As they offer spiritual leadership, Christian leaders are to follow standards and behaviors that reflect biblical values. Despite this long-held understanding, there are mounting concerns over the “hiddenness” of toxic behaviors and practices in churches and among Christian leaders. Kenneth Gangel, an experienced leader in the field of Christian Education, aptly states: “Defective Christian leaders rarely get their picture in Time or Newsweek for defrauding employees or driving their ministries into bankruptcy, but make no mistake about it, we have toxic leaders in our midst.”
The literature on leadership continues to develop around this concern of toxic leadership. Gangel was among the first to use the term “toxic” to describe the behavior of certain Christian leaders. The dynamics of toxicity include the creation of fear and guilt, manipulation, abuse, authoritarian leadership, and leadership that undermines Christian ethics and witness. The literature notably shows that toxic leaders often misuse Scripture for their own ends. Selective biblical teachings or commands may be employed to justify the leader’s abuse of authority, enforce harsh rules, and exercise undue power over followers. These behaviors inflict real and often lasting harm on followers and organizations. Within the Church, such actions create even deeper wounds due to the spiritual role held by clergy.
Toxicity within the Church
As a church and seminary leader who trains pastors, evangelists, and missionaries, as well as marketplace Christian leaders, I would like to offer some nuanced and sobering observations of the “hidden” aspects of toxic leadership practices and unspiritual uses of power. I began to study this issue in greater depth following conversations with church members, whose stories were laced with pain, distress, and guilt over leaving their churches as a result of their pastors’ behavior. The wider study I conducted at several Pentecostal Charismatic churches in an Asian context has led me to conclude that Christian leaders can and do resort to personal power plays in order to influence outcomes.
Power plays are indeed a “sociological reality” in the Church. Despite rules, procedures, and even doctrinal beliefs, power dynamics prevail in every aspect of negotiations within churches. There are four common types of toxic power strategies:
Spiritual: Some clergy leaders focus on their role as the “Lord’s anointed one,” a position that elevates them above question or criticism. They may also spiritualize their behavior, claiming that they have received a special vision from God and thus, are accountable only to God and to themselves. Followers have neither the permission nor the freedom to question directives, which these leaders present as carrying divine authority.
Financial: Two critical factors enable church leaders to approve, utilize, and transfer funds for personal benefit: a) the absence of well-defined boundaries between personal and ministry funds; and b) a lack of clarity, supervision, transparency, and auditing in accounting procedures. When questioned about financial practices, one toxic leader explained that the Church operates by different standards than those of the “secular” world.
Relational: When followers diverge from leaders’ demands or level queries and perceived challenges to authority, toxic leaders respond with actions and behavior designed to consolidate power. Followers find themselves facing condescension, manipulation, stonewalling, and blacklisting. Toxic clergy leaders may reiterate the importance of loyalty and insist that no one should question the leader, who bears God’s message and vision for the congregation.
Misappropriation of Scripture: Toxic leaders often apply selective passages or themes in Scripture to advance agendas and mute critics. Passages about Elijah and Elisha may be used to justify illegitimate transfers of authority to handpicked favorites. References to keeping the Lord’s storehouses full and not robbing God are intended to enrich church coffers, and by extension, the leaders themselves.
The Corrupting Influence of Power
Toxic leadership thrives on power. The force of the leader’s personality often fuels the subtle insidiousness of toxic power. Unprincipled leaders vie for control, utilizing fear, guilt, compliance, and uniformity to keep followers in line. As authoritarian leaders, they expect unquestioned obedience. These leaders also distort theology and misuse Scripture to justify their actions. Their personal control supersedes doctrine, governing structures, and other rules and procedures. Power can help or harm, but tends toward harm unless tempered by trust, grace, and love.
Clergy leaders in the Pentecostal Charismatic tradition have a strong sense of God’s calling and anointing in their lives. They are charged to be led by the Spirit, and recognize that power and authority rests ultimately in God’s hands. Spiritual authority must be asserted with caution and humility. Pastors are called to shepherd the flock with sound and trustworthy teaching. By virtue of their roles, pastors have a certain advantage in their relationships with followers, and can be tempted to use power disparately beyond the scope of duty and responsibility.
A Way Forward
Where do we go from here, beyond raising awareness of a very real problem that can plague Christian ministries and churches? I propose two pathways.
First, motivations, attitudes toward relational power, and default behaviors need to be addressed and critiqued through a theological lens. For this, we can draw upon the doctrine of the Trinity to define and articulate a vision of persons in ecclesial relationships. Robust Trinitarian concepts of participation, mutuality, and community can shape organizational culture and practices. Godly leadership recognizes the value of followers, the sharing of power, the importance of interdependence, and common responsibility.
Those who are responsible for training new generations of pastors and other Christian leaders have a particular need to recalibrate our classical theology and pastoral theology curricula to connect the significance of our Trinitarian beliefs to everyday faith, Christian practice, and particularly leadership.
Second, we need to focus on the character of leaders. We must emphasize the necessity of self-awareness and a posture of learning among leaders. In Leadership on the Line, Ronald Heifetz describes certain “hungers” behind dysfunctional behavior that can disqualify leaders. When we reflect on the causes of toxic leadership, we see that they do come down to brokenness – to distortions of life and character that undermine leadership. Those involved in leadership development must therefore take care to nurture in emerging leaders a “sacred” heart that is open and virtuous.
Gangel, Kenneth O. Surviving Toxic Leaders: How to Work for Flawed People in Churches, Schools, and Christian Organizations. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2008.
Heifetz, Ronald and Martin Linsky. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston: Harvard Review, 2002.