Dysfunctional, Depressing and Desperate: The Three D’s That Lead to the Death of a Church

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I hate the smell of death inside a church. I have smelled it many times. The smell isn’t the same as the death of a person, or an animal that has expired inside the wall of a home, but it is very similar. The smell is actually more spiritual than it is physical. It goes beyond the senses of the flesh, to the point that only those who are spiritual can get any sense of it. It is the smell of ecclesiastical death.

Dysfunctional Leadership

Given that I have pastored churches that had the smell, I thought I would write about what the final death throws are concerning the church. They can be broken into three areas: a church in it’s final pains of death is desperate, depressing, and dysfunctional.

In fact, the dysfunctional nature of the leadership in the church is primarily what leads to the other two conditions. I’m not talking about the pastor as the leader of a dying church. Often times, pastors take these types of churches hoping that God will use them to turn the church around, but the dysfunctional leadership has doomed the church long before the pastor ever shows up. Sadly, when these churches finally give up the ghost, many of those around blame the last pastor. But the problem began long before he arrived on the scene.

I’ve been a pastor in three churches that had these problems. The first one was a Baptist church, the other two were Presbyterian. So these sad conditions occur across denominational lines, but the main problem is very clear: elders and deacons who have no business being elders and deacons.

These elders and deacons think the church is a business to be run like they run their plumbing business or their engineering firm, applying certain business principles to get a certain return on their investment. They don’t understand the spiritual nature of the entity over which they have been graciously placed in leadership. They don’t realize the church is lead by servants, not dictators or despots.

Where this occurs, it does not mean that all of the elders and deacons are the problem. These churches can become doomed with just one dysfunctional elder. This is usually the case. In one instance, a certain elder was so carnal in nature that it drove the other elders from the church. The false elder thought the church should be run more like a city council, issuing decrees of control and making sure the church always had money, but never willing to give any himself. He really was a politician and ran things with the same dirty habits that many politicians use.

The previous pastor and other elders refused to deal with him, and this lead to the dysfunctional nature of the church. I’m sure other pastors could tell the same story in triplicate. It should not surprise us that this happens. Jesus told us that the church would always be filled with both wheat and tares, and it should not surprise us that there are both wheat and tares on elder and deacon boards. Having a tare on the elder board is not the death of the church, but allowing him to set the agenda, to take the lead, to quench the Spirit is where the rest of the elders fail.

Elders who see this happening need to be very purposeful in following our Scriptural mandate and remember the purpose of the church: preaching God’s word, making disciples, administering the sacraments, and disciplining the wayward sheep (especially when that sheep is an elder). Had the church I’m thinking of done these things, it would be a vibrant church today instead of a church sitting on death’s door, hanging on simply because it has a hefty mammon account with Wells Fargo. The dysfunctional nature of the leadership led to the church’s collapse. The first time I was a pastor there, as an assistant, it was vibrant and blessed. My second time, those who longed for the word had picked up and moved on looking for healthier churches because they tired of this man’s unwillingness to actually carry out the Great Commission. Now… that church barely exists.

Depressing and Desperate

Dysfunctional leadership is the reason churches become both depressing and desperate. These last two qualities actually feed on each other. The church is depressed because it is not doing what it should be doing, which leads members to become desperate in their attempts to stem the tide of decline that results from dysfunction in a church. Their desperation actually leads to more depression because their desperation ends up driving potential new disciples away from the congregation.

Desperation actually comes in two forms: the first is overt and the second is passive. Overt desperation can also be found in churches that are not on death’s door, but no matter where it is found, it’s not healthy. For instance, my wife and I visited a church recently in the Dallas area and before we could actually sit down in our chairs, we had to meet three of the four elders, run the gauntlet of welcomers in the lobby, resist filling out a 12-page questionnaire, give them our background, income level, and blood type, and sign a commitment to joint the church, NOW. OK, that is a bit of hyperbole. But you get the idea. No introvert will ever return to such a church, and only a few desperate extroverts will join.

The other sense of desperation is the passive form. In this setting, no one speaks to the visitor for fear of offending them, or crowding them, or getting hurt by them when they do not return. This is the most helpless type of desperation and it leads to congregational depression.

It is congregational depression that is the saddest to see. The congregation knows that it is just a matter of time before they either leave or the church closes and they are force to leave. Yet, they don’t want to. This is their church and most of them remember the glory days when the congregation was functioning as it should. It crushes them and breaks them to see 20 to 30 people there for worship when the church use to be so vibrant. They long for things to be well again, but have no idea how to bring it about.

The Good News

The good news is that these churches can be turned around. Depressing gatherings can become healthy houses of worship. It will not be easy. Such congregations need to recognize that they are not what they are supposed to be. As the church, we are to be humble servants of our Master, Jesus Christ. Just as He came to serve and reach the lost, so too are we to serve and reach the lost. This means our congregations need to do the same.

This starts by humbling ourselves and beseeching the LORD to show us mercy, forgiving us where we have faltered as believers. Jesus put it this way to the church in Ephesus: Nevertheless I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place—unless you repent (Revelation 2:4-5).

Jesus tells us to remember our first love. Our first love can be none other than Christ Himself. He is the gospel. Often many churches lose sight of the gospel itself and the erosion of church health begins. By returning to Christ and the gospel, we return to the good foundation.

We must also return to solid preaching. If we want true spiritual growth, it will not be found in the proclamation of moralist-therapeutic deism that is heralded in so many churches today. I really do not call such places of worship real churches. If they are not proclaiming the full counsel of God’s word, they are nothing more that moralist temples of doom. The gospel does not seek to turn us into moral people. It seeks to redeem us from our spiritually dead state. That can only come by proclaiming the gospel of Christ. No other message has that power.

Finally, we must be willing to deal with those elders who are errant.  In a loving but firm way, we must remind them that the church does not belong to them. The church belongs to Christ.

By doing these things, Christ might show the dying church mercy and turn it around. He does not have to do so. But He will not if these churches do not first return to Him for that mercy. It’s an imperative. If the dying congregation does not, then the smell of death will have its way with them.


8 thoughts on “Dysfunctional, Depressing and Desperate: The Three D’s That Lead to the Death of a Church

  1. Hi Timothy–

    This is a perfect description of one congregation I was in 25 years ago. Only, instead of the elders being dysfunctional, it was the ‘pastor’! This man had never led a congregation before (he was fresh out of seminary, as I recall), and he wanted total control over everything. He especially wanted to lead the music group, on top of everything else! And he kicked me OUT of the music group, because I didn’t like praying aloud in the group before the service began!!

    I stuck around for a few months after that, thinking things would improve. I should have seen what was coming, when I noticed several ‘founding members’ leaving. Looking back, I should have cut my ties immediately, and not stayed until nearly the bitter end. It was a very painful experience. And it scared me away from joining another church, and/or active participation.

    Ironic thing is: this same man started yet another congregation, in a city east of me in Upstate New York. I visited it once, to see if he remembered me. He did. But I never returned a second time, as I didn’t want to go through that pain again. I’ve no idea what the ‘health’ of his new congregation is. But it’s still small.

    A dysfunctional church is definitely depressing. And it should NOT be so.


    • Hi Patricia
      Sorry that you went through all that and grateful you see what truly matters, following the LORD and not some power-hungry pastor.

      The sad reality is that every pastor is prone to the very same thing. It takes strong elders to keep the pastor in check. I’ve had plenty of strong elders as well as weak ones. Maybe I should write about that as well.


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  3. The problem is defined by Christ in Matthew 23. Christ’s church does not have human mediators-leaders by definition. Man’s church is anthropocentric versus theocentric. How else can we explain dysfunctional church boards and the history and the smell of spiritual death?


  4. Tim: ISTM the problem of dysfunctional leadership comes back to the dysfunctional pew because so many of we Lutherans equate worldly success with spiritual success – and don’t appear to learn from our mistakes. I have spent time among the Reformed, where it would appear that a mid-6-figure salary, several kids, and a Dutch surname were first-class tickets to church office. Do you see the problem here as a lack of teaching on Biblical leadership, the sinful inertia of human nature, or both?

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    • Hi Kirk, all the above. We love our little popes as much as we love the LORD because we mix our desires to worship Christ with our desires to feel important. If our pastors have worldly weight, we think that gives us credibility in our spiritual walks. But Christ will have none of that and works in our live regardless of the popes we follow. I think this is why the LORD allows so many pastors to fall into sin. I’ve learned the lesson that being in ministry is by God’s grace, and grace alone. The mini-popes have yet to learn the lesson, and some are so stubborn, they will never learn it (think Mark Driscoll). But all the leaders of the church have to be truly humble men in their service before the LORD. This also applies to the members of the body. We must be humble in our submission to those men because we sit in the pews by grace and grace alone. Not understanding this reality leads to all kinds of abuses, both from leadership and congregations.


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