Wouldn’t leading a congregation be much easier if everyone got along? Unfortunately, you’ll always have toxic church members getting in the way of perfect harmony.
Church leadership is about people. Having a great vision is only helpful when you effectively communicate that vision to others and have them work with you to bring it to fruition. Leadership is the crucial area where, if you let toxic church staff or members into the circle, you pay a hefty price. Problematic church members can even lead to a dying church if not handled ahead of time.
Every single day, gifted leaders find a better way of working and a better place to be. They leave toxic church cultures behind and create their own path to success.
Below are some insights that will help you figure out how to handle toxic church members.
Table of Contents
- What Does a Toxic Church Culture look Like?
- Where Is the Toxicity Coming from?
- Church Staff
- Church Leaders
- Church Members
- How to Have Hard Conversations with Toxic Church Members, Staff and Leaders
- Download the Complete Church Leadership eBook
What Does a Toxic Church Culture Look Like?
Before figuring out how to handle controlling church members, you’ll need to learn how to identify a toxic culture. A toxic church is an unhealthy church. However, toxic church members are just the tip of the iceberg. If your members are toxic, that's often a sign that your leadership and staff are.
Several symptoms can indicate a toxic church environment.
How are decisions getting made in your church? If it's a game of politics, you know something is wrong.
For example, decisions might be made outside of meetings or outside of a process that was agreed upon. Or you might notice that people only say yes when they get something in return.
There's a problem if you continually feel like you must lobby to get things done.
Public vs. Private
Do you ever feel like you're hiding the real story? If what is said in public is different than what happened in private, that's a clear sign that your church is headed down a toxic route.
There can be situations where you agree on what you say to protect the privacy of others. But, if you're commonly telling a different story than what actually happened, you have a problem.
Who Do You Talk to?
Conflict is normal. It's going to happen, whether you like it or not. But, how your church deals with conflict is a key sign of whether or not you need to be concerned about toxic church culture.
For example, Mary Sue has a problem with Mark. Instead of talking to him about it, she tells Barbara about it and complains to her. This is a sign of toxic church members.
Healthy churches have members who talk to each other when they have issues. Toxic churches talk about the person instead of talking to them. Keep in mind that this is gossip, and things will worsen when you handle issues like this.
Now, keep in mind that approaching a friend for advice on how to handle a situation is much different than gossiping about the situation. Just remember, anything you say to your friend, you should also be willing to say to the person you have an issue with.
Fighting Within the Church Is Normal
Does it feel like your church members are constantly fighting over something? While conflict is normal, fighting should not be.
When you fail to handle conflict in a healthy way, fighting becomes normal. Little conflicts will eventually turn into fights over the music, VBS program, Sunday school, etc.
You might also see this happen if your members believe that what they want or believe is more important than what others in the church want or believe. This can create a significant problem when you're trying to make changes in the church.
Us vs. Them
Having an us vs. them mentality in a church is detrimental in many ways. If it's happening within the church, you'll see groups pitted against each other. This leads to conflict, and if that isn't addressed healthily, it becomes fighting amongst groups.
However, this doesn't just have to be within the church. This mentality can also be present when it comes to your church and community. This is a true sign of toxic church members.
You cannot show love if you live life with an us vs. them mentality. This prevents you from loving others in the church and your neighbors in the community.
A Lack of Responsibility
If there are problems within your church, who takes responsibility to fix them? If no one is willing to take responsibility, that's a clear sign of toxicity.
The problems that exist will not only continue, but they will get worse if no one takes the initiative to change what's happening. However, it's not just about taking responsibility to make changes.
It's also about taking responsibility for what has happened. Blaming others will increase toxicity. You have to be willing to step up and take responsibility for what has happened and own your part.
Even if your part was to sit on the sideline and watch it happen. If members aren't willing to hold themselves accountable for their actions, your church can't progress.
Where Is the Toxicity Coming From?
If any of the above examples make you believe you have toxic church members, you need to deal with it. Your church cannot be healthy until you do.
Before you can do that, you need to identify the different groups of toxic church culture. You also need to know how to effectively talk to them.
There are three groups you really need to look at:
- Church staff
- Church leaders
- Church members
The culture of a church starts at the top. So, it's important to recognize that the behaviors of your staff members and leaders could contribute to a toxic culture. Each of these groups needs to be addressed when you note signs of toxicity.
Culture starts at the top, so it's a significant problem when you have a toxic church staff. That attitude will bleed into your leadership and, eventually, your congregation.
Sometimes having difficult conversations can feel challenging. But having the conversation is crucial. If you need a way to approach your staff members, consider these four steps:
- Follow up
From time to time, you will run into problems with your toxic church staff. This can be anything that ranges from underperformance to someone creating division.
Before you address them, you need to make sure you're not a part of the problem. Are you failing to offer support? Or, are you exhibiting toxic behaviors yourself?
Take the time to prayerfully consider whether the change needs to start with you. One way you can do that is by asking yourself two questions.
First, does your staff know what you expect from them? If you haven't clarified your expectations, then they cannot meet them. If you haven't provided that clarity, it's time to provide it and ensure all of your staff knows what is expected.
Second, have you equipped your staff with the items they need for success? If they don't have the right materials or equipment, you can't expect them to perform as if they did. If you haven't given your staff the tools they need, it's time to step up and do so.
If you have given your staff clarification and the tools they need, you need to identify the problem. Take the time to note instances where your staff is underperforming or causing problems.
This will help as you prepare for the next step.
When it's time to sit down with your staff and have a discussion, how you start is as important as how you end. Consider beginning and ending your discussion in prayer.
This will help to set the right tone for the meeting. Never, begin your discussion without a plan or have it in public.
For example, church staff meetings are not where you should be addressing your concerns with an individual. You want privacy so that both you and your staff member can be open.
You don't want to discourage your staff member, but you do want to address the behavior openly and honestly. It's important to make this a conversation and not an accusation.
To do this, ask open-ended questions and practice active listening. For example, asking questions like, "help me understand your thinking," or "what was going on when," can help to draw your employee into the discussion.
It gives them the chance to express their thinking without feeling like you're simply making accusations without hearing their side of the story. It's important to also express to your employee how what they did impacts the team or the church.
That way, both perspectives are heard, and you can move forward to a solution.
Part of your discussion should also include a solution. How can you and your staff member work together to resolve this? During your discussion, ask questions that are geared towards creating a solution.
These questions can include:
- How could you have handled this differently?
- How could I/we have handled things differently?
- What would be helpful to you as you work on this?
Once you've discussed this, take the time to create goals. You can think about this ahead of time, but you should ultimately work with your staff member to create the final goals.
Make sure that the goals you create are SMART. This will help ensure that your staff member can achieve the goal, and there is a way you can measure achievement.
In addition, consider the types of support they might need. Do they need training? A mentor?
Do everything you can to set them up for success and give them the support they need. Before finishing the goals, make sure your staff member clearly understands what's expected of them.
Then, set up a time for a follow-up meeting.
Having a discussion and finding a solution is great; however, the job isn't done yet. You need to have a plan to follow up. Here's the key, your follow-up should not consist of one final meeting to see if they met their goals.
You need to set up times to check-in and see how they're doing on their goals. Do they need more support to achieve them? Do the goals need to be altered at all?
You can't expect success if your staff member isn't given the support they need to succeed. Check in often and encourage them as they seek to meet their goals.
Conflict with church leaders is stressful. It's stressful for the church and the pastor in charge.
It also keeps your church from having the ability to move forward. If you're worried about toxic behaviors in your church from leadership, you need to address them, but it will look different from a staff member's conversation.
One of the most important things you can do for your church leadership is to pray from them. You can constantly pray that God's will is done and not your will.
However, there are other things that you should pray for leadership as well. Pray that they will be wise, peaceable, and gentle.
Start Thinking Long-Term
Does what is happening have short-term and long-term consequences? If you need to shift the culture of your church, it's going to take time.
Yet, the average senior pastor only stays at a church for four years. How do you build lasting change if you won't be there to see it through?
You put plans in place to build healthy leadership.
We get it; you're busy running your church, but if you don't take the time to invest in your leaders, you'll be even busier. It's important to build leaders and coach your leaders as a mentor.
If your church is larger, you can enlist other staff members to help. You need to build relationships with your leaders.
You can also have group coaching or mentoring. During this time, you need to teach biblical leadership and provide resources for your leadership.
Learning how to lead biblically doesn't happen overnight. It's a process and will take time, so it's important that you are patient as you train your current and future leaders.
You should expect to deal with difficult people in your church. This will help you prepare to work with them.
The last place you would expect to need to deal with toxicity is in the church. But, the truth is your members aren't perfect, and they need grace and mercy as much as someone outside your walls does.
When you're working on addressing toxic church members, consider the following.
Pick Your Battles
You need to identify what battles you want to fight. If you feel the need to address everything that bothers you, you will quickly burn out.
To decide whether it's a battle you should engage in, ask yourself if it's a sinful behavior or if it's causing division in the church. If the answer is no, evaluate whether it's something that needs to be addressed or just a quirk that bothers you.
However, if you decide not to address it, don't talk to others about it. Not dealing with conflict creates a whole new set of problems.
What's causing the problem? What you see on the surface isn't usually the root of the matter.
For example, is one person talking to everyone about a problem they have with one person but not talking to that person? Why aren't they addressing that person?
It could be that they don't know how to handle conflict in healthy ways. However, they're telling anyone who will listen that they're hurt because they feel hurt.
In this case, the problem is the hurt and the need to learn how to address conflict in a biblical manner. Find the why so you can have conversations that address it.
Have a Private Conversation
If you're addressing one person's behavior or a small group of people, the pulpit isn't where this should be done. Granted, if the problem is church-wide, that's a different story; however, you still shouldn't single people out.
Talking to church members should be done in private. If you try to do it in a group, they will likely become defensive. When you're approaching them, take a biblical stance in discussing sin.
Matthew 18:15 to 17 talks about this if you need a quick refresher. If having the conversation privately isn't possible, ask one other person to join you as a mediator.
Focus on Solutions
You can spend all day talking about the toxic church culture; however, that talking is useless until you find a solution and implement it. Take responsibility for having conversations that lead to solutions.
When deciding on solutions, work with the other person to understand their perspective and get them to engage with the solution. Keep in mind that if the problem is simply that you don't agree with each other, that's okay.
Not everyone will agree with you, and they shouldn't have to. It should come down to addressing problems with conflict and sin in a way that's biblical.
For example, maybe the problem is that you and Johnny don't agree on something. This has caused Johnny to tell everyone who will listen why they disagree with you, and it's causing division in the church.
Your goal should not be to get Johnny to agree with you. It should be to find a solution that allows you and Johnny to address the conflict without causing division in the church.
How to Have Hard Conversations with Toxic Church Members, Staff and Leaders
You can take the steps above for different groups in your church. However, when it comes to the discussion and talking to church members, staff and leaders, sometimes having hard conversations is challenging. If you're not sure how to approach the discussion, follow these steps.
Don't walk into the conversation unprepared. Spend time thinking about how to talk to the individual and examples to give. It's important to make sure that you can enter this conversation and express your emotions without allowing your emotions to take over.
Also, take some time to think about potential solutions you can present if needed.
Take a Walk in Their Shoes
Take the time to consider the situation from their point of view. Remember, perspective is everything.
You don't want to go in and accuse someone of a behavior without listening. Their perspective on the situation could be much different.
For example, maybe someone said something that was hurtful to you. Going in and accusing the person of intentionally trying to hurt you will end badly.
Especially, if that wasn't their intention. Take the time to listen to them and hear their side. Then talk about your perspective and how it actually impacted you.
It's likely the person will be repentant and want to make it right. However, if you're unwilling to listen to their side and understand their intention, you could quickly turn them away from the church.
Have Goals and Stay Flexible
When you go into the conversation, you should have a goal. The important thing is not to be blinded by that goal.
Stay flexible. When you have a deeper understanding of the other person's perspective, it might change the direction of the conversation.
Staying flexible will allow you to make the shifts needed during the conversation.
Work on Your Listening Skills
Listening sounds easy, but it's not. When counselors go through their training, they learn attending skills. Attending skills are active listening skills that will help with toxic church members.
As a pastor, if you took counseling courses, it's possible that you learned these skills as well. Now is the time to use them.
Don't sit and plan your next remark. Truly listen and show with your body language and how you respond that you are listening.
This will help the other person feel heard, and they will not feel like you're just out to get them.
Find Solutions Together
We spent some time talking about solutions for toxic church culture already, so we're not spending much time here. However, remember, when you're looking for solutions, create them together.
The person involved is more likely to engage with the goals created if they have a part in creating them.
Take Care of Yourself
It's challenging to have hard conversations. Remember to take care of yourself.
Know when you need to take a break. Get some air, some water, and relax. Don't forget to pray about what's happening and place your trust in God as you allow Him to guide your conversations.
Get Everything Church Leaders Must Know in One Free Guide
Get the tested church leadership strategies and techniques used by top ministries to build healthy and growing congregations. Download our free eBook to learn…