5 Early Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Staff Member

Nothing hurts the progress of your church more than a staff member sliding into an unhealthy disposition. The greater the influence this person has, the greater the potential for negative impact.

It’s easy for an outsider to armchair quarterback on Monday morning saying, “Yup, I saw that coming.” But the truth is, that those of us in the heat of the game don’t always see it coming. If we did, we’d do something about it.

We all hire the best and brightest person possible. No one intentionally picks someone who lacks competence or selects a non-contributor with a poor attitude. So what happens? What changes?


There is a long list of possibilities for a good hire to go sideways. Here are a few examples:

  • There was no leadership development or coaching for the staff person.
  • The chemistry and culture was not a fit.
  • The staff member did not connect with or embrace the vision.
  • The staff member was struggling with unknown personal issues.
  • The staff member did not have the necessary competence or capacity.
  • Expectations were not made clear.
  • The staff member’s attitude went sour.

So what can we do about this? How can we get out in front and recognize the early warning signs of a good staff member starting to head in the wrong direction? The starting point is to know what to look for.

Here are 5 early warning signs:

1) They find problems faster than they find solutions.

Anyone can merely find problems, but there’s no reason to pay staff for that. The best staff find and implement solutions.

Good leaders do see things that aren’t working and need improvement. But they’re also motivated to deliver several solution-oriented options, and are capable of making it happen.

If a staff member consistently only identifies problems with a borderline critical spirit, this is a serious warning sign.

Challenge the staff member to always present two-three potential solutions for any problem they see, and be willing to help see accomplish the solution.

2) Their enthusiasm and joy starts to fade.

New staff members always start out pumped up, enthusiastic, and excited to make a great contribution. The best staff members continue in that same manner.

When a new staff member’s enthusiasm begins to wane, that’s an early warning sign. If their energy and interest seem to decline and they start showing up to work late and missing deadlines etc., don’t let it go.

If you catch this early, you may learn that something is going on at home, or expectations need to be cleared up. Maybe they experienced an early conflict on staff and being new, didn’t want to say anything. You may be able to turn this around fairly easily.

3) They complain more than they contribute.

When a staff member starts complaining more than making a productive contribution, this can quickly become a toxic influence on your team.

I’m often surprised at how long senior staff will accept this behavior and allow it to continue.

Communicate the importance and expectation of communicating with a positive bias. This does not mean they can’t express their opinions or disagree, but it needs to be done in a constructive manner along with an equal or greater contribution to the church’s overall progress.

4) They become disconnected or withdrawn.

This behavior manifests itself in a way that demonstrates: “I’ll just stay in my area, do my job and keep quiet about everything else.” That is not healthy and never works for very long. That person’s discontent will soon leak.

This warning sign is potentially one of the most dangerous because it’s a stealth form of passive aggressive behavior. They are not the squeaky wheel or more overt malcontent, so by the time you figure this out, it can be a serious problem.

Even though this sign can be dangerous, it’s also, ironically, one of the easier ones to get a positive breakthrough. It’s common in this situation for the staff member to feel undervalued or underutilized. Have an honest conversation and ask them what they’re thinking and feeling. Tell them you can see that something’s up, and they’re not the same. Ask how you can help. This may be all that’s necessary to begin a path back to being a healthy and productive team member.

5) Once they’ve had a disagreement and discussed it in a mature way, they can’t let it go.

Conflict on staff is normal, and can be not only healthy, but also productive if the team knows how to resolve conflict.

It’s an early warning sign if after a good conversation where disagreement took place and resolution was achieved, the staff member just can’t seem to let it go. It’s almost as if being right is better than moving forward.

A combative or argumentative staff member, no matter how talented they are, isn’t going to last long. Be candid with them, help them see what could be a blind spot. In my experience, this is often not so much about a difficult staff member, but something of passion within them. Help them see a different and more productive way to channel their passion regarding a particular principle, program or decision.

In all five of these early warning signs, you are looking for a pattern, not a one-time kind of behavior.

We’re all human and go through tough times. Don’t try to “catch” staff doing something wrong, but be discerning about a developing pattern of behavior that can lead to serious problems.

Discerning these signs early allows you a much greater chance of keeping that great staff member you hired. It’s always discouraging when it doesn’t work out, but hopefully a few of these thoughts will help prevent that.

9 thoughts on “5 Early Warning Signs of an Unhealthy Staff Member”

  1. I think there is a danger in this, however. When a church hears tons of ideas (problems) from an employee…who has plenty of ways to help fix them (solutions) but the church is set in its ways and refuses to change anything. Then, I’ll guarantee you that the employee will end up becoming withdrawn…because he or she will feel like his value and input isn’t worth anything and the rest of his team won’t make needed changes anyway.

    Dan, I’ve always respected your words…and I respect this article…but I’ve witnessed a situation firsthand that a church staff has turned its back on a good pastor – and would easily read this article and think “see – the problem is that we hired an unhealthy pastor” instead of ever bothering to look at the unhealthy environment they created for him to work in that never welcomed him to begin with.

    1. David, I appreciate your comments. And you are right, this does happen. We can all hope and pray that these stories are rare. Candidly, any church like you are describing, that would back the bus over a staff member without considering their contribution to the situation, has significant problems to solve. As I mentioned, no one intentionally hires a poor performer or someone with a poor attitude. So if the new staff person changed, why did they change? That’s an important question. Sometimes it is the staff member, and sometimes, to your point, it’s the church. I pray each church would own their part in the process. Then, when it is the staff member, the church is in a healthy place to help coach the person back to a more healthy disposition.

  2. But what if you’re working for an insecure, wildly unpredictable leader who views differences of opinion as not being on board with the vision? What if the “unhealthy disposition” is at the top?

  3. Excellent post Dan. I think number 1 is so accurate. Finding problems and sharing them with a slight critical edge can sometimes sound insightful and even helpful but is often cover for deeper discontent.


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