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 have tears in my eyes as our “new pastor” of about 2 1/2 years checks every single one of tense points. And I’m terrified what that could mean for our church. He’s not the same man who lovingly spoke to the entirety of his flock as he “auditioned” for the position. We are a small church in a small town in a small state. The health and spirit of our congregation is in jeopardy. Tithes are a fraction of what they’ve been, attendance for his sermon very low. He always has an excuse that loosely corresponds worn a Scripture to support the validity of which. He’s lost his temper and yelled during his “sermon”, members walking out. When confronted, he is NEVER the problem. Ever.

    Is there more info available as to how to approach such a volatile situation? If we were in a larger community I’d consider simply joining a different church. But that’s not an option here in this rural setting. I’m grateful for any helpful biblical insight, or experiences you’ve had in a successful
    resolution. Our pastor is very arrogant, prideful, overbearing, manipulative, has a merry band of followers to sing his praises, makes claims that God will get rid of
    All the troublemakers by moving them away, or even killing them off in an auto accident or cancer. There’s so much more-some things even worse than what traits you’ve listed.
    Please-any helpful advice is hugely appreciated.

  • What can you do, other than pray?

    I’m currently in a situation where my pastor exemplifies all of these. But most aren’t seeing it. Our church had the benefit of an amazing pastor for 15+ years. Our church is very much, 100% into supporting its pastor, which I agree with. But that is blinding many.

    They looked over several red flags, including the young pastor having left his only 2 previous churches (4 years of preaching) on terrible terms, and not fulfilling the Biblical commandment to have his house in order (deacons excised it because the child was adopted by them 6 years ago and therefore doesn’t really count toward that).

    Anyway, he gets very angry and the true colors show if anyone dares to disagree with him on anything. Yet he turns it around on the other person. Even gentle, kind disagreement receives harsh words from him but he excused it as being pushed in a corner and lashing back (even though he was not attacked.)

    I have mentioned a couple of things to him, requests, etc always waiting until I can do so in a positive manner because he is very defensive. Yet he still has taken a terrible dislike toward me and has made my church life a miserable and hostile thing. Where I used to look forward to church each week at a healthy church, I am now facing it with stomach in knots because it’s getting increasingly unhealthy due to the toxic leadership.

    I don’t want to leave. We have Covenanted with this body. But at the same time, I don’t know how much I should take. It’s not just me affected but my family as well.

  • This is an excellent and accurate description. The long term ramifications on the individuals and families (particularly wives and teenage children) can have deep psychological, spiritual, and even physical impact. Loss of community and the sudden shift in reality is jarring enough to lead many to experience a range of symptoms associated with ptsd.

    These cowardly narcissistic leaders need to be called out but their victims are generally too wounded and the remaining folks often either too afraid to rock the boat or left completely in the dark and confusion due to the rampant deception. It’s too hard for the average person to decipher. And the victim risks reinjury/retraumatization every time they unpack the facts. As hellish as it can be to just let it all go and let the toxic leader continue his syrup-infused reign, it is much more terrifying to keep risking further emotional and spiritual harm to self or family.

    • Run! Get out! Pray and the Lord will guide and direct! Don’t go back and don’t let anyone persuade you otherwise!

  • I recently quit well was forced out of a church because of the pastors daughter has a problem with me for some reason and the pastor fit most of these as he shows favoritism to his own daughter instead of getting both sides he automatically takes her side and lies when confronted about it.

    • Laird crump in Toronto’s churches is a toxic pastor full of negative sermons who preaches how lucky he was to grow up with Jesus and how everyone else had a horrible childhood. Its disrespectful. That’s saying the least. He condones abusing women and misread scriptures about “faith god” and says “mothers are bad.. Its not just dads in fact more mothers are bad”That doesn’t even mean father as paternal parent.

  • What if the Pastors wife doesn’t like you but the Pastors and everyone else does? What is she has gone out of her way to ignore, not make eye contact, snap at you, etc…? What if this behavior is making you want to go to another church or “stop serving” in your existing church? What if you have talked to the Pastor about it and all he did was send you Matthew 18 and tell you not to name names? Thanks! I really Appreciate ANY advice you can give.

  • Invisible Nobody says on

    10 years ago, I worked as administrative assistant at my church. We got a new minister. It took him 2 weeks to isolate my husband and me from the congregation because we couldn’t provide the church with children. I put up with his pro-children harassment for a year before they finally fired me. I didn’t even get the chance to get all my stuff out of my office. And the little piss ant went on VACATION and never had to face me. I lost my job, my husband, house, EVERYTHING because of that lying sack of crap, and he was rewarded for his lies. My life cannot be put back together. God is continuing to punish me for not taking the minister’s crap. I have PTSD as a result, and can’t sit through a damn interview without freaking out. I have no insurance and autoimmune problems that started exactly 5 days after me being fired. I simply don’t exist anymore. And trust me; I DO NOT want your prayers or any bullshit like that. Just like everyone else in my life, God threw me away.

    • God did not throw you away, if you continue to be patient and don’t be so quick to give up you will see things so different. I have to say I had some of the same exact things to happen to me, I was weak and I wondered for years what had I done to deserve such cruel treatments. I felt like God didn’t love me. People can treat you one way but that is not coming from a loving God. I know you have so much to live for today which has been over 20 years ago when this happen to me, believe me it made me a stronger person, and I know how to wait and put “time behind it” I guarantee you will find yourself overcoming an obstacle great or small.

  • I am not a minister or a church leader… I was looking for answers and came across this article. I am in a church with a Minister and “staff” that this list fits most to a T!!
    I’m not judging, it’s hard because I have been hurt, and so has my oldest child. Unfortunately my husband is blind to it. I guess I’m writing this because well I needed to thank you for making me feel I’m not completely crazy. I never thought a leader in the church would behave this way and that there would even be a list of this sort. That maybe I was what was wrong. It’s so bad it has driven a wedge between my husband and I. I’m not sure it can even be fixed at this point.

    Sorry to rant….

  • I agree with everything in this article except for the idea that it is a rarity among church leaders. I believe it happens (not necessarily on purpose) to some degree in just about every church. Nepotism, favoritism, “Core Group,” cliques, etc. happen often. As I said, I don’t believe it always happens on purpose but where power is given to one person or group of people over others, human nature will always rise up and try to protect it (and usually at any cost). It takes a lot of humility and Godly wisdom to see it and overcome it.

  • dear Mr Rainer, thanks for an informative expose on the traits of church leader you mentioned, most of these match with the one we have in our local church. I have always reserved honor and respect for pastors and even rebuked fellow members in the past who were less than respectful to our previous pastors. But this new leader has indeed disturbed my inner peace that i used to get while attending church weekly, now I do not even desire to attend sunday worship as the sermons are too repetitive full of personal stories, and showing his own wisdom and knowledge above the essence of what Jesus is really asking us, he is manipulative also and has been ignoring me ever since i saw through his facade. Problem is i have family of wife and two children to whom i do not wish to set example of “not attending the sunday worship”, in the past issues were more with the activities of parish council members, which i never bothered about as i was focusing only on the sermon of the day but now issue is leader himself. Can you please guide and advise me. I have been also reading that in today’s age the church is no longer the building or denomination but your own self, to be guided by the holy Bible alone and follow it diligently rather than the rituals and liturgy of the ‘organized church’, since i have been on the parish council also that is why this feeling. Hope you understand.

  • Dinkum Ozzie says on

    Thanks for such an insightful article. It’s normally someone on the inside who can see the toxic leader’s behaviour. The majority of the church members wouldn’t because it is so cleverly hidden. There are so many masks that you don’t know who the real person is.
    I know of a pastor who puts his supporters into key roles and marginalize anyone whom he perceives as an ‘enemy’. He would take these people off rosters so that these people would not be seen publicly to reduce their influence. And you’re right, he surrounds himself with his posse so that any issues raised are seen a personal attacks and these people who dare raise issues are causing divisions in the church. They’re are so clever at manipulating the church (no wonder they’e called sheep 😉 that unless you’re a victim, you won’t even realize this happens all time in your church. So sad, its all just a job for many pastors, or power/ego for manipulative elders. Where is the love for the sheep – this is the mandate given by Christ to the leadership – feed my lambs. Hope they read Ezekiel chp 34.

    I’d like to add one character of these toxic pastors – insecurity.
    These are very insecure leaders, afraid that they’ll lose their positions or that people will one day find them out for what they really are. Hand in hand with this is the lack of faith. A man of faith will trust God and always try to do the right thing, No manipulation, no half truths, no double face. If you lose your job, so what? Isn’t God your Shepherd. But if someone becomes a pastor but has never been called by God, he cannot claim such promises – hence he has to rely on worldly wisdom and schemes.

    Thankfully, there are still real pastors out there – a rare breed. If you find them, do all you can to support them. Good pastors often have members from hell to deal with.

  • Not sure if this falls under the toxic leader or not but she feels as if I’m trying to take over her leadership role (Praise and worship Leader) lol I cant even sing smh God uses me in a different way and I’m ok with that I have been led to pray and lay hands on people but since I’m not a leader or an elder its frowned upon because there’s supposed to be order in the church but when the Holy Spirit calls on me to do so I’m obedient but she sees it as wanting to be front and center I’ts not about me at all why cant she see this and now she’s getting others to think like she does I spoke with our pastor and he said by all means go for it if it’s Spirit led yes i do lift her up in prayer and myself as well if I’m in the wrong I ask God to show me but he still uses me to bring a word or pray for someone now here’s the kicker we were best friends in high school I know it’s the enemy trying to cause division and he will not win any thoughts or insight is greatly appreciated

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