How to Confront a Toxic Pastor in a Toxic Church

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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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9 thoughts on “How to Confront a Toxic Pastor in a Toxic Church

  1. Sandy Buckner

    Well written and stated Remy. I’ve been to many toxic churches and am always surprised at how a toxic person can corrupt the church’s mission to lead people to Jesus. Doubly surprised when it is a toxic pastor & elders.

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  5. Mike

    I found your article while looking up toxic pastors. I don’t know if anyone is still looking at this but I figure I’ll post and see.

    I attended a church for 12 years, was a volunteer musician and had a falling out with the senior pastor. The confrontation put me in a severe depression with an attempted suicide. Got through that with counselling but I was just made aware of a sermon online where he called me out anonymously as a person who spoke hurtful words and left the church “flapping their jaw.”

    I’m right back in the same place again with more suicidal thoughts. I don’t want to go back to a church ever again and I can’t process through how a community that speaks of Jesus’ love can be okay with or blinded to behavior like this. It makes me feel like the problem must be with me and if I’m not worthy of attending church I’m probably not worthy of heaven. So what’s the point of continuing on…

    1. F. Remy Diederich Post author

      Mike, I’m sorry for my slowness to respond. I’ve had an extended vacation and just now seeing your post. I’m so sorry for your experience with this pastor. Toxic pastors/churches are responsible for so much damage. I hope you won’t allow yourself to be another victim. Jesus came to save, not condemn. Don’t let this broken man ruin you. He’s the one at fault. Feel free to email me and we can dialogue more about this if you’d like.

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