Yes, they do exist, and in too many places. Ministry is a place where almost anyone who has some skill can set themselves up for leadership in some manner. And in ministry, we often seem to give toxic leaders a pass because they preach well or because in the name of "grace" we are afraid to call them on what is candidly just bad behavior.

Here are some signs of toxicity in ministry leaders. Toxicity is about an ongoing pattern of behavior that is abusive, disempowering, and violates the Biblical standards of those who are called into Christian leadership (elders and deacons). 

  • A pattern of treating people poorly, using them for their own purposes and marginalizing or demonizing those who disagree with them. Toxic leaders leave a trail of bodies in their wake - hurt and wounded.
  • An inability to apologize or wrongs committed, an inability to admit poor behavior and an unwillingness to ask forgiveness or seek reconciliation. In conflict, it is always the other person who was in the wrong.
  • A pattern of anger, abusive words or threats that create a culture of fear and intimidation where people are afraid to speak their minds and when they do are marginalized.
  • A pattern of narcissistic behavior where the leader needs to be right, does not like when people challenge him, is defensive and demeans those who disagree with him. Arrogance rather than humility is the operative word and attitude.
  • A pattern of skating ethical edges.
  • A pattern of unaccountability. They insist that people are accountable to them but are essentially unaccountable themselves. Often this means living by different rules and standards than are demanded of others.
  • A lack of grace in dealing with those around them, especially staff.
  • A pattern where words (and messages) do not match the leaders behavior behind the scenes. 
  • A pattern of dishonesty which is necessary for toxic leaders who either lie about what happened when confronted or skew the truth significantly (untruth) to make them appear to be in the right and the other in the wrong.
  • When confronted, they portray themselves as the victim rather as one who needs to take responsibility. Even apologies, when given are skewed to paint themselves as the one aggrieved.
  • There is a lack of personal and ministry transparency.
I was once in a meeting with a pastor who exhibited many of these behaviors. We were attempting a reconciliation with a staff member he had mistreated and then fired. When I suggested that his behaviors would not have been tolerated in the organization I lead he said, "I didn't do to him anything that he didn't do to me." As if that was justification. 

In another instance I spent two hours with a ministry leader whose behaviors fit these patterns and he spent the entire evening recounting how every issue his leaders had talked to him about were someone else's problem. Not once in two hours did he take any personal responsibility for any of his own behavior. It was all about him.

Grace does not give leaders a pass for behavior that is outside the biblical norms for what is expected of a Christian leader. In my experience in church consulting the harm that is done by toxic leaders is very great and leaves a terrific amount of pain and anguish in its wake. 

It is one thing for people to suffer pain from those who don't know Jesus but when the perpetrator is a Christian leader it is even more deeply painful and disillusioning.  I have interviewed many such individuals and it will be years before they are whole again. After all they suffered from one who represented himself as an undershepherd of Jesus. 

I don't care how good a preacher one is, how brilliant a strategist or how big an organization one can grow. If our behaviors are not consistent with our message and the One we serve, we should not be leading - or allow others who are toxic to lead. This is a significant blind spot in the church today.

All of T.J. Addington's books including his latest, Deep Influence,  are available from the author for the lowest prices and a $2.00 per book discount on orders of ten or more.
  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Category: News
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