Why Church Leaders Fail

Dysfunctions cancel out intentions; liabilities

cancel out strengths and drive out members .


By Ken Shelton


I’ll always remember sitting in the Marriott in Palm Desert, California, at the annual Linkage leadership conference (as the media sponsor, I never missed one of these events for 15 years) when my friend Patrick Lencioni, the glib Italian-American best-selling author of The 5 Dysfunctions of Teams, asked the audience, “What organizations are the most dysfunctional?”

Without raising my hand, I shouted, “Churches”.

Everyone looked at me like I was the devil.

On stage, Patrick smiled and confirmed, “You’re right, churches, by a large margin.”

He then asked a follow-up question: “Why are churches so dysfunctional?”

Without giving anyone a chance to comment, he said, “Because people are nice on the surface and in meetings, but once outside they gossip and gab and may knife you in the back.”

He then asked another provocative question: “And what is the next worse case?”

I shouted, “Church-affiliated universities.”

Lencioni confirmed, “Right again.” The audience was stunned; I was shunned.

Now, if you are a church insider or minister, you will deny my outbursts and Lencioni’s research out-takes because you come from the in-side of in-tention.


Church Passive-Aggressive Culture

Once a good friend told me how he met and married his wife and started his company.  He rode into town from out of state on a Harley (Hog) because his college had cancelled its wrestling program and he was looking for a new match, on the mat and on campus.

As a non-member of the Mormon Church and new to BYU, he looked conspicuously odd and out of place; being disoriented on campus, he asked the first coed he saw: “Excuse me, miss, do you know where I might find the wrestling coach’s office?”

She wasn’t certain, more miss than hit, but offered a guess. After about one minute of small talk, this quick wit asked her out on a date . . . for that night!

At the end of this first date, he asked her to marry him  . . . and she tentatively accepted, pending approval from her father (my high school football coach). So, the next day he met her father and announced:  “Sir, your daughter and I are engaged, and I am going to marry her.”

The father’s reply:  “Like hell you are!” My friend married her any way.

After graduating from BYU, he needed a job and applied at the Church Office Building (COB).  He was hired and reported to work; however, by 11 a.m. on his first morning at the COB, he was so frustrated by the dysfunction that he went ROB (Ran Out of Building), vowing never to return to Church employment again.

Now an outcast or COB-out, he started his own company the next day.

When I asked him what was so toxic about the COB culture, he spit out P’s: “politics, protocols, programs, people, processes, pecking orders” . . . and then added a Q: questions (those they asked of him to assess his worthiness, character, competency and cultural fit).

Causes of Church Dysfunction

Church cultures are all about minding your P’s and Q’s. Of course, all teams and organizations are potentially, perhaps inevitably, dysfunctional to some degree because they are composed of fallible, imperfect human beings. Then churches add another layer of In-sulation, if not In-sin-uation or In-sult: infallibility or perfection. This causes member Insiders to care deeply about superficial appearances and divinely-appointed positions, titles, and callings—all seen as affirmations of their pre-ordained or fore-ordained approbation (a foregone conclusion).

To assess the level of dysfunction in your team or culture, Lencioni suggests asking these Questions: Do team members openly and readily disclose their opinions? Are team meetings compelling and productive? Does the team come to decisions quickly and avoid getting bogged down by consensus? Do team members confront one another about their shortcomings? Do team members sacrifice their own interests for the good of the team?

While he acknowledges that even the best teams struggle with these issues, he adds that the finest leaders constantly work to ensure that their answers are “yes.”

Meanwhile, notes Lencioni, most well-intentioned leaders exacerbate five common dysfunctions (which spread faster than the common cold):

  1. Absence of trust. Team members are reluctant to be vulnerable with one another and admit their mistakes, weaknesses or need for help. They waste time talking about the wrong issues and revisiting the same topics, lacking trust, courage, candor and discipline.
  2. Fear of conflict. Lacking trust, team members are incapable of engaging in unfiltered, passionate debate about key issues, causing situations where team conflict can easily turn into veiled discussions and back-channel comments. Since team members can’t, won’t or don’t openly air their opinions, inferior decisions (concessions and compromises) result.
  3. Lack of commitment. Without conflict and candor, team members struggle to commit to decisions, creating a culture where ambiguity prevails. Lack of direction and commitment make people, particularly highly effective people, disgruntled.
  4. Avoidance of accountability. When teams don’t commit to a clear plan of action, even the most focused and driven individuals hesitate to call their peers on actions and behaviors that may seem counterproductive to the overall good of the team or congregation.
  5. Inattention to results. When individuals aren’t held accountable, members tend to put their own needs (ego, recognition, training, development) ahead of team goals. When a team loses sight of the need for achievement, eventually all members of the organization suffer.

All five of these dysfunctions are common to church culture, and culture, like a vulture, can quickly devour the carcass of good intention and even sound doctrine.

Functional, effective teams make better decisions and accomplish more in less time and with less distraction and frustration because they trust each other.  The best players (who are often rather eccentric, non-conforming and creative) rarely leave highly functional organizations where they are part of a cohesive team that consistently wins expressly because they are exceedingly human. By acknowledging the imperfections of their humanity, members of functional teams overcome the dysfunctional tendencies that cancel out teamwork.


Dysfunctions Cancel Intentions

According to Anderson and Adams, coauthors of Mastering Leadership, most leadership strengths fall into three categories: Heart/people, mind/intellectual, and willpower/results.  When these strengths are run reactively in church cultures, they are cancelled out by associated liabilities: People strengths become Complying; mental strengths become Protecting and will/result strengths become Controlling.

Controlling leaders develop strengths that use power to get results, such as passion, drive, results-focus, and decisiveness.  However, at church these strengths may be seen by others as over-drive, perfectionism, excessive ambition, dictatorialness, ineffective interaction, poor listening, micromanaging, and over-demanding.

Protecting leaders develop strengths of intellectual brilliance and analytical capability. But at church, members may experience these strengths as superiority, arrogance, distance, aloofness, disconnectedness, ineffective interpersonal style, and overly-critical.

Complying leaders have strengths of forming relationships, supporting and developing others, approachability, listening and connecting. But at church these strengths may be experienced as conventionality, cautiousness, submissiveness, self-centric, not holding the team accountable, too focused on pleasing others, indecisiveness, and failing to achieve results.

Church leaders, teams, and cultures are often a lethal mix of these three reactive styles; hence, leader and member strengths are often canceled out instead of multiplied. Why?

Anderson notes that we become identified with our strength. We believe that our strength defines who we are.  We have to be seen as nice, likable, agreeable, supportive; or, as smart, wise, brilliant, analytical; or, as the ones who drives results and gets things done. When we define ourselves by our signature strength, we become compulsive: we must be this way, or else.  As we overuse, overextend and overplay our strength, it becomes a liability. We actually drive people out and play right into the canceling effect—our positive strengths are offset by competing liabilities—and we don’t even notice it (and at church nobody will tell us).

Only when we shift gears from reactive tendencies to creative leadership do we start to get a multiple on our strengths and complementary competencies. Our strong people skills can then complement our drive and passion. We can be both technically brilliant and personable.

Masters of Leadership (such as Jesus Christ) bring the right strength to the situation—even to complex, highly charged situations.  They are not stuck in a reactive default mode but transcend neither/nor into both/and: they achieve both better relationships and better results.

Effective leaders focus on creating a vision worthy of deep commitment—one that generates energy, passion, purpose, action, love and faith that is bigger than fear. Creative leadership yields a pattern of high performance. As we clarify our purpose and translate it into a clear vision of the desired future, passion naturally grows, along with the necessary action.

To be less dysfunctional and more effective, you don’t need to be a Lencioni or Houdini, an Anderson or Adams—just don’t sit too long on a log or a Hog. Remember: the road to hell is paved with good intentions; the road to heaven is paved with effective interactions.


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