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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  • EuWanda Thomas says on

    I have question WHEN YOUR TIME TO TRANSITION, why do pastors have a problem releasing you. I’v been in the same ministry for about 20 years I have work the ministry with all of my heart faithful… God has been dealing with me to start my own ministry.. I’d share it with my leaders, but she having a problem excepting it. So I been praying asking the Lord what should I do, I would love for my leader to help support me and help birth out what God has for me. What should I DO?

    • Perhaps because you’re reliable and trustworthy, maybe even hard to replace at this time?
      From what you’re stating, perhaps your leader just doesn’t want to lose you?

  • Tevin Cordova says on

    I have recently been struck by defeat! With a ten year addiction, separation, home fire, victim of rape, and loss of employment in a matter of Months. I am not one to seek assistance and willing to face struggle. I sought out a ministry locally known for its communal support. Not aware of what they may be able to help with, I have a one year old pup named Luna, she is the sweetest dog only wishing to love anyone and everyone. She is for emotional support, and I made them aware! They have a policy against pets for safety and asked me to leave her in the car! Wow! Eventually led me to Pastor Brian. My immediate reaction to his greeting was this guy is about business! Yes an organization needs to be ran, but I have suffered so much heartache and loss I was hoping for a pastor and not Division Manager. When trying to explain my current situation the pastor was careless and unwilling to hear me out. Constantly placing his hands at eye level near me, almost as if I needed to stop to hear him speak. I have never been so embarrassed of myself when asking for assistance but this organization may have great operation management, but the title pastor is an impression he wanted to create an opportunity to relate and understand my current situation. He was looking out for safety but who is looking out for me? The one who requires emotional support, unemployed, starving, homeless because of fire, and recovering from sexual assault. I am torn by this not because I didn’t receive assistance but because I didn’t realize there was more for me to lose but I was certainly wrong. I hope they can recognize the negative impact this form or pastoral leadership may inflict on the ministry. God Bless then and their strive to assist the needy

  • .Anonymous please says on

    So, I must ask…what is to be done about this kind of person/s in church leadership? Yes, pray. Forgive from the heart. But what CAN be done?

    My daughter, whose husband is a young associate pastor, are in a situation with a head pastor in a fairly small town who has been in that position for 20+ years. He has many characteristics of a toxic leader and is extremely arrogant, perfectionistic, never admitting wrong or demonstrating humility. To me, he is what I would call spiritually abusive. It’s ‘my way or the highway” and his church council and the poor, wobbly, fearful sheep all look to him to tell them what to do/think. This is a very ill church, spiritually, emotionally, and relationally.

    And I’m sorry to say that my son-in-law is part of the problem, as he has such fear of man, lack of personal devotion and intimacy with the Lord, it is scary–for a pastor! My daughter is a bit more mature and grounded spritually, but she is struggling with all that I have mentioned and more.

    There is such a sad deadness there when I go to visit. Few individuals have any joy…Before I go to a function there, I pray to be filled with God’s love in order to just love and encourage individuals there. And they are like thirsty sponges…

    So, what can be done about something like this? The whole system in this church is tainted, and yet, of course there are a few individuals who demonstrate love for the Lord and others.

    The enemy is surely having a heyday with the body of Christ and too many of us are cooperating with his tactics of disunity, division, doubt, unbelief, busyness, etc.

    I am serious and sincere in asking the question I did at the beginning of my post. Thank you to anyone who has something constructive they can share. God’s blessings to all of you! How we need HIM!

  • Prefer to be Anonymous says on

    Was I under a toxic leader or was I the one to blame here?
    I wrote this post a while ago on another site and was probably very emotional. Sometimes I feel like I should just confront the pastor publically, while at other times I feel like I should just let it go; all I know is I really loved them and don’t think they’re acting biblically at all:
    “So this is going to be a tough topic. For the past 14 years I’ve considered myself a Christian/believer in Jesus. My story is probably unlike any other story you’ve ever heard. But the problem is it’s also exactly like every other story you’ve ever heard. I want to be careful what I say here, because the truth is, there are some Christians out there who are extremely loving unconditionally. But the vast majority are just people who hurt people, don’t accept that they are in fact hurting and harming people.
    From the first week I walked into a church this has been true.
    The very first week I walked into a church, my only Christian friend told me there was nothing in the Bible that said we have to be friends (which actually isn’t true: Do not forsake your friend or a friend of your family, and do not go to your relative’s house when disaster strikes you– better a neighbor nearby than a relative far away. Proverbs 28:10; “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift. – Matthew 5:23). I asked this person if I had done anything wrong, and she said no, I was just being myself. So I have done nothing wrong but must be excluded.
    A lot of people quote Romans 12:8 saying as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone, in order to justify ending friendships, for whatever minor or major reason they have, no matter how small or big. but notice the difference in context. In Matthew, Jesus is speaking to believers. In Romans, Paul is talking about non-christian Roman soldiers trying to kill Christians. Very big difference.
    So I took a hit, somehow I still kept going. This was the first week, and already experienced the hate, I tried the whole “forgiving without reconciling thing” because apparently that’s the Christlike thing to do.
    I’ll be honest…college was probably one of the better times when it came to church and church events. I’m not really sure why. But I did see one thing that made an incredible difference and did give me hope. Our campus crusade on some nights would contain catholics, mormons, presbyterians, pentecostals, all different denominations. The division that so many people raged against was just gone.
    But when I went back home, things weren’t so crystal clear. I began trying out other churches. The first church I went to in this period, I was met by a former coworker, who came up to me and said I should leave and find a different church. I asked if I had done anything wrong. Still no answers.
    So I did, I found another church. I had been dating a girl and found out she cheated on me, so I yelled at her. And even then I tried blaming myself and apologizing and reconciling. In this case it was even brought to the pastor and apparently she said she would leave if I continued going there, and the pastor said even though he agreed with me, asked me to leave until she left and then I could come back.
    So I left and found another church. This church quite frankly seemed fantastic. Everybody was loving caring. They encouraged me to get involved, serve, and I did, and this all went on for years, without a hint of negativity. When it all came crashing down. When in fact the pastor’s own family came to me, called me barely tolerable, and when I tried to work things out was told my feelings are not their “responsibility.” Well actually…let’s think of an example. If someone is driving recklessly, and damages your property, whose responsible? The owner, or the reckless driver? The driver is the one who is LIABLE, right? So when you leave emotional scars on someone, it actually is entirely your responsibility to fix it. I tried reaching out to both pastors to get an explanation for some biblical support for their boundaries belief, genuinely wanting to give them a chance. I was ignored. I asked them this because I discovered articles proving the authors of boundaries encouraged people to get divorced within 5 minutes of talking to one person, and making fun of less fortunate people.
    And this was the final straw for me. If you can’t love the emotional person whose only issue is he wants to be loved and accepted, then you sure as heck you can’t love the atheist, the drunk, the drug addict, or anyone else. Because here’s the harsh truth: That person might be transformed, and stop drinking let’s say. But the minute you reject him from your life, guess where he’s right back to? Drinking. If someone’s issue is they want to be loved by the church, and the church can’t love that person, then what are you even doing?
    So this is my way of saying I no longer wish to be associated with Christians. I’m still on the fence about whether or not I believe in God/Jesus, but the pain and damage caused to me by the church over the years has been more than enough reason to stop going. Maybe my boundary needs to be the church itself.
    And please understand, there are a few of you who have been incredible, please understand that, like anything else, there are exceptions to this, and you probably know who you are and please know that this is not really directed at you. I do love the people who genuinely loved me, but what’s hard is knowing that I love the people who don’t love me, but I can’t put myself in a position knowing you’re actively telling people God loves them while still hating someone who genuinely loved you.”

  • Our church just asked our pastor to step down because he was losing his temper in church, saying inappropriate things about how I looked and he liked me to look and saying those things from the pulpit–and I am a married woman. Our high functioning, developmentally disabled daughter told us that he was inappropriate with her–he kissed her on the lips and placed his hand on her leg, etc. He was cussing in church, and when we had our food pantry to help our town out, he made food pantry clients really unhappy with the way he treated them and our church was almost in trouble for it. Since we asked him to step down, he has been refusing to call a vote on the issue and therefore refusing us the right to vote him out, thus putting us in danger of legal ramifications if we vote him out without following our constitution for voting him out. Pray for our church. It is a sticky situation.

  • Ann Western says on

    Boy was I naive in thinking “the new SBC” churches who do church polity more correctly with elders, would not have this “yes men” issue. I was wrong. When the pastor hand picks the elders, you are stuck with just that – “yes men.”

    • We are seeing that, as well, in our young SBC church. Preaching is great, but organizaation and accountablility are seriously lacking. And no idea is a good one unless the pastor or elder and their wives come up with it. So much potential here, but it’s quite frustrating and a drag on reaching the community with the gospel. Not to mention the impact on the church family who have no room to use their gifts.

  • The sad part of this is the real reason it exists in the first place isn’t because a person is toxic–it’s solely because other people allow them to continue to be toxic amongst the gentle.

    In most churches, the majority of people hate the kind of thing described above and desperately want whomever is in charge or who could stop it to do so. Sadly, the biggest problem isn’t the troublemaker–its the people who could put an end to it not wanting to stand up for what is right and stop it.

    I get it. Conflict is hard. Telling someone their days of leading or pastoring this flock is over is messy, it means giving someone the bad news–“You’re causing too many problems and you are damaging this body of believers, we have no choice but to ask you to leave your position and if you continue to cause problems amongst this body of believers when you aren’t the pastor/worship leader etc, you need to leave altogether.”

    The bible is pretty clear on this. Go to them alone, then go to them with two or three. If they confess and repent, you’ve won them over. But if they say they repent and go right back to their toxic pattern of behavior, then they haven’t genuinely repented.

    By all means, we who have been forgiven all of our sins need to forgive everything and not harbor grudges. But we can’t just keep looking the other way and just continually hoping and praying they change. Maybe the only way they are really going to change is when they lose their position, and churches are just enabling them to not have to face the stark consequences of their behavior.

    If a church won’t stand up for what is right when it comes to basic integrity, proper behavior and the character required of its leadership, there is really no hope for that church; it is destined to continue to have the problems of toxic leaders forever.

  • It is hard to tell if my pastor is like this. He is charismatic and extremely popular and has tons of loyal followers. The church though non denominational seems arminian and palegian. That last part really has caused me some concern. It takes a while to know these things about a church. The staff has a great closeness but the members are at a distance and we are the audience during services and we are encouraged to do giving and service. The staff seem to be very happy but most of the women who are members in church seem depressed and many are on some type of medication. That is a stark difference I noticed in countenance between staffers and members. I want desperately to leave this place but the pastor always complains to me that this is hurtful. I have no idea why he says this or why it would be hurtful to him if I left. I’m just afraid that the longer I am there, the harder it will be to leave and I’ll probably die right there.

  • Melody A Therence says on

    I was very enlightened by the information rendered in the article. It made me realize that, for years, I have been under toxic leadership. Manipulation, favoritism, and marginalization are all the elements that existed. The founder of my church died two years ago. The leadership has been passed down to members of his immediate family. The top-down leadership style, decisions made by only the select few, which is the immediate family, and the stifling f the development of talented members all exist. Many times, I have stayed awake at night because of being mistreated and stifled. Your article helped me to identify the problem.

  • I am currently in distress whether I am taking up the right decision or not. My pastor is advising me to resign from my job and look for another one since my current job has office hours of half day every Saturday. I submitted to my pastor and filed a resignation, in response, my employer offered me a salary increase, a pay I know I could not find on other companies. I file my leave on Saturdays whenever I am needed on the church, and my company is very understanding when I do so, but my pastor is still insisting that I should resign. He is getting angry with me as I explain to him my point of view. He continuously tells me that I am unfaithful because I won’t follow his advice. I don’t know what to do. He is telling me that I could just be an attendee and not a worker to the church. I don’t know what to do. I hope you can help me.

  • “Charming like a snake.” Very true!

    Yes, this aptly describes a pastor I know. He has been causing problems in the church right from the beginning without even the very senior pastor and experienced council members noticing it.

    He speaks with a forked tongue, displaying charm and stabbing you from the back at the same time. He uses the congregation as a weapon to divide and conquer.

    It is very challenging to deal with this kind of pastor in the church.

    I have suggested to the church hierarchy about sending the pastor for pastoral coaching. But now I feel that that’s too kind.

    They should be sent to a “rehab” or defrock altogether.

  • What do you think of a pastor who preaches negative about old people saying as we age men get grouchy and women are grouchy and he went on to say negative things about seniors.

    I am a senior and I left the sermon feeling depressed. What was the pastor trying to accomplish with this kind of sermon? I thought a pastor is supposed to bring a message about love, joy, and peace especially in this time of year just before the holidays. What was the pastor trying to tell his members?

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