5 Reasons People Stay in a Dysfunctional Church
by Joe McKeever
We have two kinds of people in our churches today: those who flit from church to church, never putting down roots or establishing relationships and finding their ministries, and those who will stay in a church regardless.
It’s the second group that puzzles me.
Why do they stay?
Like the note I received today: “Our church treasurer stole 60,000 dollars from us. He was a drunkard, and the preacher knew it and constantly talked with the man about his problem. But now, the man has left town with the church’s money.”
“Meanwhile,” the writer went on, “attendance in our church has dropped from 70 to around 10. The pastor is retiring and wants a large financial settlement and for us to pay his retirement. What are we to do?”
I’ll tell you what I’d do. I would walk away. With only 10 people coming, there’s hardly a church there anymore. And with the kind of non-leadership they’ve had, from this distance, it would appear that for this church to go out of business is no loss. After all, assuming that church is not in the frozen tundra where there is not another congregation within a hundred miles, it’s not like there aren’t other good churches in the area.
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I’d go join one.
Yet, people persevere.
Why do they stay in such dysfunctional churches when they could so easily drive another mile down the road and find peace?
Why do they continue coming to a church that cannot go a month without a fight? Can’t go a year without someone wanting to run off the preacher? Can’t vote on a budget without conflict arising?
Why don’t they just leave for their own peace of mind?
Here are some possible answers to the question “Why do they stay?” You will think of others.
1. This is our church.
“We have a history here. My grandpa built this church.”
They are committed to the building and property.
I understand the feeling. There is a little Baptist church a few miles outside Nauvoo, Alabama, where my great-grandparents attended in the late 1800s. My grandparents were regular members for all their lives until their deaths in mid-20th century. My mother, born in 1916, is presently the oldest member. I came to Christ in that church in 1951. Many in my family still belong there.
Now, imagine that church getting in financial or relationship troubles and someone suggesting that we all drive to the other side of Nauvoo and worship with New Zion. No, sir. That’s a fine church, I imagine, but we have no history there. This is (ahem) “our” church.
2. This is my church.
They are committed to that identity.
It’s funny how quickly we build these attachments. Earlier today, my daughter-in-law showed me a text conversation with one of her teenage daughters concerning the new HD television the family is getting. Abby wanted to know its size, then she wondered what was going to happen to the old one. Her mom said she didn’t know. That set Abby off. After all, she said, “This is my childhood!” We all laughed at that. But Abby was serious. It’s a historical relic to her.
People invest their lives, their tithes, their labors, and their years in a church and grow attached, not only to the relationships but also to the physical site. I’ve been in churches where someone said, “All my children were married at that altar.” Or “All my family has been baptized in that baptistery.”
We grow attached to churches and do not want to leave them.
3. This is a unique church.
They are committed to their uniqueness.
No one else is doing the kind of ministry this church is doing. Or no other church has the kind of worship services this one does.
It’s actually a good question to ask yourself at any time: “If my church were suddenly to cease to exist, what would the community miss about it?”
Not far from my church is a congregation noted for planting new churches. At one time, I recall they were sponsoring eight mission churches. I know of another church that wants to hold the line on traditional worship and not go for innovative, newer concepts of music. Another congregation I can name specializes in reaching the artsy crowd, another the homeless and disaffected.
If a church goes out of business, sometimes something irreplaceable is lost. But sometimes nothing is lost. Which is it with your church?
4. This is my ministry, and no one is going to say otherwise.
He/she is committed to his control.
There are among us certain church members–a distinct minority, let us give thanks–who will get their way no matter the cost, no matter who gets in their way, what relationships have to be jettisoned, what fellowship is fractured.
I’ve seen them ride a church down to almost nothing.
What is there in the human soul, we wonder, that makes a man want to be a big frog in an ever-decreasing pond?
5. God called me here, and I’ll stay until He says otherwise.
He/she is committed to God’s will.
This is the only solidly Christian position, for my money. After all, it’s the Lord’s church, not mine. The program of ministry is His, not ours. The people belong to Him. And regardless of whose name is on the deed, who functions as trustees, or who can vote to sell the property, it’s the Lord’s church.
The only question for members of the Lord’s church—I mean the only question–is “Lord, what will you have me to do?” It was the question Saul of Tarsus asked Jesus outside Damascus the day he was unseated from his high horse. And it’s the right question for all of us today, pastors and people alike.
When we come into a meeting to discuss church finances and budgets, the only question is Jesus, what do you want done with your money?
When we come into a time of worship where we seek to quieten our spirits and still our bodies and find God, the only issue is Lord, what shall we do?
And when churches try to self-destruct and to linger there any longer threatens to give one a nervous breakdown, the only prayer is Lord, tell me what to do, please.
There is no more liberating thought for church leaders than this: This is the Lord’s church and not mine. He died for it; I didn’t. He has plans for it, and I don’t. So Lord, tell us what to do with your church, and we’ll do our best to obey.
Once in a while, the answer will come back that we are to leave this church and go elsewhere. That’s not all bad.
A pastor told me today that some of the disgruntled members of his congregation are leaving. They led an uprising against his ministry and lost that fight, and now they are walking away. Ideally, we could wish they would have reigned in their rebellion and submitted to their godly leader–this is not an abstraction; I know these folks–but they chose not to do so.
So it was good for them to leave. The smaller congregation they leave behind will struggle for a while filling the vacancies in leadership and compensating for the loss in contributions, but the new peace and unity of purpose will be worth the effort.
I suppose we should go back and revise the opening statement. Maybe there are three groups of members: those who leave churches easily and often, those who plant themselves in concrete and will not be moved, and the reluctant ones who by their leaving bless two churches, the one they leave and the one they join.