…a “MUST READ for all pastors, spiritual leaders, and prospective church leaders!” Mark Halvorsen, Radio broadcaster
I will send a signed paperback copy of the book to the first 20 people who post a review on Amazon.com
This book is a cup of cold water in the desert! Remy “hears” the stories of victims, legitimizes what happened to them, and goes to the root of the problem. Liz Tinnea,ourunseenhope.com
This book will be an invaluable tool to enable congregation members and those in authority to understand the reality of toxic groups and cults and reach out in love to their victims. Emily Walker de Villasenor, faithafterdeception.wordpress.com
As a victim of a toxic church, this book touched me personally and gave me hope in my Savior that He can heal the wounds caused by church leaders, it is just going to take time. Jim Brangenberg, Radio Talk Show Host iWork4Him
Spiritual abuse and Toxic church is a complex maze, fraught with danger. Broken Trust offers a safe passage for those lost on the journey…Remy’s gift of writing is in his clarity and connection with the reader founded on sound biblical principles and personal healing. Bill Huxley– Counselor, Psychotherapist and Survivor.
As a spiritual abuse survivor and blogger, I have now read dozens of books about this topic. Many are academic in nature, or very dense. I am comfortable saying that this book provides the clearest, simplest, most helpful coverage of spiritual abuse and recovery.” Stephen A. Smith, libertyforcaptives.com
You Can Help Spread the Word
All abuse is hidden, including spiritual abuse. The best way to dismantle spiritual abuse is to drag it into the light. I’m asking you to help promote this book to help defeat spiritual abuse.
I truly believe that people will find freedom from spiritual bondage by reading this book. Would you help get the word out?
Here’s how to help:
Buy the book for yourself to educate yourself on spiritual abuse.
Buy the book for friends who have expressed concern about their faith community.
Post a review on Amazon.com. The more reviews, the more encouragement you will give others to buy it. Plus, it will rank higher on Amazon’s list and be more visible for book searches. I will send a signed paperback copy of the book to the first 20 people who post a review on Amazon.com and let me know.
Post a review on your blog or Facebook page with a link to the book.
Make it available in your church lobby for sale.
Put a link to the book on your blog or website.
Interview me on your radio show or podcast.
Like this post and share it on Facebook or in an email.
Thanks so much for your support! I look forward to hearing back from my readers.
If you’ve been subjected to spiritually abusive pastors or leaders, you might wonder how that is even possible. Aren’t spiritual leaders supposed to be the ones who have their lives together? After all, how can they lead you into a healthy relationship with God if they don’t have one themselves?
According to NetCE,[i] there are three primary traits that cause people to spiritually abuse others:
Narcissistic traits/tendencies, resulting from a deep insecurity. For many who spiritually abuse, having spiritual knowledge to hold over people becomes a way to meet their need for inner security or self-esteem.
A genuine belief that one is doing “the right thing” (rarely an intent to harm). Many who act out in spiritually abusive ways genuinely believe they have found some type of “answer” and desire to share it with others, likely unaware of the subconscious insecurities that drive them.
Skills in the language of love, emotions, trust, and intimacy.[ii]
These three traits create the perfect storm of spiritual abuse. It starts with insecurity. In my opinion, shame is at the heart of the abusive pastor’s insecurity and narcissistic behavior. Shame is an inner gnawing that convinces them that they don’t measure up. Their deep sense of inadequacy is then transformed when they find the “truth,” but not always in a good way.
Abusive Pastors are Well-intentioned Dragons
Coming to faith can set you free, but it can also be misused to justify your much-needed sense of superiority. Your shame seizes the opportunity to exalt yourself over others, but you don’t see what you are doing because you think you are helping people find the truth like you did. Your leadership is tainted from the beginning.
Abusive pastors are often well-intentioned dragons, forcing their will on people thinking they are doing people a favor. When people resist, the pastor doesn’t think he/she is at fault. It’s the person’s lack of faith or spiritual interest. So, the pastor either increases his/her control over their member or dismisses them as unworthy.
In their classic book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, authors Johnson and Van Vonderen make this observation:
There are spiritual systems in which…the members are there to meet the needs of the leaders… These leaders attempt to find fulfillment through the religious performance of the very people whom they are there to serve and build. This is an inversion of the body of Christ. It is spiritual abuse. (p.23)
It’s sad to see people use spiritual leadership to meet their own emotional needs.
Confronting Abusive Pastors
In my new book, Broken Trust, I suggest that if you are being spiritually abused, you should either confront your abusive leadership or leave the church. Unfortunately, it’s often very hard to confront abusive pastors because they rarely see their faults and are very defensive when confronted.
Converge Magazine wrote an excellent article looking at the ministry of a nationally known spiritual leader and why he needed to be confronted.
The greatest difficulty in ministering to abusers is this: they don’t believe there is anything really wrong with them. Their skills at self-deception, combined with their distortions of thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, fortifies them against recognizing their soul sickness.[i]
If you are waiting for a spiritually abusive leader to see their sin and change, you might be waiting a long time.
Helping Abusive Pastors
In Broken Trust, I include an entire section to help pastors dismantle their spiritually abusive church. Some pastors are evil. But many pastors stumble into abuse for a variety of reasons…as I mentioned, often related to their shame.
Many abusive pastors choose their tactics thinking they are serving God and believers. They don’t realize they are doing much harm. They are no different from well-intentioned parents whose poor leadership ends up hurting their children.
If you are suffering under the ministry of an abusive pastor, I hope you will confront him/her. But if you can’t confront, then I hope you will leave their ministry. One way or another, they need to get the message that their tactics are hurting people.
This is the fourth post in my blog series on Spiritual Abuse. Be sure to track back to read the full series.
I will soon post how a church can take steps to recover from their spiritually abusive past. That is, once spiritual abuse has been uncovered, what steps need to be taken to get the church back on track?
But before I list out what that means, I want to discuss two concerns I have about how a church might mishandle spiritual abuse. I’ll discuss one concern today and another one on Wednesday.
Concern One: People will minimize the abuse and explain it away.
The problem with abuse is that not everyone sees it. If everyone saw it, it would be obvious and people would take bold steps to eradicate it. What typically happens is only a few people see it full blown. A few more people see a little here and there. They are concerned, but not enough to “make waves” and say something. Most people don’t see it at all. They aren’t close enough to the source so it’s easily missed or explained away.
When stories of abuse come out, they are so easy to deny. There are usually many more people who haven’t seen it. They outnumber those that have seen it. Those who haven’t seen it talk about all the good that is happening. No one wants to think their leaders have gone rogue. They shut down concerns by warning people about being rebellious, or gossips, or negative, etc. The abused either shut up or walk away.
…don’t let people talk you out of the fact that spiritual abuse happened or convince you that, if it happened, it wasn’t “that bad” because good things happened too.
One abuse survivor said she hesitated to say anything about her spiritual abuse because: She felt dramatic and whiny for mentioning spiritual abuse, like she was overstating what happened. DAYNA DRUM, OCTOBER 27, 2014, Relevant Magazine
As a pastor myself, I’m all for supporting your pastor! But I’m surprised how many people blindly support and protect their pastor even when there is strong evidence about their misbehavior. It’s important to give someone the benefit of the doubt (especially when I’m the one being doubted) but questionable behavior warrants questioning, especially when there are ongoing concerns by a variety of people over time.
Other people will justify abuse by saying the “end justifies the means.” That is, if someone made spiritual progress, by so-called “spiritual abuse,” can it really be abuse if they were helped? Yes it can. And I question if they really were helped, in the long run.
Learning from Sexual Abuse
Comparing spiritual abuse to sexual abuse might bring some clarity. Let’s say an adult coerces a minor to have sex. The minor is willing. They even enjoy it. Is it abuse? Yes it is. The fact that it is consensual and enjoyable has no bearing on whether it’s abuse.
What makes it abuse is that the adult violated the innocence of the minor. Just because the minor didn’t feel violated, or understand they were violated, means nothing. A violation still occurred. Something was taken from the minor that can never be recovered. That’s abuse.
The same is true with spiritual abuse. People can testify to the amazing power of a pastor’s ministry. They can have multiple people stand up and tell their story of how they came to God and were set free. But if their will was violated in any way…if the pastor crossed the line of respecting their right to choose, redirected the person to rely on the pastor and not God, or manipulated their choice through intimidating them in any way, it’s still abuse.
It’s often easy for people to misinterpret any change or impact as the work of God. When someone is under the mind-control of a persuasive abuser, they are easily manipulated into thinking that God is doing something in their lives when it is, in fact, the abuser.
My point here: don’t let people talk you out of the fact that spiritual abuse happened or convince you that, if it happened, it wasn’t “that bad” because good things happened too. When you minimize spiritual abuse you are telling the abused a number of lies:
You weren’t violated in any way, so get over it.
You don’t know what it means to be spiritual.
We aren’t concerned about what happened to you if it didn’t happen to us.
You are expendable. We don’t need to “stop the train” just because you were hurt.
You are overreacting.
You don’t have the right to question authority.
When people hear these things subtly implied, they are revictimized. I’ll talk more about this on Wednesday. The answer to spiritual abuse is to not minimize in hope of it quickly going away. The answer is to fully expose it and take responsibility for it.
If you found this post helpful, please “like” it and share it below.
When we think of abuse, we often think of the extremes. We think of sexual or physical abuse. It’s violent. It’s evil. It’s ugly. But spiritual abuse isn’t that dramatic, it’s more subtle. You don’t always see it at first. (Spiritual abuse might include physical and sexual abuse, but let’s not go there for clarity sake.)
When the hotheaded jerk beats his wife and the police are called, everyone knows. It’s obvious. There’s no disputing the broken jaw or black and blue marks.
But with spiritual abuse it’s not that obvious. There are often questions. There’s uncertainty. We can’t always see the damage that’s been done. Because of this, I want to give you a checklist to help you discern if abuse is really taking place.
A Word of Caution: Humility Required
But before I give you the checklist, I want to speak a word of caution. When we talk about abuse, we need to come at it with humility. It shouldn’t be a witch hunt. I take no pleasure in identifying toxic and spiritually abusive pastors and churches. I do it with a broken heart, aware that I am capable of doing the same thing. Plus, in confronting abuse, churches can dissolve. Pastors can lose their jobs. This is very sobering.
As you learn about spiritual abuse and possibly confront it, I hope you will do so with humility. I’m not asking you to excuse the abuse in any way. But let’s not demonize the idea of abuse to such an extreme that none of us think we are capable of it. Sure we are. We are human. We mistreat each other all the time. And if we are not careful, our response to spiritual abuse can be just as ugly; Just as hurtful; and just as divisive and destructive as the original abuse.
Jesus cautioned us to take the log out of our own eye before we take the speck of dirt from someone else. So before you accuse others of emotional or spiritual abuse, look in the mirror. Are you doing this to others…even in the subtlest ways? Do you recognize that you are capable of it?
Spiritual Abuse Checklist
With that said, let me give you a checklist to help you determine if you might be in a church that is spiritually abusive. Sometimes a symptom checklist helps to reveal the obvious. We are so prone to deny abuse. But if we answer “yes” to several questions, it helps us to break through our denial and admit the obvious.
There’s nothing scientific about this list. These are merely questions I developed based on observing spiritually abusive church environments.
Sometimes a symptom checklist helps to reveal the obvious. We are so prone to deny abuse. But if we answer “yes” to several questions, it helps us to break through our denial and admit the obvious.
Is the outside influence getting wider or smaller? That is, do you see your church making more and more connections to other churches and pastors or less and less? Does your church find reasons to break fellowship with others?
Is the list of acceptable behavior getting smaller and smaller and the list of objectionable behavior getting longer and longer? Has it been made very clear to you what you can and cannot do as a church member?
Is there a sense that you have to check with somebody to make sure you are doing the right thing?
Do you find yourself hiding or minimizing thoughts or behavior to not draw critical attention to yourself?
Is there a climate of fear and shame in the congregation?
Is there high praise for conforming to the acceptable model?
Are certain teachings repeated over and over, or is the full range of biblical truth taught?
Does the teaching move people to rely more and more on the Spirit of God or the teachings of the church and its leadership?
Are people afraid to challenge questionable behavior and teaching?
Is your leadership defensive when questioned about their behavior and teaching?
Is it hard to get information/answers from the leadership of the church, specifically the pastor? That is, is there a pattern of avoidance?
Is there a sense that your pastors are better or more insightful than other pastors, that his/her teaching is more inspired than other pastors?
Is there a sense that your church has an inside track with God, possibly the only way to God?
Are you made to feel guilty or like God doesn’t love you for not complying with what’s expected from your pastor or church?
Do you find yourself having to justify and explain away your concerns about the leadership?
When you ask questions of the leadership, do they eventually turn the conversation around to attacking you personally or your spirituality?
Is there a system of accountability in place to correct pastors and leaders that stray in some fashion? Most denominations have this in place. If your church is independent, what kind of safe guards are in place should leadership stray? Note: many independent churches have people they say they are submitted to, but in reality, these people hold no authority over them for correction.
Do you find people outside of your church expressing concern about your involvement in the church?
Do you find yourself increasingly doubting your ability to make good decisions?
Does encountering your pastor/leaders leave you feeling more confident or more ashamed of yourself and needing to please them?
If you answered “yes” to even a few of these questions, it’s worth a discussion with someone in leadership. (If you can think of another question to add to the list, let me know.)
Confronting Spiritual Abuse
Now, here’s a word to the wise. Don’t go in to confront your leaders with “guns blazing.” It never helps to accuse people and put them on the defensive. Like I said at the outset, everyone is capable of misbehavior. We often fall into emotional and spiritually abusive behavior because we want the best for someone else but we approach it in controlling ways. We don’t trust people to listen to us, or trust God to do his work, or trust our ability to confront people respectfully, so we take the easy way: manipulation.
When you speak to your leaders, give them the benefit of the doubt. Don’t assume the worst. Assume they mean well but they’ve chosen poor tactics to achieve their goals. Over the years I’ve detected my own manipulative behavior. I’ve worked hard to strip it from my toolbox. I never meant harm. I just wasn’t trained in interpersonal relationships so I had to learn through trial and error (like most of us). I couldn’t have written this post twenty years ago. I was too guilty of it.
Let me give you an example. Over the years I’ve caught myself saying “You must do this…” It’s a subtle word, must, but why did I feel the need to use it so much? Didn’t I trust the person to follow my advice? Didn’t I trust God to reveal to the person their need to do what I was recommending? No, I didn’t. I needed to turn up the intensity so people didn’t feel like they had a choice in the matter. That’s manipulation. Whenever I speak in that manner I’m violating people’s right to choose. It’s a form of abuse. I may have been ignorant of my abuse but not innocent of it. I needed to own that about myself and change.
When you speak to your leader, tell them how you feel when they say or do certain things. Don’t accuse them of abuse. Image you were to confront me about my language. You could say something like, “Pastor, I’d like to talk to you about something you often say. You often say, “You MUST do this or that.” When you say that, I feel like my ability to choose is being violated. I feel like I am no longer accountable to God, I’m accountable to you. I’m sure you don’t mean for this to happen, but I wonder if you could choose a different way to convey your passion?”
Do you see how respectful this is? No accusation. You simply told me how you felt when I said something. Hopefully, if you confront your pastor, he/she will listen and be a better person for it. If they won’t listen to you, then refer to my post on How to Confront a Toxic Pastor.
In my last post I talked about how to confront a toxic pastor. Like my post on toxic church people, the post on toxic pastors was read by hundreds of people. The interest in these two posts tells me that there is a lot of toxicity in the church. We need to do something about this! Jesus called us to be the “light of the world,” but how can that be if we allow so much darkness to exist?
A toxic church is a church where spiritual abuse is allowed to exist. But many people don’t know what spiritual abuse is and are blind to it. Part of the problem is that so many Christians have been unknowingly exposed to spiritual abuse, they don’t see it for what it is. Spiritual abuse has been normalized to some extent, preventing believers from grasping the dangers of it.
This might not make sense to you right now, but follow along with me for the next few posts and I think you’ll start to see what I mean. I plan on releasing at least four posts over the next two weeks discussing the subtle power of spiritual abuse. Here’s what I have planned so far:
What is Spiritual Abuse?
A 20 Question Checklist on Spiritual Abuse.
Let’s Not Revictimize the Spiritually Abused.
How a Church Can Recover From Spiritual Abuse.
I’ll wade in slowly today with some simple definitions of abuse taken from the newly revised edition of my first book, Healing the Hurts of Your Past (not yet available).
First, my definition for abuse:
Abuse happens when someone crosses the boundaries of another person and enters that person’s personal space for their own gain (that is, the abuser) and to the detriment of their victim. Abuse involves a systematic pattern of manipulating, intimidating, or coercing their victim to gain and maintain power and control over them.
Spiritual abuse has been normalized to some extent, preventing believers from grasping the dangers of it.
Now, my definition of emotional abuse:
Emotional abuse often works in conjunction with other forms of abuse. You can recognize emotional abuse when someone:
dismisses your difficulties, issues, or input as unimportant, or an overreaction.
doesn’t listen to you.
belittles you by calling you names and humiliates you in front of others.
puts down your opinions or accomplishments.
acts excessively controlling or jealous:
– they limit your use of money, technology, travel, etc.
– they restrict you from seeing friends or family.
– they constantly check up on you.
ignores logic and gets dramatic and even hostile in order to get their way.
makes you feel responsible and guilty for things that have nothing to do with you. In other words, it’s always your fault. It’s never their fault.
attempts to destroy any outside support you receive by belittling your friends, family, church, counselor, etc.
causes you to “walk on eggshells” in an effort not to upset them.
Finally, here’s my definition for spiritual abuse. It incorporates the definitions above:
Spiritual abuse is a form of emotional abuse, but it happens when people use God, or their supposed relationship to God, to control your behavior. The physical abuser might use their fist to threaten you. The verbal abuser will use their words. The spiritual abuser uses God (or the Bible, church, or religion) as their threat.
Parents can spiritually abuse their children by threatening their children with what God will do to them if they don’t obey their parents. Ministers can do the same thing. I was talking to a friend once about why he left his church after going there for years. He said, “I was just tired of getting beat up every week” (referring to harsh sermons). I’ve actually heard this a lot. This is spiritual abuse.
It’s unfortunate how quick some people are to defend spiritual abuse. If I went to my friend’s pastor and told him that people were leaving his church because he was spiritually abusive, he’d probably say, “No, I’m just preaching the Word of God. I can’t help it if they find it offensive.” Spiritual abusers are quick to explain away their behavior, justifying it as their service to God and people’s lack of commitment.
One of the subtlest forms of spiritual abuse is when a religious person speaks emphatically about God and faith with no room to disagree. I bet you’ve been in a group where this has happened. You were with one or two people who were going off on what the Bible says on some topic and how their way of interpreting the Bible was the only way to see it. They belittled any person that dared to disagree with them, and all the while you were thinking to yourself…Well, I disagree! But you didn’t want to say anything because you didn’t want them to think you were a bad or unspiritual person. That’s spiritual abuse.
But They Aren’t Trying To Hurt Anybody
People often can’t see spiritual abuse because they think of an abuser as someone who purposefully sets out to harm others. In their mind, an abuser is an evil person with evil intentions. But that’s not necessarily true. An abusive person can simply be someone who is not aware of how their behavior adversely impacts those around them.
Pastors can easily fall into abusing others precisely because they do care for others. They want to help so much that they force their beliefs and behaviors on others, thinking that their ways will rescue people, when in reality, their behavior crosses personal boundaries that create emotional and spiritual damage. People excuse their behavior because they trust their motives. But there is no excuse for spiritual abuse. Good intentions don’t absolve them of their abusive behavior.
I’ll talk about this more over the coming days. Be sure to send me your comments and questions and “like” this or forward this post to a friend if you found it helpful.
I initially wrote a series of posts on spiritual abuse to help church people know how to respond to abuse in their church. Many people are paralyzed by the situation, not knowing what to do…often in shock that it could even happen. I gave people concrete advice on whether to confront or leave their toxic church leadership.
If you find this post helpful, you might want to consider the book. Read the reviews to see what people are saying. (updated 9/26/17)
There are many toxic pastors and toxic churches in the world today. It’s sad that so many people are being hurt by them. It’s so contrary to what they are called to do. And yes, they DO need to be confronted. I’ve had to do my share of it over the years.
Traits of a Toxic Pastor
Thom Ranier is a church consultant who has quantified Fourteen Symptoms of a Toxic Leader. Here are a few symptoms that come to my mind: a toxic pastor…
manipulates people to promote their personal agenda
dodges, deflects, or rejects criticism
consistently rationalizes and minimizes their negative behavior
intimidates people with their biblical and persuasive arguments
twists scripture to support his or her claims
turns criticism back on the person who confronts them, shutting them down
shields himself or herself from critics and marginalizes them
insists on their agenda despite the concerns of others.
justifies their agenda by saying that “God told them.”
It always amazes me how a toxic pastor with these traits can get into power and stay there. How does it happen?
A Conspiracy of Silence
I think it happens because the pastor is often one of the few people in leadership who is educated in ministry. Everyone around him or her is a volunteer and no one feels confident to challenge the pastor’s decisions. One leader is silent, which causes the next leader to doubt what they see, and then they also stand silent.
Before you know it there is an unintentional conspiracy of silence. This can last for years allowing all kinds of toxicity to develop and people to be hurt.
Before you know it there is an unintentional conspiracy of silence. This can last for years allowing all kinds of toxicity to develop and people to be hurt.
The pastor’s inner circle is muted, eliminating any kind of accountability. Those on the outer circle don’t feel like they are close enough to the pastor to say anything. They notice questionable behavior but don’t have enough evidence, or proximity to the pastor, to feel confident to say anything. If the inner circle is silent, who are they to say anything? And so it goes.
As time goes by, habits are cemented into place. The pastor is effectively insulated from any correction. He or she is free to perpetrate their toxic behavior because the insiders are silenced and the outsiders have no access. The majority of the church has no idea what’s going on because they only see the pastor on Sunday. If someone does suggest a problem they are often shot down as being critical or rebellious because most people aren’t aware of what’s really happening.
Why it is Hard to Confront a Toxic Pastor
Converge Magazine has an excellent article looking at the ministry of pastor Mark Driscoll and why he needed to be confronted. They noted that it’s hard to confront toxic pastors because they are blind to what ails them:
The greatest difficulty in ministering to abusers is this: they don’t believe there is anything really wrong with them. Their skills at self-deception, combined with their distortions of thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes, fortifies them against recognizing their soul sickness.
Ron Wheeler used to work with Driscoll and be mentored by him. If you have the time, it’s insightful to read his lengthy blog post reflecting on his relationship to Driscoll and how he was sucked into his deception. Driscoll was finally confronted and forced to resign. His church was so greatly impacted by his fall that it had to close its doors at the end of 2014. This was a mega mega church.
Seven Steps to Confronting a Toxic Pastor
So, what does one do in the face of a toxic pastor? As I write in my new book, (Broken Trust), sometimes the best thing to do is just leave. Don’t feel like you need to be the hero. But if you feel called to confront the pastor, here are a few ideas that might help:
1. Pray. Confronting a pastor is no small task. You want to make sure your heart is pure. You don’t have to be perfect to confront someone. But you also want to make sure you have good intentions and not on a personal crusade.
2. Seek confirmation. Before you confront a pastor, talk to your spouse or a trusted friend in confidence to make sure it’s not just you. I run many things by my wife because she is very perceptive. When she confirms my thinking I’m confident that I’m onto something. Be careful not to use this as an excuse to gossip. The goal is to check the accuracy of what you see wrong.
3. Go to the pastor. This can feel overwhelming. Who are you to challenge a pastor? Well, if the pastor isn’t open to being challenged then he or she shouldn’t be a pastor. Pastors need to model transparency and humility. The door should always be open. If you feel overwhelmed, I think it’s fair to speak to a trusted friend or counselor to prep you for the meeting, and even go with you for support.
Write out what you want to say to make sure you stay on point. Feel free to read what you wrote as well. If the pastor is truly toxic, she will find a way to turn your criticism back on you. Unfortunately, people often end up apologizing for wasting her time and then kick themselves all the way home for being manipulated. So write it out, read it, and stick to the point. Know in advance what you want to accomplish. If they bring up your issues, tell them you are happy to discuss your problems at another time but today you want to talk about your concerns. Don’t leave until you feel heard and are satisfied with their response.
4. Involve a trusted friend or elder. If the pastor is truly toxic, he will either reject your criticism or placate you with false assurances. Then you need to take your concerns to the next level. Jesus said the next step is to go with two or three witnesses (Matthew 18). These witnesses are people that see the same problem you see or at least trust what you see and will support you and your concerns. If they agree with you, ask them to go with you to the pastor and have them support you and even represent you.
5. Involve the denomination. If the pastor still rejects you, don’t give up. If your church is part of a denomination (I hope it is!) then contact the denomination with your concerns. Sometimes the denomination is so out of touch that they will defend the pastor without even knowing the situation. But who knows, you might be the fifth person to complain and you tip the scales so the denomination finally does something.
6. Consider leaving. If you are not being heard, then you have to decide if your presence at church is somehow encouraging bad leadership. Some people choose to stay and persistently stand opposed to the toxicity. Others feel like the biggest statement is made by leaving. There is no right or wrong response. You have to do what you feel is best.
7. Trust God. Once you’ve done all you can, you need to trust the results to God. It’s not your responsibility to change the pastor. Your responsibility lies in confronting the pastor. So do your part and then let it go. Paul’s words to the Romans are helpful here:
19Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. 21Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. Romans 12
You are not the Savior of the church. Jesus is. So don’t carry the weight of the church. The church might suffer. It might even dissolve. But the Church of Jesus will carry on.
Please Do Something
I mentioned above that I am shocked when I see a toxic pastor in power, but what shocks me more is how LONG they are in power. Why do people let this happen? Once you see a pattern of toxic behavior, it needs to be addressed. Don’t wait.
The church is supposed to be a blessing to the world. The pastor should be the greatest champion of grace and truth. There is nothing more perverse and distorted than a toxic pastor. Please do something! Leave or confront. But don’t sit by passively and allow it to continue. So much abuse has been allowed to happen because people have been overly cautious.
Feel free to email me with your specific questions or comment below. I always write people back. If you found this helpful, please forward it using the buttons below. Thanks.
1. Assess their health. As I said in my previous post, the first step is to understand where this person is coming from. You have to discern if this person is emotionally and spiritually healthy. Are they credible? Often not. Please read yesterday’s post to understand the shame factor and how it drives people’s motives. Don’t get sucked into their vortex. If they aren’t reasonable they have needs they are trying to meet that reason can’t solve.
2. Seek the Truth. Before you dismiss their complaint or issue, ask God if there is any shred of truth to what they are saying. Not every mouthpiece for God is pure (myself included). There can be mixed motives. So I want to humbly be open to what I might learn from what the person has to say, even if it seems extreme at first. Can you strip the message from the messenger and find any truth?
3. Engage. If your assessment is that they are toxic (and not just having a bad day) move to contain their toxin. I like the adage from Bill Hybel’s: If something feels funky, engage. We tend to walk away from toxic people hoping they’ll just go away.. Most likely they won’t. Their agenda is bigger than you imagine.. So move toward the person ti contain the toxin. .
If something feels funky, engage. Bill Hybels
4. Take it offline. Toxic people are looking for an audience. They will typically find an audience in a class, business meeting, through social media, or in the church lobby. Some people incessantly ask questions or offer comments that bog down classes or meetings. Other people camp out in the lobby and pick people off one at a time with their agenda. Tell them that you are happy to discuss their issue where you can give them your full attention. If they launch into a diatribe, interrupt them. It’s not rude. THEY are rude. People are looking to YOU to DO SOMETHING. They will appreciate you taking leadership. By taking it offline you deny them their audience.
Other people lob grenades through emails, Facebook, and blogs. If these are impacting your church, you need to talk to them about stopping. Just because it’s online, doesn’t give them free access. It might not make them cease and desist but you need to speak to it and possibly alert others in your church that what is being spoken is unhelpful. This gets dicey, so discretion and wise counsel is needed.
5. Set boundaries. Just because you take it offline doesn’t mean they can dominate your time. Give them 30 minutes, or whatever amount of time you think is appropriate. Discuss their issue. Listen. Affirm what you can. State your differences. And then thank them for voicing their concerns. You will take them into consideration. But let them know you will no longer allow the topic to dominate any forum within the church. If they can’t support your ministry then they need to find a ministry they can support.
6. Don’t waste your time. Too many pastors allow toxic people to dominate their time. They end up spending 30% of their time on .5% of the congregation. That’s not fair. I know you think that your love and reason will change them, but that’s not your job. If they show no openness to dialogue, then move on…quickly. You’ve got hurting people under your care, or a sermon on Sunday, that you need to attend to.
7. Ask them to leave. This is a last resort after you’ve done your best to speak with them. But sometimes it’s necessary. You are the overseer of the flock. You need to protect your church from toxic people. And people need to see that you ARE seeking to protect them. If your church is the kind of place that allows loose cannons to roam free, you’ll lose good people.
Paul was clear in speaking to the Romans: I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them. Romans 16:17. So, if this person refuses to comply, they must leave, for the sake of the Body. You don’t have to be harsh.. Let them know it pains you that it’s come to this, but you regretfully must ask them to leave.
Like I said in the previous post, this is not easy, but necessary. When’s the best time to confront a toxic person? As soon as possible. Good luck.
There are always exceptions to the rules, so I’m happy to entertain scenarios that might require altering my suggestions. I’d also like to hear some success stories (or horror stories) from your experience. It might help others.