Fourteen Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders

Most church leaders are godly and healthy. A toxic church leader, one that is figuratively poisonous to the organization, is rare. But it is that church leader who brings great harm to churches and other Christian organizations. And it is that leader that hurts the entire cause of Christ when word travels about such toxicity.

In my Monday post, I noted the traits of long-term, healthy pastors. I now travel to the opposite extreme and provide symptoms of the worst kind of church leaders, toxic church leaders.

  1. They rarely demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit. Paul notes those specific attributes in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. You won’t see them much in toxic leaders.
  2. They seek a minimalist structure of accountability. Indeed, if they could get away with it, they would operate in a totally autocratic fashion, with heavy, top down leadership.
  3. They expect behavior of others they don’t expect of themselves. “Do as I say, not as I do.”
  4. They see almost everyone else as inferior to themselves. You will hear them criticizing other leaders while building themselves up.
  5. They show favoritism. It is clear that they have a favored few while they marginalize the rest.
  6. They have frequent anger outbursts. This behavior takes place when they don’t get their way.
  7. They say one thing to some people, but different things to others. This is a soft way of saying they lie.
  8. They seek to dismiss or marginalize people before they attempt to develop them. People are means to their ends; they see them as projects, not God’s people who need mentoring and developing.
  9. They are manipulative. Their most common tactic is using partial truths to get their way.
  10. They lack transparency. Autocratic leaders are rarely transparent. If they get caught abusing their power, they may have to forfeit it.
  11. They do not allow for pushback or disagreement. When someone does disagree, he or she becomes the victim of the leader’s anger and marginalization.
  12. They surround themselves with sycophants. Their inner circle thus often includes close friends and family members, as well as a host of “yes people.”
  13. They communicate poorly. In essence, any clarity of communication would reveal their autocratic behavior, so they keep their communications unintelligible and obtuse.
  14. They are self-absorbed. In fact, they would unlikely see themselves in any of these symptoms.

Yes, toxic leaders are the distinct minority of Christian leaders. But they can do harm to the cause of Christ disproportionate to their numbers. And they can get away with their behavior for years because they often have a charismatic and charming personality. Charming like a snake.

Do you know of any toxic church leaders? Do these symptoms seem familiar?

photo credit: Daniel Y. Go via photopin cc

Posted on October 1, 2014

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  • Fed S Billones says on

    Church Answers:
    Hello Dr Rainer or anyone from your site and ministry: Church Answers –
    I am from a local but bigger urban Fundamental Baptist church in the central Philipines.
    Your counsel and help with us would be along this line: One of our Assistant Pastors has witnessed a tail-end discussion of 5 male pastoral members with the senior pastor heading the meeting about a plan to undermine three or us Trustees election in our Church. It was nothing less than a conspiracy we suspected later when this fact manifested when two were not elected and 1 barely made it to the Board. This assistant pastor who happened to be close to us was, after matters of this fact were hinted through the young peoples’ boasting overheard to do something of this “election campaign” in the afternoon of the election. One pastoral staff who had influence on these young people, and who latter we suspected were simply silenced to tell anything later.
    Following Matthew 18 , we wanted to have a personal audience with the senior pastor shortly, but he declined.
    Instead (on our suspicion that he would “buy time” for matters to finally reached the upper bodies) simply instructed to write our “complaint,” which we dutifully followed. We, double-roled as Deacons and Trustees, but inhibited ourselves from investigation by the Board of Deacons (as traditional as investigation body). The Deacons Board delayed by illness by head deacon. and so we elevated the matter to the Joint Board of Deacons and Trustees. We only had 2 sessions of this Jt Brd, and from then one were seen to simply denied fruther investigation and just recently just abruptly resolved to close the matter after not even a hapzard investigation of the senior pastor and his staff. In fact recently they forced a nonimation for the new set of officers and and we three were “nomitaned-out” of the voting process as an outright numbers game.
    So you see, it is not just a question of a senior and his staff whose sin/s are being blindly covered, it is now a deliberate set of officers who are obviously sinning by cover-up of conspiracy. There simply denial of the conspiracy case is the worldly interpretation of “witness” and not the procedural step where they themselves have been called to act as “witnesses” but who refused to do proper investigation of our detailed claims, which firstly the senior pastor has refused to face us with, and instead we would literally label him as “hiding under the skirt of a misguided board” and which board just simply obliged itself against our obvious oleadings for a just investigation.
    We plan to “tell it to the church” despite this set of officers plan perhaps to table the matter during our regular Church business meeting.
    WHAT WOULD WE THREE AND OUR WITNESS PASTOR DO? (This Associate Pastor as our witnessed the senior pastor refrained from preaching since last year on a lie that parents of the young people stumbled over him: A. .S.) This rather sounds desperate for an answer before this March Church business meeting.

  • Thanks, Thom for the list.
    From my first-hand experience and over four years, I found a few more traits: 1) ‘my way or the highway’ came from the pastor’s mouth (no teamwork); 2) mediocracy in quality: typos are okay in the church bulletin and DO NOT tell the person who did it; 3) terminated a Church singing group being equipped for choir singing and praise leaders for no reason. Subsequently. stopped choir singing as well. There were no discussions and at the pastor’s will. 4) Initiated a short-term mission on the pastor’s agenda we believe, there were no responses and it was terminated saying ‘lack of responses’ … the blame was always on the congregants for it looked good in the report. 5) no post mortem on any ministry work, just kept starting new ones to look good in the report with no mentioning of the results. 6) Discipleship training is not necessary just come and watch how the pastor works – cited this as the model in Jesus’ days.
    The results of a very weak Church Board? Who’s running the show?
    I have since ‘walk away’ from this church like Jesus did when he walked away from those who rejected His ministering or plotting against Him. Thank you for all your helpful articles for a layperson like me to know more about the health of churches, pastors and congregants.

  • Joan Samuels says on

    Thank you. I almost dated one that nearly destroyed me before it ever got serious

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