The Elephant in the Sanctuary

The Common but Overlooked Problem of Founder’s Syndrome in Churches

· Organizational Development,Church Leadership

In 1997 I graduated from Gordon-Conwell Seminary with an MDiv., thrilled to be going back to my hometown to serve in the church I attended during my college years. During my time in seminary, the church experienced rapid growth, exploding from around a hundred people to 750 within the space of two years. With six staff members, two services on Sunday, and throngs of excited students, it had the charged atmosphere of a church that was “happening”; the buzz of an organization where God’s Spirit was at work. Yet barely five years later, I found myself disillusioned with ministry, bitter, burned-out, feeling used and so desperate to leave my position at the church that I resigned two weeks after my wife and I purchased our first house. With a wife and two young children to support, I had no job prospects and no desire to remain in the ministry and little experience or training to do anything else.

How had I gotten to this point? During my five years at the church I witnessed a level of interpersonal conflict and mismanagement verging on abuse that shocked me; all the more so because it involved Godly, committed and competent people. I witnessed the senior pastor go on sabbatical twice (first for three months, then for seven months), two youth pastors resign in quick succession, two associates resign (one camouflaging his resignation with a church plant), the church administrator fired, the elder board splinter with all but two resigning and several leaving the church, and my good friend, the senior pastor’s secretary, reduced to lying in a fetal position in an upstairs closet in a state of shock. I eventually resigned, my head in a whirl, battered, bruised and desperately trying to make sense of how it all could have gone so wrong.

God, in his mercy, provided a research job studying faith-based nonprofits. To my amazement, while researching non-profit management, I discovered the organizational train wreck I’d just crawled out from under was a common problem many nonprofits experience as they evolve and grow through a natural progression of stages; a problem that particularly afflicts founder-led organizations. I, and the church I served, were victims of what is known as “Founder’s Syndrome”.

What is Founder’s Syndrome?

Founders of churches, mission organizations or para-church organizations are often catalytic individuals with a charismatic personality and an almost uncanny ability to draw people to themselves. They inspire, excite and cause one’s pulse to pound by their amazing ability to describe God’s vision for a particular church, city or region. Big picture types and not very detail-oriented, they are driven by an all-consuming passion that makes them impatient with policies and procedures which they tend to see as getting in the way of God’s work. They often leave associates gasping for breath just trying to keep up with the intense pace of their life. Highly intuitive in their decision-making and with little temperament, or time, for collective decision-making, founders are apt to growl that they are leaders, not managers.

Such founders typically draw an ever-growing team of individuals around them. Attracted to their magnetic personality and clarity of vision, the team members initially act almost like a large family with everyone pitching in to do whatever needs to be done. Generalists, staff members usually wear multiple hats because they have to. These early days in the life of the organization can be heady and exhilarating. With explosive growth, the organization can double or triple in size in a year. It’s all that one can do just to keep up with what God’s doing and ride the wave of the Spirit.

What is often not recognized is that as an organization grows, it goes through specific stages. Some stages require a specific type of leadership. Founders, who tend to be highly entrepreneurial and suited for a small or young organization, often lack the temperament or the administrative skills necessary to continue to lead the organization as it grows into its next stage of development. The skill set and personal characteristics that worked so well for a staff of five are ill-suited for a staff of twelve. The organization has grown to the point where job descriptions, careful planning and policies and procedures are now vital for the organization to continue to effectively carry out its mission.

The incredible growth that the organization experiences under the founder’s leadership, often leads to a sense of infallibility on the part of the founder. He has been right so many times before, often in the face of severe opposition, that he has become supremely confident in his abilities. As a result, he becomes blind to his own potential limitations as a leader at the exact point when the organization has grown to a point where it requires an entirely different set of skills. But because he has invested so much of his time and effort in building the organization, and because so much of his identity and self-worth can be rooted in his position, he is many times unwilling or unable to recognize that he may need to step down for the good of the organization, or learn new skills to help him lead more effectively (more on this later).

Problems begin to emerge as the founder resists the need for planning, greater organization, and attention to details, and instead relies on the intuitive decision-making, “fly-by the seat of the pants” management that proved so effective during the early stages of the organization’s growth. Nobody knows who reports to whom. No serious attempts at long range planning take place. Instead, new initiatives are rolled out with great fanfare on an almost weekly basis. With no formal staff evaluations or formal hiring procedures, disastrous hiring decisions are made and problems with staff go unaddressed. Staff meetings meander aimlessly in circles, with the same agenda items appearing regularly every few months. The organization becomes ever more reactive as it begins to lurch from crisis to crisis. Over time, gradually exhausted by the constant turmoil, even the most committed staff members drop by the wayside.

The group most responsible for addressing this situation is the elder board. Unfortunately, because of characteristics unique to founder-led organizations, elders are often the last to know that any problem exists. During the early years of an organization, founders often select board members not only because they are godly but because they are personal friends and believe implicitly in the founder’s vision. In fact, during the early stages of an organization, little distinction exists between the founder and the organization; the success of the organization is inextricably linked to the success of the founder. Therefore, such boards see their role as that of supporting the founder but not providing ongoing feedback or evaluation of the founder’s performance.

While board members may pay lip service to the idea of mutual accountability, they do little more than rubber stamp the founder’s decisions. This is particularly true in churches where little team leadership exists and members speak reverently of the founder in apostolic terms. There is little notion of the New Testament’s model of team ministry where Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers work together to equip the saints to the work of the ministry and to build up the Body of Christ. Instead, the pastor reigns supreme like an Old Testament prophet or king. In fact, in the early stages of an organization’s development, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Founders typically need to act strongly and unilaterally in the early stages to set the DNA of the organization. The problems come if, as the organization grows, a transition is not made to a more team-centered approach.

Because the founder is not in any real way accountable to the board, he typically feels no need to keep the board informed of any difficulty being experienced among staff. Therefore, the board is often not aware of problems within the organization until staff members, stymied in their attempts to get the founder to address the problem, begin to come directly to the board with tales of office turmoil, mismanagement and strife. Or the board gradually becomes aware that there are difficulties as they watch staff members come and go and see the time at board meetings increasingly devoted to crisis management. Slowly they catch on to the fact that many of the problems are a result of shortcoming in the founder’s leadership. Typically, this takes a very long time, because, by this point in the organization’s history, the founder has achieved mythic proportions in the minds of the members of the board and the organization. The board begins to gently ask the founder to address the issues related to poor management. They may also suggest that he consider honing his leadership skills, find a mentor, or further his education. However, since the founder does not see himself as being accountable to anyone, believes himself infallible, and has no history of being formally evaluated by the board, these suggestions fall on deaf ears.

It is at this point all the pieces are in place for a major crisis. Such a crisis often takes the form of one of three possible scenarios:


In the first scenario, the board continues to make suggestions to the founder concerning ways he might improve his leadership. As their suggestions and feedback continue to fall on deaf ears, they then begin to gradually “turn up the volume”. Finally, frustrated by the founder’s inability to address organizational problems and convinced that the only way they will ever get the founders attention is if they “shout”, they schedule an emergency meeting with him. Sitting him down in a chair and, allowing their pent up frustration to boil over, they inform him that far from being the prophetic, amazingly gifted leader he believes himself to be, he is a lousy leader and major changes need to be made.

The founder is stunned. Here are his most fervent supporters and friends, suddenly, from his perspective, informing him in the most confrontational of ways that his leadership is seriously wanting. Unfortunately, at this point, it is a very natural next step for the pastor to assume that the board has been plotting behind his back all along and merely pretending to support him and that now they are instigating a coup and are trying to take “his” organization away. This can be the farthest thing from the minds of the board, but for many founders, it is too painful to their sense of self worth to think that they need to grow in the area of their leadership. It is much easier to demonize their boards and explain the situation away as a power struggle. Such a situation can often lead to church splits or the forced resignation of the founder.


In the second scenario, because the founder’s style of leadership is better suited for a smaller organization, it does not incorporate a true team approach to ministry. The result is that the founder works well over fifty hours a week. In essence, he attempts to lead a medium-size organization as though it were a much smaller organization. The result is that he finds himself overworked and in a state of perpetual stress as he frantically attempts to deal with one crisis after another. He often finds himself extremely depressed, emotionally detached from his work and feeling increasingly beleaguered. He becomes inaccessible to staff. During work hours, he retreats to the relative safety of his office, occasionally emerging briefly, only to disappear again. During the few hours each week when he is not working, he hunkers down at home limiting what little interaction he has with others to his spouse, family, and a few trusted friends. His home has become a bunker that affords protection against the outside world. Finally reaching a point where he can take it no longer, he announces with little or no warning to an often-stunned board,that he can’t continue. He needs an extended sabbatical. What makes the situation particularly difficult is that the founder plays such a central and controlling role in the life of the organization that it can’t function without him. There is no depth to the bench and only one real first-string player, the founder.


In the third scenario, when the leadership challenge is not addressed, the result is personal and organizational stagnation. The founder often retires while still in harness; he goes through the motions, and continues to rely on his mesmerizing charisma, but the passion is gone. It all begins to ring hollow for those who work closely with him. The organization simply plateaus and remains stuck, unable to grow to the next stage in its development. It can stay there for years while the founder continues to go through a cycle of work, burnout and sabbatical. I know one pastor who went on sabbatical three times in five years. Not only does such a situation put tremendous stress on the founder and his family, the collateral damage to staff and elders can be horrific. Over the years, board members and staff cycle in and out—serving faithfully for years and then, tiring of the relentless crises or inability to move ahead, they quietly resign and simply fade away. They typically leave the organization all together. This can happen with little or no realization on the part of many in the organization or congregation that anything is wrong. The tragedy is that the people who get hurt the most are the leaders: those who believed enough in the founder and his vision to invest blood, sweat and tears in the crusade.

What Can Be Done?

If you suspect that your organization or church may be suffering from Founder’s Syndrome, consider getting outside help. It can be very difficult when you are part of an organization to perceive what the real problems are: you’re too close to the situation and too personally involved to have the needed perspective. If you are part of a denomination or association that has officials with experience dealing with such situations, seek their assistance. If not, consider hiring a consultant. This is one time when the help of an outside consultant can be particularly valuable.

This does not mean that the founder must leave as the organization grows. Some founders possess the inclination and the ability to learn the new skills needed to lead the organization as it matures. Steven Jobs is the best example from the secular world of an entrepreneurial founder who was able to make just such a transition. Forced out at Apple in 1987 in part because of complaints concerning his management, he rejoined the company in 1996 and as CEO has overseen a resurgence of Apple’s fortune in recent years.

One study indicates that two factors increase the founder’s ability to learn the new skills necessary to lead his growing organization: the speed at which the organization is growing, and whether the founder has prior academic business training. The slower the growth of the organization, and the more prior business training he has, the greater the likelihood that he weathers the transition successfully.

One way that many churches increasingly handle the change in leadership style necessitated by organizational growth is by hiring an executive pastor to run the organization (lead the staff, strategic planning, etc.), while the senior pastor handles the preaching. This approach often fails to appreciate the power founders exert in an organization and the founder’s unwillingness at times to let go of the reins. Founders can derive so much of their self-worth and identity from being directly in charge that they have a difficult time handing over authority to an executive pastor. I know of one large missions organization that hired several deputy directors in succession with the goal of effecting a gradual transition in leadership where they would ultimately replace the long-time founder. Each resigned after only a brief period because of frustration over the founder’s inability to step back and let them wield any true authority in the organization.

If You’re a Founder

If you’re a founder, and recognize yourself in some of what has been described, follow Jesus’ example and take the time periodically to get away from the pressure cooker of day-to-day events and the incessant demands clamoring for your attention. Get away to the beach or the mountains for a week. Make sure you leave your cell phone, laptop and blackberry behind. Consider taking an extended sabbatical to fully recharge your batteries and gain perspective.

Look for someone, preferably in your geographic area, who leads a larger organization or church than yours: one with a proven track record of godly, effective ministry over the long haul. Ask him if he would meet with you on a regular basis and mentor you. Ask him if you can shadow him for a week, watching how he runs his staff meetings, spends his time, etc.

Take a class on leadership or business management: Local community colleges often offer courses on business development; universities offer continuing education degrees for working professionals; many seminaries offer courses online. Consider enrolling in a DMin. Program.

Try not to personalize things. If your board has been critical of your performance recently, and spoken out of anger or frustration, resist the urge to get defensive or to demonize them. Recognize that, like you, they have been under a lot of strain and that you are dealing with what is primarily an organizational issue, one that all growing organizations must eventually deal with. You’re still on the same team.

Realize that bigger is not necessarily better. We have a habit of judging the success of a CEO by the size of his organization or a pastor by the size of his church. This is unfortunate because, in the case of churches, it may encourage highly entrepreneurial church planters to stay in a situation too long. Organizational life cycle theory suggests that a more effective approach to church planting is to allow such individuals to plant and lead a church through its initial stages and then hand it off to someone whose skills are better suited for growing it to the next stage and who follows a team approach to ministry. The Apostle Paul practiced an approach similar to this, planting and leading his churches in the early stages of their life, then having a group of elders assume leadership after he moved on. In the long run, it may be a choice between having an entrepreneurial founder stay at one church fruitlessly trying to grow it to a point that, in his mind, equals “success”, or having him plant numerous smaller churches throughout an entire region.

It is easy for our self-worth to become dependent on our position as pastor. Our self-worth must be nourished primarily from walking daily, quietly and submissively before Jesus. Learn that contentment is to be found “now” in our daily relationship with Christ, not “when” we reach some organizational or ministry goal that signifies “we’ve arrived”.

If You’re a Board Member

If you are a board member, and suspect the founder you serve under may be struggling with Founder’s Syndrome, reaffirm your support and love for him. Assure him that you are not trying to get rid of him. Understand that long-term founders may find themselves in an organization they do not feel comfortable leading, but with few options for doing anything else. They may be nearing retirement, may not have continued to develop themselves professionally, and may lack educational credentials. In short, they are unhappy where they are, but unprepared to reenter the workplace or to retire. They need to be reassured that their years of service are not going to be overlooked and that they won’t be kicked to the curb. You are not trying to take away the organization they have spent blood, sweat and tears building.

Reaffirm your respect for him as a spiritual leader and a follower of Christ.

Former Senator George Mitchell points out that, “The higher one goes, the greater the capacity for self-delusion. The cardinal factor in competence is the ability to resist self-delusion.” In extreme cases, founders may have an image of themselves that is not rooted in current reality but instead, based upon past successes and “glory days”. The role of the board may be to lovingly and gently help the founder gain a more accurate self-assessment. This can be extremely painful and perhaps is best deferred to a counselor, but it is also a process that everyone must go through if he is to continue to grow as a leader.

If You’re a Staff Member

If you are a staff member serving a leader who may be struggling with Founder’s Syndrome, it can be frustrating and demoralizing. It can also be incredibly disillusioning when you find out that the leader you have learned or been taught to venerate has feet of clay.

If you perceive that the situation is not going to change, it is a good idea to begin getting your resume together with an eye to leaving quietly.

Be careful not to voice criticism of leadership. If you find yourself repeatedly unable to refrain from such criticism, it is a good indication that it is time to leave, immediately. This can be excruciatingly painful. You may even go through a grieving process. But the alternative is worse: that of staying too long and becoming embittered and burned out yourself. Resist the urge on your way out to vent your frustration publicly and burn bridges. Recognize that God is still in control and will continue to work out His plan for your life. Your calling is not linked irrevocably to any one person or organization.



I am convinced that Founder’s Syndrome contributes to much of the organizational stagnation, personal conflict and ineffectiveness that plague so many Christian organizations and churches.

Just in the space of two years alone, I witnessed a national Christian association (whose founder had appeared on the cover of Christianity Today that year), a large mission’s organization, and a local church of 700 suffer as a result of Founder’s Syndrome. In the case of the church, it grew from a small core to 700, then crashed, all within little more than a year.

Nevertheless, founders, with their ability to inspire us with their unquenchable faith, steely determination and contagious enthusiasm, are an incredible gift to the Church. They are the true trailblazers and catalysts that we desperately need. A basic understanding of organizational life cycles, an appreciation for the challenges unique to founder-led organizations, and an approach to leadership that values mutual accountability and promotes a team approach, can go a long way to ensuring we continue to enjoy founders’ many strengths while avoiding some of their shortcomings.

How about you? Have you ever experienced Founder's Syndrome in a church, or organization you worked for? Tell us about it in the comment section below.

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