Developing A Church Culture of Goodness
Part 3: Warning Signs of a Toxic Church
In this series of posts, we have been exploring the issue of church culture through the lens of a book written by Scot McKnight and his daughter Laura Barringer called A Church Called Tov.
Today’s post takes a closer look at church toxicity.
Church growth is not always a sign of church health. Sometimes people are drawn to churches with very charismatic leaders who develop cultures of toxicity. Many years ago, I met such a leader, a man who pastored a rapidly growing church in the Chicago area. The church became its own brand, and eventually, it launched churches all across the United States. The pastor was one of the most engaging and effective preachers I have ever known. By all accounts, he was one of the most powerful and effective pastors in America. He was also cruel and narcissistic.
I met this pastor when he spoke at a university where I was an administrator. On stage, he was charming, funny, and extremely entertaining. When speakers like this came to campus, I often scheduled times when they could meet informally with small groups of students to discuss Christian leadership. Typically it was a treat for the students to meet personally with a nationally known church leader. Not so with this pastor. I watched a young man nervously raise his hand to ask a question. I don’t recall the question, but I will never forget the pastor’s response. The pastor replied, "That's a stupid thing to ask. Next question.” The young man was visibly crushed, and I was stunned.
In the early 2000s, this pastor’s church was one of the fastest-growing churches in America. By 2019 it was one of the nation’s 50 largest churches. There is no doubt that God was reaching people through this church and that it was accomplishing things that advanced the Kingdom of Heaven. From outward appearances, all was well.
Jump ahead about 15 years, and a scandal unfolded that exposed this pastor’s greed, arrogance, and outright wickedness. He was caught on tape promoting a plan to blackmail the editor of Christianity Today by planting child pornography on his computer because the magazine was reporting on the pastor’s corruption and abusive leadership style. On another occasion, he mused about the possibility of hiring a hitman to knock off a rival. He was recently arrested in California for two felony incidents of assault and battery after he attacked a woman in a dispute over a parking spot.
This is an extreme but all too real example of toxic leadership.
While most cases aren’t nearly as severe, they share something in common: narcissistic leaders who exert power through intimidation and fear. Neither of these traits is consistent with Christ’s teaching that those who want to be leaders must humbly serve others. Often these pastors are given celebrity status by their conjugations, a dangerous practice recently critiqued by Katelyn Beaty in a book called Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church.
In toxic churches, the pastor is often given (or demands) ultimate authority over the church, and he often surrounds himself with people who can’t or aren’t willing to question his leadership. Major church decisions are made in secret, and any church staff who attempts to hold him accountable is suddenly “called to an exciting new ministry opportunity” (i.e., fired).
In nearly every case of toxic church leadership I know of, two issues often surface, financial mismanagement, and sexual harassment. McKnight and Barringer suggest that toxic churches and their leaders turn to some common playbooks when these issues become public. One is to hide behind Matthew 18, claiming that if an abuse has occurred, it should be kept private between the leader and the person claiming abuse. Another strategy for silencing legitimate complaints is to misapply 1 Timothy 5:19 to imply that if only one person complains, the church shouldn’t give any credence to the complaint. A third practice used to protect toxic leaders is to shield them from criminal charges by claiming that 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 should prevent anyone from taking a toxic pastor to court. This may be true for minor disputes that could have some legal implications, but it should never be used to protect a pastor who is embezzling from his church or sexually assaulting its members.
Good churches call flawed leaders to confession and repentance, and every once in a while, a toxic leader responds with a broken and contrite heart, accepting full responsibility for his actions. I’m aware of a couple of situations where this has taken place, but all too often, denial of responsibility makes reconciliation and restoration impossible.
Good churches have a duty to protect their people from toxic leaders.