Fourteen Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders

October 1, 2014
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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

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187 Comments

  • I’ll bet anyone who has worked in ANY organization has experienced a toxic leader at some time or other. Sometimes just walking into the work arena one can detect that all is not well. And sometimes it takes a while to figure it out and then be so surprised that the charm and charisma of the toxic/dysfunctional person(s) actually veiled an unhealthy personal agenda. Being one who occasionally speaks out on various issues, I know it’s not easy to take up the cause and still remain a credible person overall. It would be interesting to read more opinions about how to effectively say, in essence, “the emperor has no clothes.”

  • What do you do when you encounter a leader in a Christian setting that has many or all of these traits? Do you distance yourself? Attempt to bring it to their attention? Or possibly call on other Christians together to confront the individual? Or something else?

    • It depends on whom the person is and your status. When people get old enough to make their own decisions, quite a few vote with their feet and leave.

  • Anonymous says on

    This post has created quite a buzz in our congregation as it speaks to the heart of our struggle. When I read this I felt immediately validated then a little disturbed. Validated because this is exactly what many of us have been saying about our pastor for years. Disturbed because either Thom has been spying on our church or there are actually lots of other church leaders out there like ours.

    Our church is at the end of a 4 year process of addressing this issue. Mercifully the end is in sight. Our pastor has agreed to leave by the end of the year. His supporters, though few, are very good people who have been taken advantage of because of their caring and tender hearts. In their eyes, the rest of us have been “abusive” to him. Hopefully time away from his influence will open their eyes to the truth. The rest of us are weary and battle-scarred. We are a very loving and grace-filled congregation which made us easy prey. We are filled with hope but unsure how to move forward.

    We would love some insight on how to heal from the lasting effects of a toxic leader.

    • Thom Rainer says on

      You and your church are in my prayers. Thanks for sharing. I hope to write the post you suggested after I do more research.

  • Hello Dr. Rainer.
    My name is Vianney Bitariho, from Burundi, Africa.
    I think this is one of the greatest posts you have ever made.
    Your post exactly fits the situation in most of our churches in Burundi.
    I wish most of pastors could read the post and desire to change.
    Again thank you for this Spirit-anointed post.

    Vianne

  • I see that most of the comments here are from the position that it is the Pastor that is the toxic individual in many cases.
    I have been in church most of my 63 years of life and have experienced several pastors along the way and evidently have been blessed in that none were in this toxic category.
    On the other hand, I have experienced two occasions where the elder leadership consisted of some very toxic individuals that wreaked havoc on the church flock and pastors.
    Several things that I have noticed is:

    * Congregations that have been feeding on the milk of the Word for years most likely also have elder leadership and pastors that have been on the same biblical diet, and when a new elder or pastor that comes on board, that have been feeding on the meat it can cause quite a clash within the congregation when spiritual shallowness collides with the meat of spiritual maturity. Especially if spiritual maturity discovers grossly inappropriate behavior that runs contrary to God’s Word that has been acceptable behavior due to tradition within this church. For example, blatant sin that is condemned in scripture that is allowed to exist within the congregation because Uncle Bob and his family have been members of this church since 1875 and they put a lot of money in the offering plate.

    * Secondly, the poor seminary student that invests four or more years of his life learning to be a minister of the Gospel and then finds himself and his family at the mercy of a group of church leaders that sometimes consist of toxic members that have the combined spiritual depth that could hardly fill a thimble. With this leadership dictating to the pastor what he will and will not preach and for heaven sakes keep your sermons safe and off of peoples toes. These kinds of toxic leaders make it nearly impossible for other elders of pastors to teach or preach the true word of Scripture.

    * The first two bullet points are indicators that Godly men of the word, if they are considering ministry at a church or seeking to be involved in elder leadership, it is imperative they ask many questions and spend at least as much time interviewing them as they interview you; and probably more so. Just because they may claim to be a church that follows God’s Word does not necessarily make it so.
    Don’t be so quick to jump into the eldership if asked. Attend for a few years first and talk to a lot of people. Talk to former pastors and elders. The same goes for a prospective pastor. Find out who the former ministers were and contact them.

    Test the waters and look for sign of the overall spiritual health and depth of the congregation as a whole and for that of the leadership. In the beginning a church may seem too good to be true, but after attending for a few years you may discover situations taking place that will curl your hair.

    The church I am now attending has an overall spiritual maturity level that is about on half inch thick. I have discovered this church has been on the milk of God’s word for many many years, has gone through many pastors and displays actions of anger and tantrums like a child who chokes on the meat of God’s Word whenever meat is presented; resulting in the pastor or elders being accused of singling out individuals in the church when they present the Word that convicts the soul.

    • God Bless your Hal for your wisdom, you have hit the nail on the head! Bravo!

    • Love the milk verses meat comment. Our pastor turned our words of not being nourished (what you speak of) into being upset because we said we “weren’t being fed!” Controlling manipulator for sure, talking about us to others and its trickling back to us. We found a new Church that is nourishing us, much spiritual growth that we were starving for! ????

  • Joe Somebody says on

    Thank you for this amazing post. I am new to church leadership, and I will be starting seminary within the year. I actually see many points on this list that apply to me.

    I appreciate this article. It has made me take a serious look at the way I operate and compose myself. I always want to improve myself, and few people have the guts to say these types of things directly to me. Thank you for making me a better, more aware leader!

  • Linda Rios says on

    May I recommend Paul Seger’s (president of Biblical Ministries Worldwide) book, “Chief: Leadership Lessons from a Tribe in Africa”. This is an excellent book on leadership grounded in Scripture and real life stories from a man with many years of experience in ministry. His book was very helpful and encouraging to us after enduring several years of a toxic leader.

  • Great stuff here. I also was recently in an environment in which our senior pastor exhibited each of these traits at various times during my time there. One year ago this month, he demanded the ouster of 2 of our 5 elders, and without a thought, the other 3 agreed with him. Less than 2 months later, I was out. What has followed is 60%+ turnover as people have fled a blatantly ungodly environment.

    The courage of true leaders is indeed what is needed to confront people like this. Paul warned against them throughout his writings, notably in the Pastoral Letters. Absent courage, all one can really do is leave.

    A few months ago, author Donald Miller wrote a thoughtful blog post entitled, “How to Spot a Manipulative Leader.” I believe that it’s worth a read.

  • Tim Nickels says on

    I really appreciate your blogs. I am a senior pastor of a church that has weathered a few serious storms, one of them from a former toxic leader. I always work hard to make sure that I carry the traits of a pastor according to the Scriptures…a shepherd. I read both this and the previous blog about longevity. I am currently finishing my 5th year as pastor (including a stint as the interim and two year appointment by our organization) and I must say it has been difficult, but also very rewarding. We are in a tough season right now because as you know being a long term pastor requires facing some tough times. I take courage in know others have faced, and understand where I am. I look forward to growing through this season and more and actually seeing the breakthrough. So many pastors leave before the breakthrough and I refuse to do that!

    • Thom Rainer says on

      My prayers for you and the church, Tim.

    • Thanks for articulating what we have been seeing w our elders and pastor. Sad to see our pastor be the poster child for all 14 descriptions. 75% of church has quietly left w the remaining 25% being oblivious or lap dogs. 🙁 and yes many of us pressed him and thecelders about their lack of a shepherd’s heart to no avail.

  • I thank God that I have found a pastor (not in my current church) who submits to Christ, believes in and practices teamwork and is taking small strides towards a healthy church! Ironically, all pastors see themselves as godly and healthy, even the toxic ones. This is where we must take a stand against toxicity because the Gospel is worth it, even if it costs us everything. We’ve all served under this person at one point or another in our career. What it’s going to take is for every church member to start using the Bible as their source-document (not constitutions or bi-laws) and the work of the Holy Spirit. We encourage and build up because it is biblical so we must also confront believers based on their behavior and scripture. It doesn’t matter if you are an elder, deacon or just an attender. We are united in Christ and must act like it. A person’s destiny may be at stake.

  • Shawn Deal says on

    I just sent this to my staff and made them promise me that if they ever see these things in my life, to confront me immediately!

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