Here are five signs you might have a toxic church leader.
Bullying and Intimidation
We had a man years ago who was an elder in a church and was nothing short of a bully. He considered his office as God giving him the authority to do what he wanted and to tell people what they could and couldn’t do. God does give church leaders authority, but they’re not to be dictators. Some eventually left the church because he was too much to deal with. When a church leader refuses to listen to any feedback, gives orders without reason, asks you to do things but does nothing himself, and seems to bully those who don’t do what he asks, then you have a toxic church leader who will eventually poison the church. It may be time to take it to the church or at least speak with the pastor.
Not Leading but Pushing
My mentor, a retired pastor who is disabled today, told me that no one will be willing to go anywhere unless you’re willing to go there yourself. In other words, they won’t go where you don’t lead them. I had been trying to push the church into doing ministry. I (unknowingly) laid a guilt trip on them so they would get involved in the children’s ministry, outreach, Sunday school, prison ministry, nursing home ministry, and a ministry to help the poor. It worked but only for a time. It wasn’t until I finally realized, with my mentor’s help, that I had to be the first one to go or they wouldn’t follow. Eventually, I apologized to the church. If a church leader’s trying to push you into doing ministry but isn’t involved himself, you probably have a toxic church leader in your midst.
A man who has been chosen by God as an elder, deacon, or pastor is supposed to be above reproach (Titus 1:6), yet I often hear about church leaders who are involved in sexual immorality or financial scandal. The church forgives them; but in some cases, they do it again yet remain in church leadership. Of course, we should forgive them; but according to Scripture, they are commanded to live a life that is holy (not perfect), blameless, and above reproach. They “must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money” (1 Timothy 3:2-3) and “be the husband of one wife, managing their children and their own households well” (1 Timothy 3:12). Having these “fruits of the flesh” makes for a toxic church leader and an unqualified one as well.
One pastor was complimented about his preaching by someone in the church, who said, “I think you’re one of the greatest preachers today.” When the pastor later said to his wife, “I wonder how many great preachers there are in the world today,” she wisely said, “One less than you think, dear!” She nailed it. What was missing was humility. When a church leader starts believing their own stuff and they don’t give God all the glory, that toxic pride can infiltrate the church. If members see a church leader behave in such a way, they might reason, “Why can’t we?” Pride in anyone, especially a church leader, is a leaven that can quickly spread to the whole lump (the church) and can become toxic to the entire body.
Only God can know with certainty whether someone is saved or not (1 Samuel 16:7), but Jesus did say we can know them by their fruit (Matthew 7:16). We can’t see the root, but we can see the fruit. By seeing the fruit, we might know the root. Does a church leader display “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)? There’s nothing toxic here, only that which is good. But if a church leader displays “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21), then this church has a highly toxic church leader.
It takes time and experience to know who is and who isn’t toxic to the church. We have people in the church who can have these same qualities and also hurt the church. Of course, pastors are not immune from being toxic to their church either. I think the safest way to remain beneficial to the church and remove all risk of toxicity is to humble yourself before others. Be transparent, admit your mistakes, and accept other people’s faults because we have plenty of them ourselves. A leader who is faithful, available, and teachable (humble) can do much good to a church. I pray I stay that way and that you will, too, my brothers and sisters in Christ. If not, we’ll find ourselves opposed even to God (James 4:6).