The development of toxic leadership

Scot McKnight, author A Church Called Tov, has a regular column he writes through substack, so this may be behind a paywall. His concern these days revolves around toxic leadership, how churches are blind to it and actually develop it, and how to change church culture to move away from that model when looking for the next leader of their church.

He writes this:

Many think their theological statements, confessions and creeds drive them. Many think their Bible teaching drives them. They are indeed at least partly right. But under those desires to be sound in theology and faithful to the Bible are drives that determine how they use that theology and how they use that Bible to accomplish what they want.

When looking for a pastor, no church search committee goes looking for a toxic leader to bring in. Yet, they generate that attitude by their own goals. A job description can read “Must be a man of the Word, a capable teacher” etc. , but the church has underlying values as well.

Toxic leaders may well believe the right things and teach the Bible well, but their drives turn such theology and Bible off the path into toxic, septic fields.

The four McKnight has identified as traits leading to toxic leadership:


Certainly there are good ambitions. There are also underlying ambitions for power that warp desires. HOW a leader leads needs to be evaluated. HOW a church wants a leader to lead needs to be examined.

We all want “success” and have a million ways to define it. The church wants to grow. It’s HOW it grows that needs examination. Here is what McKnight says this can lead to:

Why do churches use numbers to measure success? That is, beside being able to announce with pride new baptisms? Because growth means a church will gain a reputation of being God-blessed. It means the church acquires a big reputation and makes a difference and climbs the ladder of fame for other churches to emulate.

Greed is subtle. It sits out in broad daylight making it harder to understand what you’re looking at. Yet, if a church is to grow it’s going to take money.

To have sufficient money a church has to have the kind of success that produces butts in the pew, bills in the offering plate, baptisms in water, and buildings. The wise use of money sometimes hops the rails and becomes a fleshy desire for more and more money.

We will never use brash words like “glory” or “fame.” We WILL use words like “brand” or “platform” or “influence.”

Some will brush this off as a hazard they have to endure, but mark our words: glory runs deep in humans and is a major nutrient in the cultural system of churches. We have seen this drive for self-importance not only in senior pastors but in associates, elders, and even team leaders enjoying the glory and feelings of self-importance within their own church culture.

We have such a toxic church culture that is going to continue to produce rot if we don’t understand how to change. The culture of the church itself needs to change. People in the pew need to understand better the nature of the Kingdom of God and less the principles of church growth or branding or platforming.

We are in need of a deep work.

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