Dysfunction Gone Viral: Two Questions Leaders Must Ask

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Power mongers holding churches hostage to their personal agendas, intimidated membership too scared to speak up for fear of reprisal, holy wars spiraling out of control, cult-like ministries spewing bad theology, nasty undercutting placated by spiritual platitudes, endless bickering and backbiting over petty matters, revolving-door churches full of passionate people turned disgruntled, covert resistance to constructive change, or just plain niceness without purpose and direction—all illustrations of dysfunction gone viral. Sound familiar?

Of course, dysfunction in the church is not new. The Apostle Paul, for instance, had more than a hand full in confronting toxic issues in the churches at Corinth, Galatia, and Colosse.

Dysfunction–in whatever size, shape, or place–is inherently destructive. The destruction can run the gamut from missed opportunities afforded by new challenges to an individual, group, or organization’s implosion and everything imaginable in between. When this malady intrudes into your space, making its ugly appearance, and you wish to bring it to a halt, after considering the biblical perspective, leaders must ask two questions. Who are the beneficiaries of dysfunction? What are their benefits?

To understand why these questions must be asked, we should clarify another one of dysfunction’s characteristics. Dysfunction also is inherently gratifying. While just about everyone professes the desire to be healthy and participate in healthy social networks, the reality often is quite different. One reason is because participants in dysfunction usually derive benefits from their participation. Does this sound like a contradiction—dysfunction as simultaneous destruction and gratification? Yes. Is it an actual contradiction? No.

The benefits stakeholders derive from dysfunction are what psychologists call secondary gains. They are incentives that reinforce our participation in dysfunction. Scott Peck, author of The Road Less Traveled, put it this way: “The difficulty we have in accepting responsibility for our behavior lies in the desire to avoid the pain of the consequences of that behavior.” Secondary gains, the gratification inherent in dysfunction, always involve pain avoidance. We trade off necessary pain (the pain required for healthy change) for unnecessary pain (the pain associated with the consequences of not changing and remaining in a dysfunctional state). The trade off, however, is not among equals. Instead, it is the trading of a greater pain (necessary pain) for a lesser pain (unnecessary pain), which in essence is still a form of pain avoidance. In constantly blaming others for ongoing conflict, for example, we may benefit by overlooking our role in the perpetuation the conflict. In constantly playing the victim script, we may get mounds of sympathy from others and an undeserved pass on carrying our fair share of the work load. In passively observing others engaged in wrong doing and sitting quietly on the sidelines, we may avoid the threat of a pushback or retaliation. Remember the sideline antics of the High Priest Eli. He was passively complicit with his son’s blasphemy. (See my blog of February 11, 2013).

If leaders are to effectively confront dysfunction, they must identify its beneficiaries as well as the benefits the beneficiaries receive. Initially, the secondary gains may not be evident either to the beneficiaries or outside observers. To overcome this oversight, an essential step in confronting dysfunction is to ask the above questions, alternatively stated: Who are the obvious as well as less obvious participants in dysfunction? What do they get out of participating? Then they should diligently seek honest answers. And the best place for leaders to start looking for answers is in the mirror. They might be surprised at what they find.

For more commentary on this topic, check out Confronting Dysfunction, a resource that Stephen Goodwin and I wrote. It is published by ChurchSmart Resources and available on their website.