By Doug Talley
I was recently reading an e-newsletter from Thom Rainer about the reasons he is hopeful for churches in 2020. His second reason is because “countless church members are taking a stand against the silliness and negativity in churches.” If you were at one of the Indiana Ministries regionals last Spring, you might remember me talking about a related trend across the U.S. – “toxic behavior is less tolerated now than it used to be.” This trend was in some ways launched by the #MeToo movement as women (and men) across the country are actively fighting against sexual aggression. That is expanding to include other toxic behaviors. People are now placing a higher value on integrity and character and are more outspoken about harmful, dysfunctional behaviors.
Confronting unhealthy behaviors in the church is on the rise! I, for one, am thankful. For decades a number of local churches and pastors have been held hostage by emotionally unhealthy people in the congregation who were negative and virtually impossible to work with. Carey Nieuwhof says these persons usually number 10% or less, but they make a lot of noise causing their number to be overestimated. These toxic persons have been referred to as dragons, terrorists, and bullies. Rarely has a church board been willing to address them and their behavior. That is changing, and it is about time!
In A Failure Of Nerve, Edwin Friedman writes about how institutions and organizations (including local churches) have a tendency to be unreasonably reasonable with toxic persons. You probably know what that looks like. Persons (could be one person) in the church are hyper-critical, divisive, and woefully negative about the pastor, the board and/or others in the church. Instead of confronting their behavior as harmful and unacceptable, leadership tries repeatedly to reason with the persons. This involves numerous meetings over an extended period of time where leaders try to nicely help the persons process their concerns. But no matter how many times they meet, no progress is made and the toxic behaviors continue – even escalate.
Friedman helps us realize that leadership is more of an emotional process than a cognitive one. In other words, the underlying causes of toxic behavior are always emotional rather than just cerebral. (In other words our emotions are always triggered even if there are cerebral components.) It’s okay to initially be reasonable with someone who is toxic. That is a good starting point. The problem is that toxic persons aren’t reasonable, so a lot of time and energy are expended, the mission is abandoned, and leadership (especially the pastor) gets more and more exasperated. You cannot reason with unreasonable persons! One more conversation isn’t going to change anything. But leaders keep having one more conversation – and then another. When leaders are unreasonably reasonable, they are actually enabling dysfunctional, toxic behavior.
Local churches often are characterized by a culture of niceness. This is present when persons (especially persons in leadership) refuse to have necessary and difficult conversations because they are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or making them angrier. This culture enables toxic people to go unchecked. The leaders keep hoping the toxic person will realize that he or she is the problem and to correspondingly change their behavior. However, the emotional issues of toxic people prevent them from being reasonable, so no amount of reasoning is going to change their mind or behavior.
Toxic people usually lack the capacity or are unwilling to self-regulate. They are like a virus that has infected the body, a.k.a. the body of Christ. One cannot reason with a virus. If your doctor says you have a virus and that he/she is simply going to reason with it until you are healthy, then you know you are in trouble!
The basic purpose of the immune system is to preserve the organism’s integrity and health. In the local church leaders function as the immune system for the organization. If they get hijacked by the toxic emotions of the “virus” and become unreasonably reasonable, then the church’s integrity is compromised, everyone becomes anxious, the toxic person gains control, and the church struggles – maybe even dies. Healthy and effective leadership must confront toxic, problematic persons so that the church body is healthy and able accomplish its mission.
As you read this article, you might even think of someone in your family or friendship circle who is a disruptive, toxic person. In Necessary Endings Dr. Henry Cloud says we have to place and enforce boundaries on these kinds of people whether in the church or in our families. If we don’t, there is no chance their behaviors will change and every chance they will continue to wreak havoc. That seems so mean to many people that they won’t establish a boundary or they abandon the boundary. And the pain and disruption continue.
Is there someone(s) in your family or church who are repeatedly toxic and harmful in their behaviors? How can you address the behaviors with integrity and resolve? Here are some resources that might help.
- Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillian, Switzler
- A Failure of Nerve, by Edwin Friedman
- Anxious Church Anxious People, by Jack Shitama (applies Friedman’s concepts to the local church in an easy to understand fashion)
- Necessary Endings, by Henry Cloud
If you have a toxic person(s) in your church and need help addressing the harmful behaviors, give me a call.
I’m praying for churches (and people, too) to have the courage and resolve to address toxic behaviors with tough love.