Navigating toxic leadership in your church

Dr. Michael G. Bischof

President of SOULeader Resources

  • Church & pastoral health

In my first full-time ministry experience, a medium-sized church hired me to be a youth pastor. When my wife and I showed up, the pastor’s daughter shared what her father was really like behind the scenes. In a short time, that pastor told me he wanted our staff to go out and do conferences because “it’s just fun to tell people what to do!” I even let him use me as a pawn to control what the board was trying to do so that he could get the control he wanted. After six excruciating months, the board fired him for these and many other harmful behaviors.

One of the primary reasons pastors and leaders choose to leave a church (or are even fired or moved out) is running into toxic leaders. One of the most difficult realities to see in ourselves is where our leadership might be toxic. Yet this toxicity is usually very obvious to those under the leadership of a toxic person. Like the proverbial elephant in the room, everyone knows it’s there, but no one is willing to talk about it.

Author Parker Palmer puts it this way: “A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to project onto other people his or her shadow, or his or her light. A leader is a person who has an unusual degree of power to create the conditions under which other people must live. … Conditions that can either be as illuminating as heaven or as shadowy as hell. A leader must take special responsibility for what’s going on inside his or her own self, inside his or her consciousness, lest the act of leadership create more harm than good.”

In their book Overcoming the Dark Side of Leadership, Gary McIntosh and Samuel Rima describe five leadership pathologies that I believe are still some of the most common among pastors today.

The compulsive leader

This person feels like they have to do everything. They refuse to delegate and feel compelled to give their input into everything. They lack trust in others, hence failing to let anyone else take responsibility for anything, thus hindering others’ growth. They have an excessively high need for order and control and approach tasks with a sense of drivenness or authoritarianism. They tend to be very status conscious and look for approval from authority figures. They are usually perfectionistic and are often workaholics.

The narcissistic leader

I believe this is the most common leadership pathology in the church today. They have a grandiose sense of self-importance. Most need excessive admiration. Some of the most difficult characteristics to see in this leader are a sense of entitlement, exploitation of others to achieve personal goals, lack of empathy, frequent envy of others and arrogance. In summary, these leaders use other people for their own ends to validate themselves as “good.” What is hard to believe is how acceptable and even admired this type of leader has become in church leadership today.

The paranoid leader

They refuse to let other staff members preach because the congregation may like others’ preaching more than their own. They overreact to the mildest forms of criticism. They blow up if someone causes them to be even slightly embarrassed in front of others. They interpret hidden, demeaning or threatening content into ordinary events or comments. They persistently bear grudges. They are reluctant to confide in others. They respond quickly with anger or counterattacks. They have unjustified, recurring suspicions about loyalty. They fear that someone will undermine their leadership. They often attach subjective meaning to motives and create rigid structures for control.

The codependent leader

They don’t chart a course — but react to what others are doing or have done. They aren’t leaders; they’re “reactors.” They withhold critical information from others, causing them to make ill-informed and bad decisions. They’re often considered “peacemakers.” They fail to confront and deal with inappropriate behaviors within the organization. They fear hurting someone’s feelings or the risk of losing approval. They enable unhealthy behaviors.

The passive-aggressive leader

They feel like they need to control everything, and when not in control, they passively reject others. They often gossip and say hurtful things. They’re chronically late (the #1 symptom). They use excuses to dominate and control situations. They often find it difficult to set goals and implement plans for the future since this provides the chance for failure. They tend to have a pessimistic outlook that affects their perception of everyone they lead. They resent and resist standards and systems for measuring performance. They may become impatient and irritable when things do not go their way.

Tools for navigating toxic leadership

First, if you see these traits in yourself (and if we’re honest, we all have issues we need to work on), I have three suggestions: get humble, get help or get out. It takes a good dose of humility combined with honesty and vulnerability to work on these issues in your life. The good news is that you don’t have to do it alone. I suggest finding a wise mentor, spiritual director or counselor (in order of severity) to help you work on these issues.

Second, if you see these traits in others, I suggest the following. Get supportive people around you who you can lean on as you confront these deep-rooted behaviors. Get educated about the issues you’re facing through books and resources. Evaluate what you’re willing to give up. If you don’t see the potential for change or the change might take too long, you might have to consider moving on. Possibly the most important is determining the impact this is having on your health, family and relationships. Finally, if you’re directly confronting this, work a Matthew 18 process with caution, patience and wisdom.

Bringing issues into the light

I believe this is an issue of light and darkness. Not dealing with toxic leadership issues keeps them in the darkness — but addressing them with grace and truth brings them into the light. An applicable scripture to meditate on is:

“This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.” (1 John 1:5-7, NIV)


Dr. Michael G. Bischof, President of SOULeader Resources

Dr. Michael G. Bischof (M.Div., D.Min.) is founder and president of SOULeader Resources, an inter-denominational ministry established in 2000 to empower transformational wholeness in leaders, churches, denominations and organizations. Michael uses his experience through coaching, consulting, training and writing.

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