initial steps, although they don’t look anything like the finished product, they are significant in laying the foundation and keeping the whole set together.
I noticed how this is true in our ministries as well. Often, the foundational steps are the ones we fail to pay attention to, or give enough attention. And yet, they are so significant for the overall effectiveness of our ministry.
Toxicity in our Ministries
Let me go into some more detail. Over the last few months, I’ve been reading several books on toxic church cultures, narcissism in church leadership, and spiritual abuse. Not a common area of interest, but a significant one. In the wake of the #metoo movement, and the growing awareness of sexual abuse, conversation is increasing around various forms of abuse that happen in churches. You’ll notice that my recommended list of books at the bottom were all published in 2020. As I read these books on various forms of abuse in churches and ministries, I realized that the environments that protect sexual abusers also protect additional abuse. As I read these books, and reflect on experiences that I hear about, my growing hope is that God is inviting us to clean our houses, and my prayer is that we will respond favourably to this invitation. We need to pay attention and strive to create spaces that are free from abuse in its various forms.
And so, as we rebuild our ministries post-pandemic, I encourage us to be looking at our cultures and systems that we have in place. We want to provide environments for our children and youth that are safe. Having protection plans in place is an important and vital step, and we also need to be paying attention to the culture.
A Culture of Fear
One of the observations that I have made in my readings and reflections is that we have high levels of toxicity in our church leadership structures, with unhealthy loyalty to systems and institutions that are low in accountability. Within these kinds of systems, there is a high level of fear when wrongs are noticed, and may people are afraid to raise the concerns.
I remember a woman telling me that she could never disagree with the senior pastor, because he was a “man of God,” and therefore spoke for God. (As an ordained pastor, that level of confidence is frightening! Just ask my kids how often I’m wrong!) However, this sentiment is common, and the consequence of its belief often means that when a church or ministry is forced to confront the spiritual, emotional, or mental abuse perpetuated by its leader, the boards often choose to look the other way. The church or ministry has created a power- through-fear culture (check out McKnight and Barringer’s A Church Called Tov for the eight phases they identify).
A Culture of Goodness
To respond to the reality that may churches and ministries have allowed fear cultures to develop, McKnight and Barringer have developed a map for churches to explore as they move toward goodness. One of the elements on their map is the pursuit of service. They recognize that leaders should “empower and encourage everyone in the body of Christ to ‘motivate one another to acts of love and good works.’” The authors note the development of the celebrity culture that is influencing churches. While any of us are unlikely to become celebrities on the level of Bill Hybels or Carl Lentz, we run the risk of falling into a dangerous pattern of serving ourselves. I know of leaders who assume that because they hold a particular title in their organization, they feel that they are entitled to certain perks and should be impervious to criticism. “Because I am the senior pastor, I deserve …“
Many leaders aim to silence their critics, and surround them with people who think similarly and blindly support every initiative or idea we throw out. Over time, many ministries and leaders will marginalize those who oppose them, and gradually those voices will disappear from our church leadership teams and ministry boards.
Responding In Service
One practice to cultivate goodness in our ministries is to discern who we are serving, and what our tangible ways of serving look like. As we look to develop Next Generation ministries for the next decade, I’m convinced that elements of service are integral. Our students have long been asking us for ways to serve their communities and how to make their faith practical.
With vaccination programs well under way, hope is rising that summer 2021 will look a little bit more normal, and we are gearing up for Undercurrent. This new initiative is a way for you to develop rhythms of serving and explore opportunities for partnership in your neighbourhoods.
As we come out of this pandemic, we need to be paying attention to the foundation of our ministries, and considering what is at the heart of what we do. Like the basic blocks in our Lego sets, these intentional acts may not be noticed at first glance, but they are integral to how we live as the body of Christ in our neighbourhoods. How can serving be an integral component of your ministry post-COVID?
If you want to know more about Undercurrent, set up a time to chat with Dan, Laura, or Jacqueline. We’d love to explore how Undercurrent can work in your church this summer!
Books to check out about Toxic Church/Ministry Environments:
DeGroat, Chuck. When Narcissism Comes to Church (2020).
Everhart, Ruth. The #MeToo Reckoning (2020).
Langberg, Diane. Redeeming Power (2020).
McKnight, Scot and Laura Barringer. A Church Called Tov (2020).
Mullen, Wade. Something’s Not Right (2020).