It is not unusual for those who have faced off with toxic leadership in the church to turn from the church. In my experience, most do not turn from Christ but have a difficult time squaring the leadership of God’s people with abusive authority.
So, they refuse to darken the doorway of a church building at least for a time.
Ezekiel spoke God’s damning judgment upon Judah as they were taken into exile in 587 B.C. After chiding the toxic Jewish leaders for eating the sheep instead of shepherding them, God said,
Ezekiel 34:5-6 (ESV)
It is what is to be expected. When leaders fail, the hurt runs deep. You can expect people to leave, maybe never to return.
Don’t blame them.
But for those who wish to find a church that will carefully and lovingly shepherd them in places of peace (shalom), here are some ways to determine if the leadership is toxic or not:
- Plurality of Leaders: Is there a board? Elders? The plurality of leadership is a first step. There can be more accountability if the church has multiple leaders that can challenge one another.
- Center of Everything: What kind of praise do people give the pastor? Does he seem to be the center of everything? Does the leadership encourage (or fail to discourage) hero worship?
- Pastoral Arrogance: Does the pastor often tell stories that, even in a self-deprecating way, make him the hero of the story?
- “And so I went up to him and told him he was wrong . . . and he turned from his sin.”
- Empowering: Does the leadership – all of them – empower the congregation as Ephesians 4 tells them to:
- “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ…” (Ephesians 4:11-12) Or do they keep a particularly strong hand on all ministry?
- Emphasis on Submission: Look at the titles of sermons posted online. Are there frequent sermons on authority? Is the focus on washing feet or protecting and ruling? Protecting and ruling are not wrong, but a particular emphasis on telling the congregation to submit is telling.
- Focus on Image & Competition: Is the ministry of this particular church “so much better than other churches?” Do people talk a lot about how much better their church is than other churches in the area? This can be just how people feel, but it can also be what they are hearing from leadership. Daamgaurd helpfully says, “Although it is natural to want to associate with like-minded individuals, a healthy church welcomes communication from those outside of the church, even if church pastors and members don’t fully agree with the outsiders’ views. Those within the church realize that they can learn much and benefit from these interactions.”
- Turnover in Leadership: Is there a significant turnover of leadership? Elders? Deacons? Sunday School teachers? Especially office staff?
- Turnover in Membership: Is there a large turnover of people in the pews?
- Focus on A Family: Is there one or two or even three families that seem to be the center of all ministry that takes place? They need not even be formal leaders, but the church may be driven by them.
- Legalists & Pharisees: Does there appear to be many cultural expectations of members that find little support in Scripture? Dress. Ways of praying. Don’t dance, drink, or go with girls who do?
None of this is guaranteed for determining toxic leadership. There are so many variables and toxic leadership is found in all types of churches with a variety of doctrinal views.
It can be one powerful individual – pastor or member – that causes chaos for the congregation. Or it can be an entire system that continually hires or trains up toxic leaders or brings good leaders down because of their own blindness.
The church is Christ’s bride, but she is deeply broken. I pray that you find a church that loves you as Christ loves you that you may rest in His shalom.
Hosea 2:19-20 (ESV)
Damgaard, Neil. Wounded Faith: Understanding and Healing From Spiritual Abuse (p. 16). Kindle Edition.
This is a good article on finding a church: https://www.spiritualabuseresources.com/articles/choosing-a-church