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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229 Comments

  • C. S. Porter says on

    Thanks for nice message.

    Is their any way to save such leaders (Are such leaders saved?), in whom these 14 points are found, from eternal damnation.

    If yes, then what is the way out so that they do not go eternal damnation.

  • I have left my church of 11 years. We do have a church we have returned to from 1998. The pastor at my past church is a salvation preacher. I can say there are 4 salcation preachers. Now this season of covid19 i hv been separated frim church. Not God, not study, not devotional but only attendance. They choose to be open & gather w mask & distancing in a building structure used for weddings etc. I choose to abide by the law of the land & do as authority mandates. There is no way I understand the deep details of the disease, counts, and it going in so many directions. So past pastor announces on fb they are open on tuesday & sunday & gather for ministry events. I posted my opinion after he threw out facts about the covid19. Bottomline saying the fly is worse. T h e other padtor made a comment that basically said that those who do not attend church shld nit hv any comment because we are not in agreement with the choice of the church. Im heartbroken once again with this church. 11 yrs of hvg the salcation message pounded into my soul, heafing up ministries & being available all unto the Lord & #1 pastor is rebellious & #2 pastor takes a jab at me. Also using scripture to backup this season of covid19 & speaks from the pulput government issues into God’s word every single service. I cannot even remember a grace message.

  • Rebecca says on

    I attend a large well known church with sound preaching and a whole host of other ministries which I’m sure bless many thousands. However the leaders and church workers are very closed. There is definately an ‘inner circle’ whereby close family and friends are chosen for all the important roles in the church. It’s impossible to have close relationships with any of them. If you tell one of them something in confidence the whole group knows. My husband and I have been there 10 years now and long to be more involved with service but are constantly pushed back as are many others also. The leaders complain no one is willing to help with the work yet is and others are very willing to buy they only want their select few. People have been criticised publicly in the church prayer meeting for not praying the ‘right way’. Lockdown has brought out the worst in all of this with bare minimum communication given to all church members, again only the select few know what is really going on. It’s as if the leaders want a closed circle however much they preach and pray that they want more and more souls won for Christ. The pastor is elderly, doesn’t reply to messages and seems to only really know the inner circle and not know the lives of others. When one of our family was seriously unwell the pastor didn’t call or reach out to us even though he knew what had happened. I worry for my kids growing up in such an environment and currently we are praying for the Lord to show us if there is a place we can better serve.

  • Michael Faylor says on

    Great information for people.

  • Most articles are only focused on the pain , hardship and challenges of church leaders . But this one is picture perfect to my current situation. I served a notice of indefinite leave of absence to my Music Ministry Director for unelaborated personal reasons . But deep inside my soul , here they are :
    1. Weekly he is scheduled for leading worship unless he is busy doe work.
    2. He thinks of the other worship leaders are just replacing his absence .
    3. He never conducts meetings
    4. He doesn’t have ministry calendar
    5. He never rotates the members in a balanced way . He will only put a vocalist who is the apple of his eyes
    6. He criticizes the dress of one but never his favorite
    7. He has no sense of growth , transformation or revival .
    Question : Is a woman allowed to lead a.ministry?

  • Lois Ryan says on

    We go to an ELCA church. My husband was hired 1/1/20 as a part-time facilities manager and now let go 6/1/20 when they wanted his salary to go to a summer intern to work on the sound system. He was hired under the understanding at 6 months he and the minister would see readdress him staying on. Now the guy who used to do the facilities job has come back from Florida for the summer and is doing his job with the church letting him spend money. When my husband tried to do things that needed to be done the minister wouldn’t let him spend the money and it was only $15.00!!! Seems like a stab in the back. I don’t want to go back to this church but my husband wants to go back because we do have lots of friends but I have a desire not go to back. I don’t think I can tolerate their disrespect. Is this normal or what should I do? I’m having a hard time forgiving the minister.

  • Toxic leadership is now the standard, not a rarity. Most churches are REPROBATE and infiltrated now by witchcraft, sexually deviant leaders, liars, greedy men and narcissists. Rate to find a saved person at the helm. I still attend a church; but I do not get involved, nor do my kids attend any youth groups. WAY too many ungodly people choose to “help out” in kid and teen ministries because they typically have zero accountability.

    • Finally, someone who tells the TRUTH!! My church was full of witches!

      • Sheila Hilton says on

        My church is a church built on saving people. We are few members because people are not being taught right about our lord and saviour by some pastors, revs. etc.. July 5th on Sunday my pastor washed our feet and gave us each a word from god. He spoke the truth. His word is based on the word of the bible. His verses that he speaks are always to help people grow. People are so stuck on going to the same church they’ve always gone to. “BUT” are they being taught correctly, do they see a difference in there life, are they living the word, is there a change in them when they leave the church. It is a process to walk in the way and we as sinners have to decide where we want our paths to go. It’s not your daughter, your son it’s about your personnel walk with god and then everything will fall into place. The way you walk can change your family, finances, health, more love, peace and hope in your life.

  • Mary Singletary says on

    I have a very hard question.A man was brought into our Church because the founding Pastor passed away..He came in and within 3 years he has moved the founding Pastors family off Church land, prayed for the sick to die and totally took over the church the original members have been run off and removed from the board.Because some of them wanted to see Church Financial Records.He has chocked children ,Only a few remain he has told all of the original members they are not welcome back..How do these poor people get their church back?

    • peterun says on

      Dear, they won’t get their church back. But they can get a better church but first, you guys must get rid of your current Pastor. Pray, read the Bible and Sun Tse’s Art of War.
      We had a kind a similar situ. No real resolution. Better to leave if no other means remain.

  • Destiny says on

    Today, I felt so much pain by the church today from being hypocritical. I lost my job and okay but until unemployment comes in I am stuck. Hungry, rent is behind, thankfulky have 90 days until eviction but it’s stressful. I haven’t had food since Friday. I called salvation army, a mana food place, and two churches and was told we can’t help you and praying for you but I am starving and was referred to them for temporary food and rent help. The pastors never called me, profiled me by some unrelated comments via text, and said things that Jesus Christ wouldn’t do he’d help. So yes, i need food badly and rent help badly and have not received my stimulus check or benefits yet , approved. I have faith, yet feel my new city has a lot of false prophets if times get tough they only help their own normal congregate neighbors. I loved your article , it is very good and true. I had to experience tests of trust unworthy to know these people aren’t who need to be trusted and prayers for food and rent help during covid 19, would be great!
    I live in VA and have had a bad experience with false witnesses.

    • Destiny please hang in there I’m praying for you . I don’t know how I stumbled onto this website but I guess it was something God wanted I am so sorry for your pain I’m praying for you everything will be OK I don’t even go to church anymore because of our pastor and his money money money money that’s all he thought about I go to church I want to be fed about the Holy Spirit and the Lord I don’t want to know or how much money they have or how much money they need I want to talk about the Lord but anyways getting back to you I’m praying for you everything will be OK don’t worry I’m sorry that you’re hurting my arms around you giving you a big hug and telling you everything will be OK in the Lord always comes through it will be all right just hold on

    • sister in christ says on

      how are u? are u ok now? did u find a place ?

  • No Secrets says on

    There’s a man who is coming to a house in my neighborhood in Dallas he has a Church in Garland. He’s pretending to work as a caregiver and sleeping with the woman in the house, she says it’s her boyfriend. Has been going there for more than a year. Must be no accountability at his church or his house. According to the website he is married.

  • Do you have any articles or Biblical advice on how to address it? I’m currently writing a list along with possible solutions so that I may consult my pastor. But even then, I’ve been getting so much spiritual pushback. Even to the point where people associated with the toxic leadership are putting things in place to safeguard it. Over the past few years we have lost dozens of good leaders due to this.

  • Powell, MP says on

    I’ve been save for fifteen years now and we move to four different churches. First, I left the church because the leaders are evil and gossipers. They treat people they don’t like, like a dirt.
    Second: I went to a new church and left again because the leaders are evil again. Somewhat my husband and I have the same stomach flue. We have to call the clinic to pick us up because we can’t even drive. When your sick you can’t think properly to call the church that you’re not able to attend the service because you’re very sick. We stay at the hospital for a week and the doctor advice is stay home for another week. When we come back in the church, the pastor scolded us in his preaching that if we want to quit the church he don’t care and his eye always in us. So I confront the pastor because his been repeating preaching giving us dirty look. I ask him; “Are you scolding us with your preaching?” “He said kind of” because he did not see us for two weeks. You did not see us for two weeks, did you try to find out why we’re not in the church? The pastor said he is too busy and every member responsible to call. What if we can’t call because we’re very sick and we’re in the hospital? He ask proof. Sunday night I gave him the copy how long we stayed in the hospital, the doctor’s name, the hospital name, and the number of the doctor. I hand the proof his looking and never come back.
    Third: we went to a very small church and boring. The preacher and his wife super lazy. They never go out to knock doors. The wife do the preaching lesson for her husband. The pastor husband was reading the homework his wife wrote and he can’t even read. We try to help them out to grow the church but how the church can grow if they both spender, lazy, and gossip. They asking people to give money for grocery and they want people to buy an airline ticket to go tour in Israel. They need $5,000.00 round trip ticket. They always have party potluck and requested me to cook baby back ribs barbeque. My husband and I woke up too early to cooked the requested barbeque. The pastor’s wife very loud to say she hate to eat the ribs barbeque because it so messy to eat. I told her, that’s your request and we woke up very early just to please your request and now you say that you hated it? She just joking.
    Fourth: we went to this church for six years. I notice something wrong to this church but we just don’t want to move again. Many are racist and the pastor is also racist. I’m the only colored in that church and eighteen of them are racist. I ignoring it because I like the preaching of all missionaries visiting the church. Too many pestilence gossipers and the pastor protecting the evil. Every time there’s a new visitor, they warn them to stay away from me because I’m dangerous person. I never gossip against anybody but I’m the dangerous. Here they are full of gossips and lies but they never consider themselves dangerous. We left the church after six years and we don’t know where to go. We ask God to guide our feet to a church that more believers that gossips. A pastor who is neutral to people. A pastor that not a gossiper believers nor gossips entertainer. We worship God in the house and not attending any church for now and I don’t know if we still go to church or not any more. Please help me. Thank you for reading my experience.

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