Narcissism and power through fear are the entry points for toxic and dysfunctional church culture. When these are active in a church, the soil becomes fertile for increasing levels and variants of dysfunction. Let’s unpack those observations from McKnight and Barringer.
The first step toward dysfunction is narcissism, a personality disorder that couples self love with lack of empathy toward others. This is often manifested in the need for control of the organization and its direction.
Second is power that is maintained by fear of losing one’s status or position in the cultural hierarchy. Fear, in this instance, is passive, where violators are excluded or disenfranchised versus actively oppressed. It’s often said that cultures are developed by the behaviors they reward and the behaviors they punish. In church cultures, punishment is withdrawal and withholding, while reward is promotion and inclusion.
Next is institutional creep, which is the belief that the organization itself is first and foremost over and against the individuals that comprise the organization. Maintaining the brand and brand loyalty would be secular comparisons to this concept.
Fourth is the absence of honesty. McKnight uses the word truth here, but I prefer to think of it in terms of honesty so that no one assumes he means doctrinal purity. Since goodness and truth can not be divorced from each other, it is essential that churches that aspire to goodness make honestly the gold standard. The issue arises when authenticity is enforced on a person or persons without mutuality. And when honesty is demonstrated, it is often punished and shamed. This leads to the development of false narratives, image management, damage control and spin doctoring. The goal is not to be transparent, but to present a version of truth that is palpable to the listener and protects the institution from any appearance other than playing the victim card.
The last three threats McKnight and Barringer point out are directed toward church leadership. They a culture of blind loyalty and allegiance, the elevation of pastor as “celebrity,” and the emphasis on leadership to the exclusion of Christ, who is the true head of the church.
When one or more of these are present, Tov (or goodness) is not embodied. While it looks bleak, there is good news. Next week I’ll delve into the antidotes for each of these dysfunctional traits.