The other day I was talking with a friend who had just recently resigned their position at the church where they served for a number of years. Seems that the leadership culture had soured to the point that it just became impossible for them to stay in their ministry position with the church.
In the process of leaving, they ended up sharing, in great detail, the leadership failings at the church on the part of the pastor and the overall moral decline in the leadership culture with a handful of their closest friends (lay people) that served along side them in ministry. While most of the friends actually believed what they were hearing about the pastor and leadership was indeed true, they decided to remain at the church.
Having spent the last 28 years in a handful of churches as a pastor (and as a lay person), I myself have witnessed this phenomenon time and time again. I’m sure there are several reasons why this occurs, but it does make one ask the question: Why do people continue to serve and support such an organization that they know is making poor decisions? Are they not loyal to their friends who have left? Are they turning a blind eye to the poor leadership? What gives? Again, while there is not a single simple explanation, here is what I shared with my friend to try and make sense of it all.
Organizational Development Behaviorists have a theory they call the Psychology of Sunk Cost. This is an irrational behavior manifested in a tendency to continue with an organization (or situation) once a significant investment in money, effort, or time has been made. In essence, most people don’t leave because their poor and costly investment of time, money, and emotions is motivating their present decision to stay, despite the fact that it objectively should not.
Restated; most (not all) people can’t bring themselves to leave a bad church when they consider the amount of hours they have invested in volunteering in ministry, money they have given to the church over the years, or emotional expenditures on relationships and community that now seem like a poor investment.
Think about these real world examples:
- Should I continue this unhappy relationship with my fiancé? I have already put so much into it.
- Should I continue with this terrible job? I spent a year in training to get this position.
- Should I stay and watch this horrible movie? After all I did pay $10 for the ticket and another $10 for a coke and popcorn.
A sunk cost is an expense that you cannot recover so we linger until the bitter end. Most people often feel that they have have too much invested to quit, or just feel trapped. Most psychologists agree however, that this opportunity for loss should have no effect or bearing on the current situation. But it does.
So, why is that? Why can most people in the church not bring themselves to separate from the organization?
I believe it’s because most of us have an understanding of and a yearning for hope and it’s hard for us to not account for it in any given situation. Every situation or circumstance can be redeemed – including our church that is not meeting our expectations.
Hope promotes the belief in a positive outcome. And while all hope should not be lost, ultimately it’s this hope that “things will get better – I just know they will” that keeps most people from leaving a bad church.
Should we always leave when the going gets tough or things don’t go our way? Absolutely not. More times than not we should stay and hope. But sometimes we should when there are spiritual, ethical, or moral failings amongst the leadership.
So here’s to never giving up on hope, but also not allowing “sunk cost” to keep us from making the right decision in our present circumstances.