10 Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders

10 Symptoms of Toxic Church Leaders

As a pastor’s wife for almost twenty years, I’ve experienced church culture from all angles. I’ve seen it from members’ perspective, as well as leaders’ perspective. While the church body as a whole must be healthy in order to thrive, leaders in particular 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?

Here are some symptoms of leaders whose spirits are toxic to your church:

  • 1. They are more concerned with being right then in right relationship.

    1. They are more concerned with being right then in right relationship.

    Slide 1 of 10

    One of the most detrimental components of a toxic spirit is when the religious spirit takes precedence in a leader’s life. A religious spirit is characterized by tearing others down, critical of others’ walks with God, trying 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 either.  

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

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

    Slide 2 of 10

    When every member gives sacrificially, a church can have a lot of money to effectively serve the Kingdom. 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 constantly creating ways to give back to the community, as well as the world. Healthy leaders keep the unbelievers they are trying to reach in the forefront of their minds, as well as at the forefront of the church’s vision.  

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

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

    Slide 3 of 10

    In our consumerist society, it is easy for a church to lose sight of its Acts 1:8 command: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

    In a church with ineffective leadership, talk about serving others can quickly turn to reaching people through building renovations and additions. There’s nothing wrong with investing into upkeep and maintenance of a church building. But if that’s all a church is doing with heir time and resources, it needs to analyze its focus. 

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  • 4. They don’t practice what they preach.

    4. They don’t practice what they preach.

    Slide 4 of 10

    As an author, I seek God’s wisdom and direction on what to write. More often than not, I get more out of writing than my readers get from reading it. Assuming a humble posture, I always look at what God is teaching me, just as much as what He wants me to teach others. It’s the same with leaders. Titus 1:5-9 describes the qualifications for elders within a church:  

    "This is why I left you in Crete, so that you might put what remained into order, and appoint elders in every town as I directed you— if anyone is above reproach, the husband of one wife, and his children are believers and not open to the charge of debauchery or insubordination.  For an overseer, as God's steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it."

    Pastors must conform to similar qualifications as well. Healthy leaders assume the same humble position, asking 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?”

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

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

    Slide 5 of 10

    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 other’s help and when to do the work themselves. 

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  • 6. They harbor unforgiveness.

    6. They harbor unforgiveness.

    Slide 6 of 10

    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 important part. Healthy leaders should conduct regular spiritual checkups to make sure 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. 

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  • 7. They refuse to be accountable to other leaders.

    7. They refuse to be accountable to other leaders.

    Slide 7 of 10

    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 is skewing their perspective. From Genesis to Revelation, God always calls us to seek Him in community with one another, not in isolation. Leaders that don’t interact with other leaders because they are perceived as less spiritual or mature are walking on a slippery slope that will soon breed sin and destruction in their lives.  

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  • 8. They’re unclear on a church’s vision and mission statement.

    8. They’re unclear on a church’s vision and mission statement.

    Slide 8 of 10

    All successful companies not only know where they will be one year from now, but also where they envision the church to be in five or ten years from now. 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 when it comes to a church’s vision or how to achieve that vision are like a fish out of water, floundering and grasping for life. 

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  • 9. They care more about what’s good for them rather than what’s good for the church

    9. They care more about what’s good for them rather than what’s good for the church

    Slide 9 of 10

    Leadership is not for the weak. Leaders are called to make sacrifices both in front of others as well as behind the scenes. They sacrifice their own 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 are putting their own selfish needs ahead of the church’s needs. This is a recipe for a church’s downfall. 

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  • 10. They Run Away from Conflict

    10. They Run Away from Conflict

    Slide 10 of 10

    Conflict is never easy. It is awkward, uncomfortable and may result in disgruntled members leaving the church. This causes pain for the other members and possibly ruining the church’s reputation. When conflict gets swept under the rug, however, sin results. Unresolved conflict breeds gossip and slander, and like 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.  


    Michelle S. Lazurek is an award-winning author, speaker, pastor's wife and mother. Winner of the Golden Scroll Children's Book of the Year and the Enduring Light Silver Medal, she is a member of the Christian Author's Network and the Advanced Writers and Speakers Association. Her first book with Leafwood Publishers, An Invitation to the Table, came out September 2016. She also teaches at various writers' workshops, such as the Montrose Christian Writers conference. She and her husband live in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, with their two children, Caleb and Leah. For more information, please visit her website at michellelazurek.com.

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