Churches are filled with the “walking wounded,” people whose lives are affected by life challenges and traumas. They put on a happy face and dress to look their best, but underneath they are hurting.
This insight was shared with me several years ago by a man who led a counseling ministry in his church. His ministry was born from his belief that churches should be healing places.
To effectively minister, pastors and staff ideally need to be in a healthy place. This occurs when church leadership provides a healthy environment for pastors to lead ministries and to minister to others, and for office staff to keep things running smoothly behind the scenes.
Unfortunately, this does not always happen. Not all churches are healing places.
Many of us naturally look up to and trust pastoral leadership. We may have high expectations for them, like strength of character and integrity.
Pastors are not perfect, though; they are human like the rest of us. They can be carrying burdens or unhealed trauma that can impact their ability to lead others in healthy ways.
I have worked in both secular and Christian environments, having positive and negative experiences in both work worlds.
Admittedly, I expect Christian leaders to be strong models of integrity, character and Christian work ethic, with strengths in creating and maintaining a psychologically safe environment for staff and others who enter that environment.
When church staff do not feel psychological safety, they may quietly head for the door, not wanting to cause a scene. They may retire early, exit unexpectedly without another job lined up, or tough it out until they can secure another position elsewhere or retire when they are able to obtain needed benefits.
When staff departures are high and positions are difficult to fill, alarm bells should be ringing, and red flags should be waving. An inability to retain staff is typically a direct result of an unhealthy work culture.
When departing employees refuse to participate in an exit interview, that should speak volumes, especially if the pastor is conducting the interviews.
When the departing employee does participate in an exit interview, it would be wise to have the staff member respond to questions in writing and have one or two objective personnel committee members conduct the exit interview.
When leadership creates an atmosphere where staff feel psychologically safe, they feel better and perform better. They are happy and want to stay.
When psychological safety is lacking, staff do not feel free to assert themselves and feel like they are walking on eggshells. They do not feel valued, appreciated or respected, but instead feel micromanaged, untrusted, unheard and anxious.
Working from home during COVID-19 lockdown gave workers the opportunity to evaluate their values and consider what is important.
Many chose to leave unfulfilling jobs or unhealthy workplaces, including churches, in favor of new jobs or careers, for work-life balance, or for their mental health. Many workers resigned without securing a new job, creating an employment gap that will most likely require an explanation during a job interview.
According to a friend in human resources, there is more focus on toxic work environments, and it has become acceptable for a job seeker to say that they left a job due to its unhealthy work environment (without going into detail).
People are a mixed bag of personality traits, temperament and life experiences that shape them in positive and negative ways. How we choose to treat each other is key to maintaining positive, healthy relationships despite our differences.
Unfortunately, at one point in my career, I had to make the difficult decision to leave a job that felt unhealthy to me. I believe it is important to give constructive feedback because it creates the opportunity for personal growth and change.
I provided feedback (positive and negative) to the person with whom I felt uncomfortable, and he apologized. I also asked if there was anything I could have done differently.
Having this difficult conversation resulted in closure. Since then, I have been more focused on my personal growth and wellbeing.
People tend to stay in positions where they are happy and where they feel valued, appreciated and respected. This occurs when leaders provide a safe, healing place in which to work.
Is your church a healthy place? Careful observation can reveal what is not being said.
Are staff hesitant to provide honest feedback? Do staff appear happy and relaxed when no one is looking?
How do leadership and staff interact with each other behind the scenes? Is there tension? Is there high staff turnover and difficulty filling vacancies?
Maybe it’s time for a health checkup at your church. It may be painful, but sometimes pain is necessary for healing to take place.
A graphic designer, photographer and writer, she graduated from Meredith College with a BA in Psychology and Communication and resides in Raleigh, North Carolina.