Guest Post: Lessons learnt from suffering toxic church leadership

This is a guest post. The writer has asked to remain anonymous. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

My wife and I were longstanding members of our church. We were invested, committed, and close to the centre. Until, all of a sudden, we weren’t.

Having raised some concerns, we found ourselves silenced, threatened and publicly discredited.  Vulnerabilities were weaponised. The truth was covered up to “protect the church”. It felt like living in a parallel reality where behaviour that would be usually be seen as unreasonable was treated as though it were perfectly normal.

It’s not that important to share all the gory details. But I wanted to share some of the lessons we have learnt in the hope that they offer comfort and healing to others who have suffered at the hands of toxic church leadership.

We’re not better than those who hurt us

Psalm 130 has been a particular refuge.  Especially verse 3: “If you, LORD, kept a record of sins, Lord who could stand?”

These words turn the mirror on us. All the times we felt anger, shame, disappointment, betrayal (all valid emotions) we also felt hate and self-righteousness. But Psalm 130 doesn’t let us set ourselves above the ones who hurt us. Rather, it reminds us that we also have darkness in our hearts and that we need a saviour too.

Jesus is gentle and pursues his sheep

Our leaders represent the Lord, so the way they wield power and influence will impact how we relate to Him. If a trusted leader hurts someone, it can feel as though God is not so nice!  Likewise, when leaders value productivity, projects and platforms over people, it creates the impression — spoken or not — that what really matters to God is what you can do. This can whisper to our souls that if we don’t have much to offer the church we are worthless to Christ.

But Jesus is different. He welcomed, pursued and ate with the least. He was moved by suffering. Luke 15 shows this side of God through a shepherd, woman and father each searching out something precious to them. Diane Langberg says, “one of the characteristics of incarnational love is that it is a pursuing love”. Jesus doesn’t just leave the ninety-nine to rescue the one, He is the shepherd who also lays down his life for his sheep (John 10).

The bible names toxic church leadership what it is. So should we

Some shy away from calling out abuses of power in the church as sinful. But we have found it especially healing to see it done by a brave few, and all the more so when we see it in scripture. In Ezekiel 34, the language of rough sheep throwing their weight around gave us new categories for what had happened. The bible recognises leaders who, while not necessarily wolves, are toxic. 

Part of the impact of toxic leaders is that they create systems where this kind of abuse occurs, such as unclear accountability structures, power functionally resting with one individual or heavy shepherding rebranded as ‘strong leadership’ (a smokescreen for bullying, that normalises abuse). We rarely sign up for this. Rather, we’re like frogs in the pan who don’t notice the temperature changing around us. Yet most in these systems — on some level — recognize these dynamics exist, instinctively knowing that if they say the wrong thing, or overstep bounds, they may get hurt. The sad reality is, for many of us, it’s possible to look the other way (I should know, I’ve done it).  Diane Langberg rightly says, “When it comes to injustice, silence is not a virtue. Silence is a vice two times compounded because it contains both indifference to the victims and complicity with the destroyers.” We have to have the courage to speak up and call these things what they are.

It’s important to clarify that I’m not advocating rounding on leaders who have upset us or made decisions we don’t like. Rather, we want leaders to be healthy and serve out of love for Jesus (not slavery to success). I came to realise that without competent accountability structures sin can be covered up, and godly counsel ignored. We all understand the temptation to hide our sin, but we are set free by the truth. Thus, part of how we care for, and love, leaders is ensuring they can be held to account. If they refuse this, sometimes the kindest (and most loyal) act is walk away from them, because it’s the final warning of danger we can offer.

God values the weak and unimpressive

This is all over scripture but we easily miss it. The Lord opened it up for us in 1 Corinthians: “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1v27).

If this is true, why do so many of our churches insist on projecting strength, pour their energies into appearing credible and seek out the talented to deliver success? Shouldn’t we trust Jesus to build His church? The wretched drive from toxic leaders to self-generate success will wring us all dry. To quote Diane Langberg, “God is not demanding bigger, better, more, or staggeringly successful. He is saying that we who are frail and finite human beings can be used in common and ordinary ways to point to the Father… our true work is that of manifesting Christ in all things, whether it is in success or failure”.

We are beloved

We came to see the preaching previously heard focused primarily on the benefits of Christ, rather than the person of Christ. Such preaching can be exegetically excellent and engaging, but by not showing and dwelling on Jesus Himself it ultimately lets us off the hook from doing our own heart-work. In fact, it is why it can be so appealing – it lets us avoid repentance.  

In Ephesians, Paul writes: “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ” (2v4-5), and that this was “…in accordance with His pleasure and will” (1v5). God shows lavish hospitality towards us by entering into all our mess to make us alive with Christ, and adopting us as beloved children (5v1).  Eugene Peterson says, “God’s grace gives before it commands and loves before it is loved”.

Do not despise the wilderness

In Psalm 130, the Psalmist calls to God “out of the depths” (v1). While we were tempted to despise ourselves in our humiliation and weakness, Psalm 130 told us this is where the Lord can be met.  As Chuck DeGroat writes, “God doesn’t meet you at the top of the ladder, but on the ground when you’ve fallen off”.

At first, I despised the move to obscurity. Wracked with fear, shame and disappointment, I couldn’t fathom why this had happened and how I missed so many red flags. Nor could I process grief over how I had enabled unhealthy behaviours. But something about having space to repent, lament and grieve brought new insights. Thomas Merton reflected, “The desert was the region in which the Chosen People had wandered forty years, cared for by God alone. They could have reached the Promised Land in a few months if they had travelled directly to it. God’s plan was that they should learn to love Him in the wilderness and that they should always look back upon the time in the desert as the idyllic time of their life with Him alone.” We felt this too. Despite mourning, and being poor in spirit, we found comfort and assurance (Matthew 5v3-4). 

Could it be that our pain is an opportunity for us to recognise that God is far more present in the midst of our lives than maybe we’ve ever acknowledged or experienced before? Maybe even an invitation to see that Jesus, the scarred, wounded, healer, is not interested in our strength after all.