Six Traits of a Church Disrupter


He is almost in every church.

In fact, the “he” may be a “she,” but I’ll use the masculine pronoun for simplicity.

He is the church disrupter. Unlike church bullies, the disrupter rarely attacks leaders directly. He is good about stirring up dissension, but he seems to always feel like “God led me to do it.” He can have a gregarious and pleasant personality (unlike the typical church bully), and can thus attract a following for a season.

The disrupter is just that. He disrupts the unity of the church. He disrupts the outward focus of the church. And he disrupts the plans of church leadership. So what are some key traits to watch in church disrupters? Here are six:

  1. He often seeks positions in the church so he can get attention. So be wary if he asks to lead the student group or the praise team or become chairman of the finance committee. He loves to exert his negative influence through key and visible positions.
  2. He often votes “no” in business meetings. Again, this tactic is yet another attempt to get attention.
  3. He loves to say, “People are saying . . .” He wants you to think his issue is more widespread than it really is. Another approach is “If we had a secret ballot vote, there would be a lot more dissenters.”
  4. He tries to get followers at the church for his cause of the moment. That is another reason he seeks positions of influence in the church.
  5. He often assures the pastor and other church leaders how much he loves them and supports them. And then he goes and stabs them in the back.
  6. He loves to use “facts’ loosely for his case or cause. Accuracy is neither required nor expected.

So how should pastors and other church leaders address the problem of church disrupters? Allow me to suggest a few ideas.

  • Determine you will love them as Christ loves you and them. It’s tough, but it can be done in Christ’s strength.
  • Pray for them. Seriously.
  • Be on the watch for them. They can be manipulative and deceptive; they can cause chaos before you see it coming.
  • Get other leaders to help you address the disrupters and their disruption. But, be aware, they will be shocked you perceive them that way.
  • As soon as possible, get them out of key leadership positions. They are a problem now, but they can become toxic later.

I have my theories on why church disrupters act the way they do, but that is a topic for another post. In the meantime, be wary of church disrupters. But love them and pray for them anyway.

That is the way Christ would respond.

Posted on August 28, 2017

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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  • Oh My, Brother Thom you have hit the proverbial nail on the head. I have this man in my church right now. He is like a unity blender. When we get a little traction he is there to confuse the merits of the issue, then points to fault to me, the Pastor. This individual man, in a church of 350, has caused this Pastor to want to leave the ministry, permanently. This is devilish…God rid Pastors of this kind of a person. Thom, thanks for this post.

  • I have found three effective responses. First, follow the Biblical directive and meet with them privately sharing the appropriate scripture verses–I always included Romans 16:16-17; then explain next steps.

    Try meeting with them in advance of decision making meetings and ask what concerns they may have. Try to answer all their questions in advance and get a commitment from them to not be divisive.

    Pray and pray some more. I have watched God handle situations in a manner that I would have never thought of or approached.

  • Charlie Farrell says on

    Good article…I read a book which is similar. “Leader Killers” by Kenneth Haugk

    I recommend the read to anyone, especially leaders, affected by church disrupters.

  • Robbie Norman says on

    When someone says, “People are saying,” I reply with the questions, “Which people? Will you tell me their names so I can talk to them?” This usually stops it right there.

  • Thom,
    One mistake…the use of the male pronoun, “He.” You need to be gender neutral because, from experience, disrupters are not just he’s.

  • Do not forget Paul’s warning to Titus in leading the church on Crete (where the people were known to be tough characters):

    “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn him a second time. After that, have nothing to do with him. You may be sure that such a man is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned.”

    Hard to do especially if these “disrupters” are popular and powerful. Few in the congregation will stand up to them, which is necessary if you are going to be able to deal with them. But the Scripture is clear and the stakes are high.

  • I am not arguing that there are no disrupters. However, before you brand someone a disrupter, please make sure the person did not just avoid the koolaid pitcher and did not contract the contagious disease named group think. Sometimes the voice of reason that does not go along with the group is not appreciated and thus, the person is branded. Look, Jesus was branded a mega-disrupter and got executed for it.

    • I agree that not everyone who disagrees with something that leadership does is a disrupter. But, the distinct difference to me is do they approach the leadership alone with their concern, offer a solution/different perspective, and are willing to listen to the leaders’ reasoning to how they came to the conclusion they got to? If they take these steps, then they are not a disrupter, but have a genuine concern.
      If this happens to me, my first question will be, “Who have you spoken to about this concern other than me?” If no solution is offered, but just a complaint, I would ask, “What do you think could be done better in this situation?” If they cannot answer that question, I would put aside their complaint and watch them closely.
      I’ve seen disrupters, and I’ve seen my share of poor leaders who want to do things their way without regards to the people their leading. Because they have the attitude of “I’m God’s man.” Instead of the true heart of the pastor which is “The LORD is our shepherd, I’m the sheep dog that leads you to Him.”
      My question to Thom would be, how should a Christ-Follower deal with a leader/pastor who does not want to listen/serve the people he should be leading? How should a Christ-Follower deal with a leader/pastor who has the attitude that God will bless him as he goes, instead of the one who seeks how God wants him to lead?

      • Back up a step and see if the leaders will explain their reasoning leading up to the conclusion.

        My question would be how to get a leader/pastor to explain his/her reasoning when simply asking doesn’t work?

      • It is a bit unfair to label a person as a disrupter because he/she asks questions and brings a different viewpoint. In my experience most people do not like change, sit on their hands and are unwilling to reevaluate. I was labeled as this because I question things. I had to leave as an elder and so called disrupter, and so did four other elders, and both pastors, now the church is in serious decline hoping to find new elders and pastors. IMHO, if they had just been some open minded, it might have prevented the problems.

        Additionally, the leadership were corrupt, but I am sure readers on this blog will blame me, as has happened in the past.

    • In the first place, nowhere does this list label anyone who asks questions as a disrupter. In the second place, no, a person who disagrees with the leadership on some issues is not necessarily a disrupter. On the other hand, when a person votes against the majority on anything and everything, that is a major red flag. That’s a characteristic of someone who – to borrow a phrase from a seminary professor –
      “was born in the objective case and the kickative mood”.

      • This is a bit unfair and judgmental. In my experience hardly anyone asks questions. Some have told me it is because the fix is in and it makes no difference. Because I asked questions, I was warned I was a trouble maker…. only because I questioned the leadership on finances and policy.

      • All I said was a person who votes against the majority on anything and everything is very likely a disrupter. What’s so unfair and judgmental about that? I don’t know you or your situation, so I don’t make any judgments about you one way or the other. However, I’m always suspicious of people who argue just for the sake of arguing.

    • Timothy Fish says on

      I don’t think anyone is saying that everyone must drink the same Kool-Aid. There is a right way and a wrong way to disagree. A disrupter is loose with his facts and says “people are saying”. But it is very different if a person names specific people or even better let’s those people speak for themselves. It is also very different if his facts are documented and his arguments are well reasoned. Such a person is much more open to people examining his assumptions and is much more likely to be persuaded if someone can show him why his assumptions are wrong. The disrupter will not be persuaded because his arguments and assumptions change if he thinks it will help him get his way.

    • Said the voice of one crying in the wilderness.

  • Gadasu Samuel says on

    I had one such in our church, I asked him to go to another church.. In Africa we do not entertain such

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      And there you go . . .

      • Bright Ndibunwa says on

        It is not that we don’t entertain such in Africa but the truth is many occasions such people if not asked to leave the fellowship scatters the Church and send most members out.So most times its better u send out so as for them not to lead u the leader to sin.One caused a lot of problems in our Church for years.We prayed ,forgave still she never changed .God help us.

  • David Kinnon says on

    Deeply thought-provoking article. On occasions when I disagree with leadership I remember the words of Psalm 105:15 “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” I have never sought position simply as a means of provoking discord or promoting conflict. However, I have known Pastors to adopt these or similar tactics, sometimes with a view to invoking victimhood in their own interests. the accusation at (5) is also something of a two-edged sword (no pun intended). Thank you Dr Rainer for raisng this topic and enumerating these issues.

  • Tom Price says on

    May I suggest using the biblical model of church discipline on these people. They will either repent or be removed from fellowship. Either way, no one will have to be looking over their shoulder anymore.

  • Philani Chauke says on

    Thank you. this is informative

  • In ministry, I have refused to make any decisions or even put any weight into the statement, “People are saying.” This is something that took some time to learn. I have only heard that a few times in recent years. In all cases, I have asked the individuals to have those “people” contact me. I have never heard a follow up from anyone on any of those things so many people were allegedly concerned about

    • You took the words right out of my mouth, friend! If it’s not important enough for them to attach their names to it, then it’s not important enough for me to waste my time worrying about it.

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      I totally agree, Chris.

    • This is something that I have experienced multiple time. However, over the years, I have learnt to do the same thing, asking for the people to come see me, and nothing happens.

      • What about instances when you have heard multiple people make the same statement to you, but they fear being reprimanded by the church leadership?

        For instance we had a case where the preaching pastor was using prepackaged sermons without giving any mention of the original author. I was hearing from two groups of people. One group was praising the pastor for his high quality sermons, this was the largest group. A much smaller group, who listened to Christian radio and were more familiar with popular Christian speakers, were stating they were highly uncomfortable with the similarity between our pastor’s sermons and the sermons by pastor X (insert famous Christian radio teacher.) I too was uncomfortable about the lack of transparency in stating the sermon’s origins but when talking to the pastor I did not feel it would be right to name everyone else who had spoken to me. It felt like I would have been throwing them under the bus, so I simply said, “I was not the only one who has voiced these concerns.”

        When leadership was made aware of these things they accepted the praise of the first group and dismissed the anonymous statements of the second group and they started telling members I was creating problems and didn’t support our pastor and his mission.

      • Steve
        I understand what you are talking about a similar situation is going on at a church that I was attending. Where some of the people was upset because the Pastor wasn’t doing what he was supposed to and everyone was blaming a few people of being against the Pastor and that wasn’t it at all. But it got to the point the people got hostile and telling people that has been members 30 + years. Several people has left the church now. And you would think Christians wouldn’t want to fuss and get to the point of being ready to fight in the house of the Lord. Then the Pastor posts this article.

    • The fact the people don’t come forward doesn’t mean that concerns don’t truly exist (just as many people complain about government policies who take no trouble to contact the politicians to voice their concerns, even though the concerns are genuine). We have a very difficult situation in our church where the pastor has emptied the pews and the coffers, and continues to run the church almost as a hobby. Few of the people left in the church are happy with his ministry but to his face they smile and say polite things, partly because they would be afraid of rocking the boat, partly because they fear that once the pastor is gone the church will have to close for lack of financial resources, partly because they have grown too passive and depressed to try to alter the status quo, and partly because they are afraid of how the pastor would treat them if they did speak out – he would either victimize them and preach against them week after week until he had driven them out of the church (as he did to all the elders in his early years at the church) or he would simply ignore them and follow the approach you advocate, and pretend that it wasn’t anything to be concerned about.

      Even if you don’t immediately react to what someone tells you, it’s often worth just keeping it in the back of your mind and wondering whether it could be true, and quietly (and gently) pursue private lines of inquiry if necessary, just to ascertain the truth. If one person is the person who does have the courage to voice the concerns of many, it is unfair to ask them to name names. Nor should you be too hasty to dismiss one voice. It could be truly representative of the many who lack the courage to speak out, or it could be the lone voice which is more faithful to God’s Word, like Luther in the midst of the Roman Catholic Church.

      • I repeat, if it’s not important for someone to attach a name to it, then it’s not important enough for me to be concerned with it.

      • The best advice I have heard on critics is treat it like eating fish, “eat the meat, spit out the bones.” Find the truth in the accusations and ignore the bod motives or poor attitude. This slays our ego and causes us to act in love even towards difficult people. We are called to serve and lead even those who would hurt us or malign our motives.

      • bad not bod

    • Alan Hitchner says on

      But what about when hearsay is allowed to result in the banning of a church member without review or consideration. Just a complete shunning? This is a mainline denomination. The “Member” has no police records at all and is known by the congregation to be amiable and a very devoted and friendly follower of Christ. One thing though: He objected to emotional abuse/harassment of a family member by what might be considered by some to be a wayward cleric. The wayward cleric blocked all paths to peacemaking and made claims that the accuse was a threat to the congregation. Why would the leadership cower from prompt peacemaking or reconciliation as is established and described in the Gospels by the words of Our Lord Christ Jesus? Why would the leadership instead stand with the wayward cleric as though this were a civil matter where the cleric simply made a mistake and overreacted and abandoned the oath of ordination by tossing off one of the clerics young adult charges in the most deprecating and insulting one-sided attack against young adult at the cusp of committing their life to Christ without so much as one impulse to reconsider the total casting of the young soul? Does this sound like Christianity or “christianity”? Neither to me. I seek the insight of you and your columnists because I have watched this young person suffer for years over this and I have seen how the organization has ignored and hidden this matter rather than approaching and healing the matter. What have you to say of this? Mind that every gentle encouragement and repeated offers was given to meet with the wayward clergy but was rejected. But if you knew of the true depth of this story you would be appalled.

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