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Developing a Church Culture of Goodness, Part 4: Can Toxic Leaders Ever Lead Again?

Carl Ruby

Developing A Church Culture of Goodness       

Part 4: Can Toxic Leaders Ever Lead Again

(Note from Pastor Carl: So far in my tenure as Pastor of Central Christian church, I’ve preached over 400 sermons. If God allows, I’d like to preach another 400 or so before retiring from full-time leadership. In order to do that, I need to periodically step away from most of my responsibilities as a pastor in order to find rest and care for my soul. I’ll be doing that for the month of June. One way I’ll stay connected during this time is to blog about some of the things I am reading. I’d like to start by sharing some thoughts about a great book called A Church Called Tov.)


If you’ve been following this series of blog posts, you may be asking, “When do we get to the good stuff?” The answer is, “In the next post.”  This series of posts is based on Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer’s book, "A Church Called Tov: Forming a Goodness Culture that Resists Abuses of Power and Promotes Healing.”  The first four chapters deal with the problem of toxic leadership.

In the last post, I cited the example of an extremely popular and seemingly successful pastor who has been found guilty of abusing his staff, greed, discussing hiring a hitman to knock off a rival and planting child pornography on a journalist’s computer to discredit him. This April, he was arrested in California for beating up a woman in a dispute over a parking space. Some leaders’ sins are so grievous and heinous that they should never be allowed within a county mile of a church leadership position. 

This post follows McKnight and Barringer’s discussion of the possibility of redemption and a return to leadership for toxic leaders. If there is genuine repentance, sometimes it is possible. Often it is not due to the leaders’ failure to own up to their mistakes or the serious nature of their offense. In God’s economy of grace, forgiveness is available to everyone, but sometimes the nature of the offense and the leader’s response make a return to leadership unwise and irresponsible.

When toxic leaders are confronted, they often default to misusing scripture or creating false narratives (also called spinning the story).

Misuse of Scripture

There are several areas where toxic leaders try to preserve their leadership status by misusing scripture. The first is telling victims to keep quiet because Matthew 18 requires them to confront leaders privately.  This is true for some kinds of offenses, but when a toxic leader’s behavior crosses over into the crimes of sexual harassment or sexual abuse, it is appropriate to notify church and civil authorities.  This is particularly true when a leader’s sins/crimes become known to fellow church staff members who are mandated to report the abuse of a minor. Failure to report would violate our call to submit to civil authorities.

The second common misuse of scripture is to insist that unless two people (I Timothy 5:19) report a leader’s offense, it shouldn’t be investigated. While leaders are entitled to due process, some accusations are so severe that they must be investigated immediately, even if only raised by a single individual.  Sometimes leaders are falsely accused, and if there is only a single witness, great care should be taken but not at the expense of ignoring or blaming a potential victim. While only one person may come forward, leaders like this often leave a host of victims who don't come forward for one reason or another. Healthy churches will undertake investigations of this nature by “pursuing the truth with wisdom.” It’s a painful experience to be falsely accused, as it is a painful experience to have one’s accusation ignored. It’s also important to consider the toll that investigations like this may take on a pastor or the accuser’s family. Pastoral care often needs to be provided to them as well.

The third misuse of scripture involves 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 which calls Christians to settle disputes within the church rather than hauling one another to court. The matter at hand seems to involve some sort of financial dispute, not sexual or physical abuse. McKnight and Barringer observed, “...it’s also obvious that sexual abuse and sexual harassment are not merely “a dispute among believers….if the act is criminal it must be reported to law enforcement and resolved through the legal system. This is a lesson the church at large has been all too slow to learn.”

False Narratives

False narratives are lies, sometimes subtle, told to protect the leader or the organization. A common false narrative occurs when a toxic leader or organization fires a staff member and then announces that the person has resigned on “been called to a new ministry.”  Non-disclosure agreements are often used to silence the fired staff members and deprive them of due process.  I once left a job under these circumstances and referred to it as “getting resigned.”  

McKnight and Barringer discuss the following eight common false narratives used to protect toxic leaders or organizations from the consequences of their behavior:

  1. Discredit the accuser.
  2. Demonize the accuser.
  3. Spin the story.
  4. Gaslight the critics.
  5. Make the perpetrator the victim.
  6. Silence the truth.
  7. Suppress the truth.
  8. Issue a fake apology.

Each of these attempts to keep truth at bay and protect those at fault. Truth is an essential condition for any form of restoration and reconciliation.

Can Toxic Leaders Ever Lead Again

The answer is yes, depending upon the nature of the offense and the sincerity of the leader’s repentance. In cases of confirmed sexual abuse or sexual harassment, I don’t think a toxic leader should even be placed in a church leadership position.  They can be forgiven. They can be part of a church family. But they should not lead.

Mcknight and Barringer cite Jim Van Yperen's seven-step process for public communication about the sexual sin of a leader, most suitable for cases where the sexual activity was consensual.

  1. Speak God’s word - That is, “use the words God would use to describe the sin.”
  2. Be specific, succinct, honest, and direct.
  3. Take unconditional and comprehensive responsibility.
  4. Express genuine remorse and humbly ask forgiveness.
  5. Submit to change.
  6. Make appropriate restitution.
  7. Seek full reconciliation - with an important caveat: - “The goal of reconciliation is to restore a sinner to fellowship, not leadership.”

In cases where these steps are followed, I have known of cases where a fallen leader is able to resume some form of ministry under the strict supervision of others. It’s rare but not impossible, and if it occurs, it should take place over a considerable length of time with high degrees of disclosure and accountability.  Personally, I think that such a person should rarely hold a senior-level leadership position.

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