Spiritual Abuse and Why Are Toxic Leaders Allowed to Remain in Power So Long?


The title to this article is one of the ‘Search Key Phrases’ that has come up when I have checked my website statistics.  This is a worthy question.  Why are toxic leaders permitted to remain in power in a church for an unobstructed season of time?  This question has plagued a number of people who have been alerted to the issue of maltreatment of church members through spiritual abuse.

To this compelling question, there are a few factors to consider in order to provide a suitable answer.


Basic Church Structures

The quick answer would be to look at church beliefs and governance issues.  Questions like the following need to be addressed:

  1. What are the beliefs and expectations of church leaders regarding how they feel that they ought to lead their church?

  1. What are the beliefs and expectations of the church members regarding church leadership?

  1. What are the beliefs and expectations of this church’s denominational organization regarding church leadership?

From these three initial considerations, there is one more item that must be added:  What is their priority order?  Basically, of the three points listed above, who has the most power or control–the church leadership (the pastor alone or the pastor and the church board), the congregants, and/or the denominational group that this church belongs to?

The old saying “You get what you pay for” may apply when it comes to thinking about power structures in a church.  If church congregants have the expectation that it is the lead pastor or the senior pastor of the church who holds the reins of power, then his word goes.

If it is felt that the pastor, as ‘the man of God’ has special powers beyond those of the average Christian, then those who buy into that type of belief and organizational structure will usually get exactly that type of leader.  Along the way, there may be church leaders who are generally caring pastors, but the tendency to create a church culture that expects this type of leader will, over time, find that they will ‘get’ leaders who will live up to this expectation.  The outcome, all too often, feeds into unhealthy leadership behaviors.  These patterns could affect the overall spiritual health of the church.

Some denominations may have far more involvement in the governance structure of the individual churches under their care, while other denominations leave governance issues up to the autonomous church structure found in their group.

Some churches allow much more involvement of church members in their decision making.  In some churches, however, even though the ordained pastor appears to be in charge, it becomes apparent that there are individuals or groups who ‘hold the power’ and their word, instead of the pastor’s, becomes final.


Allowed to Remain

When it comes to the issue of:  why are toxic church leaders allowed to remain so long—the simple answer would be that the church community simply allows it.

There is an intriguing passage of Scripture in the Book of Jeremiah that addresses God’s people then.  Jeremiah’s words arrest the attention of the Jews at that time with these thought-provoking words:

   “The prophets prophesy lies,

    the priests rule by their own authority,

    and my people love it this way.”

                                   Jeremiah 5:31-32

Something very unhealthy was going on in Israel at that time. These words reinforced the crippled thinking that was dominant among the people in his day.  It was painful but true and Jeremiah needed to declare the facts as he saw them.

It is unfortunate when no one challenges either the spiritual leader or the system that produces such leaders.  It may be assumed that God has ordained both the system and the leader, so anyone who sees things differently is considered to be tampering with Kingdom principles.

The question of why do they allow it, is something that needs to be examined more deeply.  First, it must be determined who they are in each church setting.  Once, the seat of power is determined, then these questions could be asked.

Consider the following:

  • Do the congregants know what may be happening or not?

  • Do only some of the congregants understand what seems to be going on?

  • Are the members of the board ‘Yes Men’?

  • Is the church board robust enough to challenge a controlling leader?

  • Are there church members who would take on the task of challenging the toxic leader or not?  Why or why not?

  • How is church conflict dealt with at this church?

  • Are Christians in this group seeing a disconnect between what this church leader believes, teaches, and how they behave, and the New Testament portrayal of godly leaders?

The bottom line is:  Who is seeing the disconnect with the biblical view of church leadership in this church and what can be done about it?


Time for Action

If there is room to express concern with one’s local church board, without creating a storm, then there may be a chance to consider this leader’s influence—whether it is helpful or harmful? The question then becomes:  Can this church board take on the task to review this leader’s lifestyle and leadership behaviors in a fair, yet reasonable way, or are they fearful and/or unwilling to take on this responsibility?

When individuals or groups approach the overseers within their denomination, are they met with a willingness to enquire into congregant concerns or with a feeling of inconvenience or even of disdain?  Will they go to bat for their members who have concerns or brush them aside and tell them:  not to bother, get over it, don’t be so picky, everyone makes mistakes, or comments like that?

All through these governance structural levels, if the church members are perceived as the problem and the leader as not having any problems which need to be addressed, then the church members are put in a very awkward position.

Many congregants find that their attempts to register valid leadership concerns with church boards and/or denominational overseers are not appreciated and are, all too often, disregarded. This creates a feeling that they are unwelcome and unsafe.  Under these types of circumstances, church members are put into a position of having to make a decision whether to remain in this church fellowship or not.


The Bigger Issue

To the question:  Why are toxic leaders allowed to remain so long in a church fellowship, one must consider if there are any checks and balances when it comes to making efforts to remove ‘questionable’ church leaders from a leadership position?  If there are no reasonable means for suspension and/or removal, then we have our answer.  There is nothing much in place in order for anything to change!

If pastors are regarded by churches and their denominations as being ‘men of God’ with no processes in place for dealing with potentially questionable leadership behaviors or ways of checking into genuine concerns, then it makes it very difficult for individuals, couples, or small groups to address deviant leadership behaviors with this group when they begin to show up.

Most conscientious church groups have things in place for gross moral failure in the leadership, which is usually immediate removal.  When it comes to issues of spiritual abuse and/or other problematic behaviors, most churches do not seem to have ways of recognizing and dealing with these more subtle and harder to define leadership problems.

If suitable policies are not in place, at both the local church and denominational levels, then things will pretty much continue to run the way that they have always been done in the past.


How to Create Healthy Change

As with other social and moral issues, when Christians are fed up with how things have been done in the past, when people are genuinely grieved over how things remain at a status quo, and when individuals are concerned about the future of the Church as a whole, then there will be a chance for some positive change.

  • If no one is willing to challenge specific problems in the system, then the systemic problems remain.

  • If no one feels that the pain of doing nothing

        is greater than the pain that they are experiencing,

        then nothing will change.


It takes courage to assess where problems lie, especially in spiritual communities.  Since we would rather believe that things are okay, that they will simply sort themselves out eventually, or that God will sovereignly intervene without our personal involvement, things will remain the same.

Avoidance and denial of issues has never been an answer.  Putting hope in ‘the eventual sorting out of things, on their own, over time,’ may really be an issue of procrastination, rather than of trust.

So often, when people look solely to God for sovereign intervention, without being prepared for any personal involvement, that too is a disappointing way of dealing with issues—since Kingdom issues invariably require an individual or a group to take up the cause and then to participate.  When people realize that God is looking for individuals to champion a cause and take godly action directed by his Holy Spirit, then change can begin.

One major problem is that people, Christians, in particular seem to be reluctant to change.  What a number of people are finding when it comes to the church, is that it is quite often better to start with a new structure, a fresh ecclesiastical frame, than to do renovation on existing structures.

Numbers of Christian leaders are making an effort to remain biblically sound while working though creative ways to engage believers in effective ministry in community outreach–without the encumbrances of previous ways of trying to do church.

There are enough people who have considered the issues of toxic leadership and unhealthy church settings who are pro-active in their approach to biblically-based Christian ministry today.  Joining forces with these folks may provide a refreshing answer to the long standing problems that seem to remain within certain church structures and provide some hope for the future.



The choice is up to you, as an individual or as a group of colleagues, to seek for appropriate change.  If situations grieve you tremendously, the question remains:

What are you going to do about it??!!

If the ferry is no longer working—who will build a bridge?  Maybe there is a need to build a new ferry, repair the dock, or hire  a better crew.  On the other hand, there may be a need to build a bridge instead.  At this point in time, what would be the best course of action for this situation?

So you get my point.  There is a need to think outside of the box, with the help of the Holy Spirit, and see what might work best for you in your circumstance!


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For Further Reflection

For those who are distressed and who do not know their way, there is comfort found in this passage in Isaiah. Yahweh assures his people that he will be their personal guide, directing them through unknown country.  He promises to keep them from falling into a ditch and to constantly be with them.

But I’ll take the hand of those who don’t know the way,

who can’t see where they’re going.

I’ll be a personal guide to them,

directing them through unknown country.

I’ll be right there to show them what roads to take,

make sure they don’t fall into the ditch.

These are the things I’ll be doing for them–

sticking with them, not leaving them for a minute.

                                          Isaiah 42:15-16  The Message

People have always been comforted by the thought that God is a God of new things. In order to move on with God, there is a need to set aside and not dwell on things from the past.  Where the Spirit of Yahweh is, there is refreshing, even in desert places.

The Ancient Text reminded the Israelites to:

“Forget about what’s happened;

   don’t keep going over old history.

Be alert, be present. I’m about to do something brand-new.

   It’s bursting out!  Don’t you see it?

There it is! I’m making a road through the desert,

   rivers in the badlands.

Wild animals will say ‘Thank you!’

   —the coyotes and the buzzards—

Because I provided water in the desert,

   rivers through the sun-baked earth,

Drinking water for the people I chose,

   the people I made especially for myself,

   a people custom-made to praise me.

                                      Isaiah 43:18-19  The Message


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© 2013   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.