Over the past few years, there’s been a growing awareness of toxic church leadership within our congregations and institutions. Unhealthy power dynamics have caused significant pain and harm in both small and megachurches.

To see change, we must first learn how to recognize and address toxic leadership within our congregations. We’re providing a comprehensive list of 130 signs of toxic church leadership to serve as a tool for Christians to identify and address damaging practices.

Our churches are meant to be havens for solace, support, and spiritual growth. However, the structures that foster a sense of belonging and purpose can also be misused to manipulate, control, and abuse. The signs of toxic church leadership outlined below cover various aspects of church life—including leadership styles, interpersonal dynamics, financial practices, and teachings, as well as shared experiences of those hurt by toxic church leaders.

Our hope is that by highlighting these red flags, we can take action to stop toxic church leadership (and even prevent it from happening in the first place).

Toxic leaders:
  1. Value the church's reputation over the safety and well-being of its members.
  2. Veil their actions and conflicts, making them complex to call out.
  3. Tell you other people find you difficult when you disagree.
  4. Have an authoritarian leadership style.
  5. Divide people behind the scenes while publicly calling for unity.
  6. Have a lack of transparency in decision-making.
  7. Believe loyalty only goes one way—toward the leader.
  8. Manipulate members through guilt or fear.
  9. Display spiritual elitism and a superiority complex.
  10. Mistake their manipulations as organizational "change."
  11. Suppress dissent and critical thinking.
  12. Make decisions behind closed doors.
  13. Have an excessive focus on tithing and financial gains.
  14. Disregard the emotional well-being of members.
  15. Subtly or explicitly say others challenging them are not Christian “enough."
  16. Attack the values of others publicly but claim they’re “just joking.”
  17. Misuse scripture to justify abusive behaviors.
  18. Discriminate against certain groups (based on gender, race, age, etc.).
  19. Make slights, insults, and even threats in humorous ways.
  20. Display exclusionary practices and cliques within the congregation.
  21. Encourage blind loyalty and submission.
  22. Often send others to do their “dirty” work.
  23. Structure leadership so they are unaccountable for their actions.
  24. Regularly remind others that they are in charge.
  25. Take credit for other peoples' ideas, work, and efforts.
  26. Make degrading comments about others' appearance or performance.
  27. Say things like, “NAME, you know I love you; they know I’m joking.”
  28. Overemphasize church hierarchy.
  29. Create an environment where people are overly worried about saying “wrong” things about the leadership.
  30. Publicly humiliate or shame members.
  31. Are unwilling to admit mistakes or apologize.
  32. Insist others own their mistakes to protect the leader’s ego.
  33. Insist on conformity and obedience.
  34. Regularly talk down to others as though they have “special” knowledge.
  35. Have an unhealthy focus on church growth at the expense of spiritual growth.
  36. Neglect the needs of the community and the world.
  37. Try to control the narrative of conversations.
  38. Overwork staff and volunteers without proper support.
  39. Spout "expertise" to display dominance, but the expertise is often elementary in nature.
  40. Promote a culture of fear and secrecy.
  41. Regularly tell you to keep things “confidential” or “in the room.”
  42. Exploit members for personal gain or power.
  43. Claim disagreements are because others don’t have vision.
  44. Attack others verbally when others aren’t around.

Download the entire list of 130 traits of toxic church leadership HERE.

Let’s strive to create churches that reflect Christ’s love, grace, and compassion. By identifying and addressing toxic leadership, we can work toward fostering safe and supportive environments.

We pray this comprehensive list of warning signs will help promote healthier, more Christ-like leadership within our churches.

Jamie Aten, Ph.D. and Kent Annan, M.Div. are the co-founders of Spiritual First Aid. They also co-direct the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.