Guest Post: How can church life become toxic for pastors?

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

I would like to share a few more thoughts on the challenges that pastors (and their families) can face and how their experience of church life can become toxic.  I think that the challenge will come whenever a congregation’s comfort is challenged or whenever the power and control of others in the church begins to wane as a result of the pastor coming in and making changes. Sometimes, it is that he is collecting power for himself to become the one-man ministry, but quite often it is actually that they are putting effort into involving and caring for others outside of the traditional inner circle.

There are a lot of things that a pastor and his family can experience that are frustrating, annoying and sometimes unpleasant but are part and parcel of church life. Whatever some of things may be – and they are legion – most of us know that we shouldn’t do them and yet it is easy for any of us to find ourselves doing it. In reality, most of the time, these things are no big deal. However, if there is a dominant personality in the church, or someone looking to cause trouble, some of these smaller, mildly hurtful, but not all that serious things become exploited. When this happens, it can cause deep pain and a toxic culture which is usually felt by a much wider circle of people, well beyond the pastor and his family.

When things get more serious

However, sometimes things turn particularly sinister. When we start to see any of the following happening, we may be witnessing a church culture that is beginning to abuse its leaders.

Targeting of a family

Some people take seriously the view that you must not touch the Lord’s anointed. However, that doesn’t necessarily stop them going after the pastor’s wife or children by proxy. Indeed, how spiritual you sound when you express concern for the wonderful and saintly minister who is let down by his uncaring wife or his rebellious teenagers.

Financial Control

As I mentioned in the first article, this can be through simply seeking to keep the minister poor -although the minimum wage has probably put an end to that. However, it is possible to still impose control on pastors and their families by constantly judging them. I have also heard of situations where church members have taken the attitude that the manse belonged to them and so they had a right to turn up and see what the family were doing with it. It is also possible for one or two wealthy people to turn the funding streams on and off to control the agenda.

Malicious complaints

In some cases, formal processes do exist but if not drafted and policed carefully, they can be used as a weapon to harm instead of as a tool for accountability and correction. Bullies learn to use and manipulate weak structures and systems. The classic way of doing this is to take one small issue, it might be as minor as failing to greet someone in the corridor because your brain is full of other things before the service, or making a light throw away comment. It may even be about being held responsible for a decision that wasn’t even yours in the first place.  If the result is positive then all well and good but if things go pear shaped you are in big trouble.

What then happens is that someone blows the issue out of proportion and then instigates draconian processes to subject the leader to intense, confidence breaking scrutiny. In the end, everyone is worn down and no-one is any closer to the truth.

I have heard particularly of this happening to church of England vicars where it is very easy to make a complaint leading to suspicion, suspension and investigation. The common experience seems to be that rather than a process determining guilt and leading to sanctions, the process itself became a form of punishment. Then guess what, a day comes when suddenly the whole thing is brought to a halt without warning or conclusion. The poor vicar is left hanging with their reputation in tatters

When any of these three issues are in place, the culture has usually become toxic.

What is happening?

I want to suggest that the problem is not so much with specific, individual things happening in isolation. Rather, bullies learn to use whatever system is in place to their own advantage. They are of course legalists who expect harsh standards of others and hypocrites who would never allow such measures to be employed against them.

This means that it matters little whether the bully holds official power – such as an elder or pastor – or happens to have more informal influence. What matters is that they know how to manipulate the system for their own ends. So, whether your concern is about an abusive pastor bullying the church or an abusive member bullying the pastor and/or the church, two approaches are needed.

First of all, look at your church, look at the culture, the processes, systems an structure that are in place.  Whilst each of these might be benign in and of themselves, it is important to check whether they are bully proof; whether or not they are open to manipulation.

Secondly, we need to have our spiritual eyes open. We need to be alert to how people behave, how it causes others to feel and what agendas seem to be running in the background. Often this is not about specific written evidence but about being alert and observing behaviour over a period of time.


This is where we all need to be alert and watching out for one another. This is where body ministry and mutual accountability is not about catching others out but learning to support, encourage, challenge and correct one another. 

Most of all, for pastors who have been though great pain, this is where once again you need to find your joy, your identity your calling in Christ.