You and your church might be codependent

May 9th, 2022

Chances are you have seen relationships like these. You may have even been in one. I am talking about romantic relationships, friendships, family members or coworkers where one person needs the other, and the other needs to be needed. Relationships where there is not only a strong emotional, but psychological reliance upon the other in order to validate their own self-worth. Psychologists refer to this condition as “codependency.” 

Most frequently, this dynamic presents itself in the form of a caretaker + a care receiver. For example, this could be a partner who constantly says “yes” to the other, when they should say “no.” It could be the parent that continues to grant their child’s request for money knowing full well they will use it on a bad habit. Or perhaps codependent behavior can be found in the friend who regularly practices denial to avoid the reality of another person’s addiction.  

The dynamic quality of these kinds of relationships makes them especially tricky to navigate. It is common for individuals to fluidly shift in and out of the caretaker/care-receiver roles. For example, one day they might be the one constantly trying to “fix” or “save” the other. Then, the next day they find themselves harboring ill will on an account of their partner’s inability to fulfill their expectations.

What’s also fascinating about these types of relationships is they can occur not only between individuals, but communities as well. It is possible to experience codependent relationships within organizations, causes, jobs…even at church. In fact, faith communities have long been institutions that both harbor and cultivate codependent relationships. If you’ve spent any time in church, you’ve witnessed them between a congregation and the pastor, a member and small group leader, or between a student and youth leader, etc. 

Thus, over the next two articles, we are going to explore further the various types of codependent relationships that occur within churches. Furthermore, we will also discuss ways to address this kind of behavior both for our own sake and the sake of the Kingdom of God, while also seeking to form more caring, yet intentional, relationships for the sake of the church.

In this article, it seemed appropriate to begin with the role of a pastor, staff member, or other primary ministry leader. Before diving into all the examples of codependency within the pews, it is only responsible for pastors and church leaders to take account of our own unhealthy relational dynamics. Unfortunately, what we are finding are numerous examples of pastors initiating and reinforcing (perhaps subconsciously) the very types of codependent relationships that are causing them so much frustration. In some instances, we are practically creating the problem we are complaining about. The hope is that by identifying these behaviors, pastors and church leaders can find new ways to relate with their congregation; again, both for the sake of their own longevity and for the overall health of our local churches.

Let’s start by naming some examples of codependent behaviors found within relationships as church leaders. As a pastor or church leader, you might be practicing some form of codependency if…

1) You struggle to possess or maintain boundaries.

You and I both know this has always been a struggle for many clergy. By virtue of their roles, pastors and ministry leaders are very well-versed in offering care and compassion for others. Most church leaders are not only good at it, but they find it is incredibly live-giving to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of their members. However, as a result, pastors and church leaders typically have issues maintaining healthy boundaries. For example, it is common for many church staff to battle guilt when they are away or not available to take a call, have coffee, or accommodate a member’s request for a meeting. Thus, we slide into the habit of erasing all personal and familial boundaries to make ourselves available at all times to all people. 

To be clear, nothing I just said is new to you. Every pastor and church leader has heard countless pep talks on the need for boundaries and how important it is to “turn it off.” However, while we might have a firm grasp on the behavioral issue at hand, I am not convinced many of us have properly processed the psychological layer of our boundary-less lives. The fact of the matter is oftentimes the inability (or unwillingness) to possess boundaries is not only bad pastoral practice, but it also stems from deep and unresolved insecurities that we are attempting to fix by being at everyone’s beck and call. In other words, we think by meeting everyone’s needs, we can manage our own fears of inadequacy and unworthiness.

Boundaries are not only critical for our own emotional health, but also our ability to serve our churches well. When I think about how critical boundaries are, I remember Brené Brown’s brilliant (yet counterintuitive) findings that the most compassionate people are those with the strongest boundaries. She writes, “Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment”.[1] Maybe the answer to a burned-out, codependent relationship with your church isn’t doing more, but doing less with more energy, more excitement and quite frankly, motivations that are actually self-less. 

For instance, what would it look like to start limiting the amount of pastoral meetings you take each week so that you can invest more time, energy and joy in worship, sermon writing, or teaching a class? What would it look like to start limiting the amount of classes and studies your church offers in attempts to offer only that which is most helpful and useful to both the church and its congregation? What if the answer is doing less with more?

2) Your personal happiness is based on an event’s (or program’s) success. 

This one is really hard to accept. Many of us do not want to admit it, but every pastor knows how tempting it is to feel like a failure when a worship service or special event did not meet a particular threshold. We place both spoken and unspoken expectations on just about everything we do, and when those benchmarks are not met, we begin to question not just our gifts, but our value and worth as a human being.

Once again, every pastor and church leader has heard this before. You’ve heard how important it is not to allow your “pride” to get in the way of fruitful ministry. You already know that you shouldn’t base success on numbers or crowd size. However, again I think we are merely scratching the surface of the actual issue at hand. If your joy as a human being is based heavily (if not solely) on a very narrow and self-serving definition of success, there are not only issues with our behavior, but with our identity. We have fallen into the trap of defining who we are primarily based on the things we have done. Our existence has been reduced to a resume of accomplishments. Thus, in a way, we have it totally backwards. Things like joy and contentment are no longer seen as the means to happiness, but byproducts. We tell ourselves that we will find joy and be content as soon as ________________. (Fill in the blank with whatever type of ministry you want.) Sadly, many of us are thus still waiting on a joy that will never come…or last. 

Similar to the one above, this symptom of codependency is not easily broken. For example, it not only requires living a life of gratitude over greed; but furthermore, it also requires a fundamental reworking of how you define success. Instead of defining success using what we might call “people pleasing metrics” (i.e. attendance, sign ups, membership, etc.), perhaps we might go searching “people serving metrics.” “People pleasing metrics” are measurements for spending your entire ministry asking: how do I give them what they want? Whereas, “people serving metrics” asks: what do they truly need? 

What if you created an entirely new set of measurements that remind you of how powerfully present God is and vitally important this work can be? Measurements that the world probably won’t see or care much about. Measurements like witnessing another’s spiritual growth or that time you planted a seed that blossomed into unexpected fruit or that time you offered pastoral care and saved someone from suffering in isolation. What if to truly root out our codependency requires you to stop observing your life through the general public’s eyes, but through the eyes of God? A God who leaves the 99 for the 1. A God who regularly risks being misunderstood by the faithful majority. A God, in Jesus, who frequently seems more interested in being known, than being famous.

3) You struggle to find or maintain friendships.

This last one might sound strange, but I’ll explain. Oftentimes, persons with codependent tendencies live at both extremes when it comes to their personal friendships. They can be hyper-suffocating or quite flakey. People with codependent behaviors are often all-in on their friendships constantly trying to be available, fixing every issue, bypassing their every need to maintain the connection. Or, because they are so hyper-focused on meeting the needs of others, they can appear aloof or absent to those who are genuinely attempting to have a meaningful relationship, whose plans are constantly canceled when other needs arise.

No place is this more accurate than in the life of a pastor. Oftentimes, it can be really hard to be friends with a pastor or church worker either because they see you as their own personal project or because they are not very present due to the constant demands being placed upon them. To be clear, these demands are both explicit and implicit. Whether these needs are actually spoken by another person or imaginatively intuited on our own, we are constantly working to save everyone and hold everything together.

In this way, many pastors and church leaders don’t even know how to be good friends. To be clear, we might know how to do the tasks that typically come with relationships like that of friendships. But in my experience, most people aren’t looking for someone to perform friendship, but who knows how to be in friendship. Individuals with codependent tendencies often have a hard time, because by their very nature, your friends don’t want to be saved…they simply want to be enjoyed.

I’ll never forget a piece of advice a mentor gave to me when I first entered ministry. He said, “When it comes to friendship, look for quarters not pennies.” What he meant is no matter who you are, the fact is you only have so much to give and offer others. So, instead of trying to offer only a little bit of yourself to 100 friends, invest deeply in 4-5. In a way, this brings us back to the first point of creating and maintaining boundaries. In order to do so, you’ll have to learn how to create boundaries not only with church members but an approach to friendship that prioritizes quantity over quantity. Simply put, you’ll have to learn how to say “no” to the friendships you cannot fully invest in.

What we will find in this approach to friendship is precisely what so many pastors are yearning for. A place to finally stop feeding my addiction to helping others. A place to be honest about who we are and what we need. Moreover, a place to not be the professional caring for the congregant, but the friend engaged in real, genuine relationship with another. Ultimately, this way of friendship might even model for us an alternative to codependency being that the dependency we practice isn’t about carrying one another, but leaning on each other as we journey forward. Perhaps this is not only friendship at its best, but church leadership at its healthiest.


[1] Brené Brown, Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead (New York: Random House, 2017), 115.

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