In my study of toxic leadership over the years, I have found that many authors – experts in their various fields whether psychology, theology, or business management – want to give hope to their readers.
They provide many excellent ideas on how to remain under a toxic leader while pursuing a flourishing ministry. “Self-differentiation”, conflict management, keeping your head down, focus on personal goals, reliance on the Lord. They are all means of remaining in the organization while, hopefully, retaining your sanity.
I am going to suggest in this blog that they are usually for naught.
“Self-differentiation,” a psychological term coined by Edwin Friedman many years ago, describes a personal distancing from the anxiety produced by other people in your sphere. Rather than be controlled by someone else’s toxic behavior, the self-differentiated remain above it, holding to boundaries that keep them free from those anxieties.
Some Christian authors have used the concept to describe Jesus. I have done the same. Jesus remained above the fray though ministered effectively and empathetically to people.
This is a good thing – a good goal for personal growth – particularily for people-pleasers.
But there is no one who does this perfectly and everyone working under a toxic leader or in a systemically toxic organization will suffer from the top-down pathologies of their leaders.
“If we just follow the Bible’s teaching on conflict management – most often found in Matthew 18 – then we can solve many crises with our broken leaders.”
As I have written before, Matthew 18, however does not solve conflicts when an abusive leader is in the mix. There is more instruction on conflict management in scripture and Matthew 18 must be balanced with it.
Matthew 7:1-6 give guidance on how to approach a sinning brother (like a toxic leader). First it talks of going to them humbly. Then it talks of staying well clear of them. There are those, Jesus explains, that you approach graciously and kindly and seek their repentance. However, there are those who will strike you and hurt you and seek your destruction.
Jesus gives an out to you when dealing with a toxic leader. He watches out for your soul as a loving brother. Sometimes, he says, you just have to stay clear of them. It is exceedingly unusual for an abusive person to change his stripes. And it is likely you have already seen others go down this path and be further abused by the leader.
Keep Your Head Down
Because most people are not self-differentiated – we care what others think of us – and we recognize that going to a toxic boss is dangerous – we may lose our jobs or a heads – we keep those heads down!
We say to ourselves, “Self, just keep your head down. Do ministry. Serve others. Just keep keeping on.”
Usually this is driven by the belief that what we are doing is the most important thing. We think that changing jobs or locations is just too difficult. Maybe we are serving in another country and moving back to our home country is just too costly or would mean that we failed in our ministry. Or, we cannot see that there are other ministries that will use our gifts the way we believe God wants to use us.
We look to 1 Peter 2:18 where the Apostle Peter tells slaves to, in essence, keep their heads down with an attitude of loving service to the Lord…being that serving their master in love may be a stretch. He points to the suffering of Christ as an example:
He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.1 Peter 2:22-23 (ESV)
But that was written to slaves. As I have noted before, Peter was writing to people who had no choice but to suffer under a toxic boss (slave master). So, he gives them permission to keep their mouths shut and suffer wrongfully knowing that the Lord looks upon their suffering with both firsthand knowledge and compassion.
We were there, friend. All of these views were part of our story when we were serving under toxic leaders. My family knows how it feels. Working through these passages was a daily experience for us as we tried to come to terms with the brokenness of our mission organization.
As you can tell, each of these ways for staying in a toxic organization have real difficulties. But there are more problems with hanging in there.
In domestic violence situations it is common for the abuser to use pets and children as a means of controlling their spouse. The abuser will threaten these loved ones in some way to keep the target in the relationship. The fear of losing the children or the mistreatment of a loved pet will control the steps a target will take to get to safety.
Leaving becomes exceedingly difficult for these survivors. Recently, I spoke with one abuse survivor who has three children and she lives in another country. If she had no children, she could pack up her bags and head home to parents or friends who have offered a safe place. However, simply taking off with the children is not a legal or wise option. Yet, if she leaves them, the woman will be relegating them to life with an abusive father.
In the case of employment in toxic organizations, subordinates may have similar issues…only they are likely love of work and references.
Many employees of Christian organizations feel great purpose in serving in the organization. It is very difficult to imagine another job with such purpose and joy.
Or they can imagine a job but believe they need the reference that their current toxic boss can provide them. Some who left the organization we served with were very concerned about this. They had little former work experience and believed it quite necessary to have the reference.
These things are like children and pets.
And as difficult as these kinds of decisions are, God frequently calls you to step out in faith. We, of course, are not normally called to do stupid things. But what if those things you fear are only fears and a lack of faith? What if God has better reasons for you to leave your organzation?
Some of the reasons why you might consider moving on can be classified in at least two categories: Self-care and Other-care.
This reason for getting out earlier rather than later may seem to be the most selfish, but it isn’t in the long run.
It takes an expert in trauma care to diagnose PTSD, and the standards for having PTSD are very high. However, there are truly brain-altering affects from suffering under abuse even if those affects don’t rise to the level of a trauma diagnosis.
As my wife and I spoke over and over about our experience under toxic leaders, our stomachs would turn flips. We would become distressed. We would see a man driving an ATV towards us and immediately images of our toxic mission boss would course through out nervous system.
These are all things that happen to those who have experienced traumatic events (except maybe the ATV story). When we returned from the mission field we had nearly every symptom of stress including emotional, physical, and spiritual. I recently realized that it took close to six years to get beyond those triggers.
The impact that toxic leadership in Christian organizations have on God’s people are horrendous and can be long-lasting. It makes His servants less useful to His kingdom in the sense of having less emotional and spiritual energy to expend on His work.
Many who have suffered under a “Christian” abusive leader have found it difficult to even read their Bibles. Certain passages have become triggers to the horrible treatment they have experienced because those passages were directly or indirectly used against them by the leader. My wife has passages that she continues to struggle with.
We took months off from any kind of ministry in order to heal from the traumatic experiences. We became significantly more introverted and less interested in ministering to others. We are continuing to work towards overcoming these affects.
I would suggest you get out while the trauma is limited or has not destroyed you.
In the case of our mission organization, our connection to it was a poor witness to the local population. They knew the organization to be paternalistic and racist, and though we thought ourselves different, we were seen in much the same light.
And, as a Christian organization, many saw Jesus through that lens. “If this is what Christianity is, I want no part of it.”
In addition, our work for the organization naturally promoted the organization. Not just the good parts of the mission, but all the garbage that often overshadowed an positive elements.
When we returned on furloughs to speak to churches, it was necessary for us to promote the ministry’s mission. We could talk about our specific work there, but in the end, the organization itself was being promoted when in fact its wickedness should have disqualified it from receiving funds from donors.
As we spoke to churches, others would get a vision and seek to join us in the mission. That was gratifying to us then, but later very disheartening to count the many lives that were deeply hurt by our encouragement to come alongside us in our work.
In the End
All Christian organizations are broken by sin. Relationships are difficult and messy on the mission field just as they are at home.
But, in the final analysis, a mission organization that is deeply damaging to both those who work for it and those to whom it ministers, needs the accountability of God’s people. It needs people who will stand up and call it out.
Mission employees are not slaves. And they are people who God loves dearly and will direct and provide for. Trust Him when He says that those who stand up for HIM (rather than a toxic leader) may suffer, but it will be for good as Peter says.
Rest in knowing God has your future. You are not beholden to your current circumstances.