What are the signs of bad church leadership versus church leaders who are healthy?
A church is like any family. It’s comprised of wounded people. The presence of wounds does not make or break a church or a family. It’s what we do with them that makes the difference.
In healthy families, each member manages their own struggles with care and commits to the ongoing process of healing. Other families sadly take a different path and become dysfunctional, toxic, or abusive. Parents take the lead on determining which direction a family will take. Did you know this same same process happens within churches? That’s why it’s important to notice the signs of bad church leadership.
Church is an important place to grow, give and receive care, and learn about God’s love. But, just like unhealthy parents in a family, when the church leadership turns toxic, it can be incredibly damaging. The results can include added injury to hearts, souls, and minds. I understand why people step away from church all together for a season. The pain from being hurt by a church family can be devastating.
It’s wise to guard your heart when entering into any kind of relationship, even a relationship with a church family. If you’re unsure how to identify toxic behavior within a church, here are 3 signs of bad church leadership that you need to know:
3 Signs of Bad Church Leadership
1. Disrespect for your boundaries
Never rush into getting involved with a new church. It’s important to take time deciding how, where, and when you want to participate. Beware of any pressure that is requested of you to jump in with both feet.
As a counselor, I recommend saying, “No, thank you,” during the early stages of visiting a church. Here’s why: When you say “No” to a request for serving, leading, or joining a church group, you will quickly identify if your “No” can be met with respect.
For example, if you say, “No, thanks, I’m not ready to commit yet,” that response should be honored without any guilt or pressure. But, if a church leader responds to your “No” by trying to make you feel guilty, manipulated, or belittled, then that’s a red flag of potentially bad church leadership.
In addition, you should never feel forced to share private details about your life before you are comfortable. Trust takes time to develop. Forced vulnerability is not healthy vulnerability. It’s manipulation. Instead, maintain a limit around what you share, with whom, and when.
You should never be criticized for maintaining certain areas of privacy. For example, if you are separated or divorced, and someone asks, “Why isn’t your husband with you?” You might simply say, “I am divorced,” or “There’s a lot to that story,” without offering any apology or explanation. Then notice the response.
Can the listener respect you without attempting to pull out further data? Are they willing to earn your trust? Or, do they badger you for more details and guilt-trip you into spilling your guts? These are telltale signs that are important to notice.
2. Disregard for people who are hurting
A church is not a cruise ship. It’s a hospital for the hurting. Does everyone around you seem to have it all together? Does it feel like you must leave your struggles at the door on Sunday morning? That’s another red flag. Bad church leadership creates an unhealthy culture where people are expected to be perfect.
Instead, look for a church that is willing to talk about difficult issues, such as depression, doubt, loneliness, and anger. Does the pastor avoid talking about painful subjects from the pulpit? Does he or she say that you should never feel lonely or sad? Notice how church leaders treat people who are struggling. A healthy church encourages their members to grow while maintaining a deep understanding that even faithful people who love God experience struggle and hard times.
For example, I’ll never forget a church that I attended back in college. The pastor gave great sermons, but the church members made fun of other people behind their backs. One day, I heard the pastor tell a mocking joke in public about another church member. I was horrified. I had only attended that church for a few months. But, that pastor’s expression of cruelty scarred my mind. Since then, I made it a point to choose a church based on how well the leadership talks about other people when no one is looking.
3. Lack of humility and openness
Wise church leaders enable space for their congregation to hold various perspectives. But, controlling church leaders expect every member to toe the party line or risk being kicked out. Control can take the form of rigid expectations and demands with little room for nuance or healthy debate. In addition, signs of bad church leadership can take the form of celebrity worship, where everyone is expected to adore the folks on staff.
In any family environment, there should be room for disagreement, especially a church family. Healthy church leaders stand firm on their perspective, but they also show humility. Confident leaders share their viewpoint, and they also invite rich, respectful dialogue with those who disagree.
For example, you should ask yourself if it’s okay to tell a church leader, “I’m not sure I agree with that viewpoint.” Will your perspective be met with curiosity? Or, are you are expected to jump on that leader’s bandwagon? If so, that’s controlling and a key sign of bad church leadership.
Why is this point important? If a church won’t create space for you to engage in hard topics, then how will it help you grow? People don’t heal under the weight of controlling leadership. People heal as they are invited into a healthy, honest relationship.
Even the best of churches will let you down from time to time. But, if you notice signs of bad church leadership, such as manipulation, criticism, or control tactics, then it’s best to cut your losses and leave before it’s too late.
Instead, look for church leadership that respects your boundaries, cares for those who are hurting the most, and exhibits humility with difficult topics. That’s the kind of place where you will find the healing and spiritual growth that you need.
A church family should be focused on supporting and caring for you as you grow in learning how to love God, love others, and care well for yourself. Choosing which church to attend is a big decision. So, take your time early in the process and get to know the leadership.
Don’t let anyone rush you. Get to know a few people and ask a few hard questions, especially if you’ve been hurt in the past. It’s okay to move slowly and take your time building trust. If a church tries to rush your commitment, then keep looking. There are plenty of good church families out there.
For further reading:
Join the conversation. Leave a comment below:
Have you ever witnessed or experienced bad church leadership? If so, which of the 3 signs resonates with you the most? What would you do differently as you visit churches in the future?
Got a question for Alison?
Click here to send your question. Please keep your message brief.
Due to the number of questions received each week, not all messages can be answered.