Is Your Church Toxic?


If you’ve lived for any longer than 5 minutes in this world, you will have realised that many  institutions and relationships  that are meant to be places of safety and refuge, can instead be places of abuse. Whether it be marriages, families, playgrounds, workplaces, or churches: sometimes abuse can creep in, and wreak havoc.

Simone Richardson, a FB friend of mine, recently posted some thought-provoking material on FB, regarding controlling/abusive church cultures. Simone and her husband Andrew are in full-time Christian ministry, so they’re certainly not looking at this issue from the sidelines. It’s a very important (albeit sad) reminder that human sinfulness is a part of church life, to the point where some churches can develop very unhealthy cultures. Christians need to be aware of this,  as such churches can do incredible damage to the cause of the gospel, and to all involved.

This is what she writes:

I’ve spent quite a bit of time this year thinking about and reading up on controlling/abusive church cultures. I think control/abuse is more of a problem in our churches than we’d like to admit. Here are a few signs that a church has a controlling culture:

1. In a controlling church, the minister will consider himself an authority on all sorts of matters outside his area of training. While perhaps not written down, within the church culture there will be a ‘right’ way to raise your kids, manage your home, socialize, date, give, vote, eat etc. Members will often fear that they are not measuring up (or be proud of the fact that they tick all of the boxes.)

2. In a controlling church, freelance love of and service to others will not be valued. Instead, proving your loyalty towards church leadership by serving in the ways that they specify will be considered good and godly.

3. The minister of a controlling church will love to speak about submission to spiritual authorities. This will come up often.

4. In a controlling church it will be impossible to leave on good terms. People leaving will be labelled as rebellious and others will be warned not to follow their example.

She then goes on to examine, for each of the above points,  what might lead to a minister becoming so controlling/abusive:

Point 1: The minister’s poor relational skills.

The minister is not good at relating to people and talking to them at a deep level as equals. It is easier for him/her to hide behind a guise of pomp or superiority and pretend that he/she has all the answers than it is to be vulnerable and to know people and be known by people. Perhaps the minister was always a fairly black and white thinker, but over time and as fears and insecurities build (partly due to realizing his/her relational inadequacies), the minister becomes more and more dogmatic and gradually moves into a controlling ministry mode.

Point 2: A desire to grow a big church.

People are drawn to certainty and preachers who offer certainty (through black and white/fundy type thinking) draw a bigger crowd than a more nuanced preacher would. The minister gets more and more directive in his sermons and people like it and so he goes further that way. Over time he believes his own hype and thinks that he really does have all the answers – not that he’d say that, of course.

Point 3: Long term exhaustion, burnout, compassion fatigue, anger. ‘Bloody people should just do as I say!’

Point 4: The person who went into ministry did it because they fundamentally like to control people. This person is probably pretty awful to be married to as well.

As someone who has been part of various churches for my 22 years of being a Christian, I am happy to say that I haven’t been part of a church that has exhibited the above characteristics.

However, I would be lying if I said that I don’t know ministers who at times exhibited some of the above tendencies. I’ve talked to assistant ministers who’ve had to leave churches, because of their senior minister bullying them. Tragically, this stuff happens. It’s out there.

And being in paid full-time ministry myself, with campus ministry organisation AFES, I am painfully aware that behaving in this way is certainly not beyond me. I’m a sinner (saved by grace), who has the built in potential for this sort of behaviour (and worse!).

As I reflect further on this troubling issue, a couple of thoughts come to my mind:

1) The only thing that can rescue a minister from this domineering way of thinking/behaving is the gospel of Jesus Christ. 

Whilst it might seem obvious, the reality is that something has gone very wrong in the life of ministers who lead in such domineering/abusive ways. Namely, they’ve lost sight of the gospel. Instead of living a transformed life of service to others, that only the gospel can bring about (e.g. Mark 10:45), they do what comes naturally to pretty much all of us: controlling other people to make themselves feel good. Even in the context of building God’s kingdom.

As D.A. Carson writes:

Even the desire to be “useful” or to “extend the kingdom” may in part (so treacherous are our motives) be a mask for an unquenched hunger for power. 

2) We all have blindspots. And thus need help from other people to see and address those blindspots.

One of the most difficult things for most human beings to do is to ask for critical feedback. And yet, as leaders of ministries and churches, we all have areas of our lives (including our leadership style) that we’re oblivious to: things we do that are unhelpful, or even harmful, to others. One of the best ways to find out if we’re doing such things is through feedback from others.

Now in AFES, whom I work for, all staff are meant to have a 360 degree review every 3 years. I had my review last year, and to be perfectly honest,  it was a slightly confronting, and yet very helpful, experience. I am very glad I went through it.

And yet, whilst this process is only mandated for every 3 years, the reality is that many churches/ministries don’t have any formal feedback procedure whatsoever. That is, a minister can do 50 years of church work, and not once receive formal feedback on how he/she is going. Without feedback of any kind, blindspots can fester, and become entrenched: the worst case scenario is that a minister develops, and continues on with, destructive behaviours for his/her working life.

3) I find it curious that churches/ministry organisations don’t do much, if any, leadership training. 

Considering the immense value that God places on our churches, I find it curious how little leadership training is given to ministers. And yet, leadership is something that a minister exercises on a near daily basis. 

My previous place of employment was with the Australian military, namely the Air Force. When you enter the Air Force as an officer, you are given 3 months of intense, in-house leadership training.

Now, although military leadership is not completely the same as leadership of ministry organisations,  the point is this: most ministry organisations that I’m aware of don’t even have so much as a day of formal leadership training.

Why is that?

A lack of formal leadership training certainly doesn’t help mitigate the controlling styles of leadership discussed above.


There is a lot more to be said about this very disturbing problem that is abusive churches. But I think this is one issue that all Christians need to be aware of, particularly those of us with leadership responsibilities in churches/ministries. May God protect us from such ungodly ways of leading His sheep, the people that Jesus Christ died for.

P.S. For anyone interesting in further reading, Matt Perman has a great piece over at his blog, entitled Understanding Christian Freedom.  He also has an excellent piece on Insecurity in the Pastorate, where he explores the damaging effects of insecurity on a Pastor, and on those the Pastor leads.


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