Churches: Plums and Pills

Where are all the staff? So many businesses seem to be a shell of themselves. Staff are around and working hard, but there is a general sense that there are just too few of them. Maybe you have experienced this as well. While many things have returned to pre-pandemic conditions, American employment certainly has not. During lockdown, many Americans reflected on their career priorities and came to life-altering decisions. Some decided to retire, while others decided to leave a current job that no longer suited them. Between April and September in 2021 alone, 24 million Americans walked away from their jobs, an all-time record, commonly referred to as the Great Resignation.  

Seeking to understand why this has been occurring, researchers from MIT took a deep dive into the data and found that “toxic culture” has been driving the exodus.1 They identified these five key attributes of a toxic workplace: Disrespectful—defined as a lack of consideration, courtesy, or dignity for others; Noninclusivedefined as inequity around LGBTQ, racial, disability, age, or gender issues, or a tendency toward favoritism, nepotism or cronyism; Unethical—characterized by unethical behaviors, dishonesty, or a lack of regulatory compliance; Cutthroat—described as having backstabbing behaviors and ruthless competition; and Abusive—refers to bullying, harassment, and hostility.2 While attrition rates are high on average, they are not universal. Pinpointing the elements of toxic culture in an organization can help leaders focus on addressing the underlying issues that lead employees to resign. 

That is the corporate world. What about the church? LMPC recently conducted a listening process with a large, mainline church that was concerned about staff turnover. Not the senior pastor, who was settled and managing programs well, but the music director, associate pastor, youth director and administrative staff, as well as a number of volunteers and committee members. Leadership wanted us to interview former employees and try to understand why they left. In a word, it was toxicity.  

Churches need to be intentional about their culture.3 Rabbi Edwin Friedman refers to some churches as plums (great places to serve) and others as pills (hard places to serve) and says that every judicatory leader knows which church is which in the region. Pills have toxic culture, are abusive, disrespectful and lack basic civility.  

Paul reminds the Ephesians to lead a life worthy of their calling in Christ, bearing with one another with gentleness and humility and forbearance, and speak the truth in love, i.e., create a culture of acceptance and belonging. Staff attrition can be a key indicator of the culture of the congregation. Adopting a covenant of behavior like the PCUSA document, “Seeking to be Faithful Together” can be a positive way to change the culture of a congregation. 

Jay Wittmeyer