“You two — stop that! Don’t you know it’s impolite to run up and down the aisles in church?” It was clear why that church had a hard time attracting families. Julie (not her real name) made it known that she didn’t like children.

But Julie wasn’t the problem. She was only a symptom.

Several weeks later it was time to launch the church’s Wednesday night program for children. The program shrank over the years under Dana’s (not her real name) leadership. It had dwindled to only two grade-school girls. Rather than trying to build attendance, Dana lowered her expectations and revised the program (for the worse). It bore the name of a great children’s ministry, but it was nothing like that famed program. So Dana and two young girls sat in chairs reading Bible stories and reciting verses on Wednesday nights.

Neither Dana nor the program was the problem. They were symptoms.

The real problem was a church that permitted an unfriendly atmosphere and poor programming for children. The church system was at fault.

Problem or symptom?

The pediatrician who notes the child’s fever, swelling and flushed face sees symptoms. The pathologist who observes cancer in that biopsy sees a problem. You don’t treat symptoms, you treat problems. Pastors must know if they’re dealing with problems or symptoms. Here are seven signs that will tell you which is which in your church.

1. Inordinate time

If an issue takes more time than it should, you’re chasing a symptom, not a problem. I noted this in one church: the board could not make decisions. In the historical records, I found that the trustees had been discussing whether to erect a basketball hoop for nine years! It was a broken system. It permitted the leadership team to avoid responsibility. For years, they escaped making meaningful leadership decisions in many areas.

2. People don’t exercise authority

If those with authority don’t solve a problem, you’re looking at a symptom. If they would rather complain about than solve problems, the system is suboptimal. The deacons had authority to deal with Julie and Dana. They didn’t. They feared the repercussions if they used a firm hand with these women. The dysfunctional system valued peace at the expense of ministry.

3. Repeated failures

If the same problem keeps turning up, like gum on the bottom of your shoe, you’ve got a symptom. Doreen (not her real name) is the pastor’s nemesis. Her negativity is an emotional virus. It infects everyone. But she’s not the problem. The church’s response is. They calm her, overlook her boorish behavior and pretend nothing happened. Why does this system tolerate the divisiveness Jesus hates?

4. Emotional barriers

Ann (not her real name), the church matriarch, opposed starting a second service. “We won’t know everyone at church.” Accommodating growth was less important to her. The church loved Ann. They held her in high regard. Their need to protect her emotional fragility hindered progress. They couldn’t bear to hurt her.

5. Predictable patterns

If the problem has a predictable pattern, it’s a symptom. Many of my clients face the challenge of passive-aggressive behavior. This is a very common problem in plateaued churches. People promise the world, but rarely produce. If they do, the effort is half-hearted. This isn’t a problem. It’s a symptom. The system tolerates dishonesty, failure to keep promises, and hiding. The system expects the pastor to hide disappointment and discouragement. The behavior is repeated time and again. And things only get worse.

6. Comfortable diversion

Some problems let a church off the hook. The “problem” is really a symptom of fear — fear of revealing truth. I consulted a church that spent thousands of dollars and thousands of man-hours on the annual Fourth of July parade. Over the years the project—a church float—grew to enormous proportions. The yield in terms of new witnessing opportunities, new visitors or new believers? Zero. The exhausting effort and numerous related problems provided an escape from the hard question. They never asked, “Is this worth it?” Why not? It was the pastor’s wife’s pet project. Everyone knew trouble would erupt if they started asking the question.

7. Relationships in turmoil

When things go well between members, the system is calm. When something changes things between people, the system notices an “identified problem.” Eventually, the problem resolves and the system calms down. If “identified problems” come in rapid succession, that means that many relationships all over the church are in turmoil. You’ve got a lot of symptoms pointing to a deep problem in the church system.

Once the symptoms are recognized and named as such, then finding the root of the problem becomes easier, and may save you energy for tackling the true issues.