Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Five Marks of Complacency

  • Dr. James Emery White

    James Emery Whiteis the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and a former professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he…

  • Published Sep 18, 2013

One of the benefits of doing a fair amount of traveling and speaking is that you gain a sense of what plagues churches that aren’t experiencing the growth, or ministry effectiveness, they long for.  Whether hallway conversations, question and answer sessions, or dialogue with leaders and their teams over a meal, big themes become pretty clear.

For example, it’s clear to me that one of the most prevalent afflictions might be termed a church’s “culture of complacency.”  Complacency has to do with self-satisfaction, a sense of contentment regarding the state of things.

And it all starts with complacency in a leader.

Now, most leaders would say, “I am anything but complacent!”

I know.

That’s the problem.  No one thinks they are complacent.

So consider the following five signs that you might be more complacent than you think:

1.       Far Too Easily Satisfied.

When you are complacent, you are easily satisfied with incremental growth and minor achievements.  Such things can be heralded as “big wins” and seen as an affirmation of effectiveness, but it rings hollow when they are marginal at best.  If your big win of the year was new carpet in the vestibule, then your big win was,


Sorry, but that’s not much of a kingdom hill.

2.       Quick to Make Excuses.

When you are complacent, you are quick to offer all kinds of reasons about why you are not growing, why you cannot do anything new, why “that” wouldn’t work, why…you get the point.  Challenges are allowed to become obstacles, obstacles are allowed to become barriers, and barriers are allowed to become excuses.

It is all too easy to hide out behind such excuses as a reason for your acceptance of the status quo.

3.       Never Enough Time.

When you are complacent, there is the veneer of activity and busyness, but it is seldom strategic.  Yet the facade of meaningful activity becomes the means by which to excuse what could, and should, be done.

More often than not, your forty or more hours per week are spent doing what you enjoy, and what gives you the most strokes, but not necessarily what advances the church most strategically.  But, since time is being filled, it is easy to dismiss using it in other ways.  You tell yourself there simply isn’t enough of it.  Then you keep spending it the way you always have, and being where you’ve always been. 

Which, if you are complacent, is perfectly fine.

4.       No Longer Teachable.

When you are complacent, you resist being “pushed” or “challenged.”  In fact, you denounce such pushes or challenges, usually in the name of some superior sounding reason tied to trivial theology or denominational distinctive.

Even worse is when you reject new ideas based on your supposed “experience” or “knowledge” as a seasoned leader.

Translation?  Pride.

I’m not saying you don’t go to conferences or read books – you could be a book/conference “junkie” – this is about openness to rethinking where you are and how you’ve done things.  And even more, once you get a viable new approach or idea, having the tenacity to try it.

Too often there seems to be an undertone implying that trying something new is an admission of being “wrong” in the past.  So you don’t implement anything substantively new, and cling to the old ways to protect ego.

5.       Content with Early Success.

The final mark of complacency is when you have had a measure of success, and it is proving to be enough.  Perhaps you were a church plant, and you finally break the 200 barrier.  Or buy land.  Or build a building.  Maybe it’s when you finally go multi-staff, multi-service, or multi-site.

You can reach a certain level of success that pretty much fleshes out your initial vision.  What then?   More may be on the line than you have realized.  You’ve stopped dreaming, which means you’ve stopped pushing.

A year or so ago, I remember watching ESPN at the gym where I work out.  There was an interview with Mike Krzyzewski who was once again going to coach the men’s Olympic basketball team.

He was asked a lot of different questions, but the one that stood out to me was about LeBron James finally winning his first championship with Miami, and how he might compare to Michael Jordan.

Coach K said, and rightly so, that there was no comparing anyone to Michael.  But then he said that the real question is how finally winning a championship would affect LeBron.

Would it “quell a fire,” or “light a bonfire?”

Someone like James had craved a title for so long – now that he had it, would he hunger for more, or be satisfied and stop trying as hard as he did before?

Would it be a catalyst, or would it make him coast?

Far too many let the fires die.

Okay, confession time.

Over thirty years of ministry, I have had seasons of complacency.  I wrote easily of these five marks because I’ve manifested all five marks.  But each and every time, if and when the complacency was broken, it was for one reason.

Realizing it.

So have you been a bit complacent of late?

Maybe now you know.

And that’s a good thing.

James Emery White


Editor’s Note

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His newly released book is The Church in an Age of Crisis: 25 New Realities Facing Christianity (Baker Press). To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, log-on to www.churchandculture.org, where you can post your comments on this blog, view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.