How to Recover from a Toxic Church and Bounce Back Even Better

When the church causes hurt, it pollutes God’s calling and creates a toxicity that works against the gospel.

The goal is to minimize church hurt and maximize church unity. Here is reality. Something will happen in almost every church because ministry includes people. In some cases, the pastor is the cause of the hurt. In other cases, the people of the church hurt the pastor. Pastors can be responsible for church hurt, but this article focuses on how pastors should respond when experiencing a toxic church culture.

Pastors can experience various forms of church hurt, some more painful than others.

    1. “I’m not being fed, so I’m leaving.”
    2. “People are saying. . .”
    3. “I love you, but. . .”
    4. “I noticed you bought a vehicle. How can you afford that?”
    5. “You should listen and learn from my favorite YouTube preacher.”
    6. “I support you, but I don’t want to talk to my friends about their negative attitudes.”
    7. “Why do your kids act that way?”
    8. “Why is your spouse not more involved?”

Now, there is a difference between hurt and toxicity. The former is personal. The latter is cultural. You may experience toxicity but not be personally hurt. You may be personally hurt but not in a toxic culture. Or you may feel the compounding effects of both. 

    • Not toxic or hurtful: A healthy church acts as God designed.
    • Toxic, but not hurtful: The culture is poisonous, but the people are not after you personally.
    • Not toxic, but hurtful: In these cases, an individual or small group is attacking you unbeknownst to the rest of the congregation. This situation is usually short-term, as even a small group will eventually affect the church’s culture.
    • Toxic and hurtful: The culture is hurtful, and at least some people are after you personally.

Though there is much overlap between toxic church culture and personal hurt, making this distinction is critical for pastors. The pathway to reconciliation is clearer when a toxic culture is not present because the process involves a small group of people (perhaps just two) rather than the entire congregation. What are some warning signs of a toxic church culture?

    • Exclusion: When outsiders are intentionally pushed out. 
    • Contempt: When willful disobedience is used to show disrespect.
    • Hypocrisy: When key leaders act in a way that contradicts what they teach.
    • Betrayal: When people use your trust for their own personal gain.
    • Gossip: When people consistently share sensitive information about you and others without permission.
    • Neglect: When obvious problems are left unattended for long periods of time.
    • Duplicity: When people intend harm by misrepresenting the truth.
    • Conflict: When disagreements go unresolved, and no one seeks reconciliation.

The first step is determining whether God desires you to stay in the toxic church culture. Someone will need to shepherd the people out of their toxicity. Perhaps it is you. Maybe it is someone else. Whether you stay or go, you will need to bounce back. Part of shepherding is working your way out of a low place for the sake of serving others.

Where am I going? I recommend pastors stay in a church until they have another job in the queue. Though some churches may be so toxic an immediate exit is warranted, in most cases, staying until you have another position is best for the pastor, family, and church body. If you choose to stay, don’t compromise your ability to solve the problem by adding to the toxicity with careless rants and unwise responses.

On whom am I relying? You should recognize your feelings but rely on God’s supernatural strength. Wallowing in your feelings will prevent you from following the Holy Spirit. Before making major decisions, pray for a season and listen carefully to God.

What is my motive? Leaving because you are personally hurt is different than leaving because of a culture of toxicity. You must first discern what is driving your decisions. If you do not work out your motives, others (even your friends) will not understand your predicament. Internal clarity should precede external communication.

Am I overreacting? Pastors can be overly sensitive. If you have the gift of empathy, then you might also become emotionally overcharged. Additionally, personal loneliness and discouragement can compound the effects of a toxic culture. Are you hurt because someone targeted you? Or are you hurt because of situational difficulties?

Am I making healing a priority? You may be hurting, but do not hurt yourself any further. Take time away. Refresh and decompress. A few days of rest can resolve a lot of stress. Also, prioritize healing, but don’t use recovery as an excuse to become apathetic.

Am I asking for help? Seek the help you need and do not walk alone. No one should navigate a difficult season solo. Make phone calls to your mentor, counselor, and close friends. Be grateful for those who respond positively. When I went through a tough church situation, a handful of people stood with me. Without them, I would not be ministering today. One of them has become a best friend. Our friendship started when he reached out to me, offering help.

You can bounce back. Indeed, you must bounce back for the sake of God’s kingdom. Shepherding a congregation is never easy. Sometimes the valley includes a season of toxicity. You may even get hurt. But the gospel heals. And the gospel is worth the effort to get better.

Posted on October 18, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • Nail. On. The. Head!

    Excellent article and advice!

    “You can bounce back…you must bounce back!”

    “…the gospel heals!”

    Needed words in this hour of serving the Lord.

    Thank you!

  • The article is very timely, true, and thoughtful. The Lord consoles all (even ministers) as it is written in James 1:2-4. Thank you Sam – God bless!

  • Bob Myers says on

    Your distinctions are very helpful, Sam.

    Anyone who follows the call into ministry will get hurt somewhere along the way. Jesus pretty much promised it. This is especially true if you take the lead pastor role – though I had enough “toxicity” and hurt as an associate.

    I could write a book; in fact, I did start a memoir many years ago. Maybe someday I’ll finish it. Each person’s trial and journey will be unique. But you are right; you’ve got to pursue healing and health. It can be very complicated if your position is the primary source of income for your family.

    But in the grand scheme of things, God can do incredibly deep things in the heart of the wounded pastor if he/she will pursue him in their journey towards health. My journey took me into situational depression for a couple of years. I’ve never been shy to admit it, which has empowered and helped the people I have served since then who suffer in a similar way. I have much more empathy. There are many other things that I discovered in my journey that have humbled me and nurtured more effective spiritual giftedness.

    For anyone going through such a trial, I cannot recommend too strongly to immerse oneself in the psalms, especially the psalms of lament. They give us language of faith when our own thoughts and words fail us.

    One of the psalms that spoke profoundly to me during my season of trial was Psalm 138, which contains these encouraging words:

    Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
    you preserve my life;
    you stretch out your hand against the wrath of my enemies,
    and your right hand delivers me.
    The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
    your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
    Do not forsake the work of your hands. Psalm 138: 7-8 (ESV)