Toxic Churches Are Not Growing Churches | Carey Nieuwhof

If your staff is overwhelmed, frustrated, or prone to gossip, it’s time to evaluate your organization’s culture. Learn how to make lasting changes that lead to church growth!

Ever wonder if your organization’s culture is toxic?

Apparently, not enough leaders do.

According to a Gallup survey, only 15% of employees globally are engaged at work.

In America, 30% of employees are engaged, which at first sounds great.

Except, that means that 70% of your workforce feels like their job is grinding the life of out of them. 70% of the people you’ve hired, or who are part of your organization, aren’t showing up with their best, productivity is low, and your mission is suffering.

Underneath that is almost always some kind of unhealthy or toxic culture that demotivates your team.

As a result, every day, good people leave. People don’t quit jobs, they quit bosses and cultures.

One of the most important roles you have as a leader is to create a healthy culture that attracts and keeps healthy team members.

One of the challenges in leadership is that the boss is often the last to know that their work culture is toxic.

Leaders consistently overestimate how healthy they are and how healthy their team is.

So, how would you know your organization’s culture is toxic?

Here are ten signs.

1. You talk ABOUT people, not TO them.

The golden rule of conflict is this: talk to the person you have an issue with, not about them.

In too many organizations, the opposite is true.

People talk about people rather than to them.
Companies are bad that this, but so are churches. Even in churches, conflict gets swept under the carpet, played out in a passive-aggressive way, or spilled out onto social media.

The church should the BEST organization in the world in dealing with conflict. Often, we can be the worst.

The next time you want to talk about someone (i.e., gossip), talk to them instead.

If you can’t or won’t, then it’s not that big of an issue, so let it go. Or, you have a problem deeper than you realize. Get some help.

This also stops gossip dead in its tracks.

2. You have to play politics to get anything done.

One sure sign of a toxic culture is that you have to play politics to get anything done.

You know things have gotten political in your organization when:

Decisions rarely get made the way they’re supposed to be made.

Most decisions happen outside of meetings or any agreed-upon process.

You can’t get a yes without offering something in return.

You have to continually lobby to be heard.

If you’re always jockeying, lobbying, and courting favor to get the right decision made, it’s a sign your organization is unhealthy.

In the local church in particular, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there’s sin.

When you do what you say you’re going to do the way you said you’re going to do it, you bring health to an organization.

3. What gets said publicly is different from what’s happening privately.

Another sign things are becoming toxic is when what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately.

When there’s a spin on every issue, and nothing can be said publicly without “agreeing” on what gets said first, you’re in dangerous territory.

For sure, there are times where a situation is delicate, and you will want to “agree” on what gets said publicly to honor everyone involved, but in too many organizations few things that get done privately can be announced the same way publicly.

And to be sure…when you’re crafting any kind of a public statement, you want to pay attention to the words you use and perhaps even find agreement on them.

But the end product should never be the opposite or even different than what actually happened.

I have the good fortune of being part of several healthy organizations. I love it when people pull me aside and ask (in hushed tones), “So what’s the real story?” And I get to tell them, “Actually, that is the real story.”

Living in that kind of culture really helps you sleep at night, too.

4. Conflict happens and is never addressed.

Conflict is normal. You can’t have two people hang out for long without some differences arising.

Yet, so many organizations are in perpetual fighting mode. Someone’s always at war with someone else.

Another reason churches fight regularly is because personal preferences have trumped organizational mission.

Left unattended, conflict can pit one selfish person or group against another.

A lot of bosses won’t address conflict or help resolve it in a healthy direction and respectful way.

Unresolved or unhealthy conflict zaps the strength out of most organizations.

If your organization is stagnant and in conflict, there should zero mystery as to why it isn’t growing.

5. There’s an entrenched “Us” and “Them” mentality.

Every organization should be a “we,” not an “us” and “them.”

Whether the “us” and “them” mentality exists between factions in your organization, or between you and the outside forces, it’s always fatal to health and growth.

The job of a leader is to raise vision high enough and urgently enough for all of us to become bigger than any of us.

6. No one takes responsibility.

So, who’s taking responsibility for moving the mission forward?

In unhealthy cultures, the answers sound like this:

No one.


Anybody but me.

As long as things are someone else’s responsibility, things will never get better.

Unhealthy leaders assign blame. Healthy leaders assume responsibility.

7. You can’t tell the truth.

One sure sign a culture has gone toxic is when you feel you can’t tell the truth at work, so you go home and ‘dump’ all the truth out on your spouse or best friend instead.

There’s only one problem with that: someone who doesn’t work where you work can’t solve your workplace issues.

But your boss can.

One of the best things you can do as a boss is to encourage your team to speak freely, to tell you the truth…without fear of consequences.

You won’t love everything you hear.

But if you thank them for the feedback, never penalize them for telling you the truth, and take action, you’ll love hearing about the things that are bothering them far more than you’ll love hearing that one of your top team members is leaving.

And, once you know what the real issues are, you can start to solve them.

8. Everyone seems fine with “good enough.”

Toxicity isn’t just about the presence of bad things. It’s also about the absence of great things.

Far too often in workplaces, people settle for good enough when it’s really not, well, good at all.

High-capacity leaders are repulsed by mediocrity. The best team members actually crave high levels of challenge and want things to be better, if not great.

Too many organizations allow what is good to stand in the way of what could be great. The surest way to ensure a mediocre future is to resign yourself to a mediocre present.

9. There’s very little gratitude.

Most people want to know they’re making a difference. Very few bosses tell them they are.

Recognition and gratitude are simple ways to reduce employee turnover and absenteeism and raise employee engagement.

If your team doesn’t know whether they’re making a difference, they’ll be less motivated to make a difference.

10. Only the boss’s opinion matters.

It’s amazing that so many leaders hire a team and never really listen to them.

That’s also one more sign of an unhealthy culture.

It’s easy to think that once you’ve become a leader or boss, it gives you the right to call the shots and make the team and organization bend to your wishes. But as Patrick Lecioni argues, that’s the opposite of true leadership.2

As Andy Stanley says, “Leaders who refuse to listen will eventually be surrounded by people with nothing to say.”

An unengaged, unproductive staff costs your organization time, money, and even your mission. Make the necessary changes to your organization’s culture. You can lead your team to success by transforming a toxic culture into a thriving community where people feel safe as they learn and grow.


To learn more about Carey Nieuwhof and the Leadership Podcast, click here.

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