How to Become a Toxic Church Leader

Posted by Aaron Buer on July 29, 2021
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In leadership, there is no scarier phrase than “toxic culture.”

If your church staff has a toxic culture, that means it’s literally harmful to be a part of your community–if you work here, you will get hurt. Ouch.  

What produces toxic cultures?

The answer is actually quite simple. Toxic people create toxic cultures.  

Perhaps the most important thing you can do as a leader is pursue your own emotional health.

Don’t allow yourself to become toxic.

In addition, spend your time helping those you lead to pursue healthy patterns.

This is critically important, but let’s be honest, it’s also hard work.

We’re flawed and broken and it’s easy to get disappointed, frustrated, and eventually bitter at work.  

So, let’s talk. And let’s come at this from a negative angle.

Here’s how to become toxic in three easy steps.

Toxic Friends

When I was a youth pastor, our team used to talk about the influence of friends on a regular basis.

This was an important conversation for teenagers. Here was our tagline:  

“Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future.”

We become like the people we hang out with.

If you hang out with toxic people, chances are you will become toxic.

Your health and the health of your staff is important.

So, let me ask you: Who are you hanging with? Where does the conversation go? Is it healthy? Is it honoring? Is it constructive? 

You will become like the people you spend the most time with.

Thankfully, this works both ways.

If you surround yourself with godly leaders with strong character, there’s a good chance they’ll pull you along.


I’ve spent too many years communicating in triangles.

It’s been a hard habit to break.

I was raised in a family of triangle communication, and I feel a magnetic pull toward triangles because I really don’t like interpersonal conflict.

You might be asking yourself, “What in the world is a triangle?!?”

Here’s a triangle: You say something that bothers me. I go to a mutual friend and tell them what you said and how it bothered me. Now, our mutual friend is involved and likely starting to think that you’re an insensitive jerk.

That’s a triangle.  

Here’s what should have happened: You say something that bothers me. I go to you and say, “Hey, that bothered me. Help me understand what you meant.”

That’s what we like to call a two-chair conversation. Only two chairs are required: mine and yours.  

Two-chair conversations are healthy. Triangles are toxic.  

We attempt to model this and teach this to our staff and congregation.

I think I will always feel the pull toward triangles but I’m working hard to pursue health.

I encourage you to do the same.  

The next time you feel tempted to pull in a third person, ask yourself, “Is this a two-chair conversation?”

Unprocessed Pain

I’m convinced that all toxic behavior is rooted in pain.

Somewhere along the line, likely in childhood, the person was hurt and now reacts or leads in an unhealthy way to compensate or cover that pain.  

We all have pain. We all carry hurt. That’s okay.

Sometimes these experiences make us better and more empathetic leaders.

However, unprocessed pain almost always leads to toxic behavior.

Have you ever processed the pain? I think you should.

How about this: The last year and a half was the most insane season of leadership. COVID did a number on all of us. For those of us who were keeping the church afloat and shepherding hurting people through the pandemic, the bills are just now starting to come due.  

Have you talked to anyone about that?

If you try to power through, there will be consequences in your life, your leadership, and therefore your church.  

Unprocessed pain is a shortcut to toxicity. Don’t ignore it.

Wrap Up

As we move toward rebuilding this fall, the focus will likely be on programs, volunteers, energy, and getting people reengaged with our churches.

But let’s remember the cornerstone of our ministry, as individuals and congregations, is spiritual and emotional health.

Let’s focus on rebuilding that as well.