Toxic Church Environments
One of the common messages we see over and over again in the Bible is that we are broken people in need of a great Savior. God uses messy and flawed human beings throughout history to inspire, love and help others discover the amazing promises of the gospel. Since we know this is true, we should also know that sometimes working at churches can be messy and difficult since we are dealing with broken and hurting people. So how do we continue to thrive and lead others to know Jesus in the midst of conflict, ugly church drama and unhealthy expectations?
Let me start by saying that the following information is something that I have learned from personal experiences of working in churches going through division, gossip, unhealthy work environments, counseling and lots of time spent trying to heal. Although these experiences have been challenging and unfortunate, I believe that God has allowed me the opportunity to share some valuable lessons that I have learned with others who may be experiencing similar situations in ministry.
Pray, Pray and Pray Some More
The first lesson that I believe is the most important is to spend lots of time in prayer and conversation with God. This is a pretty obvious lesson but it is also one that often is forgotten as we let emotions or busyness distract us from this valuable time spent with God. One thing that has been very helpful for me is to set reminders on my phone to pray for specific things throughout my day. This keeps me accountable to praying daily even if it is just for a moment.
I would suggest taking the time to pray for your church. Pray for the people who are broken and need more of Jesus. Pray for the leadership as they discern God’s vision and calling. Pray for the ways that people are hurting others and that God would bring healing. Pray for specific people who may be in conflict or misunderstandings with you. Pray that God would help you respond to them with love and grace. Pray for your own attitudes, opinions and pain. Pray that God would give you healing and opportunities to help others experience the Holy Spirit through your leadership.
Find Growth Opportunities
This is something that has been extremely beneficial to me while leading through tough ministry opportunities. It can be so easy to focus on the many challenges and desires to change the environment around us that we forget to lead ourselves. I recently heard a quote on the Rethinking Youth Ministry Podcast that said, “The most important person you lead is yourself.” This has been so true in my own life and I truly believe that if I am not leading myself, then I cannot be expected to lead others well. It is always important for me to be growing as a leader, a husband, and a father.
Some of the ways that I do this is by reading books, listening to podcasts, going to conferences or having conversations with mentors in my life. This is something that is always important to do in life but it is vitally important for your health and leadership in unhealthy ministry seasons. Make a list of the areas of your life that you want to grow in and become better at. Begin to find some resources that will help you in those areas. We live in a time where we can find so many ways to become better at life, leadership and following Jesus so make this a priority in your life. Make sure that you are spending time studying God’s Word and increasing your relationship with Him as well. Some great groups to get involved with are Bible Study Fellowship or Community Bible Study. These groups have provided me with a place to study the Bible and find support and encouragement from other Christians without the pressure or expectation of being a leader but simply a participant.
Gossip, fear, anxiety, pressure and stress are some of the many consequences that may come while working at a church. These things can bring us down, hurt relationships and cause us to fall short of the desires that God has for our lives and leadership. When we are living in these emotions it can be very difficult to remain positive and see the hope that comes from the gospel or life in ministry.
However, if we want to be successful in ministry, we need to find ways to remain positive especially in seasons of conflict. Look for any glimmer of hope in ministry. What are some of the little wins that you see as you are having conversations with students, leaders, or parents? Surround yourself with people who care about you and are great at encouraging you. Embrace their loving words and actions as they support you in ministry and life.
When you find yourself in conversations about church stuff or especially people at the church, make sure that your speak positively rather than adding to gossip or negative opinions. Share some of the ways that you see God at work or talk about the ways that God is working in your own life. Loving Jesus and loving people involves demonstrating God’s love, grace and truth. Be forgiving and lead by example as you interact with people at your church. When you focus on the negative, you are giving others permission to do the same so stay positive and help others see God in the midst of chaos.
My final piece of advice for working in difficult church seasons is to lead well. When you take the time to pray and lead yourself, you set your leadership up for success no matter what environment you are in. You need to be in a healthy place personally in order to lead others to know and follow Jesus. There have definitely been times when I have felt discouraged by the number of students and families that are coming to church. I have felt the emptiness and lack of passion as I walk into church to go to work.
There are moments when I feel hopelessness and hurt but we have to remember that God has placed us in that specific place and season for a reason. How are you loving and leading the people that God has brought into your ministry? Are you praying for them and encouraging them in life and spiritual journeys? Are you equipping and setting up your leaders for success? Maybe God is beginning to lead you out of this ministry calling. Are you taking the time to prepare, organize and create a sustainable ministry that will thrive or at least set up your replacement for success after you leave? God places a very high calling on those who work in ministry so we need to take that very seriously and make sure that we are doing the best we can with what we have and who we are leading.
These are just a few of the many valuable lessons that I have learned in my experiences of working at churches with broken and difficult people. There is no such thing as a perfect church or youth ministry. Following God and working in ministry is going to be challenging at times. You cannot control the people around you but you can control your attitude, opinions and focus. Only God can change hearts so we need to be seeking Him first as we trust Him to restore, equip and lead us as we lead others. God continues to use my experiences to encourage others so know that I would love to be a resource or simply listen to anyone who may be going through messy church experiences.
ANDY JUVINALL has been serving in youth ministry for 15+ years and especially loves junior high ministry! He also creates resources for Download Youth Ministry and enjoys encouraging other youth workers. Andy and his wife Melissa have two young kids (Maggie and Levi) and love serving in family ministry together at their church! If being a youth pastor wasn’t an option, Andy would most likely be a competitive eater or screaming in a rock band.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.