The Five Stages of Recovery When Toxic People Leave the Church

I have been working with church leaders for three decades on the issue of toxicity in the church. Toxic church members grieve the Holy Spirit with “bitterness, anger and wrath, shouting and slander” (Ephesians 4:30-31). They are gossipers, naysayers, bullies, and generally negative people. You can count on them to gossip, spread rumors, and disrupt the unity of the church.

They are the opposite of what God commanded of church members: “And be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another, just as God also forgave you in Christ” (Ephesians 4:32).

Pastors and other church leaders are often hesitant to deal with toxicity in the church. I get it. It’s just more conflict, confrontation, and possible loss of members.

But here is the hard reality: the congregation will not move forward with toxic church members.

I will save the discussion for later on how to deal with toxicity in the church. For now, let’s look at what happens in a church when toxic members leave. Essentially, for the church, it becomes short and mid-term pain for longer-term gain.

  1. Stage One: Exodus. The church will definitely lose members. After all, it has already lost the toxic members. And it is more common than not for the toxic members to have a following of other members. They will likely leave too. Some of the followers are toxic themselves; others simply have not heard the full story.
  2. Stage Two: Questioning. The majority of church members typically are unaware of the conflict and strife caused by toxic members. So, when there is a point of confrontation and exodus of members, the quiet majority doesn’t fully comprehend what is taking place. Some are dealing with shock and grief; others simply have questions.
  3. Stage Three: Lull. During this stage, the congregation continues to deal with the shock of the conflict and departure. The members begin to feel a new reality in the church, and it will take them a while to adjust to it. I sometimes call this stage “adjustment apathy.” The good news is this stage is most often short-term.
  4. Stage Four: Healing. The toxicity is gone. Relationships begin to heal. Trust grows. Church leaders and members now have greater emotional resources to focus on others and to focus on their community.
  5. Stage Five: Recovery. The good news about this stage is that the period of recovery is usually a time of great opportunity for the church. I worked with a pastor in a church where the attendance dropped from (in round numbers) 400 to 300 as the church moved into stage one. But, by the time the congregation reached stage five, attendance was over 500. While numbers are not the ultimate measure for church health, they were indicative of a greater focus on the Great Commission and the community the church served.

Toxic church members were present in first-century churches. They are still present in twenty-first century churches. They are painful realities for pastors and other church leaders. Such is the bad news.

But the good news is what takes place when toxicity leaves the church. After a painful initial reaction, congregations often rebound and are healthier than they have been for a long time.

Posted on July 30, 2018

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Thank you for sharing this. I am pastoring a church where a toxic pastor recently left. Do you think that the church goes through these stages on its own, or do they need to shepherded through them? Do you have any resources you would recommend for helping with the process?

  • Thanks for the article. Our Exodus began in Dec of 2016 and lasted for a year. So far in 2018, our church health is better, we don’t deal with gossip as much, but where we are hurting is in our income. Our giving is way down. The toxic people were good givers…

    Also, we never really addressed the exodus from the stage, would that stunt our regrowth? We have seen some new people come consistently, especially in the last couple months, but our numbers haven’t recovered fully.

    Are there good way to address the church family in situations of this or do you let it play out organically?

  • I would be interested to read your comments when those who leave are perceived as the “healthy ones” and those who remain are the “toxic minority” and the “unaware majority”? Would you list the same stages or would you change the number or description?

  • Jan Simerly says on

    Could you speak on the subject of toxic vs. holding to Biblical truth. In our culture I feel like an outsider many times at my church due to the progressive movement that has entered our congregation and the music ministry. I do not feel a passive attitude is appropriate in this case. But anyone who who speaks against their agenda is considered a bully and hater. Should we just leave? This is where we are struggling, leaving or staying. We cannot stay if this culture remains. But staying means a fight. Thank you!

  • Dana Brown says on

    I read many of these articles and agree with many of the sentiments. However, my experience with DOC churches (Christian Church Disciples of Christ) is that the possible solutions suggested don’t always apply to DOC churches. With the elders, the board, and the personnel committee, the mindset is “We were here long before you (pastor) came and we’ll be here long after you’re gone.” What I have observed is that the pastor is dispensable, whereas the toxic people have attended church with the elders, the board members, etc for years, sometimes decades. They attended school together. They work together. If anyone needs to leave, the church leaders will ultimately choose to let go of the pastor rather than lose the church member(s) and their giving.

    • Dana –

      This article is not about solutions; rather it is about the consequences of toxic departures. It is more descriptive than prescriptive.

      • I see. So, is there a descriptive article out there dealing with situations where the toxic people remain and force the pastor out?

  • I agree with what you said, but at the same time, I think we have to be careful about labeling people as “toxic”. Just because certain people rub you the wrong way doesn’t necessarily make them toxic. How do you tell the difference? That’s why I encourage all pastors and staff members to read “Antagonists in the Church” by Kenneth Haugk. He gives some good guidelines on how to tell the difference between genuine antagonists and well-meaning people who are just annoying.

    • Ken –

      The purpose of the article was not to label any specific people as toxic; rather it was meant to be a description of what happens when toxic people leave.

      • I understand that, and I agree with you as far as that goes. I just wanted to toss out a caveat to younger pastors. I’ve seen some of them who were too quick to label people as “toxic”.

      • Kathy Blackwell says on

        Interesting (?) way to promote your book, Kenneth Haugh.

      • Bob Myers says on

        Don’t know if “Ken” is the author. Let me add my endorsement to his very helpful and virtually timeless book. It was written in ’88 and totally rings true.

  • Candice says on

    Toxic church staff. They are the influencers with the greatest impact since they typically lack leadership skills as well. And the most difficult to terminate. Add a toxic pastor or one that is not a leader and the church is doomed.

    My experience with toxic staff tells me they are the reason many churches do not grow. Word travels.

  • Mark Lewis says on

    How long does it take to go from stage 1 to stage 5?

  • A very dangerous virus affecting the Body of Christ. The cure can be painful but is needed.

  • Thanks for lifting this subject. Toxic people create toxic environments which hinder growth, mission, and ministry. I have found that they purposefully position themselves as influencers which further disrupts congregations when they leave.

  • This is very true and I believe every church leader needs to read about this.
    I am encouraged not only to allow them leave but to know the after math impacts.

  • WOW…what an incredibly true article.

    I answered the call to pastor a toxic church in 2014. I knew there were problems. I had NO IDEA how many problem there really were.

    Those first 9 months were the most miserable I have ever had in ministry. In fact, I had made up my mind to leave the ministry…resign in a nasty ugly way and NEVER enter a Church ever again the rest of my life.

    Then God intervened.

    He gave me the strength and wisdom to “be strong and courageous”. He confirmed in me that I was doing the right things in leading HIS Church.

    Then an even took place that hastened the departure of the toxic people. They left. Their buddies followed them.

    We grieved.

    Almost three years later…we are healthier that we have been in years. The scars are barely visible. People tell me they feel loved and accepted.

    Dealing with toxicity is incredibly difficult.

    Neglecting toxicity will kill that local Church and it will destroy a pastor who attempts to go along to get along.

    Thank YOU for a great article!

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