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 whole-heartedly agree that this apparently is more common than one might think. In fact, our last 4 churches have been this way. The last one, I confronted the leadership and voiced what I witnessed to the leadership team. Very quickly, I became the scapegoat, “the troublemaker”. Now when I see some of them in town, I speak and go to greet them, yet I’m coldly spoken to or given a dirty look. At the moment, I am done. I’m not sure I want to go to church at all anymore, but worship God in my home, read His word, and serve Him the best I can outside of a church building. I’ve just had enough of it.

  • I’m not as confident as you are that this phenomena of being a toxic leader is so rare. I have been in Evangelical churches for 40 years now. And have attended 6 churches (some of them were church plants with new pastors). 1 met most of the criteria you mentioned. But 5 of 7 pastors were pejorative to their members. They would routinely refuse to engage in discussion of different views of theology or ecclesiology that had nothing to do whatsoever with orthodoxy. It was their way or the highway. And only 2 of the 7 demonstrated the fruit of the spirit as outlined in Galatians 5.

    Although 6 of 7 appeared humble and transparent from the pulpit, again only 2 of the 7 were humble and transparent once you got to know them.

    It seems that with large non-relational churches it is incredibly easy to fake spiritual maturity as a pastor. Run the program, insulate yourself from authentic give and take conversations, elect a board of “yes-men”, and presto none of the members are the wiser. And most never mature despite “the great teaching.”

    One of the most humble in appearence would ask his staff to find out where an assistant pastor was interviewing to become a senior pastor. He had a network of spies. He would then call that church pastor where the assistant was interviewing unsolicited. He would berate the individual assistant and kill the job offer. He would do this to other ministers who came to do joint projects in the city. He would call other pastors and tell them that it wasn’t wise to be associated with the pastor who had started the ministry.

    After hearing about this behavior for the 3rd time in two years, by different victims who were close to me, I confronted the Sr. Pastor. He denied it at first and when I said I was going to call the other Pastor (where my friend was interviewing) the Sr. Pastor admitted to poisoning the interview process! His reason, “Good leaders are made of good followers. And I should never be questioned as to the direction of a ministry. They are all my ministries!” Turns out although he would put someone in charge of a ministry, he reserved the right to reverse course without notice and on a whim. Without a word of discussion.

    The numbers continue to grow and I now know that these calls seem to be going out several times a year for the last 15 years with the purpose of destroying people in the leadership team that are not “yes men”.

    He has a daily radio program in the Midwest. He leads a church of 8500 people +. He has spoken at national Christian and political events. He has published several books on Evangelicalism. And he has the emotional maturity of a child.

    Yet every pastor in the city has the goal to be like this guy above! What happened to spending an entire life trying to be conformed into the image of Jesus?

    I suggest that the first thing pastoral staffs do is give their pastor a Narcissistic Personality Disorder evaluative measure and see if your pastor isn’t just faking it until he makes it. ( As humble as Billy Graham from the pulpit but closer to Donald Trump once you get to know him personally).

    As always an interesting post.

    • I agree, Karl, about giving ministers a test for NPD. However, I would not use “humble” to describe Billy Graham. This man wrote an autobiography, which is about the most narcissistic thing a Christian could ever do. Any Christian who writes an autobiography is a likely candidate for NPD. As for Donald Trump, in spite of his many narcissistic traits, I actually think he has a lot of admirable qualities as well.

    • Judith Gotwald says on

      The bishop our congregation had to deal with displayed EVERY ONE of these traits! The most dangerous part of this profile is that the sycophants they foster also have power—and want to protect it at any cost. It is very damaging to lay leadership who feel bullied and isolated—and also damaging to the greater body of the Church as no one dares to confront problems, lest they be the next victims.

  • Former Church Leader says on

    Our church pastor has been abusing her powers. She has run off every member of our church leadership board and their spouses, as well as run off the rest of the major contributors to our church (most of whom have served many decades). Our beloved church is now in serious financial danger.
    Most disturbing are her argumentative and confrontational behaviors and straight up habitual lies. She is not able to deal with people in a professional open-minded manor. [Name deleted] refuses to admit responsibility and she has blatent disregard for the wishes of the lay leadership of the church.
    We have lost respect for her as a leader. Her own husband has now left after her unfaithful relations with multiple previous romances against her husband and children.
    Our church was supposed to be a sanctuary and safe haven.
    We leave [church name deleted] with broken hearts.

  • I walked away from music ministry at my church because the ministry leader demonstrates half of these traits. I happily served for 6 years but after around 2 years of her and her just as terrible 2IC being in charge, I became fed up as they were increasingly controlling in many aspects of ministry, condescending, autocratic, negative and downright rude. The recurring justification for behaviour like this was that it was to create a culture of respect among ministry members which was ironic considering how disrespectful some of this behaviour was. Some examples of the condescending behaviour include:

    – Being told to apologise to every single team member if you were a few minutes late to morning practice. Tardiness isn’t good but there are other more positive and constructive ways to deal with it.

    -Members must reply to emailed music rosters and any other communication and failure to do so will result in being talked to. Apparently not doing so is a sign of disrespect.

    – Devotion time before music practice is a chance for the music leader to criticize intimate details of the lives of members including whether the friends they have are believers or not. In one case, the leader and a assistant pastor disapproved of some friends one member had, “encouraged” her not to associate with them and when she failed to stop, they deliberately setup a music ministry even on a Saturday night forcing her to choose between the two. How are you suppose to grow God’s kingdom if all you do is associate with non-believers?

    – Being in a small church, there isn’t a formal process to become part of ministry like in larger churches. In our church, ministry terms go for 1 year with a renewal at the AGM in November. I recall one ministry meeting that was held on the morning of the AGM and the 2IC proceeded to rip into us telling us that “warming up” with instruments and singing before devotion, was apparently a gross waste of members’ time and that we were to do it before coming to practice at 9am. Nothing positive was discussed, no encouragement is ever given and the closest thing to encouragement is the excuse that these words of condescension are done so that you don’t make the same mistake as the ministry leader.

    No surprise that this church has not had any growth over the past decade. New members come in, they are exposed to this dirty underbelly and they leave when they discover that this sort of behaviour isn’t going to change.

  • Anonymous says on

    We left a church with a pastor that exhibited most of these but 2, 4, 6, 11 stand out. The pastor was basically the only ruling elder. There were no other elders or deacons. Over time, it became increasingly clear that was the way he wanted it. He didn’t want to be held accountable to or share leadership with anyone.

  • About a year ago, we left a church where the pastor exhibited many of these signs. We had been there ten years and for most of that time I considered this pastor to be a close friend.
    He was very strong on the importance of accountability, and at first this seemed spiritual, but as time went on I began to see how much the accountability was only in one direction.
    The process of choosing elders required unanimity among the nominating committee members, which seemed spiritual, but as time went on it became apparent to me how he was using this to keep certain people, including me, from being elders. Not that being an elder looked all that inviting when really the only ones whose ideas were considered were the pastor and his wife. A very strong “not invented here” culture. Part of this, I think, stemmed from the fact that this pastor planted the church originally, and at first had to make all the decisions, but as the church grew he was never really able to transition away from that.
    He was very definite that all disputes be settled using the Matthew 18 model, and that any discussion of the issue with third parties was gossip and unscriptural. Again, this seemed spiritual at first. As time went on, I found that this meant that the only allowed means of calling attention to concerns about his leadership style was to go to him individually, which tended to be difficult and I think for most people intimidating. If it became necessary to move to the next step, bringing anyone other than an elder as your other person was condemned as gossiping. Did I mention he worked the system to make sure only “safe” people became elders? If necessary to move to taking it to the church, “the church” was defined as the elders only, no one else, for this type of matter. Of course, it didn’t work that way if it was the pastor bringing discipline on a member, which he seemed to always be doing (though I was never the subject of such discipline). To be fair, sometimes the discipline was legitimate. However, sometimes we were just told that we couldn’t know, but that we were required by scripture to back the pastor. In fact, when I raised the question during a conversation with him of how we could determine whether he might be mistaken, he told me straight out that I should always believe the pastor in these matters because it was not possible for pastors to be wrong in these matters, which sounded to me a lot like a Protestant version of the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility. Discipline was even initiated on people who had left months before and were attending other churches.
    Ultimately, we found a “safe” reason to leave that church to avoid that. Sadly, in order to make certain there would be no procedures started months down the road, we had to send a certified.letter to the pastor and elders stating that we would be forced to pursue legal action if that occurred, though I did make it clear that we deeply regretted the necessity. Needless to say, the former friendship with this pastor hasn’t done well since, although we still have friends within the church. I have discussed this with the elders and with other former members, but not with current members.
    We are now attending a local church (the previous one was in a town about 25 minutes away) and it is like night and day. The best way I can describe it is that I now feel free to serve, though perhaps only a Christian can understand how those words could go together. I can serve as I’m called instead of how I can get permission. It feels as though a physical weight has been lifted from my shoulders, and there is so much more joy in my walk with Christ.
    I’ve gotten a bit long winded. Thanks for putting up with it. Blessings to you, and please keep up the good work.

  • Pastor's Wife says on

    Great article as well as a great response. There is so much to be said on this topic. My husband & I recently resigned an Associate position at a Church. We had found ourselves overwhelmed by a dictitator-type system that was surrounding another associate leader who was functioning as lead Pastor. This Pastor took this role at the permission of the lead Pastor, making decisions in a Authortinarisim/ dictator type of regime. My husband and I did not realize the deep well of spiritual abuse that this leader was incurring on people, until a week or so into our job. We stayed there for 10months observing the unhealthy dynamics of an abusive system as well as attempting to bring positive change into this environment. The 14 symptoms you wrote about, were very much there, as well as many more. This type of leadership used shame,guilt & condemnation to motivate its people to ‘do more for God.’ This Pastor would even stand up from the pulpit and declare that everyone was going to ‘go to hell if they did not repent.” There is truth in that statement, however this leader would stand there with his finger pointed and eye looking right at specific individuals in an accusational tone. One person I remember had just given their life to the Lord and that was his first church service. I observed the outright damage that was caused through shaming people for not measuring up.

    When my husband & I decided to resign quietly the leader accused us of ‘being in rebellion,’ and that as a result of us leaving we would incur judgement from God and He would punish us and something bad was going to happen to us, as we were ‘out from His covering. This church carried a severe abuse of the ‘Covering Theology,’ as well as carried many characteristics of the ‘Shepherding Movement.’ We witnessed abuses of power & authority that were unlike anything we have ever seen. Sadly there were many young people in this church hungry for God, but leaving disillusioned. I will mention, by name a ‘movement,’ that this church has got involved in; it is with a community down in Manteca, Cali called ‘The Awakening.’ This type of leadership is accusational, shame based and driven by desire for power & popularity in the ‘name of being radical for God.’ I feel like this experience has opened our eyes and we’ve grown so much from this hard season. Unfortunately there are many Christian churches who carry cult-like characteristics & tendencies and we experienced this on a extreme level. My husband & I are now getting healing & understanding from this so as to even watch ourselves that we lead with care for others, emphasizing love & acceptance in our community.There is so much more to say, but I thank you for you article, there are so, so many wounded people that have been hurt by leaders & my heart is heavy for the ones who have got lost in all of this. Praying for wholeness in our broken communities. – a pastors wife.

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