Have you ever asked yourself, “How did such a toxic person last so long in Christian ministry?”
I sure have. And the answer certainly isn’t a simple, cut and dry matter.
I’m not an expert on abusive Christian leaders, but I’ve seen enough troubling behavior from Christian leaders to know at least a few of their really effective strategies.
There are many ways that toxic Christian leaders protect themselves and hide their abusive or destructive behaviors, but keeping a few of these dynamics in mind can help you sort out what may be happening behind the scenes when dealing with a toxic Christian leader.
Influential Relationships Matter
The safest place for a toxic Christian leader who refuses to change his or her behavior is in creating a virtuous image of themselves around a vitally important issue in their circles of influence and then surrounding themselves with key influencers as a support network.
This plays out the same regardless of your views on hot button issues. The toxic progressive leader will be committed to social justice, equality, LGBTQ rights, etc. The toxic conservative leader be outspoken on pro-life issues, religious liberty, etc.
A toxic leader’s commitment to a virtuous issue creates a sense of incongruity whenever an allegation surfaces. It also leads to a dilemma within the networks of influencers who are often friends or at least friendly acquaintances who all depend on each other for professional and personal support.
Influencers think they really know this toxic leader. There is no doubt that the toxic leader has selflessly devoted time and energy to issues that are vital to the group’s shared values. They are rarely ready to reconsider the relationship when an accusation surfaces.
Toxic Leaders Are Protected by Incongruity
When accusers step forward to level a charge against a toxic leader, the public and the influencer network will need to sort out their impressions of the leader based on private interactions vs. the accusation.
Even more challenging, when a toxic leader is embedded into the fabric of an influencer network, this leader is now considered one of them. We shouldn’t overlook the power of these relational ties.
In fact, toxic leaders are really good at manipulating influential people, personally reinforcing their shared values and commitment to each other.
Who will be the first person in that network to start asking uncomfortable questions?
Will that person who challenges the toxic leader be ostracized from the group?
Should the group ostracize the toxic leader if the accusations are credible?
In addition to all of this, it’s just really, really hard to change your perception of someone who has only revealed their best selves to you. It’s also humbling to admit you’ve been manipulated.
When I witnessed a toxic leader manipulating some of my friends, one of them remarked, “It’s getting harder to reconcile my relationship with him and what I keep learning about him.”
That is the incongruity that toxic leaders rely on as a shield. If they can create enough doubt within their networks, they can get away with a lot.
Standing Together Against Public Outrage
The next point here is where things can get really messy.
If the scandal involving a toxic Christian leader is serious enough, there will rightly be public outrage and condemnations. The Christian influencers around the toxic leader may even get swept up into these condemnations if they fail to recognize the problems with the toxic leader.
Toxic Christian leaders really love it when this happens. Their concern isn’t for their friends or their victims. They only see this as an opportunity to strengthen their relationships with the influencers around them.
If toxic leaders can create a sense of camaraderie around public backlash, they will be far safer from the influential people who could hold them to account. When they are all embattled together around a “misunderstood” or “falsely accused” toxic leader, influencers are less likely to ask tough questions of a leader.
In fact, as public outrage grows against a toxic leader and his/her network, the influencers become vital supporters for each other. Even worse, the toxic leader, who has carefully cultivated a pristine image among the influencers, can become a support for others in the network as they face outrage over the leader’s bad behavior.
How Should We Handle Toxic Leaders?
I don’t share all of this to say that responding to toxic leaders is hopeless or that we shouldn’t be outraged when their behavior comes to light. Rather, our responses should take into account the toxic leader’s strategy for longevity.
I want toxic leaders to be held to account as much as anyone. I want them to see their behavior for what it is, to repent, to make amends, and to make meaningful change—even if such scenarios seem quite rare.
More than anything else, we need to take account of the influencer networks around these toxic leaders and consider that they may need more time than most to sort out the incongruities and relationships.
It can feel good in the moment to call out the influencers who prop up toxic Christian leaders, but that strategy can be counter-productive in the long term. Influencers need an off ramp away from toxic leaders toward the truth.
We should never sugar-coat the truth of the matter. If a toxic leader has abused people, let’s make sure the influencers know that’s the case. But they may not respond as quickly as we would like.
I’m not saying that a slow response is a good thing or a bad thing. That’s just the reality as influential Christians sort out the incongruities of the toxic leader and face the possibility that they’ve been wrong. I’m all ears for ideas on how to speed up that process!
It’s quite likely that many of these Christian leaders surrounding the toxic leader have never dealt with a situation like this. Toxic leaders especially love surrounding themselves with younger, brilliant leaders who have talent and influence but little experience with such situations.
The truth usually comes out. Toxic leaders can only hide reality for so long. The influential Christians around them are often too slow to speak up, but even they will typically come around… eventually.
We all respond to toxic Christian leaders in the best ways we know how. I’m not the one to tell you how to respond. Rather, I encourage you to consider the survival strategy for a toxic Christian leader before you respond. Such leaders are surely counting on you not knowing what they’re doing behind the scenes.