One of the things we learned when studying psychology is that most behavior is functional on some level. At some point in time the behavior worked for us. It may not be healthy behavior but it served some function. Dysfunctional behavior always comes with a story. Often over time behavior that served a function makes less and less sense, especially as the behavior becomes more extreme.
You would think that in an organization or congregation that clarity and specificity would be valued but that is not always the case and usually for reasons that actually make quite a bit of sense. Here is what church guru Peter Steinke had to say about clarity and healthy churches,
“Healthy congregations are clear about what is and what is not beneficial to their well-being. Less healthy congregations will allow more fuzziness, indecisiveness, vagueness, and secrets or disguises.” – Peter Steinke, Healthy Congregations: A Systems Approach, 33
There are a number of reasons churches learn to have fuzzy communication and none of them are good and it always goes back to the leadership, or lack there of. In my experience, the most common reason for lack of congregational clarity is that there is an attitude that nothing needs to be defined. Nothing needs to be defined because everything has already been defined. Everyone should know how things operate but no one will say how it is supposed to operate. This passive approach to leadership lacks vision and direction. There isn’t much of a mission or direction. Sense no one know where it is headed there is no clarity. Everyone is stuck right where they are and anyone who branches out from status quo is shut down because they will have to seek clarity in order to move ahead and no one wants to provide it.
Another reason congregations lack clarity is all about personalities. This type of confusion is expressed through discombobulated roles, responsibilities and who has actual authority. If you are new to the system it takes quite a bit of effort to find out who is in charge of something. No one wants to tell you who is in charge and you get bit if you step in on what someone else is doing but no one told you they were doing it. The person with the title is not always the person who makes the decision and because a direction hasn’t been set things just coast along for years. Old timers are comfortably confused and new comers are uncomfortably confused.
A third reason has to do with accountability. There is less accountability when things are left unclear When things go unreported they can go unchecked. Sometimes church leaders have things they wish to protect that aren’t in the best interest of the overall health of the congregation. It may be co-dependency in keeping someone’s feelings from getting hurt (protecting people from discomfort is actually protecting someone from an opportunity to grow). Maybe it is a leader (deacon) who isn’t doing their work and instead of addressing it the leadership lets it go on forever. Then everyone else has to work around the official leader and everyone is confused about who has authority to make and execute decisions. Another way this happens is when a leadership lacks transparency because they one the details are given they know someone will complain and they don’t feel like dealing with it.
We cannot expect Christians to thrive in a healthy Christian life and faith in a church culture that is not healthy itself and unhealthy church culture is almost always a direct result of unhealthy church leadership (be it ministers, elders or deacons).
This gets difficult because being direct is not always valued. Being transparent means you often get shot at. Unmasking things no one wants to talk about can create anxiety and a pull back to subterfuge and illusion to escape difficult (but needed) conversations. The easier path is the path of being unhealthy because being healthy takes constant effort. The same is true with our physical bodies. There is more to keep up with if you are determined to be healthy.
The only way to improve the health of congregational communication is to know who you are, what God has asked you to do and to move forward with the conviction that comes through having a bigger sense of purpose and mission and a smaller view of complaints, anxiety and fear. This conviction will enable leaders to deal with the complainers and deal with the anxiety of bringing clarity that initially reveals everything is not okay and hasn’t been okay for quite some time.
If your view of anxiety and fear are bigger than your vision and mission you will perpetuate unhealthy environments. We must learn that the functionality of poor communication is not healthy and that the only way to a healthy future is going to take making some tough decisions about transparency and accountability in order to bring clarity. This is why they call people leadership. It isn’t easy.
If you want a good resource on what it takes to have a healthy congregation check out Steinke’s book on Healthy Congregations. he has several other excellent books in addition to this one.