In that time I’ve done a lot of posting and reflecting and decided recently to download everything I’ve posted to my wall and begin to organize it. One of the very first series of related thoughts I put up were reflecting on what characteristics I see in a healthy church vs what I termed as a “toxic” church. The use of that word is strong I know. I chose to use it because it is a familiar term for me based in some of my studies in Organizational Leadership. What is often there referred to as “Toxic Leadership” is when leaders in organizations of any form use their leadership positions and power to begin serving their own needs primarily as opposed to the needs of the organization as a whole or the individuals within the organization.
I will confess that when I wrote these, that I was going through a transition in my life in leaving a church I worked for for 5 years and then tried to stay a part of for another 5 years following and there was a great deal of pain, anger and hurt going on in my life as I saw not just how that church treated me and my family in some situations but also how they treated many others. I did however, not seek to target that particular situation and to speak generally.
I will also confess at the time, that I was more focused upon Institutional Church in general as where these types of things exist. I’ve since then come to understand that while organizational issues may make it easier for some of these issues to exist in institutional church, it’s not unique to any one form and I’ve since seen and experienced too that there are toxic churches that are institutional, organic, simple or house churches.
Contrasting in this manner is an effective way of making a point, but I want to clarify too that this is not an all or nothing thing for me. There is no perfect church in a local context of any form and even some churches that might be described as toxic in my comments, may indeed have redeeming and healthy characteristics.
I wrote these in 2009. I edited a few of them in resharing them for clarity and to temper some of the elements that might have come out too strongly in the emotions of what was happening then. By and large however, they are about as I originally shared them, and I think they can be helpful to others, so here are the 10 I’ve shared recently consolidated together.
1. A healthy church multiplies its leaders; a toxic church revolves around a few who control access to leadership and protect against others challenging or participating in it.
2. A healthy church identifies congregant’s gifts and equips and frees them to function. Toxic churches place people in positions without regard to gifting because the task is more important to forwarding the goals of the organization regardless of its form.
3. A healthy church has a strong percentage of its people involved in ministry outside their doors, while a toxic church worries primarily about internal appearances and functions.
4. A healthy Church sees people as vital like organs within a body. A toxic church sees individuals as expendable and sacrifices them when necessary to promote the needs of the organization.
5. Healthy Churches promote healthy relationships between all in fellowships including congregants and leadership even where there are positions and hierarchy. Toxic churches focus on hierarchy, one way accountability and place leaders on pedestals where they cannot be criticized or challenged without those doing so ostracized regardless of the legitimacy of their concerns.
6. Healthy Churches focus upon what draws people closer to God personally and to one another to grow in spiritual maturity and freedom. Toxic Churches tend to focus more upon what ties people to the institution and makes them dependent upon the organization and less likely to leave.
7. Toxic church leadership operates from the position, implied or openly stated that leadership’s character, abilities or knowledge makes them “special” to where their leadership decisions descend to their followers through them from God.
Healthy Church leadership, even where this exists in hierarchical organizations, recognizes that the position or functioning within the body of Christ to lead is ultimately one of service and requires willingness to submit and listen to the responses of others regardless of organizational position and delegated authority. Efficiency does not justify the nullifying of the priesthood of all believers.
8. Toxic Churches focus on punishing and pushing others away in order to maintain “purity.”
Healthy Churches focus on restoring and bringing others in in order to extend the Love of God and with one another.
9. Healthy Churches know how to work to meet collective goals and also when to rest while not fearing that the God who implemented the Sabbath practice and principle is now impatiently fuming over any momentary inactivity and time for restoration.
Toxic Churches demand incessant service from staff and core volunteers, sanctify it as God’s due and then make nowhere near the same effort to minister to the fallen after they have burned out and their service is no longer available, instead seeking to find the next person “called” to replace them.
10. Healthy churches have open doors and welcome people regardless of where they are in their lives. People who enter their circles are loved first and accepted with a view to building relationships before seeking to correct or change things in their lives and even then, their acceptance is not contingent on how well or quickly they change or grow.
Toxic churches have doors guarded by gatekeepers who seek to identify people coming in by categories and labels and on that basis determine if they are welcome or what they must do first before they can be accepted.