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Toxic Leaders in Our Ranks


Feb 5 2014
New Army research could inform how the church fosters healthier, godlier leadership.

One way toxic leaders accumulate their power is by systematically ignoring and devaluing dissenting and/or minority voices. Andy Crouch explains in Playing God, "The powerful have a hard time seeing their own power and its effects. We do not see when our exercise of power is cutting off life and possibility for others."

While I doubt that pastors and leaders intentionally hang up the phone on individuals who disagree with them or lack power and influence, that's often what the experience feels like. True diversity–of race, gender, education, and economic means–distributes power and creates a more balanced system. A church that invites a diverse group of individuals to govern it and then affirms their voices prevents toxic leaders from gaining inordinate power in the first place.

If you are part of a leadership team, look around the room and ask the simple question, "Who's missing?" Are the diverse voices of the Body of Christ truly represented by your team? In addition to the "visible" minorities, have you made space for the single parent, the disabled, the elderly, or other folks who are often pushed to the margins?

When a leader or organization begins to exhibit symptoms of toxicity, our voices can serve as a powerful antibiotic. Silence often empowers toxic leaders. (This is not to imply that any abuse of power is the fault of the victim or that speaking up will necessarily go well. It often goes so poorly we may regret that we didn't simply keep quiet.) By raising thoughtful questions–What would be the long-term impact of that change be on our congregation?–and sharing concerns–I don't think those expectations are realistic–parishioners and co-leaders eliminate the possibility of silence being interpreted as agreement.

Though churchgoers are referred to as sheep, not considered the most clever of animals, Scripture encourages us to discern worthy leaders from potential wolves. Untrustworthy leaders typically refuse to admit their limitations and take ownership for how they may hurt people. Toxic leaders tend to blame others for their mistakes, seldom offer sincere apologies, and rarely confess their sins.

If you find yourself cleaning up your leader's messes (programming or relational), making excuses for that leader's poor choices, or defending him or her, it might be an indication that this leader is not worthy of your trust. Christian writer Tiffany Brown-Erickson wrote a series of blog posts on the importance of guarding ourselves against hurtful leadership. She warns, "A wolf is a lethally dangerous thing, and I will treat him as such." Though Jesus calls us to forgive those who wound us, he does not ask us to passively follow them into their dens.

Related Topics:Church; Military

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