Tag Archives: toxic pastor

Survivors of Spiritual Abuse: Five Ways to Offer Your Support

I’m working on a new book called, Broken Trustreclaiming God’s survivors of spiritual abusegrace from toxic faith, toxic church and spiritual abuse. I want to help the many hurting people I’ve met find a way to healing and wholeness. In this post, I’d like to speak to pastors and other believers who meet survivors of spiritual abuse.

In my book, I describe survivors of spiritual abuse as the person that Jesus spoke about who  was wounded and found by the side of the road. The religious people were not willing or able to help him. Thankfully the “Good Samaritan” stopped and did what was necessary for healing.

It’s very easy to dismiss the concerns of survivors of spiritual abuse as overreacting. It’s tempting to minimize their hurt and expect them to “get over it.” But what many people don’t understand is that survivors of spiritual abuse often suffer from PTSD (Post traumatic stress disorder). Minimizing their abuse and expecting a quick recovery only adds to their pain and may send them away, feeling like no one can understand them, or they are too broken to heal.

Helping Survivors of Spiritual Abuse

Here are five ideas to keep in mind when befriending or pastoring survivors of spiritual abuse:

1. Listen to their story. Survivors of spiritual abuse need to tell their story. It helps them to process their experience. They gain awareness of what happened to them even as they speak. Talking helps them to sort out what happened.

Don’t feel the need to jump in and correct them or offer solutions. That’s what they have experienced in abuse: people telling them how to think and feel. What they need is a safe context to speak without being corrected or judged for their thoughts or emotions.

2. Validate their experience. As people tell their story, they are afraid of being judged. They are afraid of being rejected because they are either too far off base or too broken. Let them know that you appreciate them telling their story and you believe their experience. Even if you don’t think their experience would have wounded you so deeply, be careful not to minimize or dismiss how it affected them. It’s their story to tell.

3. Don’t offer quick fixes. Christians are great at offering simplistic solutions to complex problems. I noticed the contrast in approaches when I joined a Celebrate Recovery ministry. The small groups gave each person a chance to respond to the evening’s teaching. But other members were not allowed to offer comment. We just thanked the person for what they shared and went on to the next person. This was so foreign to me (and refreshing).

My experience in church small group studies is that someone would share a concern, and everyone else in the group felt it was their responsibility to offer their 25 cent diagnosis of the problem along with as many Bible verses as they could remember. Point: don’t do that! Just listen and draw them out. Invite them to say more and give more examples. It will help them to heal.

4. Give them space and time to heal. People are often exposed to abuse for years. It will take years for them to regain their equilibrium. Don’t rush them. If they have recently joined your church, don’t push them to become a member or volunteer. You can offer the opportunity, but don’t imply that either are necessary to be fully accepted.

You have to realize that just returning to church is a big step for survivors of spiritual abuse. It might be months or years before they can do any more than that.

5. Appreciate their hyper-sensitivity. Survivors of spiritual abuse are prone to high anxiety and panic attacks due to their past experiences. Little reminders will trigger strong reactions. Many people have spoken to me about their fear of running into someone from their old church at the local store. Don’t brush this off as silly, insignificant, or “nothing to worry about.” Some people organize their day around avoiding people.

You can be a healing presence to survivors of spiritual abuse or another person along the way who adds to their pain. Consider how you might be a healing presence.

Get a Free Copy of Broken Trust

If you would like to read a draft of my book, Broken Trust, email me and I’d be happy to send you a free copy. It’s still a work in progress. Any feedback you have to offer me would be welcome. I’m doing my best to offer practical advice so people can move toward healing and full recovery.


Toxic Church, Toxic Faith… a new book in the works

People often ask me what my next book will be. My answer has been that I’ve got nothing in the works. But then I noticed that my blog series last year on toxic church and toxic pastors has gotten a lot of reads. In fact, they are always in the top ten of my years of posts.

I wondered why that was and so I googled some of the topics I covered on toxic church and saw that my posts are near the top of the list. Hmmm… maybe there is an interest out there that I didn’t realize existed.

Checking Amazon.com there is only one book on the subject. So…I have a new answer to the question about my next book. I just started a new book to help people discern a toxic church and know what steps to take with it.

Would you contribute your thoughts on toxic church?

I’m letting you know about this because if you had an experience in a toxic church, I’d like to hear about it. You can email me your thoughts by clicking the link in the margin. I may or may not include your story/thoughts in the book but whatever is included will be anonymous with some details changed so no one could trace the story to you. Whatever you send will broaden my understanding and make for a more helpful book.

It’s a sad statement…

It’s really a sad statement that a book like this is even needed. “Toxic” and “church” should never be two words that are linked. But when it happens, people need to know what to do, so I’ll do my best to offer advice so believers can discover the true church that Jesus had in mind for us: a gathering of people that encourages people to know God and find freedom.

Let others know

Please share this post with your friends who may have interest in contributing their experience with a toxic church. I’d love to hear from them. Thanks so much.


How to Confront a Toxic Pastor in a Toxic Church

Available on Amazon.com

How do you confront a toxic pastor in a toxic church? Surprisingly, this is the most read post of the hundreds of posts I’ve written over the years. In fact, the popularity of this post is the reason that I wrote the book, Broken Trust…a practical guide to identify and recover from toxic faith, toxic church, and spiritual abuse.

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:

19 Do 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. 21 Do 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.

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