10 Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders

Michelle Lazurek in Leading Hearts magazine

As a pastor’s wife for almost 20 years, I’ve experienced church culture from all angles. I’ve seen it from members’ perspectives, as well as leaders’ perspectives.

While the church body as a whole must be healthy to thrive, leaders must be healthy spiritually to be able to carry out a church’s vision and direction.

So, how do you know if the leaders in your church are healthy or toxic? How do you know if you might need to relinquish and repent from your toxic leadership trends.

Here are some toxic leadership symptoms:

1. The leaders are more concerned with being right than in the right relationship.

One of the most harmful components of a toxic spirit is when the religious spirit takes precedence in a leader’s life. A religious spirit tears others down, is critical of others’ walks with God, tries to earn God’s love, legalism, etc. A leader who is not walking closely with God certainly can’t help their members walk with God. 

2. They are more concerned with the money than the mission

When every member gives sacrificially; a church can have a lot of money to serve the Kingdom effectively. But when those dollars don’t leave the church’s four walls, a seemingly selfless opportunity can quickly turn into a selfish one. A healthy church is continually creating ways to give back to the community and the world.

Healthy leaders keep the unbelievers they are trying to reach in the forefront of their minds and at the forefront of the church’s vision.  

3. The church’s mission turns inward rather than outward

In our consumeristic society, it is easy for a church to lose sight of its Acts 1:8 command. Talk about serving others can quickly turn to reach people through building renovations and additions. There’s nothing wrong with investing in the upkeep and maintenance of a church building. But if that’s the sole purpose of a church’s time and resources, it needs to reanalyze its focus.

4. They don’t practice what they preach- 

As an author; I seek God’s wisdom and direction on writing. More often than not, I get more out of writing than my readers get from reading it. Trying to assume a humble posture, I always look at what God teaches me, just as much as what He wants me to teach others. It’s the same with leaders. T

itus 1:5-9 describes the qualifications for elders within a church. Pastors must conform to those requirements as well.

Healthy leaders assume the same humble position. They ask God, “What are you trying to teach me?” rather than “How can I look like I have it all together so others will listen to what I have to say?”

5. They are dependent on their members rather than interdependent- 

Churches need members to function. If all members use their spiritual gifts, its members achieve a sense of purpose and meet the needs of those who don’t know Him. When leaders lean on those members too much, crossing inappropriate boundaries and abusing their power by placing unrealistic expectations, members can burn out. Churches require leaders who know when to ask for others’ help and when to do the work themselves.

6. They harbor unforgiveness

People who have been in leadership for any length of time have experienced pain and wounds at some point. It’s what they do with that hurt and pain is the most critical part. Healthy leaders should conduct regular spiritual checkups to ensure their consciences are clean and their spirits are free.

Carrying unforgiveness soon gives way to bitterness and resentment, giving Satan a foothold.

Talking out their pain and frustration with people they trust is vital in ensuring leaders’ spiritual health.

7. They refuse to be accountable to other leaders

Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Leaders need others to help them walk along their spiritual path, just like everyone else. Leaders who don’t trust any other leader’s wisdom or advice may unveil a spirit of pride or religion that skews their perspective.

From Genesis to Revelation, God always calls us to seek Him in community with one another, not in isolation.

Leaders who don’t interact with other leaders they perceive as less spiritual or mature are walking on a slippery slope. This attitude breeds sin and destruction in their lives.  

8. Toxic leaders are unclear on a church’s vision and mission statement.

All successful companies know where they will be one year from now; they have a vision of where they will be in five or ten years. They also work painstakingly hard to get it there. The best way to know if leaders are on the same page is to meet together and talk about it.

Leaders who are not on the same page regarding a church’s vision or how to achieve that vision are like a fish out of water, floundering, and grasping for life.

9. Toxic leaders care more about what’s right for them rather than what’s suitable for the church- 

Leadership is not for the weak. Leaders must make sacrifices both in front of others as well as behind the scenes. They sacrifice their comfort and convenience because the good of the body as a whole is at stake. When leaders are no longer willing to make those sacrifices, they put their own selfish needs ahead of the church’s needs. Selfish motives are a recipe for a church’s downfall.

10. They run away from conflict- 

Conflict is never easy. It is awkward, uncomfortable, and may result in disgruntled members leaving the church. Unresolved conflict causes pain for the other members and possibly ruining the church’s reputation. When conflict gets swept under the rug, sin is the outcome. Unresolved conflict breeds gossip and slander, and as the yeast referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:6, it spreads through the entire body. God calls leaders to handle conflict, nipping it in the bud as quickly as possible.

1 Corinthians 10:12 says it best: “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall!”

That’s good advice for everyone, especially for leaders.  

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