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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  • I was shunned several years ago because my husband was in the throes of addiction and all that came with that. My brother is the pastor of the church I was shunned from. I, in turn, was cut off from my family. Ive been used as an example, from the pulpit. The members of the church are not allowed to even speak to me! What’s unique in my case is the fact I was written out of my Mom’s will. She was told my husband could steal my inheritance and that me getting anything was not God’s will and that it could bring a curse to future generations. My Pastor brother & other older brother tried to get her to believe I was involved in what my husband did. That was a flat out lie! My Mom’s funeral was the hardest day I’ve ever faced. I wasn’t spokento by my family or church members…I never felt that alone! I’m not the only one who has been affected. There’s a long list of people who are too afraid to speak because they hold a lot of power in our community. There are many who are told divorce their spouse, because they “aren’t walking in truth”. If you don’t divorce,, the smear campaigns turn to you…then you’re shunned. I know there’s nothing I can do, on my own, to stop it. My brother answers to no authority. He hasn’t had a covering for many years. That’s why he gets away with doing this. They had no faith in what GOD could do. If they did, none of this would’ve happened. I came out with what happened a few days ago. Since then I’ve had message after after message from others who have been shunned. They’ve started sending text messages out to members about a “very important service this Sunday. It stated they would not live stream it or make cds. Can’t get in trouble if there’s no proof! This is a tactic that’s been used for many years. This time…I have nothing to fear! prayers are with anyone who has been shunned. Tearing families apart is not God’s will. My heart is broken for mothers who can’t see their children or grandchildren. A mother has been fighting for over a year to get her children back! Only the One true God can heal the wounds caused by shunning. I’m putting my faith in Him. I found you because I’m currently going through this. Thank you!

    • Robert Martone says on

      Amen sister. Thank you so much for your testimony. I can relate to church and pastoral abuse. I was gaslighted by my former pastor, another member who was her secretary and my aunt a church member. Gaslighting is when they do things to you and make you believe it’s your fault….you literally question your own sanity. It gave me such a disdain for God and the church that I almost lost my faith….almost. I’m learning to forgive with the help of therapists and good friends who support me. It’s OK to see a therapist inspite of what church has to say. I’m living proof of tremendous growth that people have acknowledged is outwardly seen. Just reading your story is a blessing for me today. Thank you once again. You’re going to touch and help many people through your story, because this kind of stuff is more common than you think. God bless you and have a great day

  • My husband and I have been attending our church for 12 years. We were small group leaders and my husband was a elder. My husband stepped down from being an elder because our senior pastor displays favoritism to select people in the church. In addition I have a ministry that God has called me to to minister and disciple women who are in despair. The woman who was in despair and her husband are members of the church. Her husband of over 27 years is a narcissist. (insolent pride) He not only was verbally abusive, he threw a cell phone at her head and permanently dented her skull. He has physically abused her other times. Besides that he controlled her, as well as insisting that he sodomize her. Also to hurt her he would suggest that he take care of himself and for her to take care of herself sexually. He was arrested and put on a restraining order after he hit her head with the cell phone. He had to take anger management classes which didn’t help and she allowed him to come back home due to financial fear. Our elders got involved with this couple and put in writing that the wife needed to separate from the marriage for her own safety. They also indicated that her husband was mostly to blame for their marriage issues. They were both advised that they seek professional counseling of which she did and continues to receive. Her husband did not follow through with the elder recommendations. The daughter and her husband of this couple is favored by the pastor and his wife. And for some odd reason the daughter is in denial about how dysfunctional her dad was at home. She’s a daddy’s girl. Because I was involved with ministering to the abused wife, the husband targeted me as a scapegoat to his failed marriage and impending divorce. So gossip, divisiveness and lies were spread about me. He even managed to somehow manipulate his daughters into lying and gossiping about me. There was no biblical disciplinary action of care and correction with the husband from the elders. In addition the daughter sinned against me as well with her lies and gossip. My husband spoke to our pastor about meeting with the daughter and her husband lovingly and graciously following Matthew 18 with them. But our pastor didn’t want us to do the biblical thing until after her parent’s divorce.

    During the pandemic we had 2 beloved family members in assisted living and one beloved family member in a nursing home. We have lost two out of three of them. But their deaths weren’t due to COVID-19. We couldn’t for most of the time the pandemic was going on, see our loved ones. The loved one that still exists is in assisted living and although she received her Covid-19 vaccines, she is immunosuppressed and from our understanding as vulnerable as those who are in the unvaccinated population. We have tried to protect our loved one by taking precautions and only going out for essentials. I also have autoimmune disease issues and my immune system is weakened.

    My husband and I were in good standing in our church as of 2/2020. However without attending services and watching online services our standing with the church changed by 2/2021. My husband found out by an elder slipping up that gossip was received about both my husband and myself. And we know for a fact that lies were made about us. I have a bold personality and I am honest because I came from a very dysfunctional abusive home myself where my dad was a habitual liar. The allegations made against me by the elders hearing from people is that I am too blunt. Now mind you, nothing was ever said before all this and leadership did not offer to extend grace and come along beside me and lovingly help me. Instead my husband was told that I cannot serve as a small group leader due to my being blunt. I find it quite hypocritical that the elder who told my husband this, is blunt himself. And I’ve been hurt myself by other leaders in the church but never once gossiped about it. Instead I extended grace to them.

    I am deeply hurt by what has happened. When my husband asked about what people’s grievances were towards me, the elders were evasive. My husband asked why these women were not directed to follow Matthew 18 of if someone sins against you, that you should go to them alone. The one elder said, “because that portion of scripture isn’t applicable.” My husband asked why the elders received gossip against both of us. And the elder responded, “That it wasn’t gossip.”

    The messages we hear on Sundays are biblical and solid. Our concern is behind the scenes with our pastor/elders that some of these biblically based teachings are not being practiced.

    We desire repentance and reconciliation. We don’t want to leave the church God has called us to and to utilize our gifts as God has given to us for His glory. We pray for them and God’s church. We desire for us to become a healthy church again. However, we are willing to do whatever God wants us to do. God has certainly exposed the hypocrisy behind the scenes with our leaders. My husband is a man of integrity and that’s why he had to step down in his elder position. We believe our church leadership is deceived by the enemy and we are targets of Satan’s attacks. Is there anything at all we can do to try to bring glory to God in this messy situation? We are watching online services elsewhere to while we seek out what God desires for us. In the meantime we are both broken that we might have to leave because if there’s no repentance and reconciliation, and the hypocrisy continues God most certainly will place His judgment on His church. And sadly, we might have to leave with no resolution.

    Any biblical advice much appreciated. I have cried out to God and am repentant for my failures in His church.

  • Brittney says on

    I just wanted to share my story. I was safed at 21 years old and attended a local church for a while. Then a friend invited me to small church with like minded people and I found a lot of friends and support and stayed. I never liked the pastor, he told me my baptism wasn’t valid because I didn’t have classes and literally forced me to get baptized and first publicly to repent. I never enjoyed his sermons, they were really rough and angry even with lash outs but I thought as a new believer I didn’t understand something. Fast forward, I am married to this pastors son, we have children and I have been serving on the kids ministry for 4 years. We always wanted to leave the church but God never opened the doors and we were humble. Over the years my husband never had the desire to serve because he was scarred so much by his dad and how forceful he always was and controlling to the point where he even shows up for worship practice and controls which songs will be sang. Since we became family I have seen some very disturbing things. The pastor struggles with talking bad about people when they leave the church or randomly judging someone in front of us. He only treats you nice when we show up all the time and serve if we miss a couple of weeks for a reason he might not even say hi to me. He never displayed the fruit of the spirit and so as his wife which is my mother in law. I never received help or support from my mother in law even though she lives 10 min away, she comes to my house a few times a year and is always hesitant to take her grandkids. She barely works and is very young, I brushed it off for many years and tried so hard to earn their approval and support until we started to attend another local church. God started to open up our eyes to how aggressive our pastor is and how he demands us to serve and the church hasn’t grown in 10 years… there is maybe 30 members. God started to lead us out and it caused so much division, the pastor lashed out at my husband and threatened him with talks, called him names and drive away. I am so sad about all this, please pray for our family. It’s very difficult to leave a family church with a toxic leader.

  • Margaret M. says on

    Hello, can you help me. I have been attending an evangelical church for 4 years now , a small congregation of less than 100 people.. I left the Sunday service in tears and shaken and have been so dismayed about what happened. I have always supported the church with tithes 10% faithfully and offerings. I have helped in the kitchen too and offered to help at the church except for Sunday school class which is in the French language and I am more comfortable in English. I can understand 70% French I can speak basic simple conversations in French, but I did not feel led to be a Sunday school teacher in French. The services are in English and French. The pastor did a service last year on the need for Sunday school teachers and then approached me And asked me if I felt led, I honestly did not feel led , i have trouble with the French language and it makes me nervous, so I said no, but I offered to help in other areas like the kitchen or hospitality. Since then I have gotten the cold shoulder from some of the leaders who don’t initiate conversation with me anymore. this last Sunday the pastor preached a sermon on how it is our duty to serve the church and if we don’t participate more in serving the pastor and leaders have the authority to bind us and not forgive us our sins and we would not go to heaven. The pastor said we are deceivers, selfish, takers, and we hide and keep silent in the church , and we are fake christians .
    He said that working was no excuse for not helping more in the church. I truely believe that I am doing Gods service, I pray fervently, I give my own money to feed the poor. I visit the lonely. I work as a registered nurse and am a single parent. I was told that if a women wears pants in the church that we are trying Overtake the mans authority and want to look like a man. The only reason I wear slacks with a long and loose top is that I am overweight and dresses make me look bigger and make me look pregnant.
    I feel so hurt by this and am praying if I should leave. Is what he is doing right?

    • Danielle says on

      I think you should.. very aside from what you are saying here: a leader cannot preach something with anger. It always has to be done with love. A leader, has to be a good example unto others. A leader cares for, and others follow, or are under this covering. You need to be in a place where you can serve gladly, working for God, a place where you can grow, and have fellowship with others. In that, includes respect and love. We are all different, maybe belong to a different culture or hold different jobs, or are in a different age range. But we are all as one body, the church. His people. In regards to the pants, every church may be different-depending on their denomination. If you wear pants as scrubs, it’s not a sin, because you need to cover yourself from possible chemical spills. Sometimes you’re on the go, and wearing a scrubs skirt probably won’t be so helpful if there’s a case of an emergency when treating a patient. Some women who live in other colder states up north wear pants because it is a different climate. God made cold and hot weather. God is not going to condemn someone who wears pants because it’s cold. You are worthy to God. Yes YOU are. You should leave this church and find another church where you are loved and accepted, can serve with love and can spiritually grow. That’s, much more important.

      Matthew 15:1-9: Some Pharisees and teachers of religious law now arrived from Jerusalem to see Jesus. They asked him, 2 “Why do your disciples disobey our age-old tradition? For they ignore our tradition of ceremonial hand washing before they eat.”

      3 Jesus replied, “And why do you, by your traditions, violate the direct commandments of God? 4 For instance, God says, ‘Honor your father and mother,’[a] and ‘Anyone who speaks disrespectfully of father or mother must be put to death.’[b] 5 But you say it is all right for people to say to their parents, ‘Sorry, I can’t help you. For I have vowed to give to God what I would have given to you.’ 6 In this way, you say they don’t need to honor their parents.[c] And so you cancel the word of God for the sake of your own tradition. 7 You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

      8 ‘These people honor me with their lips,
      but their hearts are far from me.
      9 Their worship is a farce,
      for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’[d]”

      1 Samuel 16:7: But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

    • Melissa says on

      Dear Ms Margaret M.
      I was a Sunday School teacher for a few years many years ago when my children were young. I was asked and I obediently went forth into the unknown. Our church at that time didn’t have materials and I had to invent each Sunday’s lessons and I did it, somehow, remembering the lessons from when I was a child. I had never taught anything before, and I didn’t have more than a bad year of community college under my belt as far as academics.
      You have an education, praise the Lord! You have so much more than I had then to tackle one hour a week of classroom.
      Kids can be tough. But as a nurse, you have access to the knowledge of children’s behaviors and colleagues in the medical community who you can ask for advice of how to deal with the different behaviors in a loving nurturing way and be able to get through the lessons. You have got this covered!
      Since your are being shoved into it rather than led, I would say you are in a position to make some reasonable demands. One of those I would suggest be materials for the lessons. As a nurse it’s hard to think you will find time to prepare lessons by hand all the time. Maybe you will love to craft your own lesson on occasion, but having pre-printed materials is the best thing ever! In my time I didn’t have a computer or printer (printing still has costs). I had to prepare lessons by my hand and use the copier at church. I would also suggest you require to spend some time as an assistant to a teacher first. You may find immediately that it isn’t as intimidating at all as you think it is. You just need to know how to structure that one hour in way that keeps the children engaged.
      All teachers will tell you that you will end up paying for some part of that education out of your own pocket. You may have to pay for something, snacks or coloring crayons or something.
      You wouldn’t be the first teacher who is instructing in a language you are uncomfortable with, either. I’m praying for you. Since they are bilingual, I suspect they want a stronger representation of English in their school. Maybe it’s to encourage more attendance by English speaking persons? Who knows. But, let this be a blessing to you. I think you will find you need to do this as much as they need you to.
      As for the pants; if men won’t wear your pants, then they are a woman’s pants. Men didn’t wear pants when that was written. Their skirts were shorter than women’s! -Clothes. Don’t wear each other’s (culturally designated) clothes.
      And let them know their language about you was totally inappropriate! You’re not selfish or deceitful. Don’t take any more abuse. Open your mouth and correct them in Jesus’ love. They’re trying to guess who you are and they’re bad at it. You’ll just have to come out and tell them who you are.
      You have the chance to make a difference in each of those children’s lives.
      Oh, and be prepared to answer the Santa Claus question. If I had it to do over again, I think I would answer their question with a question: whether Santa’s real or not, who was it that sacrificed Himself for your sins? Then what is most important? They really want to know if you’re going to tell the truth. I would ask the pastor well ahead of time how to handle that one in a church approved way.
      God bless you and I’ll be praying for you (all of you), my sisters and brothers in Christ.

  • Yes I have experienced almost every one of these things in the church my family and I attend I am no longer a member there but continue attending because my husband believes it is the church for him, it has been a major problem for my husband and my relationship. I try to forgive the pastor for telling me one thing and telling my husband something different but it’s very hard to because of the fact that it is causing so much damage to our relationship my husband chooses to believe the pastor and acts as though I am evil for telling him I think that the pastor is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, my husband says I can’t prove that I am telling the truth because I don’t have any witnesses it’s very frustrating and upsetting. This has been a struggle for four years now and I am so sick of it the church is very legalistic and it drives me crazy because it puts so much stress on our family life.

  • Maria Siegel says on

    No i don’t think so God rather give man authority to lead according to the bible. First off God created Adam. Eve was his helper not his leader.

  • Can you answer this question for me: Is it the norm for any church leader to surround the church walls with pictures of themselves praising the Lord alongside pictures of Jesus? One day, I just couldn’t help but to look around the inside front view of the church that I attend and just happened to take note of all the painted pictures and/or photos of our leader, and then there is an image painted picture of Jesus located right in between the pictures of our leader on the right hand side. I’ve never really seen anything like this, so I was curious to what your thoughts are on this from a Spiritual point view. I really would appreciate it if you could respond back as soon as you can because I really need to know. Please and thank you Tom!

  • Thank you for this list of Symptoms of Toxic Church Leadership. After being very involved in my local church for over 10 years, I felt it was time to walk away. This list validates my feelings and concerns. It is a lonesome journey now, trying to find a new local church.

  • we have a man not actually a pastor in our church that is leading us , our pastor passed away last year he has been there 4 months , he does not have pastor credentials he is a music ministry man , this man has caused pain and division in the church with a recent event what do we do

  • 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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