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’m the wife of a church staff member. He has been working under a pastor who certainly seems to meet all the requirements for being a toxic leader. We would have taken a bullet for this man and his family early on, but as the months turned to years we both see the negative effects this type of leadership has on our family, marriage, and personal growth. We feel spiritually drained from all directions with no end in sight.

    Vision. Direction. Charisma. With nearly no emotional maturity or personal loyalty. Quick to anger. Quick to blame. Masks his contempt for his church, people he is supposed to shepherd, with the simple explanation that his spiritual gift is not mercy or “people skills.” He has hired people to make up for those deficiencies. However, the staff culture is abysmal. Imagine that part of your unspoken assignment is mitigating his abrasive manners or elitism so he can be or act any way he pleases at all times. Angry outbursts during staff meetings are just “his passion.” Dismissing ideas before they are completely expressed is just “logic.” Belittling the performance or character of others is just his way of showing you his “transparency.” After all, he only says those things to his most trusted friends. He is smart, not compassionate. He has vision, not kindness. When did we stop valuing the pastoral qualities of a pastor?! And why was I on board with this?

    What advice would you give the spouse of someone who is in the process of feeling disillusioned with their leader and even friend?

    We considered ourselves friends. We broke bread together. I value the friendship of his wife even with the many boundaries I have to keep in place. Now we don’t understand how a friend and spiritual mentor we looked up to for so long could have been so toxic. It seems like we got ourselves into this and don’t know how to get out or get help. I don’t even know how we could approach the elders, as most of them helped this pastor plant the church and are always in agreement no matter what. There is no accountability. We even supported his campaigns against other people’s character many times and now feel ashamed at how blind we were to the hidden agendas and half-truths. Many have left, but all are isolated from each other as if the taboo of gossip has silenced any real truth. Or we are isolated from them naturally because we were complicit in the campaign that drove them out. And now if I called and apologized to them it would endanger my husband’s job there. It’s that bad. It’s always the same story, how this former employee caused such personal hurt and had character issues and didn’t biblically respect the pastor’s authority. But the stories are so similar it can’t all be 100% accurate. The stories all have the same holes in the same places. We have shared personal information with him we feel leaves us vulnerable. My husband comes home from work drained and dreading the next day, next meeting, etc. What can I do? What should I do? I feel very helpless as the spouse. I want to leave but God hasn’t called us out yet.

  • Church Staffer says on

    Dr. Rainer, what should an employee do if they have been working for a highly thought of publicly, but an extremely toxic leader? A lot of people have left, but as each one leaves its explained away and they seem to be the strong ones, leaving and not airing dirty laundry on their way out.

    Additionally and possibly more important, what would a proper response to committed members of the church when they ask what is going on, and why I would leave. I’m thinking volunteers, lay-leaders, others who are simply not close enough to the head/founding pastor to see any of this type of behavior. It’s a struggle to tow the line of honesty while being generous to the pastor for the benefit of the church, and caring for others from what they are deceived by. Is it more loving to tell those who ask the truth or to let them remain in an unhealthy environment where eventually if they get close enough will be hurt?

  • Thom,

    My heart broke when I read your article and characteristics. It broke even more to read the comments (knowing that this happens more frequent than I would have ever thought). In this situation, I see everyone of these in our pastor. I love him and pray for him and his family daily but, I’m exhausted. I’ve been here at our church in a leadership position working with him for over 15 years. Our pastor is a tenderhearted person who outside of our church demonstrates the #1 well and for the most part tries to do the same at our church. The exception to this is when family is involved. Currently our church is struggling and I don’t believe he even sees it. Most people are leaving (those who have the spirit or influence). Our situation primarily involves family. His! We’ve had an incident involving his adult child. One who knows better but yet still “drifted”. It happens and I’m sympathetic to this. It’s challenging when they are in a leadership position however. A very bad situation occurred and it was complicated by the Pastor. Whenever anything happens in their family 3 & 5 happens. As you begin to bring this to his attention, bam.. 2, 4, 11 and a GREAT BIG 6 happens. These are not normal outbursts. They aren’t violent but sure feel as if they could go that way quickly. He thrives on intimidation. Shortly, he begins to 8 which in turn gets him back to a 6. Before long, 7 creeps its ugly head to cover themselves and become very 9. I never knew a man of God could be that Manipulative. Next of all this turns into a 12 situation, this action helps to feed the ego because he’s so 14. I can truly say that majority of this stems from both 10 and 13 with 13 being the main issue. All I want to see is God save souls. We have lost which have been coming regular but no moves b/c you can cut the tension with a knife at times. God can’t work in this situation and I’m really afraid our church is going to end up in your second edition of “Autopsy of a Dead Church” volume 2. Please pray for our church and me to make the right decision to stay if needed or to move and take my family to a place where they can be fed and be happy again. God Bless.

  • My husband and I are about 6 months out of an abusive church that we spent more than 10 years in. I always had a feeling that something wasn’t right with the pastor, but I figured that it was none of my business and I just needed to stay positive and trust that the leadership knew what they were doing. That is, until I brought up a concern to the pastor and he turned on me. He lashed out in anger and questioned my loyalty to him, I was accused of calling him a heretic, my access to the church was shut off (I was on staff) and other staff refused to let me in. The pastor told blatant lies about me and other people defended him to great lengths. I apologized for any hurt I had caused. It made no impact. I confessed sin thinking that being completely vulnerable and transparent would soften the pastor’s anger towards me. I was told my confession wasn’t good enough. Then, when my husband decided that it was time for us to walk away, we were labeled as rebellious and disrespectful. We were told that we were walking out from God’s will and that we clearly had a “plank in our eye” because we were upset about the situation. “Forgiveness” and “submission” were pushed on me so hard by other staff, yet they never questioned the pastor’s outburst of anger towards me or his dysfunctional communication through all of this. I have never felt so much confusion in my life… which was also used against me. It’s been such a traumatic experience for me. The first couple of months after we left felt completely impossible…. Impossible to trust. Impossible to forgive. Impossible to move forward. Impossible to live. But reading material like this and hearing other people’s experiences has helped us get past the initial shock of our experience. This has provided language and insight that I never would have known otherwise. It’s been invaluable and has taken (most of) the sting out of the wound. I’ve been surprised to find out how many people have been through this kind of situation. It’s not ok and more people need to speak up about it!

  • Hardy Magna says on

    Yes, I know some toxic leaders. Two especially, the senior pastor and the pastor in charge of the food ministry (provide lunches for needy). Although I’ve complained to these two and actually the other pastors, there’s just deaf ears. Briefly, a individual / volunteer was named by the pastor in charge of food ministry (PFM) as floor manager. This FM curses consistently, the most vile language every day. Often has threatened people; one time he threatened a long-time 80 year old volunteer (he looks much younger) and I had to physically intervene. Was the FM dismissed? Nope. Assault and battery! Just a few months ago he threatened a top 71 year young volunteer, and when I backed him up, the FM threatened me, I made it plain I was not playing MMA sports fighting; ever since he has been courteous to me, somewhat. Four witnesses have told me FM uses drugs; during one evening meal (I was not present) he threw down a chef knife and broke it … in a secular workplace he would be fired immediately. The list goes on and on. The PFM blames the people: “Why do you get bothered by his behavior?” Of course, we can see the effects of this in his own family. His young daughter was divorced after a few months, and then she married again. The two sons are mirrors of their dad. The poor wife has serious health problems, possibly caused by stress. The PFM’s father was not a good egg. Fortunately, I was raised with excellent parents, good self esteemed, no abuse, so I can withstand such cult-atmosphere. The food program does provide a needed service, but very sad it’s done in the Name of Christ. However, we are blessed with some true Christians as volunteers and we await on God’s hand in this.

  • Bryan Yu says on

    if my church elders (we have been trying to hire a pastor for years) are showing signs of 11 out of 14 (conservatively speaking), is it enough ground to leave a church? they do try to have biblical expositional preachings and focus on sound biblical teachings which have been a major reason that i wanted to stay.

    If not, any suggestion or advice on what i can do? the elder I am the most close with happens to be a very nice and loyal brother, and unfortunately he also tends to believe whatever the other elders say and would take a hard stance for them.

  • Many of the characteristics mentioned fit the criteria of Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. Many who suffer with this disorder masquerade as ‘stong leaders’ and harm many people along the way, including his own family.

  • I am going through this right now. We have an Interim Pastor, who fits all of the bullet points above, who has caused so much chaos and confusion and the deacons and trustee chair just seem to let him get away with treating people horrible. They took it upon themselves to remove a member from our membership role by a certified letter. This violates our Constitution and By-Laws! Every member termination is to be voted on by the church. This young man, that was arbitrarily thrown out, did nothing wrong, other than he stood up to the interim pastor and was not liked for it. I have prayed about this and am still struggling with trying not to feel resentful and upset over the way things were handled. God calls us to a higher standard of love and compassion, and if we cannot show our own brother or sister in Christ a Christlike love, then how can we expect God to bless us? Now, because I have sided with the person that was effectively black-listed and thrown out, I am being targeted as well. When Jesus tells us we will be persecuted, you never think it will be from your own brothers and sisters in Christ. How does one get past this sort of thing? My faith is fairly strong but I am really struggling with this.

    • Hardy Magna says on

      I am wondering if there is a central church body that we can report to … for example, Catholics can report to their central committees, etc.

  • I am currently in a church that meets eleven of those symptoms. I’ve made three attempts to leave, without success. When I was twelve, I made the mistake of confronting the (former) youth pastor after she did something that caused one of my closest friends to leave Christianity entirely. Over the five years since, I have been attacked verbally by church leaders on several occasions, had many nasty rumors spread about me, and been banned from certain ministries–and I am far from the only one who has been treated this way. The youth pastor was finally removed from her position three years ago after I brought things up at the conference level–and PROMOTED to another position within the church. Her replacement just happened to be the son of one of the pastor’s yes-people, who was out of a job having recently been fired from another church for immoral behavior. Needless to say, the situation did not improve. There was an incident about a year ago where I literally stood between the new youth pastor and a friend of mine to keep him from saying anything destructive to her. All the leadership denies that any problem exists, and many people in the church cannot see what’s really going on (#10). I have been forbidden to speak of any of the issues, and have learned the hard way what happens when I do not follow this rule. My prayers are with anyone else who is in a toxic church.

  • Heather Belveal says on

    I’m a 29 year old woman living in a small town, and in the church that I go to, I unfortunately have a pastor who displaying at least five of these symptoms. My mother is our church’s bookkeeper and she has had to deal with the brunt of symptoms 2, 3, 5, 9, and 11, with 9 being the biggest problem, as our pastor has been using church funds for his own personal needs. She, along with the rest of our church’s board, has called him out on this a few times, and yet he has NOT shown any signs of accountability of his actions. It has caused a lot of conflict among the church board members, and my mother has gone through at least two emotional meltdowns. I have not been going to church much as a result, though I am still reading my Bible.

    It’s funny, because at a couple of points over the past month (almost two months), we actually thought he was getting better; turns out he isn’t.

  • The hardest part about reading all these replies is the cries for help from the members that are suffering under a toxic Pastor. Harder still, is that there are no answers from any readers to these cries for help. I am left to conclude there are no answers, and there is no hope for reconciliation. The 14 points have one root cause, PRIDE. And a prideful man cannot see his error, cannot be reasoned with, cannot feel compassion or conviction.

    Its not supposed to be this way.

    • Robin Baldwin says on

      Yes, it is as you say, Pride.

      However, let’s be fair, there is usually enough PRIDE to go around in the congregation, whether that is leadership or servant leaders. 1 Peter Chapter 5 gives us what Elders (leadership) should do. Also the bible makes it clear, “we are to love one another, and submit to one another in love.” This Scripture in 1 Peter 5 makes it clear, Elders are not to lord over another person.

      Where’s the love and where is the forgiveness here, on both parts?

      I see wounded Elders (leaders) and I see wounded congregation servant leaders, which is the body of Christ. It is HEART BREAKING what I see here. Studying scriptures regarding the Acts 2 Church structure, clarifies how we are to structure the people of God’s. ALSO… sorry to step on toes here, however the word Pastors is only mentioned once in the bible. However our modern day church lumps them in as the Elder. Elder is appointed, Pastors are called by Jesus and are in with the other Equippers, in Ephesians 4:11-12, (Apostles, Prophets, Evangelist, Pastors & Teachers).

      Pastors (no matter how much you want to stretch it), are not the Elders of the church, at least not according to the Scriptures. IN FACT they are next to last on the list of equippers to the saints. Sadly, the modern day church has cast out the apostles, the prophets, evangelist, and has only adopted two of the five and call them the leaders.
      1 Corinthians 12:27,28,29, the first called by GOD (not man) is apostles, then second is prophets, third are teachers. (The teachers are evangelist, pastors, teachers if we refer back to Ephesians 4:11-12).

      We are New Testament, and Jesus called some to be…. (Ephesians 4:11-12). The Elders are appoint by the body 1 Timothy Chapter 3 and 1 Peter 5. Deacons/deaconess are appointed by the body, (they are NOT leadership according to the bible, they are servants for the needs of the widows and orphans, those in need- See Acts). MANY people come out of their schooling and self appoint themselves to a called position, and Jesus never called them.

      I studied the bible at college, and on my own, and Jesus said, His Holy Spirit will teach you ALL THINGS. I believe that still holds true to this day. Scriptures makes it clear who is the Chief Shepherd (1 Peter 5), and Who teaches whom in John Chapter 14:26.

      No wonder so many are leaving the corporate church structure, they only see hate, And division, unforgiveness, and slander. They don’t see God’s love and God’s mercy and forgiveness working through His people. John 13:34-35 “A new command I give you, love one another, so I have loved you, so must you love one another. By this everyone will know you are My disciples, if you LOVE ONE ANOTHER.”

  • concerned daughter of church says on

    I am in Korea now and watching my parents go through a difficult situation, they were called back into the church from the mission field in Nepal to take over the church in Korea. The head pastor of this church has a team of elders of which the most influential are related to him, and plans to keep his whopping salary (what an executive at a firm would be paid) after retirement. It seems the elders have agreed to this… as the ascending head pastor, what should my father do? I can see that he is stressed out about this and knows how much money this pastor has taken from this small (400 personish) church. What is the best way to deal with this? He doesn’t want to make things combative but the elders are just letting this happen.. any bible verses or words of encouragement to help him through this time?

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