One of the dynamics that I have observed in churches working through the failure of a pastor is the tendency to place the entirety of the blame on the pastor when the organization itself should bear as much, if not more of, the blame. Scapegoating – placing the sins of the people on one person (originally a literal goat), who then leaves the community, taking the sins of the people with him – is a very real thing. It is far more palatable for the average attendee to embrace the narrative that the ‘bad’ pastor was an anomaly to, not a product of, the system they support with their presence and finances. Convincing staff teams and congregations to own their part in creating the context in which the pastor failed is a challenging endeavor.
Now, I am not saying that the church staff or members made the pastor have the affair or steal from the church. All of us are responsible for our own actions. But pastors do not make these decisions in a vacuum. They make them in the midst of a system that may unintentionally be creating a situation where the pastor’s failure is perfectly logical – even if clearly wrong.
There are several recent leadership failures that demonstrate my point. Take Mars Hill in Seattle. The dominant narrative that church initially attempted to convey was that Mark Driscoll was the problem. And clearly, his leadership style and decision making caused a lot of damage. But there is more to the story. Mark’s behavior went unchecked for years because there was an organizational culture in place that worked against accountability. Many accounts have surfaced of other pastors and elders who attempted to confront Mark, but consequently found themselves without jobs or excluded from the inner circle. In spite of major red-flags that were obvious to the congregation, people still kept coming. In fact, his caustic style in the pulpit was actually a draw! We will never know, but Mark may never have fallen if the organization around him had been healthier.
If you want to watch a really cool example of this check out The Morning Show starring Jennifer Aniston, Reece Witherspoon, and Steve Carrell as morning show TV hosts who are grabbling with the fall-out of the male anchor’s sexual relationships with co-workers and subordinates. As people begin to investigate his misdeeds, it becomes clear that he is not the only employee doing it, women were victims as well as enablers, and corporate HR failed to act in a timely manner. Just like a celebrity pastor, the organization felt like hostages to the man who drove the ratings and kept them all employed. Yes, the character’s actions were wrong. But they were enabled by a system that was not healthy enough to address the problematic behavior.
So why does this matter?
If a church continues to understand leadership failure as the bad choices of one person, a new leader may come, but the old problems will remain. In order for anyone to get healthy we must own our stuff and we can’t do that if we are placing our blame on someone else.
If there are organizational characteristics that correlate with leadership failure, and we could measure those characteristics, we may be able to identify churches with greater chances of pastoral failure.
Additionally, if you are a congregant or staff member in a church, you play a role in the health of your church. Please don’t take that as encouragement to light up your pastor’s email with complaints, but do take it as an exhortation to follow Matthew 18 with your leadership if you see things that are unhealthy. Healthy organizations depend upon the engagement of their key constituents.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced this phenomenon as true?