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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  • Dr Rainer, what do you do if the toxic member is the pastors family and he contributes their behavior to personality? Essentially refusing to see they are in sin….instances would be the family gossiping about church members and information that has been shared with them in private with other church members, over correcting young believers in front of a class or group of people, and calling members stupid….being dismissive when in authority….and also, continuing to place those family members in leadership roles w/n the church

  • Anonymous says on

    This isn’t my poem. I discovered it by a person simply named Oscar as a comment under an article about Diane Langberg. She is a Christian psychologist who addresses things like abuse in church and how it happens and how people react and most often times fail to protect the sheep and victims. She talks about power dynamics and how we make moral compromises by focusing on the demands of ministry rather than following Christ first. We can only have ine master. One of the blind siding seducers to taking us away from following God is the church, how easily we make it an idle. How easily we ignore the cries of the suffering which are the voices of God because we have “important ministry” work to do. People punch others in the face and then cry about their hand hurting and who gets medical attention? Not the person’s actually punched but the ones who cry their hand hurts. And even worse, the punched person is encouraged to sweep things under the rug and be quiet. People in guilt seek innocence and want light and redemption and truth is more important than honor. What God thinks is most important. People in shame seek honor and want things hidden, they fear light, sin is more bearable than being exposed. What other people think matters most.

    And one voice said to the Pastor
    “There is a wolf amongst your sheep
    I implore you to look at the fangs
    Underneath the skin he does keep”

    The Pastor dismissed the voice
    For the coffers were sore of need
    And the wolf in sheeps clothing
    Did the call for funds so often heed

    The Pastor preached forgiveness
    And the sheep grazed on his word
    For they were never warned
    Till the teeth they felt and heard

    Then the Pastor noticed a little lamb
    He called his very own
    Did not come home one day
    For he had reaped what he had sown

    He buried his little lamb
    With tears of awful grief
    And sought the solace of the flock
    To give his pain relief

    But his call went unheeded
    When he asked all to join him in holy prayer
    For apart from the wolf in sheep’s clothing
    There was nobody there!

  • Speaking as one who’s life was devastated by a few toxic people, it sounds like most of the comments are misidentifying “toxic people”. Disagreeing with someone, even the Pastor, does not make one toxic. Not wanting change to take place in the church, doesn’t make one toxic. Neither does wanting change. One slips into toxicity when one seeks out allies to either battle with or for them. When one finds themselves using gossip, deception, or out and out lies to convince others their view point is the correct one – that’s the point one slips into toxicity.
    Also, this article is about the stages of a church when it those types of members leave. I didn’t see anywhere he stated such members should be expelled/excommunicated. In my limited experience when you begin to call sin – sin, those who choose to, will repent and stay, but most don’t like being told what they are doing is actually sin, so they leave. Yet there are other orders we were given, one of those being hold one another accountable. So every church has to (it is a Biblical MUST), identify and deal with sin within its congregation, in a loving yet firm way.

  • Bill Whitehead says on

    There is a process in surgery call “cauterizing”. This is a process whereby the surgeon applies either extreme heat or cold to seal off damaged tissue, veins or arteries. It has some painful after affects for the body but, because of Gods’ Creative talents, the body begins the healing process, often by-passing the cauterized area, and forms new tissue, veins or arteries. I use this analogy referencing Paul’s alluding to the church being the body of Christ. The church I am in has some of those toxic members and, while I would like to see them change, it would be best for them to move on as I know we can overcome their loss and have less hindrances in reaching out to our community at large and those members within the church as well.
    I enjoy your books and look forward to further discussions on this topic!


  • Towanda says on

    Thank you Mr. Rainer for this wonderful article addressing recovery stages when toxic people leave the church.
    I have experienced this several times in 5 years with a newly established church.
    The first time the voice of God resonated in my spirit “Let him go!”. I could have jumped out of my skin. This man had previously pastored a church, would not follow instructions at our church and had a tendency to argue with an usher while entering the church doors.
    Through much prayer in fasting I was shown a vision of disobedient, rebellious members going their own way falling into a river. They would not listen to God’s word. A leader who was closest to me was revealed as toxic to our church. It was very hurtful because I confided in her more than anyone.
    The very last couple who was toxic I was able to “love” them out the doors. They had lied to me and the church, accused us and our neighboring church of teaching false doctrine, and of course, brought people and influenced them to not return.
    I was wounded because so much of my personal time was spent grooming them.
    Through prayer and fasting God will show you what to do. Again thank you for this valuable information.

  • Great article. Getting some kickback from toxic members about revising church covenant. After being the pastor of the church for ten years I have questioned if this is a hill I need to die on.
    Thanks for the input.
    Also , I had to unsubscribe due to going into a closed country on mission trip. Now I can’t get back on your email list. Can you help me out. Thanks.

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