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 am living this situation now with my pastor. He was a great pastor for years and now, maybe 3 or more years ago, he started to show these signs. I am one of the elders and I don’t know what to do because he is never wrong. None of the other elders is willing to speak out although we all agree. We are afraid of talking because we are going to be put down immediately by him so we prefer not to speak.

    How can I deal with this situation?, I’m reading, praying and looking for direction because first, I want to know if I am really wrong, and second, If I am not wrong, I want to be the one who at least say something about this. God help me.

  • This is far more common than you believe, probably because we as members of the congregation are taught that we are being divisive if we say anything to anyone, including the offending leader. And if we leave the church, we are to keep our mouths shut when anyone asks why, even if they repeat a lie they heard about it.. The church I left routinely holds “family meetings” to tell the remaining people why someone left…and it is always false, sometimes to the point of actual slander. I suppose it is a way of protecting the reputations of the leaders; marginalizing or demonizing someone who left keeps everyone from questioning what really happened. It is the entire leadership at my former church that is problematic…the pastor is given to lies and temper outbursts, and another elder is always covering up for him and explaining his behavior away. That elder is the one really in control of the church, and he is also a terrible gossip. The remaining elders are total yes-men. Standards of behavior are applied unevenly, depending on whether or not the person is in favor. The church is down to a third of its membership, with very high turnover, and a high number of people who have left hurt and disillusioned. It is an independant church with no higher board or organization to go to…I feel helpless. I feel the place will self-destruct. The leadership has managed to set things up so they cannot be held accountable…they have a form of diplomatic immunity. I wish I could find sound scriptural guidelines on how to deal with a situation like this, because when going to them and enduring the backlash was over, all I could do at that point was leave.

  • Pastor Tom, I am dealing with what I believe to be a very toxic leader. It is extremely difficult. I am a missionary, serving another missionary. I’ve been to bible school. I’ve worked on staff at a church in the states. I am a HUGE believer in honoring authority. And I am stumped as to how to handle the situation. Have you written any articles about how to deal with these, “toxic leaders”? Thank you.

  • I would like to know what does a married man with 2 kids do when his Pastor shows at least 10 of these signs you mentioned? I guess too I should mention that I’m married to my Pastor and members consist now of :
    Pastor, her mother, her grandmother, our 2 kids, myself and 1 other member who’s the kids Godparent.
    I’m the quiet, introverted one in the relationship/church.

    • Marc,

      My heart reaches out to you. I’m curious: Don’t you think that the gender roles in your marriage and church have been reversed? I’ve witnessed a few marriages where the wife was the more dominant one and those are always very painful to watch. What do your wife’s mother and grandmother think about this situation and the church, as far as you can tell? This to me seems like a case where you need some serious prayer and careful, deliberate action. A good, open conversation about the situation would be a good starting point. I wouldn’t know where to go from there. I wish you all the best.

  • My wife and I just had to experience this at a church. What has been the most shocking to us is that over 35 families have left this church over the last 12 years and many we have spoken to after leaving experienced the similar issues with the leadership. Even more sad is that expressing concerns to the upper most management of the denomination headquarters did nothing. As it turns out, it ended up being to good ole boys club where there was like a huge cover up from top to bottom allowing the bad behavior to continue over and over again. Manipulation and not allowing for other opinions, ideas, or disagreement caused micro management and just seem to suck the life and energy out of the members and those attending regularly so the numbers have gone from say 125 a Sunday to 25 or 30 over the last decade….

  • Thank you so much for this! It’s unfurtunate but I’m glad and relieved from reading the article and commentary that I’m not the only one who has experienced a toxic church leader. I attended a church led by one such pastor for 2.5 years before I left very recently. It makes me so sad that it took me that long to make up my mind about him. Part of it was confusion – I wondered how a man who seemed so passionate for God (in a city that was mostly godless) could simultaneously be so selfish and godless. It’s perhaps the biggest case of cognitive dissonance I’ve experienced in my life. I am also in my early-mid twenties, and quite honestly I didn’t know that mean, irrational adults who should know better existed. It’s unfortunate that I have learned this in the church, and from the pastor no less!

    He demonstrated many of these traits, but the straw that broke the camel’s back for me was seeing how he interacted with young women. He is single and in his mid-thirties. Since I started attending the church I’ve seen him court two women. His choice of women was interesting, to say the least. They only had to identify as church-goers and be drop-dead-gorgeous. They didn’t have to be modest, chaste, or even agreeable for him to flirt with them in our presence and on social media. So here I was, a young woman striving for purity and godliness, and seeing that these things didn’t matter to my pastor. The scales fell off my eyes and I was able to see him for who he was not just in this area but in all other areas of his life and leadership. I could see why his church had such a small number of devotees (4 or 5 at most) with everyone else leaving soon after they joined. One of the devotees commented in one meeting that I was the only one who had ever joined and stayed.

    Anyway, God was good to me because just as I lost confidence in the pastor, I was invited to another church and I’ve been very happy there since.

    Thank you again for this article. My heart breaks for those Christians who are discouraged under a toxic leader. On the flip side, I’m grateful for good pastors. I also realize that church members can be toxic too. I hope and pray that I’m never this way!

    • Nancy Goss says on

      Thank you Thom for this article.
      We recently changed churches due to a toxic pastor. We tried to hang in there with him since we had been members and leaders in the church for many years before he was brought on.

      Not really understanding the situation it seemed he had two personalities. Supportive and caring on one hand but then something would switch in him and then he was against anything that our denomination stood for.

      He, from the beginning, eliminated the church counsel and had a hard time getting folks to work with him.

      After an explosive meeting with myself and the finance committee, I knew that my time there was over. My husband tried to make sense in this and also had a very bad meeting. Each of these meetings were in front of several others.

      I pray for him and that church but it is not doing well and now I feel responsible because why didn’t I say something long before as he was always going around the basic congregational rules.

      In reading your list he exhibits all 14 of those on the list. Now I know I am not crazy in what was being exhibited in him.

      The pastor we are now under is younger, understanding and is a breath of fresh air. We are looking forward to serving there with them.

  • Lydia Kaye says on

    This scripture has probably already been said (I didn’t read all the post since I just saw this). It is a scripture that encouraged me in our situation! If leaders took seriously this message from Jesus himself, they may act differently!
    It is:
    25 But Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. 26 But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. 28 For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Matthew 20:25-29 New Living Translation (NLT)
    Also, Ezekiel 34 and Jeremiah 23 is good read for those who try to take the place of Jesus, The Great Shepherd, in our lives!!!

  • I had to walk away from a ministry I love due to this kind of leader. It became so emotionally and spiritually unhealthy. When I first “came aboard” I wondered why on earth there wasn’t a team of people already in place for such a wonderful ministry. It was just the leader in charge of all the daily tasks – with others who joined in for a once-a-month event. Once I got close enough, I realized why the ministry had not grown in nearly 10 years, and why there was no team.

  • Carollyn says on

    April 3, 2015 I just left such a church where the pastor – sadly – fit many of your symptoms. He preaches sin, hell, heaven and salvation scripturally but he needs to brush up on his people and administrative skills SEVERELY. When one tries to talk to him about nearly anything, it is ‘his way or no way.’ Most of the members have left and he has to wonder WHY they are leaving. But if I know him, he is thinking that he must doing a good job cleaning out the house and patting himself on the back. Maybe so but sinners need correction and guidance, not ‘marginalization’ and rejection.

    This is his first pastorate and he is young. Rather than go on about him or criticizing him further, I just leave him to God.

    • Carollyn, it is as if you had written about us. We left our church at the end of 2015, we actually felt sorry for our pastor as so many were leaving. We have realised that God didn’t expect us to fix problems, even though it has taken so much out of us to stay as long as we did. We are ‘in repair’ now. We were able to go to a church where we knew some people – we are truly blessed! There are still great churches around with God fearing people in them. I hope you are able to find one. May God Bless you.

  • Jesus Seeker says on


    I attended a Baptist church when I was 8. I quit going because the pastor preached (screamed) so loudly it hurt my ears. My parents didn’t attend and stopped requiring me to go. I still love and believe in Jesus but had skipped traditional worship until recently.

    I found a church that seemed like a good place with nice people. However, I was initially worried because the senior Pastor seems stern. One of the other pastors was giving a sermon and mentioned being chewed out for forgetting to turn the heat on the baptism tub(?). It is a fairly large church.

    The senior pastor’s son is also a pastor here. The son has been preaching for 15 yrs. When the pastor(s) are giving the sermon, we open our bibles and refer to the same passage as he speaks. Recently he was preaching from Daniel: 32 “The head of that statue was made of fine gold, its breast and its arms of silver, its belly and its thighs of bronze, 33 its legs of iron, its feet partly of iron and partly of clay.…

    He kept saying ‘brass’ where it says ‘bronze’. I wondered why.

    I don’t want to be nit picky but after 15 yrs shouldn’t he know this section of the bible better than me? A newbie?

    I mentioned it to the woman sitting next to me (who had referred me) but she didn’t say anything. She has also pointed out that the only ‘right’ bible is the King James version. NOT the New KJV. I have purchased three bibles because the others were ‘wrong’.

    I want to find Jesus again, but don’t want to be led in the wrong direction. I also feel as if this church is interested in knowing more of my personal business than I feel comfortable sharing. The younger pastor had a private meeting with me and tried to cajole my exact date of birth, etc. I’ve only been attending less than a month. I’m really not comfortable sharing these kinds of details with strangers before I have decided to be a member. I would like to get to know them a little better.

    Because of these instances, I tried googling ‘how to find the right church’ and how to tell if a church is or isn’t right for you’, etc.

    My question is: Should I look for another church or give them a chance? Thanks.

  • Thank you so much for posting this article. My Pastor displays all 14 of these signs!! A few church leaders have been trying to decide hope to handle this. The church non-denominational and really has no formal board or council. We were thinking about confronting the pastor? Any thoughts or advice on this?

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