Health and Growth

7 Signs Your Church Has an Unhealthy Culture

Use this diagnostic checklist to see how your church culture is doing—and how to improve it.

7 Signs Your Church Has an Unhealthy Culture
by

Paul Maxwell

A famous news editor once said: “Politics is downstream of culture.”

He meant something very profound:

People act based on their social experience more than their “views.”

This truth also applies to church contexts, but instead of politics, discipleship is at stake.

When pastors realize this simple truth, it will give them an entirely new, meaningful and effective way of measuring their church’s success:

“Discipleship is downstream of church culture.”

Biblical teaching is downstream of church culture.

Church involvement is downstream of church culture.

Small group participation is downstream of church culture.

And most of all—giving is downstream of church culture.

You can ask people to attend, volunteer, show up, and give all you want, but if your church members don’t enjoy their experience in your church due to an unhealthy culture, they won’t do any of these things for long.

This is why it’s important for churches leaders to understand the signs of healthy and unhealthy church cultures, evaluate their church culture, and make any changes necessary to improve their culture so that their members can have a safe, enjoyable, and welcoming context that will make them want to learn more, volunteer more, show up more, and give more.

Here are 7 signs of an unhealthy church culture—and more importantly, how to fix them when they show up in your church culture.

1. A "popular crowd"

Core problem: Snobbery. 

Core solution: Opportunity.

If your church leadership displays exuberance and energy, supplies availability and access, to a small subset of people, but keeps most at an arm’s length, people will get the sense that you only see them as a number. They will feel like your church culture values growth in numbers above all else and, like a spammy Instagram account, they will likely unfollow. 

This doesn’t mean that your church leadership can’t have boundaries in their schedule and member relationships. 

This simply means that if you are creating an “inner circle” that converts true Christian discipleship into a popularity contest measured in social proximity to the pastor, the members you do retain will grow in unhealthy ways, and the members you lose won’t have much good to say about the church when they leave.

The solution to this is to make each member’s discipleship a core value of your church culture. Each member has access to a church leader if they need it. Each member is given opportunities to grow to serve, to belong, to grow, to learn, and to lead. 

2. Bending important rules/extreme rigidity

Core problem: Lack of protocol or purpose. 

Core solution: Rules and vision.

You need a protocol to give shape to the implementation of your church’s vision. But you also need purpose to guide moments when it may be appropriate to depart from standard practices.

If your church has protocol in place, but it is part of the informal culture of the church to break those rules, people will get the sense the things the church leadership says don’t really matter. Church members will mimic what they see the church leaders do, not what they say. If you take your own protocol seriously, so will your people. If you don’t, you are sowing seeds of discord, conflict, strife, and resentment. 

On the other hand, if your church is so legalistic about the rules that it inhibits the church’s ability to fulfill its own mission, then it needs to refresh its vision to give people wiggle room to operate within the system. People need to know why the rules exist—what meaningful vision do they serve? Then, when rules are hard to follow, the vision guides them through compliance—and when it is appropriate to depart from the rules as an exception, the vision itself will make it clear when that is wise.

Balance your protocol with purpose. Balance your vision with guidelines. 

3. Employees only give positive feedback

Core problem: Fear. 

Core solution: Humility.

This is very common in churches with a very gifted or self-serious pastor. There is no room to take moments lightly, and far less room to give genuinely critical feedback. 

The way to solve this pain point is to practice humility in several important ways:

  • Express publicly that you value feedback.
  • Admit that you don’t have all the answers.
  • When people do give feedback, thank them and don’t punish them.

4. Theological conflict is common

Core problem: Intellectualizing problems.

Core solution: Relationally resolving conflict.

Every church has theological distinctives of some kind. But many churches are consumed by theological disagreement every few months. As people grow in their relationship with God, they learn more about Scripture and the truth of the gospel—and different opinions about these issues can lead to conflict.

This is an unavoidable part of the Christian community—brothers and sisters will disagree.

But it becomes a problem of church culture when the leadership adopts these conflicts as problems for the church and uses advanced theological concepts as a way to keep people in line. 

People don’t want their community—their very social belonging—to be contingent on whether or not they agree about some theological nuance.

They want to be safe. They want to be loved. They want their family to be welcomed and encouraged and protected.

If your church leadership has internalized theological conflict into its culture, the solution is to return to a relationally oriented method of solving problems. This means that conflict is viewed through the lens of personal relationships, and the solution is positioned through the lens of trust, forgiveness, and grace. No relationships stands or falls on whether two people can come to theological agreement—plain and simple. That’s the foundation of a healthy church culture.

5. Informal communication is more reliable than formal channels

Core problem: Carelessness with information.

Core solution: Confidentiality and formality.

Here’s another way of expressing this problem—when problems happen, people are talked about rather than talked with. Church members learn not to trust the formal channels of church communication because informal channels such as gossip, hearsay, text channels, and a leaky leadership team are more reliable methods of getting vital information about what’s happening at church.

This is unhealthy because it both excludes people who aren’t tapped into those informal channels and devalues people who are talked about in those channels.

The solution to this problem is to keep confidential things confidential and to communicate everything else through formal channels so that it’s held accountable to a communicative and moral standard. 

6. Issues are repeated in meetings

Core problem: Ineffectiveness. 

Core solution: Accountability.

In some churches, elder meetings can feel like groundhog day—repeating the same issues over and over and over again that never get solved.

If this happens in your church—grievances are perpetually unaddressed, problems persist, and leadership doesn’t take seriously resolving pain points for its members—then this needs to change.

The best way to resolve this unhealthy church cultural practice is to create some form of public accountability with the congregation so that the leadership is incentivized to solve the issues it is responsible to solve.   

7. Unaddressed triggers consistently create drama

Core problem: Instability. 

Core solution: Opportunity.

Some leadership teams are fantastic at de-escalating problems. Other leadership teams chronically escalate the problems. 

The difference between these two church cultures is that the de-escalating leadership team intentionally de-escalates problems. They take a posture toward stressful pain points: “We will be agents of peace in this situation.”

Alternatively, leadership teams that escalate stressful situations are highly reactive, often bring a low level of intentionality to the situation, and don’t have a philosophy or strategy with which to approach overwhelming and new situations.

Your church leadership team should have a core set of values that shape how you address new and stressful situations. Take time during your elder meetings to role play hypothetical situations to practice getting better addressing these kinds of issues as a team.

De-escalating pain points so that they don’t become triggers for church drama is a team skill, and you need to cultivate it.

Over to You

It is very possible to have a healthy church culture.

But a healthy church culture requires intentionality.

At your next church leaders meeting, bring this issue up as a topic of discussion. Address several diagnostic issues provided here that could give you an opportunity to better shape your church culture and, in turn, shape your members’ discipleship experience. 

Pray that, with God’s help, you serve your members by giving them a safe and healthy church culture in which to grow as disciples of Christ and help their families do the same.

Why Write Church Donation Letters?

In a previous blog post, I shared the different ways your church can thank donors—from automated emails to year-end giving reports. Printed donation letters also play an essential role in your church’s stewardship efforts.

Donation letters are the Swiss Army knife of your church’s gratitude arsenal. It may not be the most powerful—but it’s versatile, handy, and gets used often.

Your basic church donation letter can serve many different purposes, including:

  • Acknowledging that you received a donation
  • Thanking the giver for being generous with their finances
  • Sharing other ways the person can support your church
  • Allowing the donor to write the gift off on their taxes
  • Encouraging supporters to make recurring donations
  • Requesting future donations from church members

A single, well-crafted donation letter can pull together several of these things simultaneously. Better donation letters lead to more giving, which leads to more donation letters—thus creating a cycle of on-going church generosity.

Church Donation Letter Samples

Here’s the good news—you don’t have to write an individualized letter for every person who gives to your church. That would be tough to do for even smaller churches. And most donors don’t expect you to. They’d rather you be putting their gift to better use in the community, instead of ceaselessly writing thank you notes.

With the possible exception of some unique circumstances, your church can use template language for the majority of your church donation letters. You’ll have to add in custom details like the donor’s name and gift amount, but you can write everything else in advance.  

To make this even easier on you, here are a few basic church donation letter templates you can copy and paste. Keep in mind that not all of these have to be in print—you could just as easily turn some of these samples into email appeals.

1. Donation Acknowledgment Letter

The Donation Acknowledgement Letter is a basic way you can confirm and affirm a monetary gift to your church. Sending these is standard practice in church and nonprofit culture.

Dear [first name],
I want to personally thank you for your donation of [gift amount] to [church name]. We’re honored you would bless us with your generosity. Donations like yours make a big difference in the work our church is doing in the community.
Without givers like you, our church can’t have an impact or influence in our community. With your support, we’re partnering with local nonprofits, sending out global mission trips, and hosting small groups on topics that help real people like you. Together, we can make a difference.
Because we’re a tax-exempt nonprofit, you also get to write this donation off on your taxes. This letter serves as official proof of your donation, so keep it in your records come tax season. At the end of the year, we’ll also send you an annual recap with how much you’ve given to the church.
Thank you for supporting [church name]!
Sincerely,
[your name]

2. Donation Request Letter

Not every church member realizes the importance of giving, or understand Bible verses about tithing and giving.  So a Donation Request Letter helps to spread that awareness and encourage a spirit of generosity.

Dear [first name],
How are the finances in your household? That was a rhetorical question, so you don’t have to answer—besides, this is a letter so we wouldn’t hear you anyway. But we still want you to think about that question.
Money is a uniquely human issue, one we all struggle with to one degree or another. Even if you’re financially blessed, you still have the burden of stewarding your money wisely. And we believe that one of the best ways to invest your money is into the local church.
Tithing (giving 10% of your income) on a regular basis not only supports the work we do at [church name]. It doesn’t just support local missions and community growth. It also shows an obedience to God by making his work a financial priority in your life.
So if you find yourself ready to put God first in both your heart and your wallet, we encourage you to make a one-time gift or sign up to make recurring donations. That way, you won’t have to ever wonder again about the financial status of your household.
Sincerely,
[your name]

3. Monthly Giving Letter

Many church donations aren’t just one-time gifts. Plenty of givers contribute monthly—and that should be acknowledged.

Use this template to correspond with recurring givers.  

Dear [first name],
Thank you for being an active and faithful member of our church community. By giving to our church on a monthly basis, you’re showing that our church has a meaningful place in your heart. We just wanted to write this to let you know that you’re in our heart, too.
Donating to the church monthly allows us to preach the gospel, make disciples, and support others in our community who need help. Others like the local food bank and the nearby homeless shelter. We’re answering the cry of the needy, and it’s all thanks to contributors like you.
We earnestly appreciate your ongoing support and want to let you know we’re here for you. If there’s ever anything we can do for you and your family, don’t hesitate to reach out. You are a valued member of our church family. And you’re financial support is making a difference.
Sincerely,
[your name]

4. Year-End Giving Letter

At the end of each year, it’s customary to give your church supporters a summary of their gifts. The primary reason is for tax purposes, but it’s also a way to recap everything your church has done over the past year with their support.

Dear [first name],
You’re getting this letter because you gave to [church name] at some point during the past year. That might have been a one-time gift, or recurring donations. Either way, we want to thank you for your generous support. Every contribution helps.
One of the official reasons for this letter is for tax purposes. That’s right—you get to write these donations off on your taxes. Which is why we’ve included a summary of all the contributions you’ve made to our church this year.
But the other reason for this letter is to let you know what we’ve done with the money you gave. We take stewardship very seriously, which means we value spending our time and resources wisely.
During the year, our church supported local nonprofits, sent global missions teams, and baptised quite a few people. It was a great year for us—thanks in large part to donors like you.
So thank you for your support of our church, and we hope you’ll consider continuing to contribute to our mission in the coming year.
Sincerely,
[your name]  

5. Church Fundraising Letter

Sometimes you need to make a more significant financial push using tried and true church fundraising ideas. Some churches call this a Stewardship Campaign or a Church Capital Campaign. Either way, the goal is to raise a certain amount of money for a big project. And typically, a solid letter of appeal is an integral part of that.

Dear [first name],
God has a plan for everyone and everything. That includes you, and it includes [church name]. None of us can fully know God’s plan—the best we can do is pray and listen for clarity. Our church leadership has been doing just that and are excited to announce our latest church project.
[Detail the outline of the major church project—this could include a building campaign, or raising support for a global mission trip. Anything specific to your church that requires a fundraising letter. Be sure to include a fundraising goal so everyone knows what you’re shooting for.]
But we can’t pull this off without your support. Whether you give to the church on a regular basis, or just attend on occasion, we’re asking you to consider contributing to this massive undertaking prayerfully. It’s something we need our entire church community’s help with.
Even if you can’t make a large gift, know that every little bit helps. It’s more about coming together as a community united behind a common cause. We hope that you’ll consider making a donation towards this great step forward that we’re making together.
Sincerely,
[your name]

Tips when writing church donation letters

It’s not enough to just copy and paste this content and send away. The key to an effective church donation letter is a touch of personalization. Follow these tips to take your donation letters to the next level:

  • Examples: Add specific examples of how your church will use the donation. Tell a story about the work your church is doing in the community and connect that with giving.
  • Personalization: For regular donors, don’t be afraid to add a short, handwritten personal note. This shows that you’ve singled them out with praise.
  • Timeliness: Sending donation letters quickly reminds people you’re thankful for them. But this also takes organization and efficiency. All the more reason to use pre-written templates.
  • Storytelling: Everything is better with stories—including donation letters. Weave in a specific narrative of how your church is making a difference and how the money will be used.

There’s no one right or wrong way to write a donation letter or request contributions. You’ve got to do what is right for your church and congregation. But if you stick to these general tips, you’ll probably start to see some traction when it comes to giving.

What’s next?

Most people don’t love talking about money in church. But it’s a necessary and vital part of your church. And maximizing your efforts when it comes to donation letters will help make those conversations more comfortable. So what do you do next to put this into effect?

  • Customize these letters: Take the samples above and make them work for your church. Personalize the content. Remove the stuff that doesn’t sound genuine and add in stuff that does. Remember that these are just a starting point.
  • Create some systems: Develop processes that make it easy for you to replicate sending donation letters. Use a letter template that allows you to drop in names and details. Then develop guidelines for when these letters will be sent out.
  • Empower a champion: Find out who is going to be responsible for making these letters happen. Rather than thinking of this as adding more work to their plate, think about how you can elevate their work. This could be a staff member, or a volunteer.
  • Start sending: All of this will be for nothing if you don’t actually send out the letters. Take the time to get it right and get them into the hands of your church donors.

And if you’re looking for ways to grow your church’s giving capacity, Tithely can help.

We provide several different ways your church members can support your church financially—from online giving, text to give solutions, and giving kiosks.

Tithely’s systems make it as easy as possible for people to give to your church. Now all you need to start doing is generating a culture of gratitude. There’s nothing standing in your way. Go unleash generosity in your church.

How does your church use donation letters to spread generosity? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Editor's Note: This is a guest post from Robert Carnes. Robert is a writer and storyteller. He's the author of The Original Storyteller: Become a Better Storyteller in 30 Days. A former church communicator and nonprofit marketer, Robert works as a managing editor for Orange in Atlanta.

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7 Signs Your Church Has an Unhealthy Culture