4 Signs Your Faith Group Is Unhealthy

Jennifer Slattery

Published Jun 26, 2024
4 Signs Your Faith Group Is Unhealthy

I’ve encountered numerous people who are struggling to heal from wounds inflicted by those who’ve turned what our Father intended to be safe places into circles of toxicity. Thankfully, some quickly detected—and left—these dysfunctional spheres. Others wrestle with a confusion that causes them to doubt their perception and worth. The greatest damage occurs, however, to those who, for various reasons, didn’t recognize the damage until their souls were scarred.

Praise God for His power to rectify all wrongs and restore beauty to that which someone’s ugliness tarnished. The first step, however, involves recognizing when a community is flawed yet growing versus those that warrant an immediate departure. 

While every gathering, like its members, contains some degree of brokenness, here are four signs a faith group might’ve turned septic:

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row of multicultural adults holding hands

1. They Draw Lines Instead of Linking Arms

Years ago, a young woman came to me in tears, stating that members of her Bible study community had asked her to leave. In her insecurity, she could think of numerous reasons why. She recognized her weaknesses and faults more than anyone. But because no one, least of all the group’s leader, had discussed any of their concerns with her directly, she was left with a wound she couldn’t quite name and, therefore, she struggled to heal. 

Unhealthy groups often hold undefined and unclear expectations and create what feels like a pass-fail environment. This was how the Pharisees in Jesus’ day behaved. They enforced more rules than most people could keep up with, let alone follow, and quickly expelled those who didn’t meet their standards. Regarding this, Jesus said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them” (Matthew 23:4), adding in verse 13, “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to” (NIV). 

Spirit-led environments regularly convey the message, “I am for you.” When someone else’s sin* might tempt the spiritually immature to withdraw, we often see Paul, an effective first-century church leader, drawing closer. 

Consider how he responded to the people in Corinth. Based on his letters, this church had significant problems. Some members were engaging in temple prostitution, a man and his stepmother were having sex with one another, and division plagued the church. What’s more, it appears some were questioning Paul’s authority as a leader. 

Considering this, one might expect him to write a harsh and angry rebuke. Yet, while he did address their sin, he focused first on who they were in Christ. In 1 Corinthians 1:4-9, he wrote:

"I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge—God thus confirming our testimony about Christ among you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will also keep you firm to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord."

He knew they weren’t living as God desired, but he also understood they weren’t stuck in their sin. The Lord had given them everything they needed to become all He desired, and He, in His faithfulness, would bring them to maturity. To phrase it differently, Paul called out their best selves, and he walked beside them as they limped toward increased holiness.  

*Please note, I am not referring to abusive or continual and unrepentant behavior. Rather, I’m discussing our shared humanity exhibited in our transformation process.  

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2. Members Attempt to Power-Up by Triangulation

2. Members Attempt to Power-Up by Triangulation

I’ve heard leaders say they left church positions because they didn’t feel emotionally safe or supported by their people. We’ve probably all witnessed or experienced an environment that developed gossipy fractions where people try to force their agenda by triangulating and finding allies. This easily leads to an atmosphere of hurt, insecurity, malice, and suspicion. 

Healthy organizations address one another directly, allow for disagreement, and ultimately trust God to lead the ministry. They place their intimacy with Him and their heart for His mission above their personal agendas. Most importantly, they prioritize their relationships with one another over temporary accomplishments, no matter how grand.

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Senior and young child gardening growth

3. There's No Expectation of Growth

When my daughter was young, I joined a moms’ group hoping for connection and support. Recognizing my immaturity, I craved time with women who were learning to love their husbands and children well. Instead, it seemed as if everyone gathered merely to complain. 

There’s a difference between griping and honestly expressing one’s feelings. The latter leads to vulnerability, empathy, connection, and often, increased self-awareness. The former results in hardened and entitled hearts. It largely comes down to motivation—and accountability. When we focus on personal holiness, even our most intense emotions have transformative power. Apart from that, we will inevitably find ways to validate our selfishness and justify our sin while vilifying anyone who in some way threatens our “Kingdom of Me.” 

According to John Piper, complaining involves finger-pointing and speaking despairingly of someone else. An example might be when a wife calls her husband lazy for not cleaning the garage. Venting, however, focuses on how a particular challenge or situation affects the individual themself. Using the scenario just mentioned, this might include the woman expressing how overwhelmed she feels when she walks past stacks of unpacked boxes. In this instance, she is honestly voicing her emotions without making a judgment against a person. 

This, in turn, makes her more apt to see various healthy responses to the situation. She could clean their area, hire someone else to do so, or decide to let it go. In short, this keeps the discussion on the only individual she has control over and remains responsible for—herself, creating an environment conducive for growth. 

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Hello My Name is name tag and red pen

4. Members Entangle Behavior with Identity

We’ve probably all heard the phrase, “Hate the sin; love the sinner.” If we actually practiced this, our actions would more consistently reflect the heart of Christ. He hated sin so much that He was willing to give His life to break its chains, and His love for us ran so deep that it motivated the same. 

The problem is that we often equate who someone is with what they do, but Scripture doesn’t support this view. To the contrary, we’re told from the Bible’s first pages that God made all mankind in His image—able to create, contemplate, plan, and love. But sin tarnished, or infected, His beautiful creation, the human heart included. His solution—to remove the barriers that kept us from Him and His life-giving, transformative grace. 

We see this in Paul’s letters as well. As I mentioned previously, while he clearly—and directly—addressed sin, that behavior never tarnished his view of the individual. Instead, he continually expressed, in essence, “This isn’t who you are. You are a loved, redeemed, chosen, and empowered child of God. Act like the radiant saint that you are.” 

Healthy groups and churches are able to hold one another accountable from a place of love, recognizing not only where the individual currently stands, but their God-led destination as well. And they do so with the awareness that they themselves still carry bits of the sin virus as they advance toward the total cure. 

While prayerfully considering where God is inviting us to invest our time and entrust our hearts, may we remember that we’ll never find perfection on this side of heaven. Every human and, therefore, group to which they belong exhibit varying degrees of dysfunction. When we remain cognizant of this and of the weaknesses within our faith circles, we’re better able to guard our hearts and keep our spiritual ears open to our Father’s perfect guidance. 

He might reveal faulty perceptions within us based on unresolved wounds from our past. In these instances, God often directs His children to godly counselors who can help them navigate confusing relationships. In some situations, the Lord might lead us to stay so we might mirror His grace and model Christ-led living. God might encourage us to speak truth and set healthy boundaries, or He might urge us to leave—and to heal—from the damage we received. We can trust as we diligently seek the Lord, His ways, and His perspective. He will reveal His perfect, hope-filled will and help us experience the connection with Him and others our souls crave.

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Jennifer Slattery is a writer and speaker who co-hosts the Faith Over Fear podcast and, along with a team of 6, the Your Daily Bible Verse podcast. She’s addressed women’s groups, Bible studies, and taught at writers conferences across the nation. She’s the author of Building a Family and numerous other titles and maintains a devotional blog at JenniferSlatteryLivesOutLoud.com.

She’s passionate about helping people experience Christ’s freedom in all areas of their lives. Visit her online to learn more about her speaking or to book her for your next women’s event, and sign up for her free quarterly newsletter HERE and make sure to connect with her on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and GodTube.

Originally published Wednesday, 26 June 2024.