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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  • Maria E Unkovich says on

    I just started going to a very small church in my community but I have been in ministry for about 26 years. The senior pastor there seems very uncomfortable with me even though since the first day I began attending I have made myself available for almost all of their functions, I have offered my services as a volunteer to everything and have never stepped foot in that church without getting involved in some way. Yet, this pastor keeps a close eye on all that I do and now calls me every Tuesday trying to probe me for information about myself–even to the point of asking for the website of the International Prayer line ministry that I am a part of?

    I don’t know if I am over-reacting but when he asked if he could call me, he told me that felt that I needed a “covering.” But in the phone calls all he does is want to know what ministries I have been involved in even to the point of providing their website information… I feel scrutinized and that his phone calls are nothing more than a guise for probing in the hopes that he finds something to accuse me of? Am I wrong about this???

  • What am I to think about a pastor who requires i tithe church 20 percent and her personally 40 percent saying God will only release my earnings if I agree to this distribution… and I am a single mother of 3

    • It sounds like she is abusing her position as a pastor.
      The Bible teaches that “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.” 2 Corinthians 9:7
      You must decide what the Holy Spirit is leading you to give through prayer.

    • You need to run from this pastor. Send her/him to hell. Manipulation is staring you in the face if you allow it! Tell them to go and get a job like you have….open your eyes! You are being sucked out of everything, LEAVE WHILE YOU CAN.

    • Turn and run. The new testament requirement is not a tithe but an offering. These are wolves fleecing sheep: aka hired shepherds. Your primary ministry is to fit your children for heaven. That means you do all you can to give them a relationship with Elohim, Jesus and the Holy Spirt. They need to know and believe enough to make an informed decision based on their relationship with the Trinity when their decision time comes.

      Anyone adding a burden onto you is adding to scripture. This is a dangerous place for you and your children. Turn to Jesus and run. Keep your eyes on Jesus and walk.

  • Peter Maxwell says on

    It was sad to see so many people leave the church. particularly the young. Surprisingly, our church in Texas,, has reversed the trend and new members now attend practically every service! It’s incredible! They ought to make an effort to pick up some advice from the outstanding pastor who directs the ministry.

  • Peter Maxwell says on

    I totally agree that’s why I really did take some time to pick a good church like before coming back. It’s a church that truly cares for the community near me here that really is open to all in need of God’s grace and guidance.

  • Linda Harrelson says on

    We lost our pastor to family issues. The new one verbally accused me of being drunk the 1st time we met. I had depression and was told I needed to leave and find a church that wanted me because I wasn’t spiritual or holy enough for his church. I never had a chance to talk with the leadership just told I was no longer welcome. Id been a broke my heart and I was afraid to go to church for a long time. Rather than help me,I was told to leave, I wasn’t good enough.

  • Doreen Burgeson says on

    My boyfriend and I have belonged to a church for a number of years. The church’s Lead Pastor and his wife the Worship Team Pastor, left the church after 20+ years and moved to another community to follow what they felt God was wanting them to do. Therefore, the church has been going through a transition period for over a year now. We have had 2 interim pastors through this transition. The church seemed to be growing and prospering and it seemed everyone was coming together as a family. My boyfriend served as one of the Worship Team’s “soundman” as this was his professional career for 40 years. The main “soundman” receives a salary for overlooking the soundboard and the technical aspects for the Worship Team. This paid individual took a church member with disabilities and severe anger issues to be the “Tech Assistant”; however, this Tech Assistant will not take orders from anyone except this person who took him on. This paid individual often leaves for long periods of time to travel leaving my boyfriend in charge of the soundboard. Whenever my boyfriend tells the Tech Assistant to setup microphones, etc., which is the job of the Tech Assistant, this individual proceeds to argue with my boyfriend and then runs and calls the soundman/tech lead on the payroll to ask if he has to do what my boyfriend told him to do. Twice now when this has happened he challenges my boyfriend and yells at him telling him he isn’t his boss and doesn’t have to do what he says and calls him a “old man” and some curse words. I have been there both times as I do the media for the church as a volunteer and have clearly seen that the Tech Assistant started this toxic confrontation with my boyfriend. This last time, after I tried to defuse the situation and got the Tech Assistant to go downstairs, I went downstairs and asked for assistance from our interim lead pastor and the Administrative Assistant. After the Interim Lead Pastor spoke with my boyfriend and the Admin Assistant spoke with the Tech Assistant the service went on successfully. The next day my boyfriend got a text from the Worship Leader saying that he was being replaced as the soundman and the Associate Pastor’s son who has some knowledge of soundboards will be taking his place. To us it looks like the church leaders have taken the side of the Tech Assistant in spite of his toxic anger issues and the face he started these confrontations both times. We are both very involved in the church but are now feeling like we don’t want to be a part of this church. The part that hurts the most if that this group didn’t even talk with my boyfriend before making this decision which has hurt my boyfriend to the core. Is this proper actions of church leaders or is it a sign of toxic behavior. Thank you so much!

  • Jake May says on

    A few examples over dozen years as cook for Food Bank program at a Baptist church. The lead pastor and asst. pastor in charge of lunch program for the needy have most of the traits in your list.
    For eight years they OKed that a blasphemous (he said, “I don’t give a _____about God”). Every sentence is acuss word. He has threatened our patrons and even elderly volunteer — I had to physically intervene and head-locked him, not choking him out. He has pulled knife on patron, but ran away when patron accepted his challenge. He wrestled another kind elderly volunteer; I was not present. It seems he was thrown to the ground and was punched ineffectually in stomach.
    When I complained in emails (for record) they ignored. When I advised Food Bank they told me “We don’t do things like that.”
    The asst. pastor has never been wrong in all these years. Ppl have said in bible studies he gets hot under the collar if someone questions his teaching. One director of children’s ministry told him, Wow, you’re rude. I was there. Another has said the pastor gave stink eye to the back of someone.
    The homeless floor manager above has been seen in drug taking by three witnesses (relayed to me), including the volunteer who threw him to the ground. When he or pastor treat ppl rudely they laugh, Ha, they say I’m mean.
    The pastor “counsels” ppl but he is so unloving they leave.
    The floor manager has a certificate of baptism from lead pastor…it would be funny in other circumstances.
    Do you think these are rude ppl? They allow the floor manager the rule of roost (he lives at the church buildings) yet throw away personal books I leave in closet and other items. The volunteers cannot have shelf space in kitchen for personal items. Eg..I place personal can opener in cabinet because other cooking groups steal our tools. But the pastor or floor manager put them in drawers.
    21 volunteers have left but the asst pastor claims it was not because of the direct toxicity of floor manager…despite in most of these cases, they told me they left because of the floor manager.. and other cases I witnessed his shouting cussing to even elderly women.

    • Jake May says on

      Line 8 correction.
      Refers to the floor manager who is blasphemous and toxic to patrons and volunteers.

  • We are still suffering from a toxic pastor and it’s been almost a year now.
    The friends we had at the church are attacked if they associate with us.
    Thank you for this article. It helps

  • Rat poison is 99% good food and 1% poison! This is how the enemy masquerades his activities in all of us! But when it’s a church leader it becomes all the more dangerous. I pray for our church leaders that the conviction of the Holy Spirit reveals this 1% and gives them the power and strength to resist it! For there will be a great falling away before end times and we have seen a rapid decline over the last century. Apostasy is a terrible crime against God. Put on your armor, pray and remain in His word at all times.

  • Sabrina Gibson says on

    We have a Pastor that we are dealing with right now he passed all 14 signs of a toxic Pastor which he I causing division in the church

  • This is who my pastors are. Thank God I finally walked away and I am not trying to go back there anymore. I was traumatized in that church. I am not an hypocrite, I can’t stay in a place where I do not feel respected nor valued. They are destroying the body of Christ and not building it.

    • Jake May says on

      I cook for Food Bank program with a Baptist church….over dozen years. Lead and asst pastors allow toxic ‘floor Manager’s to bully ppl. I have physically intervened when he threatened an elderly volunteer, 81 y.o.
      But I still volunteer but don’t attend their worship services or bible studies.

  • Bradley Hitchcock says on

    I’ve experienced this more as I have grown older in knowledge of judgemental churches leaders… One of the indicators I find that reveal this. A apperance of material wealth also shows how much a leader would give time to one who has nothing ..
    James 2:1-10kjv

    You will know how much you will be helped by the vehicle they drive. You will not expect to be invited anywhere with a Pastor owning a 650 BMW Sports car and owns a sailboat that he spent on himself to sail around the world and what he would say to someone on disability as I am… Really hurts with this call that that is as this abuse supports…

    “If I lived on what you put in the collection plate Brad? I’d be homeless just like you!” Quote; Pastor Bob Buckley of the Toronto Downtown Vineyard while I was in hospital in Orillia, ON 2015..

    I since left the church with this said the damage it causes me to feel so inadequate I don’t want my life as anymore..

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