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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  • Richard Atkins says on

    One suggestion for dealing with toxic leaders in the local church is to develop and be willing to hold spiritual leaders accountable for living core values that guide one’s thinking, attitude, behaviors and actions. For starters, living the suggested values of humility, respect, and responsibility would go a long way in gaining much needed respect and credibility of today’s spiritual leaders. In closing, people become what the see, and many people inside and outside the church don’t appear to like what they see.

  • This is so true. My wife and I just got essentially excommunicated from our church for calling out the pastor for many of these signs. About the only one he didn’t display is the outright fits of anger, he is more the smile, shake your hand, and then stab you in the back later sort. The lack of communication really fits and the autocratic abusive authority with the total lack of accountability and transparency reads like you were writing about him, honestly. Thanks for posting this, at least we are not alone in our perception. Now we just need to find a church that has healthy leadership…

    • Anna Boat says on

      Have you found a church with a health relationship. Make sure you seek The Lord’s guidance and not the approval of people. People have sometimes two faces, I like you today and hate you the next week. This is what I am dealing with, but I am only their for a season and then I will move on.

  • BeenThere says on

    I too would appreciate advise on dealing with this type of leader. I am the director of a parachurch ministry that has several independent churches we depend on as members/supporters. We have one church whose toxic pastor has been there 30+ years. They maintain a membership but beyond the base (who are totally duped) it is a revolving door. Obviously after that length of ministry, those who grew up there think it is normal. The pastor keeps himself insulated from discipline by surrounding himself with “yes men”, and mature believers either leave in frustration or are driven away.

  • Man… This hits way too close to home. I just left a church where the lead pastor fit this to a “t,” literally every single one of these points had been articulated in some form or another… While it resulted with his resignation, unfortunately it happened so late in the game and after over a year and a half of trying to address it through mediation and reconciliation, and the church hemorrhaged over 50% of the congregation and polarized almost everyone… It was (/is still) absolutely tragic. He left dozens of wounded families in his wake.

    All that said, what advice would you give for:
    1) A staff member (a pastor like myself, but any staff) trying to recover from this? I can see so many areas (and know I have even more I don’t see) that are wounded or compromised, and the path to healing and healthy leadership is still pretty hazy.
    2) A church recently recovering from this?

    I suspect that each of those questions could be the topic of entire books, nevermind blog posts…

  • Consider that troubles are often from a leader’s foundation lies… in other words… bad doctrines create doctrine-driven difficulties.

    In sum, conventional understanding of Evangelical Church lines, precepts, memes and tropes… just might be horrifically wrong. After all, it is quite common in many areas of life. Want a list? The USA should have no Federal Reserve, it has destroyed the dollar’s value, destroying inheritances, having ripped out 95% of the dollar’s value in a hundred years… (The market, not central planners, should set interest and every other rate.) Next, the US’s administrative state is simply unlawful “kingly absolute power above executive, judicial or legislative oversight.” It is horribly anti-Consitituion! It’s King George-Jerkism run amok! …. Next, education, media and culture is penetrated by a “Lie Narrative” that cherishes socialist lies that must trump reality’s truths. This is a long list. (Not the least is most pastors are taught claptrap PCism K-12 and consequently so are most seminaries… and who knows how to back out of that pit? (In That Day Teachings explains all this, by the way.))

    So, if fear is taught as a subtext of rapture text shenanigans… underneath everything is the promulgation of fear. Then, if prosperity is taught as a subtext of give-to-get textual shenanigans… underneath everything is the promulgation of greed. And, if emergent gobbledygook is taught as a subtext of lax-is-king via textual shenanigans… underneath everything is the promulgation of laziness. This will drive a congregation and its leaders crazy. Just add power through high donations and audience adulation, and you will have a very fine implosion machine. (Time is a slow-motion truth-doctrine-detection machine!)

    So, Christ would say problems are caused by bad doctrines (that shouldn’t have been believed or taught in seminary!) It is still true today. Bad doctrines drive out Christ-in-You, and instead invite a crazy kind of unspeakable indwelling. But what the church is supposed to do is create non-crazy indwelling, which is Christ-in-You… a thing people must honor in each other, when present. (But that takes humility!)

    For a complete walk-through on an alternative “lines, precepts, memes, tropes and truths”… see “In That Day Teachings.”

    But be warned, the High Way is opposed quick repair. Truth is a long road.

    See (A true and hard prophetic message.)

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