Dynamics of a Deadly Church

By Brien Sims

Most people know the recluse spider (also known as the fiddleback), the king cobra, and sharks are dangerous and deadly critters capable of seriously wounding and even killing. Ironically, the humble hippo rarely makes the list of deadly animals. There’s something about them . . . they just seem too cute and lumbering.

05_Sims_JNA quick Internet search, however, reveals hippos ferociously defend their territory and kill more people than sharks each year. Yes, cute baby hippos grow into animals that will attack and kill when approached, antagonized, or separated from their young.

If you enter a hippo’s territory, don’t be surprised if you get attacked.

An unsuspecting Christian minister can sometimes find himself in a “hippo’s den”—a deadly, dangerous situation—without realizing it. Here are some clear-cut signs to help you recognize a dangerous situation before it’s too late.


1. There is no job description for your position.

I came into my first senior ministry position believing I could help ignite a new era of spiritual growth. I was so overcome with the joy of landing that first job in ministry, and being paid twice what I was earning while in college, that I decided to ignore a giant red flag: the church had no job description for the preaching minister.

The entire discussion of my job description went like this:

Me: “Do I have a job description?”

Elder: “No. You should know what to do. Do what ministers are supposed to do.”

Me: “I can do that.”

Choosing to ignore this red flag may have been the most disastrous decision I’ve made in ministry. It allowed me to do whatever I wanted, and it also allowed the church to demand anything and everything it wanted of me. There were no limitations or restrictions. I had nothing to work toward except ambiguous goals that could never be reached. I was left feeling defeated and empty.


2. Unwritten expectations and rules continually appear.

Every older church contains cultural expectations that can become unwritten rules if the leadership team doesn’t carefully monitor the situation. Granted, every church newcomer enters a unique culture, and he or she must learn the quirks and nuances of the local people. But beware if you’re still discovering new rules or different rules after you’ve been with the church a year or two.

You should begin asking serious questions of leadership about the expectations of your job, the continually changing unwritten rules, and the source of them. You might find the problem lies with a few individuals, it is a chronic condition, or the church does this so ministers won’t stay more than a few years.

As with the job description, if leadership cannot nail down expectations, a paid minister needs to reevaluate his place in that church. He has walked into a den of hippos and every step may seemingly take him between a mother and her child.


3. The leadership/board no longer wants to focus on spiritual matters.

Sometimes you can read it on their faces: the church’s leaders are tired of attending. They have been meeting for years, with nothing to show for it. Gatherings have become solely business meetings, with petty arguments about pennies taking up virtually all the time, and almost no attention directed to the Bible, ministry, or Christ.

The men are in need of a spiritual revival, so you try to provide one for them. Each meeting you bring a devotion to inspire them to action and encourage them. You try to redirect discussions to spiritually deeper concerns.

As a “brilliant” 23-year-old, I once shared my vision of a spiritual retreat with board members. We would head off for leadership training, enjoying worship and meals together while lodging with one another. When it came time to vote on the retreat, the room fell silent, and the proposal died. One leader commented he would rather do a business and planning retreat.

In hindsight, I confess I could have presented the idea more effectively. But, I will add, many of the leaders came to me afterward and apologized for ignoring the clear call to grow; several admitted they should have spoken up. In short, they recognized the need but chose to ignore it. Most of those leaders have grown since then, but this episode was a clear sign the church was in a very precarious position and could have become deadly to a young minister.


4. The leadership doesn’t know the purpose of the church.

Most every church has a printed mission statement . . . and it probably looks like it came from The Book of Common Mission Statements for Churches. This isn’t necessarily bad, if the mission statement is grounded in Scripture. Still, a church that serves a specific community should have a more focused mission statement.

If leaders in your church have only a vague idea of what the church is about, you are in a dangerous position. Helping the church find its identity might be your mission—and it could lead to your downfall. If you are hired to “lead the church” (read, “do the ministry of the Christians”) you will find yourself being the evangelist, the outreach minister, the director, and the center of everything. This puts you in a position of wearing too many hats, and means you have less time to focus on what you do well. The church will begin to rely solely on you rather than being the community of Christians God intended.

Harkening back to our analogy, you could easily become the primary target of the entire hippo family.

If you find yourself in one of these situations, you may be able to work with leaders to improve things. If the leadership can help you establish a job description and understand the local cultural rules, you may well have a chance of growing and helping the church move forward in pursuing its purpose. If leaders are willing to develop their own spiritual lives, join with them as a team and grow in Christlikeness together. However, if you see these dynamics within the church, be very careful about how you move forward. If you see no signs of change, you should consider leaving.


Brien Sims served as a full-time preaching minister for seven years and is now in between ministries while he finishes his MA in ministry at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian University.

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