Labeling Church Culture

It takes two to tango

A post I read the other day opens with the image of a labeled chemical drum sitting in the middle of wasteland. The label? TOXIC


It was a post about church culture.

Then this subhead jumped out at me:

Every church has its own culture.


The words rang a gong in my head.


These are the very words—letter for letter—that our bishop, newly elected, spoke to us on December 6, 2006.


She never explained her statement. It seemed to me at the time that the words were a prelude to a speech she intended to make, but the meeting was cut short by an emergency.


It left me hanging. What was our bishop getting at? What did she know about OUR culture? No one at this meeting had met her before and no bishop had been in contact with our congregation for six years. We had undergone significant change during those years, accepting dozens of new members! In fact, we had changed so much that there were only two members in 2006 who had been adult members in 2000.


This writer answers my lingering questions. We had been labeled.


As I recall, our next encounter (November 1, 2007) opened with a speech by the same bishop. Well, it was more like a rant. Perhaps it was the speech she intended to give a year before. She used the word ADVERSARIAL over and over. Most of the people present had never met this bishop. The couple of us who had met with her 11 months before had no contact since. That meeting had ended without conflict. How were we adversarial?  What were the issues?


All I know is this: This bishop was soon making claims on our property. She did so by dismissing all lay leaders and locking our doors. No disciplinary issues were cited; no offers of help, guidance, or leadership were forthcoming. Six years of vindictive court battles ensued. Just thinking of us as culturally flawed provided license to bully us.


Mean-spirited labels mask the good in congregations. And yes, “toxic” and “depraved” are on the mean side. Congregations, once labeled have difficulty overcoming the labels. Every future leader will be forewarned. The congregation you are about to serve is “toxic.” If you fail, it won’t be your fault—so it is OK not to try. 


Here are the labels this writer uses to describe unhealthy church cultures. Note how the items listed grow in seriousness as the list progresses. Labels are like that.








He asks his readers to add their own labels. A few do. None of them are positive. I guess we can add ADVERSARIAL, even though, in our case, we can only guess what that means.


Labels may be accurate. Somehow, I doubt it. Really, do all the members in these churches wake up every Sunday morning and head off to church with evil intent?


Labels amplify problems. If congregations are 90% healthy and 10% depraved, “depraved” will get top billing.


Missing from this post is any sense that leadership played ANY role in creating these cultures. These congregations became TOXIC all on their own.


SELFISH: There is never misuse of funds or denial of support that cause people to become self-centered and protective of their own. There are no land or asset grabs in church news.

PRIDEFUL: No pastor dwells on the congregation’s faults causing them to be prideful of what little self-worth they can muster. All previous pastors, whose portraits line the narthex walls, discouraged pridefulness. None had their names on the church sign board or on the front page of the bulletin. None have reserved parking spaces near the door.

RIGID: No denominational leader came to a congregation, constitution in hand, citing rules, traditions, doctrines, and procedures.

CLIQUISH: Every pastor encouraged networking with other congregations and pastors.

BULLYING: Professional leaders never use their authority to intimidate lay leaders.

STINGY: All pastors model giving when the offering plate is passed. Pastors never expect raises when giving is down.

DEPRAVED: No pastors are tempted by sin.

The point, lest it be missed, is that when clergy create labels for their congregations, they are putting themselves above their members. It is easy to brush people aside when we think of them as Rigid or Stingy, etc. Just hang a large R or S around their necks.


The toxicity spreads.


Jesus avoided labels. The only label given to the woman at the well was Samaritan. Other labels are added by us readers. The only labels assigned to Zacchaeus are tax collector and rich. We imagine him as a despicable worm of a man.


We can’t make progress as Church with all the name-calling. It causes our thinking to quickly become SELFiSH, PRIDEFUL, RIGID, CLIQUISH, BULLYING, STINGY, DEPRAVED and TOXIC. Love, the paramount message of the gospel, becomes that much harder when we don’t really believe in reconciliation and redemption.


Maybe a closer look at “problem” congregations might reveal that in reality they feel:















At least these labels give a skilled leader a place to start.