Churches everywhere you turn are getting the leadership thing backward. This is leading to more unhealthiness in churches than possibly any other mistake. Why? Because people naturally value themselves based on their status when compared with others. This leads to certain toxic ways of thinking. Jesus addressed this head on with His disciples (Luke 22:24-27).
Leadership in His upside-down Kingdom is also upside-down. It’s literally behaving like you are of the lowest status with those you’re in relationship with. Many so-called “leaders” give lip service to being servants and even do a lot of things for people. But servant leadership is not about what you say or do alone. It’s about your general posture and attitude.
In light of this, here are 11 unhealthy behaviors that give you a framework for how to recognize a bad pastor or other leader in a church. I also include sections that explain the inverse healthy behavior that is the fruit of the Spirit’s work in one’s life.
I pulled many of these from my experience and my own behavior. Taking a deep dive into Jon Zens’ book 58 to 0: How Christ Leads Through The One Anothers helped me put words to many of these. I’m indebted to Jon’s work.
1. They create or accept differences in status
Unhealthy church leadership sees themselves as being “over” other believers. They use this line of thinking to justify it being best if they control what goes on in a church. They typically believe maturity is the reason they deserve this position.
Many believe it’s what the Bible teaches (it’s not). Other justifications include convenience and safety. It’s easier if we don’t have to actually work together to discern and decide how the Lord is leading us.
Also, from their perspective, it can be more dangerous for Jesus to be in charge through everyone instead of one or a few. The opposite is true.
People that believe this way typically form “inner rings” with people that think similarly. That can be in the form of organized “teams” or simply just relationship cliques.
They see people as either leaders or non-leaders; instead of seeing Christ as Leader who works through all Body parts fluidly in different ways, at different times, and to different measures (like the Bible actually does teach).
Official philosophies like “elder rule” have developed out of this line of toxic thinking. They are able to support this philosophy using a cut-and-paste method of bible study to stitch verses together that makes it sound biblical . But when you treat the Bible as it was designed to be (as a story), you learn that elders in the early church didn’t rule anybody and weren’t “over” anybody.
Healthy church leadership claims no status as they willingly serve in proper Body life, learning mutual submission by sharing in whole-Body leadership that revolves according to spiritual gifts, the Spirit’s leading and the Body’s confirmation. They have a willingness and intention to live life on the bottom rung of the ladder in relationships.
They intentionally make all members feel like co-equal partners, since that’s their identity in Christ.
2. They have an unhealthy focus on leadership
Unhealthy church leadership is more concerned about being a leader than cultivating Body life. This causes them to supplant Jesus as the Leader of His Church through the whole Body. They will routinely make decisions believing that it’s the Lord working through them to shepherd the people they are doing church with.
Healthy church leadership realizes the foundation of healthy church life is Christ expressed through the priesthood of all believers as a living reality; and they will not violate that. They realize that cultivating Body life through mutually submissive relationships is what truly builds up the Body and each of its parts.
3. They don’t see a need for outside help
Unhealthy church leadership feels a need to be involved in all the issues in the church themselves; needing to be a part of the solution. If there is access to outside help, they dominate that relationship to keep a measure of control.
Healthy church leadership understands God’s design pattern of extra-local help in the building and maintaining of healthy church life. While there may be a point person or representative that communicates with outside help more regularly, all members of the church feel like they have equal access to them and their communication, which is openly shared.
4. The church is tied too closely to their particular strengths or giftedness
Unhealthy church leadership builds the church experience around themselves. They typically have a specific spiritual gift, specific talents, a high IQ or a certain personality that works well for this. The ministry and culture of the church is typically built around their own particular strengths or giftedness.
Healthy church leadership equips the Body to form the church’s ministry out of its diverse strengths and giftedness.
5. They behave in ways motivated by rivalry or competition
Unhealthy church leadership behaves in ways that show a jockeying for position, power or control. They may seem to be concerned with success, money, possessions or status as compared to other believers. They may also carry an aura and behave in ways that demand the spotlight.
Healthy church leadership takes the humble posture of a slave who possesses gifts that are at the disposal of others. This doesn’t mean they get bossed around, but they are willing to influence people positively in situations where they’re welcomed.
When faced with situations that can turn into competitions, they gladly lose, trusting that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble, even if it’s not readily apparent.
6. They accept and enjoy honorific titles
Unhealthy church leadership desires and seems to take joy in being called by special titles like Pastor, Elder, etc. They receive exaltation and allow church members to treat them with a sense of awe. They may also use terminology that suggests they are in a position of authority over other believers like “my flock” or “my people.”
Healthy church leadership rejects any titles or signifiers of any special status among a group of people, always striving to elevate others. They may use terms to explain to others how they regularly function within a group, but they will never accept being called by honorific titles.
7. Their ministry, agenda, model or plan is equated with God’s will
Unhealthy church leadership leaves you feeling like you’re more a part of their ministry, agenda, model or plan. They talk a lot about how you’ll be such a great asset to the ministry or church and how they’ll give you opportunities to serve.
Because they set the agenda, they tend to bring high expectations and place them on the community. They are easily disappointed and frustrated when their expectations aren’t met, which manifests in anger, anxiety, aggression and cynicism toward other members of the Body.
Healthy church leadership leaves you feeling like you’re more important than they are. They are patient, gentle and respectful in the pursuit of experiencing Body life together; allowing the Holy Spirit to work through caring relationships.
8. They have trouble collaborating
Unhealthy church leadership seems to always be persuading people to see their point of view and agree to it. They are hypercritical of almost everything except what they favor and do. They assume the leading of Christ will be coming through them each time the Body gathers, no matter what the activity or reason for gathering is.
They ask people to cooperate with their vision rather than collaborate on a collective vision led by the voice of Christ through the whole Body. They have no trouble leading, but resist being led by others.
Healthy church leadership always lives by the priesthood of all believers; allowing the King to govern by His will through the will of all the people together. They assume the leading of Christ is fluid, floating and shared – varying each time you come together, as the Lord leads.
9. They equate control with protection or “shepherding”
Unhealthy church leadership claims that having more control – provided it is used in the service of God and your fellow human beings – is a good thing. This comes from viewing community through the lens of authority.
They believe that having relationship hierarchy is the best way to arrive at peace and unity in a group of people. They believe a lack of human authority in a church will cause everything to degenerate into chaos, so they rely on personalities and organization instead.
Healthy church leadership will only be a part of Body life processes or practices that result in the distribution of control among all the Body parts. They view authority through the lens of community.
They show by their actions that they believe Christ is practically and functionally present as the Head of the church by the Holy Spirit working in each member.
10. They struggle with relationships
Unhealthy church leadership struggles to have close personal and intimate relationships.
Healthy church leadership sees close personal and intimate relationships as the environment and prerequisite for their biggest impact, as well as the avenue for their own growth.
11. They use the Bible with arrogance
Unhealthy church leadership assumes their English translations of the Bible and their interpretation of them say what the Bible really says. Bible verses about leadership are classic targets as they impose what they think, want or have been wrongly taught the verses mean onto the text.
Healthy church leadership is inquisitive if and when questioned; willing to investigate alternative meaning within Scripture when brought to them and to receive correction if appropriate.
They work to understand the story of the Bible, its books’ literary designs and what the authors meant within these contexts and in light of the whole biblical story’s design patterns and foundational principles.
The rest of the posts in the Servants and Slaves series are here.
What about pastors who claim they can heal people and free them of pain? Isn’t this unhealthy and false?
@Caroline I would still work my way through this list and focus on their behavior rather than the gift or their claim of the gift. Gifts can be used in healthy or unhealthy ways that hinges on the character of the person. Because this is situation-dependent, I will answer the question with a short sample of other questions that would go through my mind if I encountered that situation…
> Who’s getting the glory?
> How well do I know this person? Do I know them well enough to also know how Christ expresses Himself through them?
> Do they consistently express the character of Jesus in their attitude and posture toward other people?
> Related to that, does this gift or their claim seem to be a platform on which they are elevated in status among a community?
> Related to that, does this gift or their claim seem like a justification to have more control over a community?
> Do you actually know people that have received healing from God because of encounters with them? What is their testimony?
The Christian life is relational at its core, so I’d stay away from making judgments unless I had observed relational warning signs like the ones mentioned in this post.
I have just left a dis functional synagogue and I found the list useful.
@Elizabeth So glad to hear that. Thanks for letting me know!
Thank You. Without going into details, this article has helped me mightily.
@Jess Wonderful, thank you for sharing that! If you ever get a few minutes, I’d love to hear the details through my contact page.
Thank you Michael. I’m starting to believe after 40 years of churches Catholic and Protestant ( several denominations) that the only “healthy” “perfect” church will be in heaven. We are all humanly imperfect. It does not matter whether we’re spiritually mature or immature we are sinful creatures. The more intimate a relationship as a leader with the underbelly of the church the more scary and dysfunctional it becomes. I understand why many believers do not attend church yet we are called to community and fellowship. Looking forward to your next revelations.
@Renae I don’t equate “healthy” with “perfect.” I’m a physically healthy human being, but I have a scoop of ice cream every once in a while :). If you pursue the perfect church, you’ll always come up empty. Finding healthy church is different and God’s desire for us in this day and age.
Spiritual abuse is rampant in the church….your insight is most helpful… I get so discouraged Always, being told I’m deceived or in rebellion!
@Deborah Glad this was helpful! Being told you’re deceived or in rebellion (and using misinterpreted Bible verses to do so) is a classic tactic that falls under #9. When you view community through the lens of authority, you view lack of submission as rebellion, which results in the strategy of abuse/control in the attempt to activate submission. When you view authority through the lens of community, submission is completely and always voluntary and mutual (as the biblical authors point out).
Right on brother