Why Churches Decline, Fail to Grow and Sometimes Close (Part 3)

In two previous blogs we began a discussion of 12 reasons why churches decline, people leave and they fail to grow. Topics so far include that the church:

  1. Is not being united in prayer.
  2. Is a place of conflict, gossip and judgmental attitudes, refusing to deal with sin.
  3. Is not friendly.
  4. Does not empower their people.
  5. Is risk averse and takes forever to make decisions.
  6. Is unorganized, the music is poor and the services aren’t engaging.
  7. Has the domination of a few strong members.
  8. Is a poor steward and always on the brink of financial disaster.

Now today we’ll look at the final four reasons. However, since I’ve heard many church leaders talk about the need to attract younger people, this blog will focus on why young people either leave or don’t attend church.

A LifeWay survey revealed that 70% of 18–22 year-olds stop attending church for at least a year. Likewise, Barna surveys reveal that most 20 year-olds leave church, never to return. Here are just a few reasons:

  1. The church seems unfriendly to people with legitimate doubts…It’s important to feel safe in asking questions and dealing with doubts. In one study 36% of millenials felt they were unable to ask their most pressing questions in church.

 As a 13-year old, Apple founder Steve Jobs was a regular church attendee. However, he had questions regarding why God seemingly did nothing for the starving children around the world. His pastor gave him a rather simplistic answer and Jobs left the church never looking back. When people have doubts like this they should be taken seriously and addressed thoughtfully.

  1. They don’t feel connected to or valued by the people in their church. Psalm 130:14 says that we praise God in part because we’re fearfully and wonderfully made…and God’s works (including millenials) are wonderful. In 1 John 3:14 we’re told that, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death.”

When young people don’t experience that love in the church it’s not surprising that they leave. Churches are supposed to be communities where everyone is welcome. When they’re not welcome church growth stops and eventually that church dies either spiritually, physically or both.

  1. They believe the Bible contradicts itself, so they stopped believing in its teachings…It’s not sufficient anymore to respond to concerns by saying simply, “The Bible doesn’t contradict itself.” While that’s true, young people need more thoughtful answers.

For example, in “Answers to Tough Questions Skeptics Ask About the Christian Faith,” Josh McDowell and Don Stewart note, “Certain passages appear to be contradictory, but further investigation will show that this is not the case… remember that two statements may differ from each other without being contradictory. “

The authors explain this concept further with examples, but their answers are thoughtful and well studied. 

  1. They don’t agree with the Church’s “simplistic and judgmental” attitudes towards sex or their antagonism towards science…In one study 1/3rd of respondents believe Christians aren’t flexible because they believe they “know all the answers.” Additionally, 30% believe the church is out of step with science and an equal percentage do not like the exclusive nature of Christianity.

There are several thoughtful answers to these objections, but they have to be presented logically and patiently. Jesus’ words were exclusive, but pastors need to earn the right to explain them by loving young people first instead of arguing with them.

In the next blog we’ll look at ways churches can address these issues.

Why Churches Decline, Fail to Grow and Sometimes Close (Part 2)

Last week we cited some alarming data on the state of churches in America:

  • 62% have experienced either no church growth or declines in their congregations.
  • 65% have less than 100 congregants including children.
  • More than 2 million have left the church every year for the past 7 years.
  • In just 8 years the % of Americans calling themselves Christians has decreased from 78% to 70%.

We then began to discuss reasons and noted that research demonstrates and our work confirms at least 12 conditions that negatively affect attendance. We began with 4 of those reasons including:

  1. Not being united in prayer
  2. Places of conflict, gossip and judgmental attitudes, refusing to deal with sin
  3. Not friendly
  4. Do not empower their people

Now this week we’ll discuss a few more reasons.

  1. Churches are risk averse and they take forever to make decisions.

Often churches are good at organizing committees to “study something.” They talk and debate, but in the end wind up not taking any action. Often their lack of action is a direct result of their lack of faith and not seeking God’s direction. In Romans, Paul challenges us to present ourselves to God and our members to God as instruments. That implies action…not inaction.

  1. The church is unorganized, the music is poor and the services aren’t engaging.

When we first moved to town we had a variety of church experiences before we found our church home. At one church we filled out a response card but then never heard from anyone.

At another church there must have been a quarrel between the choir leader and his singers. He and three others were in the choir and he said in a rather red-faced manner, “It’s nice to see so many of our choir members sitting in the audience.” After that he violently led what was left of the choir in “Victory in Jesus.” And to top it all off, the preaching was at best mediocre.

Neither my wife nor I wanted to deal with the lack of follow-up, poor preaching or drama that we found at these churches.

  1. Domination of a few strong members.

One church was thinking about organizing a capital campaign and they were seeking our advice. As I probed, I found that some of the elders were perplexed. Evidently they had very reliable information that the pastor had been having an extramarital affair with a woman in the church. The members of their group wanted the pastor to resign his duties, but there were others representing powerful voices who wanted him to stay.

First, it surprised me that this was even an issue. Second, I told them they were not ready for any kind of campaign until they dealt with this issue. Specifically, I felt that they needed to confront the other elders with the evidence and get on the same page. Then they needed to confront the pastor with the same evidence, ask him to step down and leave the church. After that they should tell the members that he was asked to leave, “for cause”.

  1. The church is a poor steward and always on the brink of financial disaster.

Whether it’s a church, a school or a sports team, people want to be associated with a stable organization that is achieving great things. That is certainly true of a church. Churches should not only teach good stewardship they should live it and report on their actions. If churches live beyond their means and always ask for help to bail them out, something is wrong. After a while, people stop caring and they leave.

Next week we’ll look at the last 4 reasons for declining church attendance.

The Church Today is Facing Some Serious Issues

Increasingly world trends penetrate that traditional safety barrier of the church. Whether it’s the “Me too” movement, marital infidelity, financial scandals, etc.; church staff need to be prepared. In fact, a recent Christianity Today article listed the top 5 reasons people file lawsuits against churches:

  1. Property Disputes – A Minnesota court recently ruled a local congregation could keep its church after leaving (PCUSA)…It was a dispute between liberal and conservative factions.
  2. Sexual Abuse of a Minor – While this has declined recently, for the previous decade this issue made up more than 1 in 9 church lawsuits…
  3. Personal Injury – Church improvements in handicap accessibility and property maintenance have decreased such suits, but pastors still need to be vigilant.
  4. Insurance Coverage Disputes – This covers a whole host of issues, so pastors should be sure that policies are as comprehensive as possible…fire and water damage, abuse allegations, building use, personal injury, liability. HR and more.
  5. Zoning Issues – Church neighbors now sue for noise, Sunday morning traffic, free speech, or just plain bias.

In most cases these issues were not part of the seminary curriculum. Therefore, few pastors know how to deal with all of this. They need advice and help from well-equipped members. There are also other concerns emerging that include but aren’t limited to the following:

  1. A Lack of Planning – On a fairly regular basis churches come to us to help them raise millions of dollars. Often when we begin to ask questions about their planning, they don’t have answers. In fact, a few of them haven’t even discussed what we’re asking. We’ve found that effective fundraising usually comes from a planning process. People who may support a capital campaign, also want to know that you’ve thought about this up front and you’ve done your due diligence.
  2. A Lack of Gospel Centered Preaching on Stewardship – The need for increased church operational funding is growing. Yet we often find that pastors avoid preaching on stewardship, even though it’s part of the full counsel of the Gospel. People need to understand Christ’s call for us to give and to help others, and it’s the pastor’s job to ensure that’s happening.
  3. A Tendency to Allow Politics to Invade the Pulpit – In any given church members have mixed political views. However, when pastors share their views it tends to polarize the church. Sure, some may agree with the pastor, which makes it friendly and inviting to some, but potentially that can extract a huge price. Others, who may disagree with the pastor’s political positions, can find the culture unfriendly and hostile, which defeats the purpose of the church. The church should be a place of respite, where people find spiritual guidance and support while learning to put things in perspective through Gospel teaching and community. The church was never intended to be a political action committee used to mobilize Christian forces. Instead, churches tend to flourish when they keep the Gospel front and center and apolitical. In fact, there is a direct correlation between a pastor’s political pronouncements from the pulpit and their loss of spiritual authority.
  4. Our People View Traditional Christian Morality as Extreme, Antiquated and Hazardous – Rising tides of individualism in the US are clearly affecting the church. It’s all about “looking out for number one,” regardless of what happens to others. Witness the political bickering, pleasure seeking and public confrontations we see daily. Such individualism has now entered the church and challenges Christian morality. How often have people rationalized, “I know the Bible says this, but that was written for another time?”

Can the church survive this? No doubt, but it will take prayer, awareness, insight and vigilance on the part of pastors!

Why Churches Decline, Fail to Grow and Sometimes Close

Over the last several years there has been an increasing amount of research studying churches. Consider a few facts:

  • 62% of all churches in America have experienced either no growth or declines in their congregations.
  • 65% of churches have less than 100 congregants including children.
  • More than 2 million people have left the church every year for the past 7 years.
  • In just 8 years the percent of Americans calling themselves Christians has decreased from 78% to 70%.

So why do people either leave church, fail to return after a visit or not attend at all? Research demonstrates and our work with churches confirms at least 12 conditions that negatively affect attendance. These include the following:

  1. Churches are not united in prayer…1 Timothy encourages us to make petitions, prayers, intercessions and thanksgiving for everyone. Encouraging collective prayer not only brings answers, it also builds unity around common purposes. Churches that don’t preach, teach and practice prayer don’t unify their people around it. Therefore congregants have less of an incentive to stay.
  2. Churches are places of conflict, gossip and judgmental attitudes and actions and refuse to deal with sin…This is the number one reason people leave. Often there are factions, disagreements and dysfunction that get ignored. It festers and grows, resulting in disunity and gossip. In one study, 78% of the people who left church cited this as a problem.

In our church leadership consulting, we once worked with a church that was dealing with an abundance of issues. The elders didn’t trust the pastor and eventually fired him. Meanwhile, the staff didn’t trust the elders, and the elders didn’t trust the staff. Needless to say this all had a negative effect on congregants. In fact, they lost members left and right, and still the political bickering and finger pointing continued. Elders openly gossiped about other church members, and a spirit of humility was definitely lacking.

Not surprisingly, when we conducted a church survey, the ratings were well below average on almost every item we measured. Likewise, the open-ended responses regarding church weaknesses and critical issues were just as bad. The results offered a clear explanation of why people were leaving. They lost confidence in the leadership and they were tired of all of the drama.

3. Churches are not friendly…Some 66% of people who leave churches report that the lack of hospitality and concern caused them to feel as if they didn’t belong. Accordingly, they had very little reason to stay. Churches, above all other organizations, should be places of caring and hospitality. 

Leviticus 19 tells us…”When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger…as the native among you…you shall love him as yourself…I am the Lord your God.”

And then there’s this in Hebrews 13…“Let brotherly love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers.” Being friendly and hospitable is not a suggestion; it’s a mandate.

4. Churches do not empower their people…a lot of pastors talk about the importance of engagement of members but few actually do that. You can have engagement or control, but you can’t have both. The more control pastors attempt to impose, the less people will be engaged. People want an opportunity to use their gifts to serve others, and if the church doesn’t provide an outlet for that, they leave.  In fact, a study of people who left their church revealed that 66% left because they couldn’t fit in.

These are just 4 of the 12 reasons. We’ll look at more next week!

Growing Church Giving

This Sunday at church I found out that we are upgrading our online giving platform, making giving easier and more secure for me. I’m pleased, but not surprised that my church is so avant-garde in stewardship. The problem is that many churches are not, so I did a bit of research and found some interesting data.

Church Giving is Growing and Changing

Last year of the $410 billion in total philanthropy, the largest share (31% or $127 billion) went to church or Para-church organizations. And that doesn’t include faith-based giving to religious schools, hospitals and social service agencies.

Almost 7.5 % of that was given online. Online giving has increased by more than 50% over the last several years, growing from $19.1 billion in 2012 to $31 billion in 2017. In addition, the average online gift was $128 and 67% of nonprofit organizations are set up to receive donations online.

What I find interesting is the fact that the largest recipients of online gifts have been faith-based organizations. I also found other important church data:

  • 49% of church giving happens using a credit card.
  • People attending church regularly are 11 times more likely to give.
  • 8 of 10 people who give to churches have zero credit debt.
  • Tithers comprise 10-25% of a normal congregation.
  • Churches that accept tithing online are increasing donations overall by 32%.
  • 37% of regular church attendees don’t give to church.
  • 17% of American families reduced amounts they give to churches.
  • 77% of tithers actually give 11%–20% of their income.
  • On average, Christians give 2.5% of income.

So what Can Churches do?

What does all of this mean for the church…or how can we use this data?

First, since we know that increasing numbers of congregants or parishioners prefer giving by credit card and online, if they haven’t done so already churches need to adapt to accommodate that. Develop online giving platforms and also include credit card options on giving envelopes.

Second, if regular attendees are more likely to give and only 10-25% of the membership tithe, there is much room for growth. However, capturing that growth requires well-planned strategies that include but are not limited to the following 7 suggestions:

  • Create a friendly church culture, so people return. Also plan 3-4 messages on stewardship and in particular on tithing. A lot of pastors are reluctant to do this, but it’s part of the full counsel of the Gospel.
  • Don’t just pass the plate on Sunday. Allow people to use smart-phones. Change your website. Choose digital giving software that allows people to give by text, mobile apps., etc.
  • Generate thank you notes to people who give online, through text, or directly. Use online responses or hand written notes. Currently, most churches aren’t good at showing appreciation.
  • Incorporate personal testimonies of church members into the messages on stewardship.
  • Offer financial classes for members. If they can manage funds better, they‘ll have more to give.
  • Create church annual reports that are transparent about outcomes and how funds are used.
  • Appeal to the 37% who don’t give by clearly articulating your needs and how funds given are used.

Finally, giving begins with your church leadership. Leaders set the pace. If the elders or deacons or parish council members (those closest to the church) aren’t willing to give, it’s difficult to motivate other church members to do so. While it’s difficult to tell what people have given individually, it’s much easier to say that the leadership group has 100% participation and collectively they have committed X amount of dollars.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

They’re at it again in the news and Congress. Of course, there were “discussions” of the pros and cons regarding the ongoing Brett Kavanaugh investigation. Schumer attacks the judge; Graham defends him. What did he actually do in high school? That query alone would keep me from ever seeking office.

Sensational News

It reminded me of another high school “scandal,” when Mitt Romney was accused of bullying a classmate. Later his wife Ann wore a $990 blouse that set off a media firestorm. Then Michelle Obama met the Queen of England wearing a $6,800 jacket. I thought both women looked great, but really I could care less about who wears what clothes. Yet, I did wonder where this is all headed.

I heard Christine Ford make uncorroborated accusations and Brett Kavanaugh respond to them. After that, Jeff Flake called for a seventh investigation, Matt Damon mocked Brett Kavanaugh on SNL and President Trump mocked Diane Feinstein’s body language. Kanye West supported President Trump and was booed by some and applauded by others. Senators grandstanded on both sides of the aisle and the Supreme Court appointment lingers on in a circus of finger pointing and delay.

At another site, I read more joyful news. An injured pro football player flipped off his team while being carried from the playing field with an injury. Evidently the team brass wouldn’t give him a contract extension. Then I heard that a college coach was fired for politically incorrect language, and Rosie O’Donnell was criticized for using a “gay slur” towards Lindsey Graham. There was also a story about Twitter wanting to crack down on dehumanizing language and asking for public feedback (Congress and the media might be good places to start). A social media star is shot and killed, and on and on.

A Violent Response

I’m reminded of a news saying that rings true, “If it bleeds it leads.” Not that we should avoid important stories, but as I watched these sites I was struck by how sensational and negative they were. Certainly these things are happening, but the news is also distorted towards the negative. There are plenty of positive things occurring that are either unreported or under-reported.

The danger is in how people respond, and some respond violently. In fact, CNN reported that in 2017 alone there were 307 mass shootings in the US involving four or more people, and that didn’t include the Congressional baseball practice shooting. I wonder, are the media and social media complicit in any of this?

A Simple Solution

So how do we get around this anger and violence? We begin talking to one another again in a civil manner, and not just with people who agree with us. We must engage with others who may have opposing viewpoints. I’m reminded of both anti-Catholic and anti-protestant criticisms I’ve heard from people who know little about either denomination. The way that abates is by sitting and talking; yes, about our differences but also about our commonalities.

No doubt, some Democrats really care and are reasonable, but we seldom hear of them on Fox News. They desire to protect our borders, care for individuals, improve the job market and support a strong national defense. And contrary to what we hear on CNN, there are Republicans who want to create higher paying jobs, improve access to quality healthcare, and protect our environment.

However, that image of people compromising and working together doesn’t fit the narratives of either side so it goes unseen. Yet restoring civility can start simply by turning off the news, walking around our neighborhoods, sitting in restaurants and coffee shops and getting to know the people around us.

What Pastors Need for Successful Church Campaigns

Recently, I wrote about how our church capital campaign model functions. Consider that over a 20-year period we’ve had a 99% success rate with only one church failing to achieve its goal. No doubt the model works well, but there are other factors beyond our model that influence success in church campaigns. Primary among those factors is the church leadership, which starts with the pastor. Simply stated, the pastor affects greatly the results of any initiative in the church, and this is particularly true of campaigns.

We’ve found that successful pastors have at least 4 characteristics. They include being:


Several years ago James Kouzes and Barry Posner wrote a best selling book on how leaders gain and lose credibility. They wrote, “Leadership is a reciprocal relationship between those who lead and those who decide to follow.” The authors argue that the kind of reciprocity they mean is achieved only when leaders earn and maintain credibility. That credibility comes first from their integrity, “saying what they mean and meaning what they say.”

When pastors make clear what they mean, communicate it broadly and then follow through with action consistent with what they’ve said, they build credibility. When people believe pastors mean what they say, they’ll trust and line up to follow them. Of course, the pastor’s thinking needs to be realistic, but fulfilling promises is where trust and credibility begin.

Grounded in Reality

This relates directly to credibility. There’s a fine line between stretching a congregation and breaking them, and effective pastors know the difference. For example, one pastor wanted our help in generating $3 million. After conducting a church survey and then interviewing several church members, we were convinced that the church couldn’t generate anywhere near that amount.

They agreed to put the basic goal at a much lower level, and the church exceeded it by 10%. We continued to work with leaders after the campaign on increasing donations and the final number went even higher. They had raised 33% more than the stated goal. It didn’t complete the full vision, but this realistic approach proved successful, and it allowed them to celebrate. It also added greatly to the pastor’s credibility.


This pastor was successful because he was teachable. He listened and acted upon our informed estimate of what he could raise, and he achieved success. In fact, his teachable attitude allowed us to help them raise an additional $275,000 towards the larger goal after commitment weekend.

The opposite was true with the one campaign that failed. They didn’t want any due diligence before the campaign because they were in a hurry. Additionally, they wanted a shorter pledge period than recommended, and they failed to follow through on several other recommendations. In other words, they paid us, but they weren’t teachable and didn’t follow our direction (points they freely admit in retrospect).


If leaders desire to be successful they have to be visionary. I love the story about Walt Disney being fired from a newspaper because he, “lacked imagination.” A recent Forbes article was entitled, “Leadership success always starts with vision.” Among several examples the author provides there was one about John F. Kennedy. He once cast a vision that we would safely land a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In July of 1969, Neil Armstrong achieved that vision.

Pastors aren’t just caretakers; they’re visionaries casting a shared vision about where the church is headed. Campaigns then, are a means to that vision that helps advance the kingdom of Christ. When pastors understand this and are credible, grounded in reality, teachable and visionary, they usually succeed in whatever they endeavor to do.

Leadership Should be Graceful and not Vengeful

In Les Miserables Victor Hugo shows the transforming power of grace and forgiveness contrasted with the legalistic quest for justice and vengeance. Eventually forgiveness overcomes vengeance, but a main character (Javert) could neither give nor accept forgiveness and it destroyed him. In this sense, forgiveness is as much about leaders giving up their right to vengeance as it is about giving the gift of forgiveness to others.

Grace, Humility and Forgiveness not Retribution

It’s interesting that when mistakes occur inside organizations, would be “leaders” sometimes seek vengeance rather than resolution, particularly when they’ve been hurt in some way. Instead of forgiving, they get angry, seek revenge and demand justice that makes offenders pay. Of course, payment is extracted by hurting careers, assaulting character or even excluding someone spitefully. Regardless of the form, it still comes from an unforgiving heart, which causes relational rifts. You can’t trust someone who chooses not to forgive. Unfortunately, according to Business News Daily, just 40% of workers trust their bosses. Yet, high trust organizations outperform low trust ones by 2.5 times in revenue growth.

Building trust requires leaders to recognize that people have flaws and everyone makes mistakes. Since folks spend half of their waking hours at work, at least some mistakes will occur there. Fixing blame and demanding retribution renders a person incapable of leading or inspiring others. Leaders who maximize potential, also give individuals freedom to take risks and make mistakes without being lambasted every time they try something and fail. Like the Bishop in Les Miserables, leaders who are effective in transforming followers and maximizing their potential, extend grace and tolerate mistakes. When leaders do that, followers usually feel safe enough to trust them and take risks. Forgiveness builds trust and draws people together; retribution diminishes trust and separates people, while destroying the person who refuses to forgive. Leaders are able to move past mistakes, give up retribution and thereby free up an individual’s potential to prosper the organization.

Admitting not Controlling

Leaders must also be willing to humbly admit mistakes, which requires a leader’s trust in the integrity and goodwill of others not to violate that trust. When that happens people usually respond in kind, because they receive an honest view of the leader. For example, Stan Gault was a premiere CEO of the 1980s and 1990s. At Rubbermaid he helped generate 40 consecutive quarters of earnings growth. After completing that turnaround, he did the same at Goodyear. A “Forbes” article suggested that Mr. Gault was a controlling “tyrant.” He responded jokingly that while he can be a tyrant, he’s also a “sincere tyrant.” However, even this self-proclaimed tyrant humbly expressed the danger of too much ego (BTW I found tyrant hard to believe after hearing his philosophy of leadership). He noted the importance of leaders being willing to admit mistakes:

“No one is always correct or has all the bright ideas. I don’t think one has to encourage conflict, but you also cannot shy away from it. Poor information originally used to support a hypothesis may have changed…unexpected changes in the market or competition and therefore, what was correct back a few months ago may not be the appropriate course of action today. You have to be willing to step back and say things have changed and we must change our direction and not get hung up emotionally. That you can’t afford. Sometimes your ego won’t permit you to either admit you made a mistake or that you should be changing course.”

Finally, eliminating ego requires humility on the part of leaders, and that humility begins with grace, forgiveness and admitting mistakes. Is it hard? Yes! Is it appropriate? Always!

The CEO Disease Revisited

Much has been written about abuses of power and violations of trust by would be leaders. In a classic Business Week report, “CEO Disease,” Byrne, Symonds and Flynn cited examples of many CEOs who seemed to change dramatically once they came into power. The seductive nature of the self-serving power shift has negative effects on the organization. “Pampered, perked and protected, many American CEOs have developed an unhealthy love of power which threatens their companies.” They note that power to control this “CEO Disease” rests with shareholders, but by the time it gets to them the damage is often irrevocable.

Lacking Accountability

Often, CEO Disease emanates from a lack of meaningful accountability and a shortage of effective communication. The CEO wants to hear only good news. Subordinates are reluctant or even afraid to ask questions, challenge decisions or bring bad news until it’s too late. In fact, the afflicted CEO often demeans people who bring bad news. Since there’s little accountability, the CEO operates in an alternate reality that can lead to organizational demise.

It’s important to realize that this condition can strike anywhere. Consider the case of Mark Driscoll, Pastor/Founder of Mars Hill Church in Seattle. Between 1996 (the founding date) and 2014, Mars Hill grew to some 13,000 members and created 14 branch churches. Driscoll also founded several other organizations including the Gospel Coalition and Acts 29 Network. While he was successful, that success also revealed a harsher side that was unchallenged for years.

According to Christianity Today, when Driscoll finally was challenged, accusers claimed he was, “…guilty of arrogance, responding to conflict with a quick temper and harsh speech…He led staff and elders “in a domineering manner…” Driscoll was also accused of plagiarism for one of his books, and a group of former Mars Hill pastors confronted him about his behavior. Pastor Tim Keller commented that, “The brashness, arrogance and rudeness in personal relationships—which he himself has confessed repeatedly—was obvious to many…and he has…disillusioned quite a lot of people.” Eventually Driscoll resigned and church attendance dropped from 13,000 to about 8,000 in less than a year. By 2015 the doors were closed.

Living a Double Standard

It shouldn’t surprise us when organizational heads abuse power for self-serving purposes. Actually, Driscoll’s behavior wasn’t terribly outlandish, but it was enough to close several churches and hurt organizations with which he was affiliated. It also diminished trust and increased cynicism because his behavior was contrary to the Gospel values taught by the church (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control).

According to one former congregant, “He had always made very clear that he was accountable to a board of elders…that if at any point he needed to step down or change, he’d submit to a democratic process. But on the sly, he had the bylaws rewritten, reconfigured the elders, and pushed out certain people.”

Absent any sense of human obligation grounded in core values, we’re left with a culture driven by preference and power. That’s why consistent alignment of behavior with values is so important. It brings stability and often prosperity to organizations and communities. It also mitigates the misuse of power. Conversely, when individuals and particularly leaders operate using double standards it creates disruption and instability. It also undermines trust, enhances cynicism and lowers productivity.

One has to look no further than government and the media to see a lack of trust that brings cynicism. Consider that recent Pew Research polls reveal that just 22% of Americans trust their government and 24% think the media are believable. That’s why alignment of a leader’s behavior with core values is so crucial, and why its absence is called a disease.

Leadership, Moral Truth and Organizational Sustainability

A few years ago, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas said, “Today, it seems that those among us who are skilled at rejecting our culture or criticizing the status quo are exalted over those who just do the best they can.” His comments seem to capture the spirit of today. In fact, a simple view of criticisms in daily news reports provides plenty of evidence that Justice Thomas is correct.

What’s worse is that many believe America is so divided, that we’re moving towards a civil war. We read and hear daily about words and acts of opposition parties. The rhetoric rises beyond the point of hostility with chants like, “Impeach 45” or “Lock her up.” Fights break out…people are shot…violence occurs on campus… murders continue…and the rhetoric intensifies. Increasingly Americans appear to be drifting from their moral compasses and the result is a loss of civility.

What Young Adults Think

In 2008, famed Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith and his team interviewed 230 young adults across America. Their questions centered on moral life, and the results were surprising. When asked about a moral dilemma they faced, 2/3 of them either couldn’t answer or they described issues that were neither moral nor a dilemma. Of course, rape and murder were considered wrong. However, beyond that moral reasoning was lacking. Questions regarding drunk driving, cheating on tests, partner infidelity, were not considerations. Essentially, they seemed to have no basis for judging right from wrong.

One might wonder how this happened, but a good look at college curricula may provide some answers. The late Richard Rorty was one of the more prominent post-modern philosophers. He taught at Yale, Princeton and other schools. He once said, “Responsibilities to others constitute only our public side of life, a side which competes with our private affections.” According to Rorty, “moral obligation” is just one of many considerations for individuals, and it doesn’t trump all others in motivating behavior. In Rorty’s world then, my power allows me to do just about anything I desire. But that raises an important question. If moral obligation (i.e. my obligation to be civil) doesn’t trump private affections, then what happens to justice or civility when “private affections” result in racial or gender bias? Further, what happens when “private affections” result in dominating others, without the slightest regard for their wellbeing?

Where This Leads

If Rorty is correct, then human obligation always clashes with “private affections,” because at times fulfilling human obligation as a leader requires self-denial. Rorty also argues that objective moral truth “cannot be out there…independently of the human mind,” which means good, evil and moral are all relative terms. That leaves only law and power to mitigate differences. At its extreme, we get Hitler and Nazi Germany. The scandals and abuses (sexual and otherwise) we see regularly in the press are clearly motivated by private affections with no consideration for human obligation. Unfortunately, declines in human obligation (honesty, kindness, work ethic, church attendance, etc.) always bring declines in civility, particularly if morality is relative.

Under Rorty’s assumptions, because “good” and “moral” are primarily individual constructs, there’s no transcendent moral truth to mitigate differences or reconcile competing ideas. So if my opinion of “good” differs from yours, then we settle in a Darwinian form of organizational gamesmanship or we file suit. People lacking power who don’t comply with the prevailing culture (no matter how corrupt) are punished, ostracized and often eliminated. Consequently, the primary result is less organizational productivity and more power accumulation. While power-driven organizations and societies do exist, research and common sense tell us that they’re not sustainable. The choice seems simple, but leaders still must make it.