Guest Post: Red flags for toxic church leadership

This is a guest post. The writer has asked to remain anonymous. It is a follow up post to this one published two days ago. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

Recently, we shared 6 lessons that we learned from suffering toxic church leadership. It was our hope that in sharing our reflections others may be comforted, helped, and encouraged that they were neither alone nor going crazy. Nevertheless, when these things happen in the church – because it is the church – we can often convince ourselves that it isn’t really happening. Maybe it’s nothing, maybe we’re making too much of it, and like frogs in the pan who don’t notice the temperature changing around us it becomes the new normal.

Looking back, however, there were a number of red flags. Some more obvious than others. While this is not an exhaustive list, these are both the ones that we noticed at the time and those that we saw too late but feel were prominent as we look back.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9)

The most prominent concern we had was the number of broken and fractured relationships we observed. We, perhaps, saw this in ways others didn’t because we were close to the centre. The gnawing sense of discomfort grew as we saw that every time there was a breakdown in relationship there was zero desire to pursue genuine reconciliation.

If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us (1 John 1:8)

Linked to the above, relationship breakdown was always presented as the fault of the other party. Looking back, it is striking that they could not even see (or would not admit) any small ways in which they might have even partially contributed to any of these relational problems. Whilst there may well be cases where there is no fault on their part, the repeated pattern suggested that it was at least possible they may have been contributing to the problem. But the suggestion was given no quarter. The problem with this position is that it becomes easier to justify dishonesty because we have been practising it in these smaller ways. So, we saw multiple instances of ‘spin’ to present the truth more positively. This was rationalised as ‘protecting the church’, but almost always involved omitting key information. Really, it was not the church that was being protected, but image and reputation. Pragmatism ruled decision making processes, not faith.

“So God created mankind in his own image” (Genesis 1:27)

Similarly, we were concerned how people in the church were talked about in private.  The value of precious image bearers was essentially reduced to what they could offer. The logic was always one of no passengers; we don’t have time for people who are struggling because we need to achieve great things for Jesus. People were a means to an end. Kindness and generosity was not done out of service to the Lord, but was a means of buying loyalty. Likewise, despite caveats of love, church members were consistently demeaned, belittled and insulted. The same happened to other leaders our church was connected with. This served to increase dependence upon the minister and those closest to him, the only ones deemed capable. Milder put downs, expressed in terms of great affection, were directed towards us serving to undermine our own sense of worth in Christ. 

“The mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:34, cf. Proverbs 10:11)

Towards the end of our time, we became concerned about what seemed to occupy the imagination of the minister. He spoke of building a legacy, not leading people to love Jesus. There was a belief that spiritual growth equated to doing more in the church rather than increased love for Jesus and evident spiritual fruit. But, looking back, this was always there, with leadership meetings focused on the church’s numerical growth rather than spiritual health. When we look back, the emphasis of the preaching was not on the person of Jesus, our new identity in him and the freedom that brings.  Jesus was mentioned, the gospel was outlined, but the emphasis was, “let’s work hard to make this church an impressive, credible and unmissable experience, so that more people come”.

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses (Proverbs 27:6)

We grew concerned at how the minister responded badly to loving criticism and challenge. There was a pattern of being unwilling to receive any feedback and a staunch refusal to hear the perspectives of others. This was always interpreted as personal attack. In fact, those who failed to display absolute loyalty were either considered maverick or unqualified to speak to the issues at hand. Often, we played the role of mediator, advising that these moments seemed to us well-meaning and motivated by love. But the culture was one where loyalty was cherished above all. Younger, more impressionable people were welcomed into the inner circle as we were less likely to offer challenges. What is more, when they did, they could be easily dismissed as lacking accuracy or conviction by the older, wiser leader who had set himself as the trained expert. We fell for this because, as Diane Langberg recently said, “we have elevated gifting over character. We trust that character is good because gifting is good, and that is a complete lie.”

Shepherd the flock of God that is among you (1 Peter 5:2) 

Finally, whilst our church claimed to have an equal eldership, behind closed doors there was much talk of ‘first among equals’, that someone had to ‘take the lead’ or that one might be qualified for eldership, but not necessarily to be a Pastor. We have heard of other churches where the minister’s wife referred to herself and the minister as, ‘the Spiritual leaders of the church’. She was sat with the other church elders and her views, by way of marriage, carried more weight than theirs. There was also a regular, subtle discrediting of (and briefing against) other elders who commanded natural respect because of their experience, age or character. There was a noticeable lack of humility, a lack of prayerfulness and reliance on God, an attitude of impatience towards others who did not affirm their ideas and plans. They were there to lead, not to serve. They were necessary to the ‘success’ of the church. There was a sense that the church was really an extension of the pastor and his wife. As Wade Mullen says, “narcissistic leaders slowly turn their organisations into monuments to themselves”. As such, we were there to help these ‘spiritual leaders’ achieve their ambitions. The reality was that they set themselves above the rest of us and so, despite all the charm and words of affirmation, the relationships they enjoyed were shallow. We existed to lift them up, rather than the pastor serving and pointing us to Jesus.