Ministry Musings: Toxic Leadership

Like many others, I have grown increasingly concerned about the neo-fundamentalism that is dominating and caricaturing too much Christianity these days. It is a theology and resultant mindset that is antithetical to the Gospel and destructive to the Christian witness in the world.

 In recent days, Mars Hill Church in Seattle, and the ministry of Mark Driscoll, its senior pastor, has resurfaced as an Exhibit A for this kind of deformative Christianity. The church and Driscoll’s ministry are collapsing under the weight of narcissism, bad theology, and manipulative tactics. A website has been created to more-fully describe and document the abuse and sadness that the Mars Hill situation has created: http://www.joyfulexiles.com.

A revealing document on the website is written by Jonna Petry, the wife of one of the fired associate ministers. Written in 2012, My Story, was her attempt to bring freedom and new life into an otherwise devastating experience. I distributed her article back in 2012, but I now believe it is time to refer to it again. The toxic leadership which she described at Mars Hill is now infecting other leaders, churches, and institutions.

Below, I have listed and briefly commented on the major points she makes in My Story. We must be aware of the symptoms of toxic leadership and how it grows, no matter where it occurs. And we must be gripped by the sickness toxic leadership represents and the destruction it produces in the Body of Christ. What she describes is a spiritual virus that is now spreading through the Christian community,

(1) In the beginning, a winsome, forthright person is chosen as the central leader of the organization. The early days are ones of excitement and hope, as this person inspires and envisions a new day.

(2) The early days are defined as a time of shared governance, and the leadership style appears to be broad-based and conversational. But in retrospect, it is seen as a time when the central leader sizes up the situation and begins to form impressions about who will later be valuable or expendable. The central leader also takes small steps that will later become the operational platform for dominance.

(3) Within a year or two, the central leader actually establishes a non-relational (regulatory) leadership style, complete with a hierarchical structure that follows a clearly defined chain of command. Everyone is expected to follow the system as it is laid out in that structure. The “unpardonable sin” is disagreement with the central leader.

(4) Within the system, the central leader builds a team of second-level leaders (elders at Mars Hill) who are unwaveringly supportive of the central leader and who unquestioningly carry out the bidding of the central leader. In the corporate world they are called yes men. What the business world calls group think takes precedence over individual opinions and alternative options put forward by others. The team exists to do the bidding of the central leader.

(5) The central leader has an inner circle of confidants, but it is difficult to know who they are; all that can be determined is that the central leader talks with a few golden children. There is a small group of people who actually call the shots.

(6) The administrative model also manifests perfectionistic tendencies, with a low tolerance for error, including excessive discipline due to minor mistakes. People can get into big trouble for little things. The work environment is no longer pleasant or perceived as safe. Morale plummets as toeing the mark becomes the modus operandi. Employees feel scrutinized, criticized, generally unappreciated, manipulated, and expendable.

(7) On a deeper level, firing becomes a means of cleansing the organization; people are fired swiftly and decisively when they are no longer needed or congruent with the central leader’s vision. Dead-wood people are replaced by those who will fit into the yes men environment. At this point, we have entered the world of spiritual abuse, but with a long way to go before we see how it actually plays itself out.

(8) The central leader capitalizes on the organization’s original desire for a new day by developing a comprehensive re-structuring plan (at Mars Hill it was a new set of by-laws), designed to take the organization to the next level. This plan becomes the law of the land, and everyone is expected to pledge allegiance to it. In fact, people are asked to actually sign the document.

(9) As this operational style becomes normative and powerful, a spirit of heaviness begins to drape the organization. People notice that things are changing, and there is a sense that the changes are not all for the better. Morale plummets even further.

(10) Avenues for talking about concerns and opportunities to raise questions about what is happening are severely reduced (managed by the administrative structure) or eliminated altogether. There’s no way to critique what’s going on without getting in trouble.

(11) People with concerns are viewed as disloyal, and they are often removed, being replaced by people who keep quiet and are passively compliant. The new team becomes a puppet show simply carrying out the will of the central leader.

(12) Those who continue to exercise integrity are shunned (personally by the central leader and eventually at the organizational level), and veiled threats are used as an attempt to maintain control. Concerned persons are encouraged (publicly) and required (privately) to look for exciting opportunities elsewhere. Their moves are defined as good for them.

(13) There is a growing sense that the core values and missional purposes of the organization are being eroded, replaced by attitudes and practices which continue to use the historic language, but separated from the meanings which make the language authentic. This leads to the organization being driven more by image (e.g. branding and slogans) and less by substance. Ironically, this is a period when outsiders often think the organization is great. But insiders know differently. A performance orientation has replaced a character base.

(14) Truth is now what the central leader says it is, and everything (including the leader’s preaching and teaching) revolves around his vision which, due to his narcissism, he declares to be God’s vision as well.

(15) As this mechanistic, unilateral style becomes normative, friendships break down and are replaced by policies and procedures that erode relationships and elevate regulations. Trust evaporates. Serious conversations cease, because no one knows who to talk to anymore.

(16) Calls for attention begin to arise, but they go unheeded by the central leader and those whom he has put around him. In fact, those who raise concerns are viewed as impediments to the new vision and are no longer deemed useful. They no longer fit. People with organizational experience, devotion, loyalty, and competence are removed.

(17) The central leader becomes increasingly entrenched (an early sign of desperation), isolated, and resistive to counsel. In public, he continues to project himself as the champion of the organization, even though his attitude, action, and leadership style is undermining it. The central leader is now afraid, but adopts a “never let them see you sweat” public persona.

(18) Attempts are made to give the central leader wise counsel–sometimes by outside experts, but the central leader shuns them too. Everyone in the organization knows there is trouble in River City, but it has publicly surfaced too late to do much about it, other than to let it play itself out.

(19) Along the way, people lose hope, and when they do, they also lose a sense of how and where they might still exercise redemptive influence in the organization they deeply lon some cases, they actually end up contributing to the problem by going along while things get worse and worse.

(20) But eventually, everything is exposed–even to the outside world, and the original charisma and competence of the central leader is not enough to sustain the charade. His narcissistic tendencies drive him further and further into attitudes and actions that eventually lead him to fall on his own sword.

It is a very tragic tale that has unfolded over the years at Mars Hill Church. And whenever it is repeated, it is equally devastating. Unfortunately, by the time things come to the light, a trail of tears has watered the path, and a pile of broken people has strewn the walkway.

Toxic leadership is almost always the result of putting too much power in the hands of one person. When that person happens to be a narcissist, a “narcissystem” (a term coined by my wife, Jeannie) is the result.   By the time this destruction runs its course and everything is exposed, the ego-driven leader has no option but to defend himself (herself) to the bitter end. Their only option (to save any “face” at all) is to protect the house of cards to the death. And that’s what it all eventually becomes—-Death.

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books.
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5 Responses to Ministry Musings: Toxic Leadership

  1. Paul Pollock says:

    As a long-term pastor I have to “doublecheck” how I’ve done and make sure that humility before The Lord and servant-leadership is the “antidote” for becoming a toxic leader. The Lord wants to pour “Living Water” through His servants and sometimes only Liquid Plumber can remove the “hair clog” of toxicity and narcissism that so easily “builds up.”

  2. Dan Johnson says:

    Steve, thanks for highlighting this again. Toxic leadership is a tragic reality in too many “evangelical” churches and institutions. Your shining a spotlight like this will help people be aware and hopefully avoid or resist the toxic leadership takeover. God bless your ministry. D

  3. Otilia says:

    I’m excited to uncover this web site. I want to to thank
    you for ones time for this wonderful read!! I definitely savored
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  4. Matt Horan says:

    Reblogged this on ReEmergent Church and commented:
    “Caricaturing”… that’s a great word for it.

  5. Required reading for all who are interested in apostolic reformation. An independent, autonomous church (which lends itself to such leadership pitfalls as described) is not the Church that Jesus is building.

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