Recently, a friend told me he was going through a very sensitive subject; his experience in an unhealthy church. I had an opportunity to pray with this brother and shared my personal experience I went through.
This friend later asked if I would be willing to share it on a blog post.
I’ve prayed about it and was very hesitant as I know this would undoubtedly cause a great deal of unnecessary relational turmoil.
However, as I’ve interacted with pastors and leaders for the past several years now, I realized more people go through horrific stories like mine more than it should ever happen. For many of us that question is too painful to confront.
Over and over again, I heard men after men in tears of their regret in their past of how they were willing to bear the burdens and accept these scars because the alternatives frighten them too much that ultimately lead to destroying their families.
I pray my experience I’ve gone through will end these lessons as helpful as I have.
Totalitarian Micromanaging Pastor
When I went off to college as a bright-eyed 19-year-old, I found a church to get involved with right away.
Unbeknownst to me when I applied for a position at the church, there was a history of high turnover rate in a handful of years before and was grafted into the loop of this inner-city church. The church had its reputation in a small circle of people being a spiritually abusive church by the leader and for its manipulative control tactics.
The pastor was well-known in the area and couldn’t be questioned. The pastor is still resident at the location and the people are trying with God’s help to still overcome the subtle residual culture of spiritual manipulation and control-freak persists.
“The best thing you can do Jonathan is to simply leave. It is hard for a leader to change after decades of ministry. You really don’t have much hope.” was told by a church consultant who worked for the state convention. My wife and I prayed fervently for months and decided it was time for us to begin to look elsewhere.
Now being out of the toxic environment for several years as an outside perspective, the red flags seem somewhat more obvious. But the subtleties aren’t clear until you move deeper into the life of the church and by that time you’re there, it seems too late to turn around. The subtle threat of taking away a paycheck, decreasing the income of the payroll, totalitarian stand of working obsessive hours, micromanaging dictatorship that couldn’t be questioned by any other…. etc the list goes on and on.
I remember telling myself over and over, “Ministry is just hard and tough, so I just need to put up with this bullying pastor……”
What makes this most complex is the people. This isn’t just a case study we read in a book, but these were real people, real struggles and real stories that closely affiliated whom I called, “family”. I did life with these people and ministered alongside in the name of Christ, yet absolutely contrary to the biblical model of how Christ lived life and showed compassion for people. It’s not even until you are quite entangled emotionally and been pinned into the indoctrination, it was a mental, emotional and spiritual abuse that took years of counseling to overcome.
When I was finally taken out of that toxic environment after 6 years being in ministry of this church after a major crisis where my wife was sent to an emergency room for mental breakdown with stress within our first year or marriage, I realized how much legalism and spiritual abuse had wrapped their fingers around my faith. After going through 3 years of intensive counseling, I slowly begin to taste again the freedom we have in Christ.
I don’t know if I am fully recovered yet or not, but it truly takes years to recover from the subtle damage that spiritual leader who manipulated and control over one’s faith. I am still discovering how my view of God, myself and the Bible are tainted by this toxic leader.
Here are three things I’ve learned as after going through this painful experience.
1. Trust in the Sovereignty of Christ
Christ is sovereign over the whole world, and everything that happens in it. (Psalm 135:6) He is never helpless, never frustrated, never at a loss. There are no limits to God’s rule. This is part of what it means to be God. This reality should give us hope for it declares to us that God is bigger than these temporary issues.
Now, at the moment, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see it as I was desperate. I wanted to do everything to get out of the situation.
However though, the reality of my fear and anxiety proves that my heart was too close to the world and too far from God. It was a matter of how I viewed Christ and trusted in Him alone in the midst of that difficulty.
You can trust in a sovereign God who also bleeds for you.
Take heart brother. Be encouraged my friend. The struggle you’re facing, God can take it. Place your faith in the midst of the storm in the one who is the Creator of all things who sustains us by His irresistible grace.
2. It’s Okay to be Hurt: Turn your eyes upon Jesus
Psychology says, “Hurt people hurt people.” I think I was deeply hurt by so many people and this caused my heart to be so harden against God and others. I think what the scripture says about, “sin,” is quite evident of how it causes us to be blinded and unable to see (2 Corinthians 4:4).
Suffering allows us to turn our eyes away from the things of the earth and to turn our eyes to the Creator who sustains all things by the Word of His Mouth.
The ultimate reason that suffering exists in the universe is so that Christ might display the greatness of the glory of the grace of God by suffering in himself to overcome our suffering.
Don’t suppress, or repress those emotions that God has given you. God wants you to be honest and real with those God-given beautiful emotions. Actually, if you hold back and culminate that in you, it will either destroy you from within or it will explode sooner or later.
Just don’t let your bitterness be a hindrance the work of what the Lord is doing through His local church.
3. Love God and love people though you Don’t Feel like it
Building on top of the previous section, you are called to love those people. Yes, with the understanding of original sin (Genesis 3) or evil in general around the world—then we understand that leadership, grounded by power, has potentially toxic roots. However, God created them in the image of God and God so loved them, they send Jesus to die for them.
“Whatever a person may be like, we must still love them because we love God.”– John Calvin
Start praying for the person you don’t want to forgive. Start blessing the person that makes you bitter.
You will soon find out, God begins to transform your heart and even the hearts of those around you that God has placed in your life.
A Final Thought on Toxic Leadership
My first recommendation is, to stick it out. There’s no perfect church. Church are bunch of sinners who tend to hurt others. If the gospel is preached and there’s some problems, that’s quite normal as there is no such thing as a perfect church.
We are not speaking of preferences here; Toxic leaders must not be confused with leaders who make mistakes. People too often are quick to leave churches and hop to another one. With the technological advancement of our day, if we don’t like someone we delete them from Facebook. That doesn’t work in real life. Just because someone makes a mistake doesn’t mean they are wrong and are a terrible person.
We all make mistakes and get things wrong from time to time. The difference is whether we treat it as a learning opportunity or keep doing the same thing over and over again.
However, if the culture is so unhealthy and it endangers your children, your wife, and your own soul then to leave that toxic church that is detrimental for the sake of your family is important.
Toxic leaders breed toxic cultures. I mean if we think about it, the word “toxic” comes from the German “toxikon” which means “arrow poison”. In a literal sense, the term in its original form thus means to kill (poison) in a targeted way (arrow).
If the toxic leaders have deliberately destroyed every fabric your family and when there is no other option for you and your family, then leave. I wouldn’t say stop going to church, find another church elsewhere and begin to attend there and let Christ heal your wounds.