They just couldn’t bring themselves to kill the midweek children’s program.

It had been singularly unproductive for years. The leader had refashioned a once prosperous program – produced by a well-known parachurch organization – to suit her ow needs and interests. The results were predictable: it was a failure.

The church Board couldn’t do the right thing.

They thought there’d be trouble if they shut it down. A power struggle might erupt since the leader and her husband were charter members. They also had genuine spiritual concern for her; her husband had a terminal disease. Plus, if they cancelled the program, they’d be accused of being hard-hearted. “How can you do this at a time like this?”

They were handcuffed.

The church’s powerful emotional system had them stymied. So, they did what 9 churches out 10 do: take the path of least resistance. The status quo was maintained.

Why Change is Hard

This true story illustrates the extreme challenge facing churches and pastors that would change. An earlier article (“Why Pastors and Churches Won’t Change”) explored the problem of change from the perspective of the neurology of habits.

Change is incredibly difficult whether we’re talking about personal changes (diet, exercise, stress management) or corporate changes (budgeting, worship services, pastor’s schedule).

It is difficult because the behaviors you’re trying to change are hardwired into our brains – they are automatic behaviors that launch in response to a cue, in expectation of a reward. When the anticipated reward is not forthcoming, cravings take over and we do everything within our power to achieve the reward. When we’re blocked, agitation and anger takes over.

When our habits are interrupted, we become reactionary rather than rational.

The Power of the Church’s Emotional System

This article approaches the problem of change from a different perspective by considering the power of the church’s emotional system.

A church is more than the sum of its parts. It isn’t just a collection of people bound by common goals, shared rules, established procedures, and agreed upon meeting times. It is a living organism. Everything that comprises “the church” operates to give life to the organism and organization. A living body is the perfect metaphor for a church. It captures the essence of the church-as-system paradigm.

Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16).

Some “parts” are intentional; by-laws, governance policy, office workflow processes, finance management, and employment policies. These are “formal” in that they were at one time crafted intentionally and adopted purposefully.

Other “parts” are unintentional; interpersonal expectations, acceptable behaviors, aspirational (if not actual) values, dress codes, ways of ignoring improper behavior, treatment of outsiders, thoughtless budgeting, and a thousand other components that make corporate life possible.

The System’s Primary Purposes

All of these parts work together systematically to fulfill two primary purposes: maintain the status quo and reduce anxiety. This is true of all human systems.

When the church experiences tension (like the awareness than an ineffective ministry, a decrease in giving, or the pastor’s wife being struck with a life changing illness), the people react automatically to reduce anxiety and restore the status quo. No matter the source of the anxiety, everyone is affected. This is inherent in human systems.

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. . .. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. (1 Corinthians 12:14-26)

Sources of Anxiety

Anxiety can be injected into the system in a hundred different ways. The New Testament illustrates some of those ways:

  • Conflict over leadership preferences (1 Corinthians 2-3).
  • Gross sins disclosed (1 Corinthians 5).
  • Presence of false teachers (Galatians).
  • Racial and cultural tensions (Acts 15:1-29; Eph. 2:11-21).
  • Disagreement on how to relate to surrounding culture (1 Corinthians 8-11).
  • Problems between members (Philippians 4).
  • Suffering and hardship (Hebrews & 1 Peter).

How Systems Respond

When anxiety invades a church, everything that comprises the system will collaborate without thinking to reduce the anxiety and restore the status quo. If the anxiety stems from a fundamental need for change in the system, the automatic response will be counterproductive. The church becomes locked in dysfunction. Since the underlying cause of anxiety (a non-performing children’s ministry in our example) isn’t dealt with, the system’s response insures that the church becomes trapped in chronic anxiety.

Rest on that thought for a moment. Ponder the implications.

Rather than looking at the root cause of the anxiety as an opportunity for growth, systems will always attempt to restore the status quo. The net effect is that the system is unresponsive to the changing ministry environment; the church forfeits the chance to move to a new, healthier, and more productive “normal.”

Typical Response Patterns

Systems typically respond to anxiety in four ways.

  • Reacting: they focus on the crisis
  • Closing ranks: the desire for good feelings (and “peace at all costs”) motivates people to appease troublemakers, to continue ineffective ministries, to permit gossip and backbiting, to stifle discussion, and to knuckle under to church bullies.
  • Blaming: anxious churches and anxious people blame others instead of taking responsibility.
  • Quick Fix: Anxious churches are impatient. They focus on symptom relief rather than fundamental change that will restore health.

These dysfunctional responses to anxiety doom the church to remain on plateau. The system is trapped in a downward spiral from which there is no escape.

Pastors Must Stand Outside

It is your job as the pastor to help the church grow to a “new normal.”

But the church will fight your efforts to lead it to a more effective “normal.” They will scratch and push and try to make you and your leadership the issue because you will resist their clamoring shouts for a quick fix.

Instead of succumbing to the system’s emotional pressure to mitigate the anxiety, you will lead the church to look at the root causes of the underlying problem. You will reject the quick fix and insist that the church become healthier. So, for example, if they ask you for a quick fix for the problem of decreased giving, you’ll push back against their insistence for the annual sermon on tithing.

Instead, you’ll focus their attention on the real problem by your calm, thoughtful actions:

  • You will confront church officers who don’t practice grace giving (or tithing, depending upon your church’s point of view).
  • You will insist on reducing expenditures for unproductive ministries or for events/activities that no longer fit with the mission and vision.
  • You will place greater emphasis on spiritual formation, which (among other things) eventually shows up in giving.
  • You will delegate or eliminate unnecessary tasks so you can take a pay cut and find part-time employment.

Ironically, these more helpful responses temporarily increase anxiety in the system. As a result, they will be met with initial resistance. But if you withstand the pressure the system will bring to bear on you, the church will move from chronic anxiety to genuine resolution of the underlying problem.

You Become the Problem!

When you, in your role as the pastor, attempt to separate yourself from the powerful emotions that swirl around an anxious church, you will be seen as the enemy. Your efforts to move the church forward by resisting the demands for a quick fix will be seen as betrayal.

You become the lightning rod. The powerful emotional forces that seek the quick fix, assign blame, and focus on the immediate problem draw people’s attention away from the dysfunction (no one wants to look at that) and puts you in the cross hairs.

Pastors with high ego needs (inappropriate sources of self-worth) need to be aware of how their image maintenance behaviors will draw them back into the emotional system. You need to be aware of how you respond when others label you as heartless or indifferent. You must also be aware of how you react to sabotage. If challenges to your authority, be they direct or indirect, provoke you to anger, you learn to manage your own emotions.

When pastors who lack ego strength and the ability to stand outside of the church’s emotional system succumb, they are no longer leading. They may tinker with technique, turn a few knobs, and cobble together ad hoc solutions to tough problems.

The opportunity to deal with the underlying issues that have kept the church on plateau (or in decline) passes.


Change is incredibly difficult whether we’re talking about lifestyle changes (diet, exercise, stress management) or organizational changes (budgeting, worship services, pastor’s schedule).

It is difficult because the habits you’re trying to change are hardwired into the brains of the people in your congregation. When their habits are blocked, agitation and anger takes over. This is why individuals fail to make permanent lifestyle changes at a rate of 9:1.

It is also difficult because the organization you’re trying to change is a powerful emotional system that will do everything in its power to thwart your efforts to lead it to a higher level. Systems prefer the old, dysfunctional ways they know to a potentially better “new normal” that they cannot see or imagine. This is why organizations fail to make lasting change at a rate of 7:1.

Up Next

The case for lasting beneficial change is grim.

But there’s good news.

It turns out that people can change if they put three things in place: a key relationship, a repetitive learning environment, and a new frame of reference.

With these in hand the odds against lasting change (9:1 against) are dramatically reversed. And when people change, the system of which they are a part also changes.

Stay tuned…