Making Too Much of Toxic Church Leadership?

Every time I tell the story of someone’s experience under toxic leadership, I am challenged to be more like Jesus.

Recently I read a blog that was bemoaning what the author said was the “proliferation of what some people have dubbed ‘scandal porn’ . . .”1

His argument? “. . . of course, there are bad pastors, and they should be refused the responsibility of leadership among God’s beloved flock. But has the focus on bad pastors been overdone?

In his blog, the answer is yes. The author suggested that the world (unbelievers) will “cast as negative a light as possible upon Christian pastors,” but he considers it troubling that Christians would do so.

Biblically speaking, the church is, in fact, called specifically to judge within the ranks according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 5:12-13. It should be God’s people calling to the light the darkness of pastoral abuse.

It is our job.

So, to imply that we leave the criticism for the watching, unbelieving world is contrary to our calling. I would suggest that if we take up the mantle of critically evaluating abusive leadership as a church, the watching world will have nothing to watch but our own humble self-awareness bringing glory to Jesus.

There are Good Pastors

The blogger says there are many good pastors. I agree.

In 35 years of vocational ministry, I have known very few people who can honestly say that they were bullied or abused by their pastor. Again, their stories are real and heart-breaking. No instance of a bad pastor abusing a church member is tolerable. But given the massive number of churches, pastors, and church members, such cases are not nearly as common as the attention given to them suggests.”

And so, the author says,

What I am calling for is careful consideration as to whether we have made too much of the bully pastor while irresponsibly neglecting the far more common reality of the bullied and wounded pastor. Has the glut of material dedicated to diagnosing and exposing bad pastors been recklessly unaccompanied and counterweighted by the far less interesting fact that most of us have good pastors?”

I will skip over the unsupportable statement that there are far more bullied and wounded pastors than bullying and wounding pastors. I know of no statistics to support either view, so I see no sense in arguing it. He could be right . . . or not. Who am I to say?

Greater Accountability

In the past seven years, I have interviewed dozens of those who have suffered under toxic leadership in the church or Christian organization. I have talked with dozens more informally. Abusive leadership is not a blip on the radar.

But more importantly than my own experience, we need to allow Scripture to speak. Church leaders are to be held more accountable. There is a reason why there is a focus on bad leaders in social media and blogs. Light must be shown on dark places and in particular on those who lead God’s people.

The Westminster Larger Catechism, written in a time (1600s) that authority was viewed as more important than in our own culture (and therefore more likely abusive authority was given a pass), says this:

Question. 151 What are those aggravations that make some sins more heinous [more wicked] than others? Answer. Sins receive their aggravations 1. From the persons offending: if they be of riper age, greater experience or grace, eminent for profession, gifts, place, office, guides to others, and whose example is likely to be followed by others.

WLC 151 on Aggravations That Make Sins More Heinous

A leader in the Assembly’s analysis is one “whose example is likely to be followed by others.” This is a person of influence.

The answer goes on to list a number of other reasons why a sin is more henious in both content and context. However, the first listed is that of a leadereither in a formal or informal position. When a leader sins, it has more impact on others and is therefore more heinous.

Judged with Greater Strictness

James says, “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness (James 3:1).”

Those who are teachers, those who labor in preaching and teaching in our congregations, have incredible influence on those they lead. Despite our “question authority” culture, pastors continue to be held in high esteem and those under their care are most often hesitant to question the authority of the pastor’s words.

This is my experience in all those interviews and discussions. Because they have so much influence, James says they will be “judged with greater strictness.”

On the other hand, according to Scripture (1 Tim. 5:17), church leaders are to be honored. However, Scritpure makes it clear this honor is due as long as they live up to the standards the Lord has given for those who lead.

Church leaders’ words are incredibly important but those words must come from Christian character that is also described in God’s Word (see 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-16). In those two places, it is clear that their leadership will be judged more stringently by the Lord than their congregants’ daily lives. And those standards are very high.

Hear what the Lord says about bad pastors – or, I would suggest, any abusive leader of God’s people:

“. . . therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.

Ezekiel 34:9-10 (ESV)

The entirety of Ezekiel 34 was God’s judgment upon the shepherds of Israel who were toxic. It is descriptive of shepherds who are harsh, uncaring, and self-serving. The Lord will “rescue” His sheep from them . . . take them away.

Diagnose and Expose

As the author of the blog noted, there are abusive pastors. But he minimizes it with the abuse that others heap upon leaders:

“I have never spoken to a pastor who has not been mistreated, slandered, undermined, or run off by church members, an associate pastor, elders, deacons, or all of the above.”

Did you notice how many of those (who mistreated the pastor) he listed are leaders? Associate pastors? Elders? Deacons? It sounds as though there are many leaders out there who should be held accountable for their abuse of fellow leaders.

The author goes on,

Has the glut of material dedicated to diagnosing and exposing bad pastors been recklessly unaccompanied and counterweighted by the far less interesting fact that most of us have good pastors?

I would suggest that it is very important to dedicate ourselves to “diagnosing and exposing bad pastors” because we do not want to mix the wheat with the tares.

The elders in my own church receive a significant amount of encouragement from members, not only during October’s “Pastor Appreciation Month.” But, we must do a good job of identifying bad ones and hold them accountable. Those of us who focus on abusive leadership have no intention of mixing the wheat with the tares; ie. bringing down good pastors with the bad.

I hope that as I write about wicked leadership, telling the stories of those who have suffered under it, the church learns to identify what truly abusive is, and what it is not, so that God’s own judgment on abusive leaders will be realized and congregations saved from evil leadership.

And as a result good leaders will be warned just as Paul tells Timothy in 1 Timothy 5:19-20. I am continually learning from my research where I fail in my own leadership. I hope that good pastors are reading these various blogs and taking steps to stay on the narrow way by God’s grace.

A Critique

The blogger ended his article with a list of actions taken by pastors that we should not confuse with abuse. It is his attempt to help his readers stay clear of a misdiagnosis of toxic leadership.

I would like to evaluate a few of them. All of them have value. But, in most cases, there are qualifying considerations that should not be overlooked and by making these statements the blogger may be giving a pass to what can be abusive practices. As one friend noted, some of these actions can be good things, but they could also easily be weaponized by abusive leaders to harm their congregants.

I will give some, not all, of his bullet-points followed by my analysis. [You can read all of them in his blog noted below]:

Being led is not in itself abuse, but it can be abusive and it cannot be taken for granted that a leader, who suffers from his own sin, will not be abusive simply because he is a leader. If you read on to verses 19 and 20 in 1 Timothy 5 you will note that those who abuse their positions of leadership may be called out before the whole congregation that others may be warned.

But it can be. I have seen multiple cases of authoritarian behaviors by church leaders that were used simply to control and manipulate members who disagreed with them. I have seen multiple women excommunicated for reporting the abuse of their husbands, many of whom were leaders in the church. I have also seen men who reported abusive pastors excommunicated. When leaders act in these ways, they are practicing abusive leadership. If you excommunicate, you better be right and biblical and doing it in love.

Both the Mark and Timothy passages are, in fact, challenges to leaders. In Mark, Jesus is challenging Peter, a leader and Apostle of the early church, (“Get thee behind me Satan”). In Timothy, Paul is telling Timothy to rebuke an elder who persists in sin. It is a passage giving instructions to rebuke abusive leadership. The Titus passage is a good proof text for the author. However, keep in mind, exhortation and rebuke must always be done in love (1 John 4:7).

  • Being expected to follow leadership is not abuse (Hebrews 13:17).

I have not spoken with any victim of leadership abuse who would disagree with this. But, as those who “watch for your souls, as they that must give account,” their watching better be biblical, just, and loving for they will “give an account” for their leadership attitudes and actions. We do not need to follow ungodly leadership. In fact, we are told to call them out (1 Tim. 5:20). Being expected to follow abusive leadership is abuse.

  • Being told you need to mature spiritually is not abuse (Hebrews 5:11).

Shepherding takes more than commanding someone to be better. I am not sure that the preacher (writer of Hebrews) would make this kind of bullet-point statement to pastors to let their congregations have it between the eyes. Consider what 1 Peter 5:3 says: “not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock.” Peter’s charge is that elders should be an example, not simply telling their congregations what’s what.

It can be. This has to be qualified. Spiritual abuse is a pattern (repeated actions) of attempts “to exert power and control over someone using religion, faith, or beliefs.”(PCA DASA Report) Confrontations may be for this purpose and so the motives of the leader need to be considered. Often, shame is a particular tool of an abusive leader. It is not adequate to simply say “being confronted for your sin is not abuse.” It certainly can be.

  • Being rebuked for holding to errant doctrine is not abuse (Titus 1:913).

He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it (Titus 1:9).” Note the beginning of the verse. He better be holding firm to what the Word teaches first and how he rebukes can even, when correcting theology, be abusive. It only takes a cursory reading of the Gospels to see the spiritual abuse of the Pharisees. They said many biblical things, but were abusive. Job’s counselors said many biblical things, but were spiritually abusive.

I would be very careful in the use of this term “expected.” The term can be used abusively in that the Hebrews passage uses more positive terms – ie. “encouraging one another.” Is the leader encouraging his members to love the church, God’s bride, or is he trying to shame them into attending? Many people have been deeply wounded by church leadership and need more than another “strong” voice telling them to return. Jesus speaks kindly to his downtrodden flock and leaders are called to follow his example (John 13). If your members aren’t attending, maybe you need to ask why? Could it be a fulfillment of Ezekiel 34? Has Jesus himself scattered them because of your leadership?

True, as long as they are honorable. No authority of God’s creatures is absolute (Acts 4:19). Only God’s authority is absolute because he is always right. Leaders in God’s church must win this honor as is evident by instructions for picking elders and deacons. Leaders are not made by their position, but rather rise to the position by their maturity. They must be trustworthy if they are to be obeyed.

  • Discovering that your pastor can, at times, be in a bad mood is not abuse.

This statement is particularly concerning. What does the leader do when he is in a bad mood? How does that impact his ministry? If he is not temperate in his “mood” then he is not called to be a leader of God’s people as evidenced by the qualifications given in Scripture. Does he show the fruit of the Spirit by immediately repenting and making restitution when that bad mood is expressed in anger?


Identifying abusive leaders is similar to identifying abuse in the home. “Domestic abuse can be defined as a form of oppression in which one spouse controls and dominates the other through a pattern of coercive, controlling, and punishing behaviors (PCA DASA Report Section Two).”

Notice that it is a “pattern,” not one-offs. If a Christian leader acts this way on a regular basis he is not qualified to lead God’s people. We must bring him to the light both that he may be stopped from damaging God’s people and from a poor witness to Christ in the watching world.

And, that others may be warned and learn from his bad example.

I love to hear stories of pastors who are seeking the good of their flock. I love to hear about the compassion and empathy of shepherds who lead like Jesus. It is encouraging to my own growth and perspective on Christ’s church.

But, amidst all the ravages of broken leadership that we are continually hearing about, there are important lessons for all of us who lead. I need to hear those stories. Every time I write one of these blogs or tell someone’s story, I am challenged to be the godly leader Jesus calls me to be.


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