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 a previous 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?

Posted on October 1, 2014

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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  • Interestingly, your list seems to be true not only of church leaders, but of public figure- heads in politics and heads of state. This is actually a good description of the traits I see in our current president, among others.
    Fortunately, as you have said, the majority of preachers and church leaders in America do not fall into this category. But those poisonous preachers and false teachers that do lead congregations in our country (as well as throughout the world) end up spreading their venom to others through their followers which tend to be pretty effective in their witnessing. I am referring especially to cults and counterfeit religions like JDS, JW, Scientology, etc. Apparently things haven’t changed very much in this regard from the way things were in the early church from the time of pentecost and the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul written in the book of Acts. I believe that that’s why our nation is in the mess we are in. Praise God who will surely preserve His true ministers and disciples despite the strife and opposition which surrounds us.

    • You sound very judgmental. My guess is that you voted for a man who supports closing churches and post-term abortion. I vote based on biblical values as policies rather than personality or platitudes. Perhaps keep your low opinion of public figures who serve as “inside thoughts” and pray that God will help you see the good in people who are not like you.

  • I came searching for such evidence. They make you feel like you are the problem. I am glad God saved me from a toxic church environment and I won’t stay in anyone once I find these traits.
    May we know the loving God and not be deceived anymore.

  • Thank you for your post
    We have one in our church our pastor
    How can we deal with him? Do we accept that that is how he is and let it be? I have tried to confront him but that has led no where as he has the support of the other 2 elders and we are only 3 elders so at the moment I have become a thorn in their sight
    I will appreciate your help

  • Rachel Aparicio says on

    In our church we rotate on Sundays who is going to take temperatures for that Sunday service .,. On Three different times a male member has given me attitude I think he doesn’t like having his temperature taken., I brought it to my pastors attention one day we had a meeting and things this individual has said to me , also another member confirm she overheard this individual spoke to me.. So my husband and I had a separate meeting with are pastor to ask him if he was going to address this individual about his behavior. My husband and I sense that he is uncomfortable addressing/or avoiding conflicts.. This individual has sexually harassed another member my pastor said he will address that.. What is wrong with this picture

  • My pastor had all the books in our library thrown out. Without any mention to the body as to why. I think it was some sort of way to confirm himself as total supreme leader. Any thoughts?

  • My priest is rude and favors certain people and not others. I was relying on him too much and I could tell that he was annoyed. I cry everytime I go to that church and he knows that I’m going through depression and a job loss. He tells me not to be too chatty but he doesn’t say it to the lady who works for him. He looks down on me because I’m not as prominent as some in our church. He never says that he’ll pray for me and he knows that I’m going through a tough time. I just cry because he constantly picks on me.

  • I think this also applys to presidents of the USA, and any officer that has the ability to make or break laws and rules. Without guidance, we are a lost generation and nation. Even if a person is not a strict Christian, they have to abide by the laws of the land. How can a nation be a Christian nation without God ruling? How can America be THE LAND OF THE FREE? Even if a person does not believe in God, they believe in a Nation and how can you believe in anything without a base to follow? If a leader makes rules that are against the laws being past, then they need to find another job! I think we need to go back to the “God bless America” and mean it! Then if everybody followed that, we would have peace for a change. How hard is it to obey the laws of the land? How much trouble is it to put criminals in jail? GOD BLESS AMERICA!!!!!!

    • Stacey Frye says on

      Following the laws of the land is ok until the contradict God’s Word and maybe all the negative thought on politics should just go to pray for them ALL!!!

  • This reading was such an eye opener. My ex husband who is a pastor exhibits 12 out of 14 of these behaviors. Some of these are similar to narcissistic behavior. Thank you for this article. It explains why he is the way he is. I am grieved for the members in his church, who allowed so much of the dysfunction and ungodliness to rule in the house.

    • I seem to be a member of a toxic church. You are right – the members allow this sort of behavior. Well, in our church I spoke up many times. Our pastor will give you a hard time when you dare not to agree with him or question him. All elders and co pastors are afraid of him (and even say so) – they would never back you up when you are the victim of the pastors angers.
      So where’s the point of speaking up? No one is going to defend me anyway.

  • Roy Henderson says on

    Too many Pastors of small, even micro churches, talk and act like they alone carry all the gifts of the Spirit. And that they have accomplished this status all by themselves! They forget, or perhaps fail to learn, that God is the head of the church, which makes them the heads of failure, and often of a Pharisee spirit. John wrote in Rev. 11:1 what he was told we should do: measure the temple, and those that worship therein. Not to judge them, but to see if they are living according to the Word! And I say if they refuse to hear the Truth, turn from them to another sanctuary in Christ.

  • I was seemed to be loved by my pastor when I was young. I stopped going as a young adult, but returned in my late 40’s. He ignored me. Wouldn’t shake my hand at the door or let me hug him when services were over. He was no longer friendly or seemed to want any part of me. I never knew what I did to make him feel that way.

    • Omedeen Allen-Linton says on

      Hi I’m Minister and I’m from Jamaica my complain is that I just left a toxic church last week year started a new one of that same year with the same position,now to find out that my leader is as controlling as the first.

  • I was under a toxic leader for years and I almost lost my sanity and my life. However, when I became an adult and strong enough to break “soul ties” – I left, ran for my life, right into another toxic church, landed in a hospital, immediately left there and then married a pastor of a small church, thought I would help him to build God’s church, in three years – it never grew pass “5” members, a small shed in his back yard, it turned out to be a “cult.” That first pastor died, the second one lost his mind and the third one is dying. “THE LORD IS MY SHEPHERD.”

    • Faith, so sorry to hear your story. Know the grace of God. Maybe just watch some churches online for awhile to be safe.

    • Wow! some of that sounds like what i went through as a first lady in the church. It was the grace of God that kept my mind!!

    • Good grief Faith. I hope I don’t sound judgmental but do you think something is seriously deficient in your spiritual relationship with God, Jesus, and the holy spirit? You should ask yourself why are you attracted to these terrible churches and pastors and ask God to give you discernment to recognize bad churches and pastors so you don’t have to go through these messes. I watch documentaries about cults and the cult leader is always a terrible and demonic man or woman. I am interested in the poor souls that follow these monsters and why they are lured into madness and often pay a terrible price. I say these things because I have been attracted to terrible fake friends, bad relationships, toxic family members and all of that. i know the people were awful, but I realize something is/was very wrong with me to be attracted to these people. I am still working on that. Let’s work on it together.

      • That sure sound like victim blaming. That’s not what a survivor’s of such toxic abuse need. At least this woman faith escaped from these situations. I am sure she know that God will guide her through any desert of toxic people if she cling to him.

  • Joyce Hatch says on

    Hello Thom, Thanks for addressing this tough subject. If we feel like our Pastor is toxic in most of your points, what would be your advise concerning confronting him with the points as opposed to not confronting him and leaving quietly.
    Second question, what do you say to people who want to know why you are leaving?

    Thanks, Joyce

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