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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  • Gadasu Samuel says on

    I believe that toxic members leave ministries for another with the baggage. How churches admit new members must be reconsidered.
    Can the new church investigate from the previous church?

  • Gadasu Samuel says on

    Most pastors over the years have become intolerant of toxic members and symptoms of toxicity because of the effects it has on the church.

  • Interesting article and comments.
    What about the situation where the pastor and/or church leaders are the reason for the toxic environment that caused some of the people to leave. These people leave the church broken.

  • This is an excellent article about people who are and /or become toxic in their minds and hearts. We have lived such an experience in our church, but without a doubt, I (as a pastor) I have grown a lot, learned a lot, discovered a lot about people, about myself, and about the God I served, my Lord and savior Jesus Christ. Yes, I learned that God has made me stronger than what I ever thought I would be; that he fights my battles, and that at the end, I have to stand firm. Yes, I also learned that many of those great givers for some reason, they thought they got themselves the right to do and change things as they wanted to. Yes, I learned that I need to learn to trust & depend more in God as my supplier and not to depend on those givers, since people change, but our God doesn’t. I learned that the gospel is not for sale, and those people expected me to let my guard down, to change the teaching & the preaching of the gospel, to please them. I learned that I have to stand firm, preaching the gospel straight, and even thou people were leaving, new souls were being save and changed by God’s love; something those people never saw, and never considered, they only wanted me to do their wishes, and not God’s will. At the end, even thou, it hurts to see people leave, people who one day promised their pledge to God, to HIS church and yes, even to our ministry, they ended up hurting his church, hurting my family, and not caring for other, but for themselves. Without a doubt, I have become stronger & wiser at the end. We are in the process of healing right now, happier, stronger, healthier in our church. Thank you and God bless you.

  • Marjorie Chappel says on

    This article was very helpful. It is good to know that other churches experience toxic leaders and members. Recovery is possible. It is God’s church. We are in the business of saving souls. We must show love. The pastor is our appointed spiritual leader. He/She must obey the Bible and the doctrine of the denomination. Thanks for sharing.

  • Terry Snapp says on

    As I read it Thom is not labeling anyone as being toxic nor is he recommending that anyone else label someone. He is merely pointing out what to expect when toxic people do leave. Thanks for an eye opening article.

  • Margaret Reed says on

    Wow! Very accurate…We are currently going through, I’d say the end of stage 2 or perhaps into stage 3. We still have a number of negative folks will never leave and continue to use our pastor as a scapegoat. They are seen by the majority of the church as “pillars” and are revered by most. We have called in our reconciliation team to assist us with healing…

  • Bob Myers says on

    The Apostle Paul had more than his share of “toxic” people and they wore on him. This isn’t just personality conflict or a power struggle. It may be all of that. But more, it is definitely spiritual warfare and the kind that Satan is a master at manipulating. Many a pastor and his family have been nearly destroyed by toxic people in the church while the gates of hell roar with glee.

    Put on the full armor of God and immerse yourself along with (and this is critical) other prayer warriors at your side. I’ve been through the battle. I know. God desires that the church would thrive. Take it seriously and enlist his power through prayer.

  • Hi Thom, one of the stages you mentioned is “Questioning”. As a pastor what should you reveal about the situation and not reveal? If people are left with an impression that you or the church was in the wrong because of gossip shared by the “toxic” person, how much effort should you put out to clarify or even repudiate false narratives?

  • Who decides who is toxic?

    Is it for example the leader wanting to bring in major theological changes or the people who oppose him?

    Is it the musicians who want to change the genre or those that oppose it?

    Is it the people who built a church to do church a certain way and teach a certain thing or the one’s who want to takeover the building and run them out?

    I get suspicious anytime any group labels any other group as toxic.

    And really suspicious when the idea is “now we are finally rid of THEM” but oops things are still not hunky dory.

    Makes me think of motes and beams.

  • I would add that, in addition to the above, the church also benefits when professing Christians leave who over a period of months and years make clear that they want to do church casually and their attendance reflects that. They give little (if any) of their time, talents, resources, and finances. Loving appeals to give all for Jesus go largely unheeded. We’ve just finished such an exodus. Yes, we’ve gone down in number but I believe we are at a place now where God can truly grow us with those who have a genuine desire to sincerely commit all to Him and, in turn, the local church.

    • Greg Renggli says on

      I hate labels. Be careful with this. Hurting people hurt people and if they aren’t ready to own their issues, healthy boundaries while maintaining connection may be needed. That is Pastoral. I prefer toxic, repetitive behavior being systematically addressed before anyone is given up on. Labels are a convenient way to not roll up sleeves and do the messy work before choosing a long term season of removal and it shouldn’t just be hastily, unprayerfully applied.

  • Unfortunately, the toxic members are often the power players and the ones who give a lot of the offerings. In the small church. The other members often refuse to confront them, leaving the pastor on an island. They are unregenerate and stay in power until they die or leave. A pastor can confront a toxic person, but then you have a power player mad who may undermine you and get a group together to cause you trouble. It is complex. What troubles me is, most of the time in the small church, the good members stand quietly by and say absolutely nothing to the vultures as they gossip, are overly negative, and undermine the pastor. That is a shame. The New Testament says not to cause divisions in the church, but that is exactly what toxic people do. Often over a period of many years.

    • Sadly, I have witnessed this more times than I’d like to. The interpersonal relationships with people they’ve grown with usually take priority over the working relationship with the pastor or the needs of the church. A parishioner addressing the negative behavior can destroy that friendship which is usually rooted in multiple generations. A pastor addressing the negative behavior, in my experience, can lead to further conflict and the pastor being asked to resign or fired.