Seven Causes of Low Morale on Church Staff

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There's nothing like being on a team that's excited, focused, and winning.

But for too many church teams, low morale is just a way of life.   Though deep down we should be excited, energized, and driven by our calling, we’re just…tired.

We’re tired because we’re doing more than ever.

We’re tired because we’re doing things that are outside our comfort zone.

We’re tired because we’re figuring out new challenges and we don’t know what’s working.

And for many churches, the current situation has just exacerbated the issues.  Morale was trending down for some time and this has just accelerated the decline.

Morale is confidence, enthusiasm, and the discipline of a team at a specific time.  It speaks to a sense of purpose and confidence in the future.

Laura Howe, the founder of Hope Made Strong, an organization that provides biblically-based learning to help leaders care for others, describes it this way: “Low morale is the emotional equivalent of burnout, and burnout is caused by three components: hopelessness, helplessness, and prolonged stress.”

If you’ve got high morale, it’s great.  You’ll probably have to keep fighting to keep it.

If you don’t have it, things might seem dire.  But you can recognize the causes and take practical steps to build it.

Leaders can make things better or worse.

Ignore the signs, and your team will go from tired to burned out to gone.  But jump in with practical solutions and you can build team morale, team momentum, and lead your church into the next season of ministry with a new sense of purpose.

Let’s talk about the seven causes of low morale and what to do about them.


#1 Poor Communication

One of the quickest ways to kill morale on your team is poor communication.

If successes aren’t shared, challenges aren’t discussed, and ideas aren’t heard, people will feel like they are working alone.

During normal times, most team members admit communication is not where it needs to be. In times of rapid change or confusion, this is even more important.

Average communication feels like bad communication during times of confusion.

Because communication is one of the biggest challenges on most teams, it means improving your communication processes is one of the quickest ways to build team morale.

At one of our monthly meetings, our Church Fuel team recently had a conversation about how to improve communication.  We’re a small, remote team and we work really well together.  Communication is honestly pretty good.

But with some new people and new projects in the works, I felt like we needed a tune-up.  I found this document from Basecamp and shared it with our team, We talked through it and re-committed to the idea of communication and implemented a few tactical changes.

Here were some of the principles that stood out:

  • You can't not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication.
  • Substantial decisions start and end with an exchange of complete thoughts, not one-line-at-a-time jousts. If it's important, critical, or fundamental, write it up, don't chat it down.
  • Poor communication creates more work.
  • Ask if things are clear. Ask what you left out. Ask if there was anything someone was expecting that you didn't cover. Address the gaps before they widen with time.

Since things tend to go from a state of order to disorder when left alone, it’s important to revisit your communication principles and practices, and tools from time to time.  Talk through what needs to be communicated and talk through HOW things need to be communicated.

Honestly, many of the leadership tools we have for members at Church Fuel get right at this issue of communication.

  • The RACI Spreadsheet helps church teams clarify who is responsible, accountable, consulted, and informed on everyday tasks.
  • The Ministry Action Plan helps each ministry clarify how ministry-specific goals, plans, and programs roll up to the broader church mission.


#2 – Unclear Expectations

The second thing that kills team morale is unclear expectations.

Most people on teams want to do a great job and excel at the things that are on their plate.  But problems arise when expectations are not clear.

If you’re a team leader, your people cannot meet expectations that are not communicated to them.  You might be holding to a standard that exists only in your mind.

If you’re on a team, you might feel like the expectations placed on you are not clear.  That means you have the opportunity to go and seek clarity.  While it could have (and probably should have) been communicated clearly, it’s now up to you to dig in and get clear on those expectations.

The solution is actually quite simple:  Write down your expectations.  If you want to get on the same page, create an actual page.

Team leaders, write down your expectations clearly.  Whether it’s for a role, a project, or a task, make sure you don’t have uncommunicated expectations that will turn you into a passive-aggressive leader.

Team members, get used to saying the phrase “just to be clear” and then repeat back what you head.  Push for clarity.


#3 – Changing Goals

Imagine scoring a touchdown in a big game and the referee throws a flag, consults the other refs, and decides the end zone was actually 10 yards away.

Over the last few months, churches were forced to change programming, strategy, budgets, processes, and significant parts of their ministry.

Change is a normal part of ministry.

Thinking there won’t be changes is a recipe for disappointment.

But when things change constantly, that’s a recipe for burnout.

Constant change will drain a team’s energy and remove any sense of morale.  Maybe you’re on a team and feeling this way now.

Maybe your team has a leader that continually comes down from the mountain with a new vision, a new direction, and a new “drop everything and let’s do this” message.

Maybe you’re that kind of leader.

If you’re constantly changing the goals on your team, not only will they lose trust (“did you mishear God the last time?”), they will struggle to give their full energy to the next new idea.

Goals are a good thing, but if they change too often, the ensuing whiplash will demotivate more than the and your fresh vision will never be able to compensate. 

#4 – Team Members Have No Voice

“I don’t really care if we actually do what I’m suggesting here, I just want to be heard.”

That’s what we heard from a team member who was struggling to find her place on the team.  She had ideas, and those ideas weren’t being honored.

Most people on teams want their ideas to be heard.  In fact, the number one reason people don’t speak up is that they have spoken up in the past and nothing happened.

In teams with a few loud voices, morale might be really low.  Usually, the loud voices don’t realize it, because they are too busy talking over everyone.  And sometimes, this is a long-term effect of poor communication culture.

If someone is valuable enough to be on the team, their ideas are valuable enough to be heard.  If someone has a seat at the table, make sure they have a voice in the room.

One thing we hear from pastors is they don’t have people around them that speak up.  They tell us they desire to have great leaders around them with ideas and drive, but they just don’t.

if you don’t’ have people around you with opinions, ideas, and leadership experience, that’s a leadership development issue.  That’s not other people’s fault…that’s on you. Leaders create a culture where voices are valued.

If you’re on a team and don’t feel like you can share your opinion, speak up about the culture that makes you feel that way.


#5 – A Lack of Collective Progress

Even if you have a clear goal, continual work and toil toward an outcome without feeling like you’re making progress can kill morale.

It’s like constant fighting with little advancement.  It’s tiresome work with little visible results.

Caregiver or compassion fatigue comes when supporters face the same situations day in and day out, with very little change and minimal opportunity to refuel,” says Laura Howe of Hope Made Strong. “This is similar to leaders who are faced with constant problems with few solutions, they become worn down and their moral is eroded as they try to navigate what now feels like a hopeless situation.”

There are a lot of churches that have been pushing for change, trying to build the right culture, and working hard to accomplish a mission.  But there’s little progress.  There’s not much to celebrate yet.

And that can really take a toll.

Honestly, it’s the same feeling caregivers can feel when exerting mental and emotional energy taking care of someone who isn’t getting better.  Even though the task is important and there’s a deep sense of love, it can feel draining.  And then the guilt that comes from feeling that way takes a second toll.

Many leaders feel that the key to getting momentum is having a big win.  They want to turn the tide so they swing for the fences.  Maybe it’s a big initiative or a new ministry or a big new plan.

Going big feels right.

But momentum isn’t jumpstarted by big wins.  Instead, it’s created by a series of small, connected wins pointing in the right direction.

Momentum (and team morale) happens with little win followed by little win followed by little win.  String enough of these little positive movements together and you have momentum.

One of my favorite ways to structure goals and see progress comes from book The Four Disciplines of Execution.  We profiled that book in The Pastor’s Book Club.  That’s where you can get the breakdown containing notes, big ideas, key quotes, and a ministry insight video where we specifically call out applications to church.  The Pastor’s Book Club is included for all Church Fuel members or you could purchase it separately here.

The authors say the best format for goals is: “From X to Y by When.”

That’s a brilliant way to structure church goals.  You need to know where you are now.  You need to clearly identify where you’re going.  And you need a deadline.

The only thing I would add is that these goals may not need to feel big, audacious, or eternally significant.  They might need to be small and timely, so you can begin to generate momentum.

For teams to feel a strong sense of morale, they need to experience a simple sense of accomplishment.


#6 – A Lack of Coaching

I know “coaching” sounds ethereal and hard to understand.  It’s not a task like writing a sermon or leading a meeting, so while we know it’s important, we struggle to actually execute.

Coaching our team remains in the important but not urgent box on your Eisenhower Decision Matrix.

There are three specific things team members need from their leaders in this category of coaching.

Development.  Team members need intentional development from you.  Being on your team should help them be a better person.  Your team needs you to teach them what you know and what you’re learning.  They need you to help them grow as leaders not just get better at the tasks of their job.

Most of the time, this doesn’t happen because it’s not scheduled.  That’s why we created a Team Training resource and recommend pastors use one of the lessons once a month at a regularly scheduled team meeting.

If your leader isn’t taking a developmental interest in you, take it upon yourself. Use our free Personal Growth Plan resource to build your own personal growth plan.  Share your plan with your leaders, and even if they don’t support you, execute your plan.  But a more likely outcome is your leader will see your effort and begin to invest more into your growth.

Evaluation.  Team members need to know how they're doing.  They need to know what’s working, what’s not working, and what could be changed.  Teams with healthy cultures build this into their rhythm and it’s never weird to talk about performance.  If this is new to you, just recognize that it’s going to feel weird at first but as it becomes normal, it becomes better.

If you’re a team leader, conduct official evaluations at regular intervals.  If you’re on a team where this doesn’t happen, ask for it.  If you still can’t get it, do it for yourself and send the results up the food chain.

If you’re a Church Fuel member, you’ll find tons of evaluation forms in the Resource Library.  These can help you have honest and fruitful conversations about job performance.

Feedback.  Feedback is similar to evaluation, but it’s less formal.  It’s immediate.  It’s real-time.  When you give feedback, be careful not to say phrases like “I didn’t like…”. Because great leadership isn’t about imparting your preferences.  It’s about helping people be the most effective.

Ed Catmull, President of Pixar, wrote this in Creativity, Inc.: “Candor isn’t cruel. It does not destroy. On the contrary, any successful feedback system is built on empathy, on the idea that we are all in this together, that we understand your pain because we’ve experienced it ourselves.”

At Church Fuel, we often assign people a task to “make it better.”  Whether it’s an article or a webpage or a campaign, someone who is usually not highly involved is asked to provide “make it better” feedback.  It helps us produce collectively good work.


#7 – Micromanagement

Most people don’t like to be closely watched and tightly controlled.  They want to do their job with freedom.

Nearly every business article, book, and podcast warn against the dangers of micromanagement.

  • It’s annoying.
  • It’s not scalable.
  • It damages trust.
  • It leads to burnout.
  • It kills morale.

While some will chalk it to a personality trait or a leadership style (“he’s just a micromanager” or “she’s just a micromanager”), micromanagement is usually a sign of a dysfunctional culture.

It’s what leaders resort to when there’s poor communication, changing goals, poor development, and no clear outcome…all the things we’ve been talking about in this article.

Still, if you’re struggling to overcome this and want to make progress, there are things leaders and team members can do.

If you’re a leader, clarify outcomes and expectations on the front end.  If you’re a team member, push for even more clarity until you have NO questions about what is expected.

If you’re a leader, focus on developing, not managing.  If you can’t do it across the board, do it during certain time periods or with specific projects.

If you’re a team member, it’s time to over-communicate.  Tell your leader what you’re going to do, what you did do, and what happened as a result.  Do this before you’re asked.  It’s hard to micromanage someone who overcommunicates.

All parties should learn to write things down. It’s the old “plan the work then work the plan” principle. Processes, flow charts, checklists, and written project briefs really do make the difference.

Take the Next Step

Church teams are working harder than ever: serving, leading, pivoting, and trying to keep the church going. All this hard work makes people tired, and if you’re not careful and intentional, burnout comes next. You don’t want to come back with a jaded team with low morale.

The Tired Team: A Toolkit to Improve Staff Morale gives you and your team the coaching you need and the resources to make things better.


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