Guest Post: What to do if you notice 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 and it’s follow up post published yesterday. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

Having shared 6 lessons that we learned from suffering toxic church leadership, and 6 red flags, it bears asking what could (or should) we have done to try and stop the situation?

Maybe you recognise the patterns we outlined, or have concerns about your situation, but don’t know what to do? Before we speak to that, it may be helpful to begin by broadly outlining what we did try to do.

The reason we (eventually) took a stand, and raised concerns, shocked us, and we put it down to pressure the minister was under. We resolved to follow what is laid out in Matthew 18, and met with him alone and discussed our concern. An apology was offered and accepted. Some time later, we became aware of being treated the same way again. Again, we met privately. This time no apology was offered. We resolved to leave the church quietly, in the hope this would enable reflection, repentance and reconciliation. It didn’t. Sadly, things didn’t quite end there, but those details – unpleasant for us as they were – aren’t particularly pertinent here. As far as our association with the church went, this is where we parted ways.

So, given a do over, what would we do?

Beware Isolation  

This is our main regret. Upon leaving the church we discovered many who had similar experiences. Others in positions of responsibility had seen the selfsame behaviours. We wish we had spoken to them before meeting with the minister. We wish we had reached out to other Christians outside of our context for advice. Having not done so, we felt intimidated; as though we were the only ones to whom this had happened. 

But the truth is the isolation had started much earlier. Our trust and confidence in other mature Christian friends had been eroded over a period of time. We were invited into the confidence of the minister and his wife, where they shared their hopes, dreams, fears and insecurities with us. It made us feel special. But they also shared disparaging thoughts and opinions about others in Christian leadership, or those in our church, with us. The reality was they were grooming us; making us dependent on the minister – who alone escaped scrutiny – and compliant as a result. 

Acknowledge Power Imbalance

We wish we had seen that there is a power dynamic in any meeting with a pastor. Especially if they functionally (or openly) position themselves above other leaders in the church. If we had known this, perhaps we wouldn’t have been so quick to doubt ourselves or take their word as gospel when loving challenge was referred to as a spiritual attack. We had, however, also heard the narrative that bringing truth to light was a threat to the church – as if the existence of an institution was more important to Jesus than truth, justice and holiness. These are dangerous words to carelessly say to those under your care i.e. those without power and influence. 

It would have been good to have sought a mediator for our meetings towards the end. But this was difficult having allowed ourselves to become isolated. In discussing this article, we’ve wrestled to know who we could have reached out to, as by the time we raised our concerns the other strong leaders had already been isolated, subtly discredited, and moved on. By the time we met with all the elders, the minister was the most senior person in the room by a considerable way, having appointed younger men who were naturally less likely to challenge his authority.

Don’t look the other way

It’s easy to ignore these things. The excuses often seem loving. ‘They’re under a lot of pressure’; ‘they do so much’; ‘there’s blame on both sides’; ‘it’s a personal dispute, I don’t want to be in the middle’; or, ‘it’s out of character’. The last one stings because as we were looking away, it became obvious that it wasn’t out of character. Not really. It was a clear pattern. It was a character issue. 

Often, these excuses came easily because we were distracted by other things. Sometimes we were told great things were happening in the church, so we felt a sense of shared significance; we were thus disposed to look away from anything that took away from that narrative. Sometimes distractions came in the form of the minister and those closest to him sharing their distress and pain over criticism, broken relationships or disloyalty which created a sense of sympathy and loyalty, as well as distrust of those raising concerns.

However, the truth is that silence (including willful ignorance) is complicity. We’ve had to come to terms with that. While we thank God that we did not actively participate, in our passivity we enabled real hurt to take place. Real Christlike love is speaking up for those who have no other advocate, even if it means you incur loss.

AskWho Watches The Watchmen?’

We wish we had been brave and mature enough to understand that real loyalty involves speaking hard truths to people you care about because you can see that they are hurting themselves. 

The reality is, we trusted someone because they were gifted and said if we support them they would make the church impressive. That comes with a deflected sense of fulfilment and self-worth. You see, we build these abusive systems together. There were no checks and balances beyond the elders. Once they were being moved on, one by one, nobody probed too deeply, because we lacked the will to threaten the system that promised us significance, self-worth and security. We had strayed from the true Shepherd, Jesus Christ, and put the minister in his place. No matter how good your structures, they will make no difference if you make this error.

We’ve have had to confess and repent of putting ourselves and our needs above those being hurt and above those doing the hurting. If you can reflect deeply on whether you have enabled such behaviours, it may help you see your blind spots before it is too late, and enable you to be willing to ask the hard questions that need asking to help keep good churches healthy and reliant on Jesus. 


So, where to go for help? Even now, we don’t know how best to flag concerns if elders do not listen and we hold to independency. The FIEC and A29 Europe leaders have both, in recent months, spoken out on this issue, yet there is no obvious pathway for victims to receive help, support and mediation. Perhaps this is something we in healthy churches could reflect on, and advocate our leaders to work towards a solution that respects different expressions of polity — not just for the sake of the hurt — but for the sake of those doing the hurting too.