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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  • Absolutely. I’ve seen it in the extreme a number of years ago by a pastor who ran his church like a cult. Anyone who didn’t toe the line and worship the ground he walked on, got turned into a Sunday night sermon.
    He accepted correction from no one.
    He believed in “positive peer pressure” (more like negative peer pressure) rather than giving the Holy Spirit room to work in peoples lives.
    People became so concerned with what he thought ,in order to stay on his good side, that they lost sight of the character of God and what God wants.

  • Pat Bonner says on

    My heart is breaking. Can anyone offer some advice? Our 200-year congregation which used to be such an important part of the community is dissolving due to low attendance. Funds for sale of the church and its contents are to be sold as directed by our constitution and by-laws with the money used to ensure perpetual care of a cemetary. My family and I were very active members of the church when I was growing up. My profession forced me to leave the community and this church for decades. Now retired, I have recently returned to the church just as it is closing.

    The declining and aging membership in recent years led this loving, service-oriented congregation to make some understandable decisions that unfortunately allowed one individual to serve as President of the church for many years. They chose to accept authoritarian control vs. rocking the boat. The recently retired Pastor appears to have been able to provide at least some balance in power during this period. But the consequences of this choice are now coming home to roost and I am struggling how to help. When the Pastor retired, the President stopped having Consistory Meetings and began steam-rolling the closing/sale of the church and it’s contents. There are red flags he has been negotiating and promised sale of the building as well as some contents (including our church Bible) to a neighboring church before our church has even gone to market. He has no concern that historical artifacts attached to the building might be destroyed.

    The Consistory is increasingly uncomfortable with the decisions made. Some of the actions being taken such as the failure of the Consistory to meet and excluding church leaders from property sale decisions are against the by-laws of the church. I have dared to calmly point this out. Not surprisingly, the President is lashing out at me and refusing to relinquish any of his control. Other leaders now realize they must reassert their authority but old habits are hard to break and no one wants to incur the wrath this would yield. One of the leaders the President seems to respect privately asked him to step back but he refused to follow this advice. If anything, he is becoming more autocratic. .I have finally convinced two officers of the church to talk to our Conference Pastor for advice, but I fear this will not be enough. I understand. They would have to call a meeting on their own. And quite honestly, if the President decides to attend and lead the meeting, how do they counter his ability to control the conversation? How do these leaders and our members take back control as we are morally, legally and financially required to do? It seems a little late to elect new leaders as should have been done last December.

  • I left in February 2023 as the COO for my old church. I’ve been struggling with my decision and how I left. I didn’t want to hurt the members of the church, so I left quietly. The truth is I just read your blog and I’m not struggling anymore. I was fighting God to stay and I’ve know for a long time I needed to leave.
    It’s 4:26 am, I literally was dreaming I was asking a friend for forgiveness. I didn’t listen to her over two years ago about the abuse she and her family had received from our pastor. I was a yes person, until I wasn’t. The first time to stood my ground and told the pastor he was doing wrong, was the moment he saw me as the problem.
    Stepping down was an easy decision, but I will always struggle with if leaving without telling the church was the right choice.

  • Wendy Hoeffner says on

    Hello, I am really struggling with some pastors like John McArther who are judging “Chuck Smith, Greg Laurie, and “The Jesus Revolution “ movie and that movement that brought thousands of young people to Christ..I even came across a nay-sayer Jordon Riley, who slammed Billy Graham and Chuck Smith. What is wrong with some of these pastors that they slam true people of God instead of just calling out “The word of faith movement” and the real wolves in sheep’s clothing? It is dividing the true body of Christ

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