When Toxic Leaders Hurt Ministry Leaders

Dave Wiedis, Copyright 2017

After listening to a six-page performance review filled with accusations and criticisms, a youth pastor asked his boss, the lead pastor:

"Why did you wait until now to tell me these things? I didn't even know you had concerns with my performance."

The lead pastor replied: 

"I want to see how far down I can kick you and if you can get up."

Can you believe a pastor would say such a thing? How should the youth pastor respond? How can he minister life to those he serves while working in such a toxic environment? Have you ever been in a situation like this? 

Ministry leaders, like this youth pastor, can experience real discouragement, disillusionment, and even "burnout" due to the unreasonably high demands, and yes, even abusive conduct, of their own leaders -- the very people who ought to be shepherding their hearts, protecting and leading them. 

In some cases these leaders experience the anxiety and trauma associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- including hyper-arousal, vigilance and flashbacks -- after working for long periods of time in harsh, toxic environments created by unhealthy, emotionally immature leaders. 

For this article we use the term "Toxic Leader" for one who, among other things, creates an unsafe, negative relational environment, and can be self-centered, self-absorbed, manipulative, controlling, and insecure. He or she can use power in a relationship to produce outcomes that make the leader look good, to the detriment of others' well-being. The impact this leader has on subordinates, the congregation or team, and the overall mission of the organization has short and long-term negative effects on everyone the leader comes in contact with.

At times this emotionally abusive conduct is intentional; at times Toxic Leaders have little or no awareness of their impact.

And although it may be difficult to fathom that a shepherd, or board of elders, would treat one of the "sheep" in this manner, sadly there are many church environments where people serving on staff -- associate and assistant pastors, children's directors, music ministers, etc. -- find themselves in subordinate positions being "supervised" and reviewed by Toxic Leaders who create a very harmful ministry environment. Often they feel like they are walking on eggshells in the very place they believe God has called them.  

Because of the imbalance of power that is inherent in the working relationship, those working under a Toxic Leader often are trapped and face the prospect of being fired, or being further criticized or ostracized if they speak up to address the toxic environment. Equally concerning, many of these devoted servants may feel compelled by Scripture and in obedience to the Lord to "submit" to such authority, despite its abusive nature and its distortion of biblical servant leadership!

Do you serve under a Toxic Leader? Recognizing that there are varying degrees of "toxicity," and that no single point means a leader is necessarily toxic, here are some questions to ask yourself:

Is your leader pursuing your good? Does your leader ask questions of your heart that cause you to grow personally and spiritually, or is he/she emotionally abusive or manipulative?

Do you trust your leader's heart? Do you trust Your leader's motivation toward you, and your organization?

Is your leader more interested in you producing results and managing your tasks than your spiritual or character formation?

Does your leader use sermons as a way to publicly chastise members of the staff or congregation?

Does your leader put him/herself in a "one-up" position while putting you (and others) in a "one-down" position?

Are there informal or formal relational triangles? Does your leader meet privately with or rely on another "special" favorite staff member for ideas and information, to other staff members' detriment?

As you consider those questions, here are four important ways to respond if you are working under a Toxic Leader:

1. Identify Your Feelings

Are you in touch with your true feelings, or are you suppressing them? It is not sinful to have negative feelings. We are made in the image of God, and we are created with the capacity to feel deeply. Your emotions are important; they are not to be ignored. It is normal and reasonable to feel angry, disappointed, hurt, anxious and fearful, and a sense of injustice in toxic environments. In fact, your emotions can be a good indicator of whether you are in a toxic relationship. Take the time to identify how you are feeling.

2. Understand Your Motivations

Be honest about your motives. For example, why do you respond by doing nothing, remaining silent, failing to confront, sharing information with the wrong people, etc.? What prevents you from being honest with everyone -- including your Toxic Leader?

What motivates you to stay silent? Are you avoiding confrontation because you're afraid of the consequences, afraid losing your job, or afraid of being further maligned or criticized?

3. Assess the Leader's Impact on You and Others 

We tend to acclimate to our environment -- even if it is unhealthy. There is a chance that up until now you may not have realized that you're in an unhealthy environment. Honestly assess how the Toxic Leader has affected you and what impact he/she has had on other staff, as well as church members. 

If you are hurting it is likely others are hurting too. Toxic Leadership is not an isolated event. When you look carefully, you may see others who are suffering and afraid to speak up. You may also see that your church is struggling. Or worse, you may discover that your church has the outward signs of success (i.e., it is growing) but is spiritually and emotionally unhealthy. 

4. Seek Outside Help

You are not alone and you should not attempt to deal with this alone. In our experience, this is not an uncommon issue in the Church. If you have been ministering under Toxic Leaders for any period of time you may need help getting an accurate perspective, and will need real wisdom in responding.

Find someone who can walk with you through this situation, help you become emotionally healthy, and wisely decide on a course of action. Jesus always calls us to respond in a godly manner with a loving heart. However, you are not loving the Toxic Leader or your church well if you enable toxic behavior. In my experience, a godly response does not mean enduring abusive conduct. Often compliance with, or submission to toxic behavior may have a superficial air of spirituality but is actually a very unhealthy and destructive rationalization for our own behavior. We can create false peace and perpetuate abuse by remaining silent.

There is hope. The youth pastor mentioned at the beginning of this article is a friend of mine. Yes, the situation described led to a lot of pain and anxiety -- including stepping away from vocational ministry for a season to heal. But today he is much healthier and serves a great community as a lead pastor. He may have been kicked down, but he did get up!

I pray that you will be able to get up too, and wisely respond in a redemptive healing way -- for yourself, your church, and your leader.

A Final Thought

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to address in detail, I can't help but raise this final issue: If you suspect that you are a Toxic Leader, there is hope in humble repentance. I encourage you to take immediate steps to assess your leadership and the impact you have on those under your charge. Have the guts and integrity to ask hard questions of yourself -- and others -- about how you impact them. Have the wisdom to listen without defending yourself. 

Those closest to you will feel your impact most acutely, and they will be a treasure for you if you are humble enough to pursue the truth. Hopefully they will answer honestly. However, you may find yourself in a dilemma: Your subordinates likely won't feel safe unless you make it safe. It is your responsibility to continually pursue trusted people who will help you engage in honest self-reflection and prayerfully pursue the truth. 

In all of this please know that I care for you, the ServingLeaders team cares for you, and we are here to help.