Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Part 2: A Question Both Staff and Supervisor Can Ask Themselves
It has been said “people don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers.” Years ago the Gallup organization reported this to be true for 75% of employees who left their companies.[i] Unfortunately despite the seeming fascination in our Christian community around “leadership,” ministry organizations and even well-known ones have not been exempt from these sad statistics.
Reasonable people expect their workplace to be safe. Even nonfaith-based organizations, in addition to faith-based ones, have standards for safety and health. So when a Christian ministry has biblically-based standards of conduct and core values and yet allows an unhealthy atmosphere, then it doesn’t take long for staff to experience frustration and even anger. And the longer the situation persists and staff perceive leadership is not stepping in to fix it, then hopelessness, discouragement, depression or other mental health symptoms can seep in.
Everyone on staff agreed to a set of beliefs and values which they will be held accountable to. They can rightfully expect those entrusted with leading the organization to also demonstrate loyalty to those values, if not set the example for how people are to treat one another. It’s not an expectation of perfection but rather of honest demonstration, knowing we all fail at times.
I believe the overall health of a workplace culture rises or falls on the leadership, primarily senior staff leaders and especially the President/CEO. It’s one thing for a person to choose to leave because the company no longer provides complimentary coffee for staff. But if the reasons for leaving are due to a toxic staff person and a boss lacking the necessary competency to do something about it, or the supervisor themself is the cause of toxicity or even abuse, those reasons reach a different level of concern and should be addressed by those in positions to do something about it, and sooner rather than later.
Hypocritical stuff and what best-selling author John Eldredge calls a “religious spirit” among leadership has been around a long time. Jesus had to deal with it. We can read about when He went into a synagogue and saw a man with a shriveled hand. He also saw those pesky religious leaders who were always looking for a reason to falsely accuse Him of something. Jesus asked those leaders a theological question, something in their realm of responsibility they could have responded to, yet they remained silent. It says in Mark 3 Jesus “looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts” proceeded to completely restore the man’s hand. If even Jesus can be angry and distressed at religious bullies, how much more might this infuriate us, especially when we have less authority than He did to do something about it.
Everyone on staff can contribute to creating and maintaining a healthy culture, but it gets more complicated when it comes to fixing an unhealthy one. Toxicity, like cancer, likely didn’t arrive overnight, and likewise won’t disappear overnight. What options do staff have? What responsibilities do leaders have? And how can Simone Biles’ story help us? (You knew that was coming, right?) The good news is there are ways out of this or through this for everyone involved. If you are a follower of Jesus and in a situation like this, whether in a staff or leadership role, I assume you are already praying for wisdom for what to do. Not every possible scenario can be addressed here so I’ll try and hit on a few more common ones.
- Practice patience. If one of your peers is the source of toxicity, you may want to wait and see if this ‘problem person’ removes themselves. Right now there is a thing called The Great Resignation2 which some believe to be the result of the pandemic’s impact on the workforce. COVID gave people time to assess their happiness on the job by experiencing new things such as working from home (WFH), hybrid work scenarios, working for themselves with a side hustle, or maybe they picked up a new hobby. As a result of this, and not solely due to extended unemployment benefits, millions of Americans are choosing to leave their jobs for something different. Maybe your coworker will be among those and the ‘problem’ will take care of itself.
- By the book. If it appears both you and this toxic person are not going anywhere, and your employee handbook has a ‘dealing with conflict’ section based on biblical concepts such as the Matthew 18 principle, and best practices such as ‘next level supervisor’ where there is an orderly way to discuss the issue with your supervisor’s supervisor, I recommend you first follow the courses of action in your handbook. The steps outlined are the appropriate places to start because presumably all staff have agreed to them per HR protocol, and it gives you both common language and common ground to begin a process. I would already have handy some specific examples you privately documented of issues you have experienced, and then trust the process for now.
- Guard your mind and heart. If you are working under a President/CEO who appears to be the source of the problems in the organization, it will drive you mad…if you let it! Initially you may wish this leader was like Jonah who took initiative and confessed to others in a boat, “I’m the cause of the storm…it’s all my fault…get rid of me…throw me overboard into the sea. Then the storm will stop.” Indeed the sailors did throw Jonah overboard and the seas did calm. You may enjoy imagining that however, in all seriousness, that would be the board’s job.
Or you may believe God wants you to stay and endure out of obedience to Him, at least for now, despite how tough your road ahead may be. In 1 Samuel 18 we learn of a young David serving under a king named Saul. Saul came from good stock, founded a kingdom with God’s approval, united a people, created an army, defeated enemies, did many amazing things other men longed to have on their resumes. But Saul also was eaten with jealousy, capable of murder, craved for fame, filled with dark desires, and willing to live in spiritual darkness…and very capable of throwing spears. Those were some of the darkest days for David.
As I just wrote, a bad boss may drive you mad…if you let it. David did not let that happen to himself. He suffered under Saul, by earthly measures he was a shattered man; by heaven’s measure, a broken one, and thus became one God could trust to one day lead His people. As author Gene Edwards beautifully wrote in his book A Tale of Three Kings, “Suffering was giving birth, humility was being born…others had to flee as the king’s madness grew…David did not share their attitudes…[telling others] I will not throw spears, nor will I allow hatred to grow in my heart, I will not avenge.” Edwards continues, “Highly gifted and very powerful men, reputed leaders, do some very dark and ugly deeds…there is a vast difference between the outward clothing of the Spirit’s power and the inward filling of the Spirit’s life.”
Clearly there have been and still are abuses within Christian organizations be they mental, physical, emotional or spiritual. To be clear in certain situations it is important to “run don’t walk” for your safety and well-being. That is not this example necessarily, though this may be a hard pill for some to swallow – God may want you to remain because He wants to do something new in you which can only be arrived at through a trial by fire. And this may be a decision only you (& your spouse) may understand and no one else, but it can in some cases be the right decision.
- Leave gracefully. Like David, he eventually left but he did not try and split the kingdom on his way out. He simply left. Author Parker Palmer wrote, “We live in a complex and conflicted era. The frenzy around and within us can become so disorienting that it’s easy to lose our way.” Or as Olympic gold-medalist Simone Biles recently said “I got the Twisties.” If you are getting the twisties and feeling disoriented mentally and emotionally both at home and at work and, like Simone, you can tell this is not getting better, it’s unhealthy and could get worse, then perhaps as I’ve also heard it described, “when the horse is dead, it is time to dismount.” Plan your exit strategy. Be graceful, leave your job, your department and the ministry in the strongest position possible, and free yourself for God to transition you somewhere else in the marketplace of abundant opportunities.
- Face your shadow. We all have one, a dark side to our leadership, and it can manifest itself differently in each person and in different combinations. Some may think of it as having a Front Stage which appears set for show time – the part you allow your staff and the public to see, while simultaneously there’s dark stuff going on Back Stage – where the only ones who are privy to it are you, God and hopefully your spouse and a few close and trusted friends. Evidences of your shadow might include any one of these or a combination of the following: incompetency for the job, hubris, a lack of self-awareness, cognitive dissonance, an unhealthy marriage or single life, or addictions or family of origin issues.
It doesn’t mean your leadership is doomed, especially if you can be addressing these things along the way. Get the help you need. It may be a counselor or “paid friend,” or help can come from real friends in your life who you trust, who do not depend on you for their livelihood and who are not enamored by the role you serve in. Other roles friends can play in your life in addition to counselor are a mentor, coach or trainer. Every leader needs a person in their life who has your permission to look you in the eyes, as Nathan did to David, and declare the bad news when necessary “You are that man!” (2 Samuel 12)
- Everyone has a boss. If the source of toxicity is a mid or upper-level leader, chances are staff and other leaders are looking to the President/CEO to resolve the issue sooner than later. But what if that top leader is the problem? In a nonprofit the board has the ultimate authoritarian role to play regarding the workplace culture though, ideally – my opinion – their role in this area should be indirect and rare. Indirect because part of the President/CEO’s job, the person the board supervises, is to protect the culture. Rare because as long as the top leader is doing their job the board should not have to be involved.
A board I served on years ago had this internal mantra, our organization is “board protected – president led.” The board clearly had a vital role to play but it was not to lead the organization. And the president clearly had their role but it was not as ultimate authority in the ministry. When they both operated in healthy ways, everyone benefitted…the leadership, staff and ultimately the beneficiaries of the ministry. When things are not in a good place, hopefully – again, ideally and my opinion – the President/CEO is not the only source by which board members learn how things are going inside the organization; that they have different camera angles to view things…not to interfere, but rather to be informed, so that their decision-making is always in the best interest of the Mission.
 Turning Around Employee Turnover, Robison J., Gallup 2008.  One Big Thing: The Worker’s Job Market – Axios , July 31, 2021
Dusty Rhodes consults Christian organizations in leadership and fundraising. He has served Christian media as Program Director, General Manager, Chief Operating Office, Chief Development Officer and Senior Vice President. He will soon join WGTS-FM / Washington, DC as their Chief Development Officer. Reach him at [email protected]