How Toxic Christian Leaders Protect Themselves

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.

Are You Too Mad to Help the Church?

Christianity has its critics and it has plenty of defenders. What’s most confusing for a defender of Christianity is when a former defender becomes a critic. It feels like a betrayal, even if the former defender still claims to follow Jesus.

The number one defense that the apologists for the Christian church use against critics is this: You’re too angry. The assumption is that even those who have been wounded, manipulated, controlled, or abused by people in the church cannot lodge a valid criticism of the church if they are also angry.

As someone who had once defended the church, then criticized the church, and then attempted to adopt a more constructive and redemptive approach to reform and renewal, I can see where many of the folks on both sides of this. I had once been baffled by those who were angry at the church. Then, one day, I got it. I was very angry at the power-plays, manipulation, and hollowness of the many doctrines and rules. Most importantly, I felt their frustration at being dismissed by church leaders.

When I hit the point where I was ready to give up on the sham that is so much of organized American Christianity, with its feel-good platitudes and naked power grabs, I found that there is something alive and vital lingering in the silence and stillness of our very busy and materialistic version of the faith.  Some family members taught me about the Holy Spirit and prayed for me in ways that I didn’t think possible. Others introduced me to ways of praying that date back to the earliest incarnation of the church.

As I have found renewed hope, I still have my angry moments. I still grow angry at leaders who abuse power and who manipulate the people under them. I still grow angry at Christians who are discipled by their bombastic news and entertainment rather than the meek and humble words of Christ. I am angry at the Christians who vote for abusive and destructive leaders who remain poised to unleash suffering and death on untold millions. I suspect that there will always be something to be mad about in the church. There will always be frauds and hucksters who will sell out the poor or vulnerable women and children for the sake of consolidating their power and influence. Anger is a valid response. How could it not be?

If I will always have a reason to be angry, then I need to figure out how to deal with it. If I consumed with my anger, I too can become a force for destruction. My anger will cut me off from people of good will who desire transformation and healing. My anger can deepen wounds and divides that may not be quite so far apart if viewed with a cooler head.

My anger can rule my thoughts and prevent me from pursuing the loving presence of God. If I hold onto my anger, it will poison me and my relationships, as the wounds and pain that I carry begin to become the wounds and pain that I pass on to others.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the church for me. It isn’t bad enough to be wounded by people who refuse to acknowledge their wrongs or who preach repentance while failing to repent. The worst part is that their offenses to me can be passed on others. If I haven’t dealt with my pain, I will most assuredly pass it on to others. I have become the thing that I have hated, and at that point it feels like I have passed into a point of no return.

In surrendering my thoughts to God through contemplation each day, I am learning to let go of my anger. Centering prayer is a daily letting go, and that has been helpful in responding to my anger. As I trust God with my anger, I can see the difference between being bracingly honest about the church and giving in to the wrecking ball of my anger.

There may be some days where I am too angry to help the church. That doesn’t mean my anger isn’t valid. However, it is hard to love people when you’ve surrendered to your rage toward them. Yes, rage can feel empowering and comforting, but rage won’t work over the long term. It doesn’t bring hope, transformation, or healing.

As I surrender my anger to God, I am doing my best to speak the truth in love—cliché as that sounds. But I have to let God work on my own soul before I can speak redemptive words. I cannot give love to others when I have nurtured anger. There is a process of surrender and transformation that I have seen God work in my own life so that I can find compassion for those still operating within the far too numerous authoritative and manipulative churches in America.

I don’t have easy “next steps” to offer folks who have been wounded, disappointed, or abused by the church. I trust that some may never return, and I cannot blame them. I had a small taste of the authoritarian nature of Catholic priests in my childhood, and to this day I cannot sit in a mass without feeling an extreme heaviness on my soul. The best that I can offer is this evaluation of our situation…

Underneath all of the power, authority, formulas, conferences, sermons, theology degrees, doctrine statements, rules, and fancy suits is a deep, unspoken fear in the American church that the real Christianity that Jesus preached is wholly different from what they have constructed, and the slightest breeze of discontent, let alone anger, can send the entire structure crashing to the ground. These leaders and those who follow them are deathly afraid that it can all be proven false, and the truth of the matter is, they’re right.

Suppressed under all of the rules, doctrines, and titles is the unruly and undignified love of God who longs for us like parents long for their children who have wandered off. We have been so distracted by images of God as judge and conquering king that we have failed to see what Jesus was up to. Why would Jesus take the risk of the incarnation and even suffer the indignity of suffering and death as a human if it wasn’t an expression of the deep love of God for us?

The promise of Jesus is a religion of the heart, God dwelling with us. Pentecost is the supposed to be the new normal, at least as far as the indwelling Holy Spirit goes. Yes, God desires transformation and holiness, but it is a purifying process of love and divine indwelling, not a product of external rules and codes. It is a chaotic process that is perfectly ordered under love and grace.

Over and over and over again in this history of the church, the mystics and the monks discovered this burning love of God that is greater than all of the rules and authorities, and time and time again, the leaders attempted to suppress this move of God. The people who spoke of this burning love of God feared that it would consume their control and influence, and of course they were right.

The life and death of Jesus have become a transaction or legal arrangement for so many of us that we’ve missed the parental and mystical elements that should speak to us on a deeper and truer level. Jesus came to unite us with God. He is the perfect expression of God’s parental love, making us God’s beloved sons and daughters. We need leaders who can lead us to the love of God, relinquishing control and influence. Sadly, not enough have signed up for that role.

I have found this uneasy dance with anger: my anger at the church is often valid, but it can become destructive if I hold onto it. It doesn’t make me stronger over time. My anger has the power to be a catalyst toward something better, but anger cannot bring me to God’s love.

We should be angry that so many Christians have failed to preach this authentic Gospel message and have even cast doubts upon it, as if they could add a footnote to the Prodigal Son story or put fences around Pentecost. However, it would be tragic to miss the deep longing of God for us in the midst of our anger over these Christians. Over time, we may even find a capacity to pity, or even love, these religious people who immerse themselves in the Bible but miss its simple message of God’s parental love and the promise of unity with God.

 

I Understand Why Some People Can’t Trust the Church

church-leave-church-damage

When I have to attend a Catholic mass for a family event, such as a funeral or wedding, I can’t rid myself of a deep unease and defensiveness. I have spent years trying to understand this reaction, and the best that I can determine is that the Catholic parish and high school of my youth were very instrumental in dividing my family, and I cannot view the Catholic Church outside the lens of that experience.

Although born and baptized a Catholic to parents who soon divorced, I took an interest in the Baptist church my dad attended at the age of 12. When my mother and her Catholic family caught wind of this, they arranged a meeting with the Catholic priest of their parish who told me to stop reading the Bible and to keep away from this Baptist Church.

However, I’d already started reading the Bible for myself. While I had lacked motivation for a while, this opposition felt like they had something to hide and only emboldened me. The priests routinely pushed for me to stop reading the Bible and to place myself under the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church. This led to years of conflict and division in my family.

When you’ve experienced a particular church or denomination as a closed system that demands control and allegiance, setting itself up as the only correct path, any doubts, questions, or personal investigations are classified as rebellion. I didn’t necessarily set out to leave the Catholic Church. I was certainly drawn to the Bible and a Baptist Church, but I didn’t need the Catholic Church to set down an all or nothing, scorched earth approach.

I recognize that my experience of the Catholic Church is not uniform by any means. Some have had far worse experiences under the authority structures of Catholicism and some have had far more positive experiences. However, the key finding of my experience is that I will never, ever consider placing myself under the power of the Catholic Church ever again. Even entering into a Catholic Mass still feels suffocating.

For years I assumed that my resistance and discomfort were the products of my own flaws or failures to appreciate a different religious group. Today, I can see with a little more clarity that my feelings during the mass after those experiences are a direct result of the way the priests treated my interest in the Bible and sowed deeply painful division in our family.

When a religious system has betrayed you, it’s likely that you’ll never return.

I have watched many friends struggle through abusive church situations on the Protestant end of the faith. They have generally either left the church altogether or found a very different denomination. As they’ve run away from controlling and sometimes abusive power structures, many of them still do so with mixed feelings. They want to affirm Christianity or at least Jesus, but damaging experiences have made it impossible to feel safe in Christian community.

At the very least, I have felt safer in the more decentralized Protestant churches, but we all know Protestants have had their fair share of scandals and failures as well.

Just the other day I happened to overhear a man praying, and he more or less was telling God what’s up. I started to panic before I even realized what was happening. I wanted to run away. I wanted to shout “Get behind me Satan!” I wanted to tell him to stop trying to control God.

I have felt that urge to run away from the control of religion time and time again. I’ve avoided church, I’ve had panic attacks in church, I’ve felt like I simply didn’t have the words to explain to someone why attending church felt so difficult and negative for a season of my life. Many times I was a negative voice of criticism and division because I simply couldn’t see my own wounds.

I’m sure that many have assumed I’m just a sinner. They’ve quoted from Hebrews 10:25 about not forsaking gathering together, boiling down my hesitation if not revulsion at the church down to a black and white matter of obedience. Never mind that it’s likely the author of Hebrews never had something like modern church meetings/power structures in mind when writing this letter, it’s even more likely that the author of Hebrews could never have imagined how horribly church leaders would control, divide, and alienate those in their care.

Until you’ve experienced healthy church leadership that you can trust and that you can believe genuinely cares for you as a person, not as an attendance number, tither, or cog in the ministry machine, you’ll struggle to heal from past church damage. I know people who have grown up in what I would consider unhealthy denominations, but they were cared for by relatively healthy church leaders, and that has made all of the difference for them today.

They weren’t expendable. They weren’t controlled. And perhaps today they struggle to imagine why so many struggle to trust church leaders or to even attend church in the first place.

While I know that many find beauty and holy mystery in the mass, it has only felt oppressive and constricting to this day. Any person in his right mind would run away from that. I have only sympathy and compassion for those who struggle to attend church or have walked away altogether for those same reasons.

I can’t imagine that God would fault anyone for taking the very natural steps of protecting themselves after going through damaging church experiences. Perhaps that is the place where we can find hope—God’s mercy and compassion. This is the God who relinquished control, took the form of a servant, and showed us the way forward through resurrection. We can’t change the judgment and control of the church leaders from our past, but we can see the true mercy and grace of God with a clarity that exposes the frauds and may one day lead us to a place of peace.

 

We’d Rather Stay with the 99

church stage performance Christianity

 

Have you seen the size of our congregation?

Can you fathom how many lives have been transformed by our hard-working ministry… I mean, by the Gospel?

Our outreach programs and community service teams are missionally engaged in the surrounding culture. We have strong attendance numbers. Our baptism services are more packed than an MTV beach party—at least, what we imagine an MTV beach party would be like if everyone dressed super modestly.

While everyone’s writing about the decline of the church in America, we’re celebrating new salvation decisions every week. Our membership classes are always packed. We’re going to open a new campus next year that will expand the reach of the Gospel into yet another unreached suburb.

It’s true that some people have been damaged, spiritually abused, and manipulated by our pastor. We’re the first to admit that he has some flaws.

We say let him who is without sin cast the first stone. Our pastor is a sinner like everyone else who is no longer under condemnation. We are all under grace, and the least we can do is extend that same grace to the leaders who are running ministries that are too big to fail… I mean blessed by God with astounding attendance numbers.

We can’t let the gates of hell prevail against the church, can we?

We know some wounded people keep criticizing the spiritual abuse, manipulation, and all-male elder boards who use church by-laws and covenants to control people. It’s not our fault that these critics, at one time at least, wanted to follow our biblical model and signed up to join our congregation. It’s not our fault that they refused to abide by the covenant that we established through our culturally bound and arbitrary… I mean inerrant interpretation of God’s Word.

Yes, it’s true that some people have left the faith or have been deeply wounded because of our ministry. Shouldn’t any business… I mean empire… I mean church, expect some collateral damage?

Those calling for “accountability” and changes for our church and our leaders simply don’t understand the numbers involved in successful business… I mean church growth… I mean Gospel-centered ministry. It really all comes down to math… and some grace… especially for our leaders… but usually not for the people they hurt since aren’t preaching to thousands of people every Sunday.

Let’s deal in some round numbers for the sake of simplicity.

Say there are 100 people in our church (Not that we’ve ever had less than 150 since our launch in our pastor’s massive basement). Through the spectacular preaching of our pastor and the extremely male headship of our elder board, 99 of those people come to a saving knowledge of the Gospel, join the membership class, pledge to tithe regularly, volunteer on a regular basis, and begin reaching friends with the Gospel in order to expand our empire… I mean ministry. That’s amazing, right? What church wouldn’t dream of a 99% conversion rate?

However, let’s say that one person out of the 100 has a run in with our pastor, perhaps while he’s jet-lagged from speaking at a conference, or a disagreement with our elders who are simply asking for accountability that requires acquiescing to their demands despite everything that person believes about healthy personal boundaries. For the sake of argument, let’s say that person is deeply wounded and even spiritually manipulated, although we’re not sure how that could happen since people living under godly accountability technically can’t be manipulated. They just need to submit to their leaders and call it a day.

The wounded person may leave our church or the faith altogether. Either way, it’s not our job to cater to the whims and needs of one person. We have important work to do. We have 99 people to instruct in theology, to train in outreach, and to engage in our latest giving campaign.

It’s an unwise allocation of resources and the highly valuable time of our leaders to chase one person out of the hundred who wanders away.

If that one person out of 100 simply wanders away from the Gospel altogether in order to pursue a sinful lifestyle, then our hands are truly tied. If the Gospel has been preached and the elect have responded, what use is there in seeking out the one person wanders away?

Whatever the reason may be for one person wandering away or leaving our ministry, the key point here is that leaders need to keep focused on their vision and mission. If someone doesn’t want to “get on the bus” or play ball with your God-given vision and mission, then let them go.

Don’t leave the 99 behind in order to pursue the one who wanders away. That’s a terrible way to manage an organization or to fulfill a vision.

Pastors literally can’t afford to leave the 99 behind in order to pursue the one who wanders away.

Can you imagine the CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies doing such a foolish thing?

Stop thinking about the one who wandered away! Invest in the 99 who are committed to your vision… and to the Gospel.

We want to see the Gospel reach all people, not just one person. Judging by the size of our congregation, you should stop listening to our few critics and start taking notes on our church management… I mean, disciple-making process.

 

[A Note to Readers: In case you were wondering, yes, this is satire. It’s not based on a particular church. It addresses some broader trends I’ve observed and experienced in many churches and materials written for church leaders.]