Working in a Toxic Church

February 7, 2017     Sam Pettersen    


When you’re working in the ministry, you run the risk of ending up in a toxic environment. When this happens it can be devastating to your spiritual life, your family, and can make you question this idea of the “Church” altogether. But before I continue, you might be wondering if your environment is toxic or if its just in a bad season. If you find yourself wondering this: check out Carey  Nieuwhof’s Blog on “6 Warning Signs Your Church Culture is Toxic.”

Working in a toxic church can be horrible. I know from first hand experience. You can feel like you’re failing your family and it feels like  you failed yourself. Whether you’re dealing with political movements from your denomination, entitled parents and students, or staff members that lead in unhealthy ways; I think we can all agree that this is not the church that Jesus would delight in.

So what do we when our churches go from being safe places to emotional battlegrounds? I want to give you 5 thoughts on dealing with toxic churches and how you can care for yourself spiritually.


If you know that you’re in a toxic church, talking to your leadership may sound impossible. But your primary goal should be unity. When a youth worker quits because they can’t take it anymore, most of the time its a shock to key leaders and the church body. You need to schedule time to talk with leaders and let them know what you’re struggling with.

This isn’t you telling them how they could do better. This is a conversation where you tell them that you’re on the same team, and you want to be the best you can be for the church. The goal behind this is unity. Approach the conversation with humility and with the mindset that you want to see the church go far. Paul says it like this:

Ephesians 4:1-3 – 1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 

Are you eager to maintain unity? Can you talk about what’s been toxic for you with the mindset of humility and patience? Then you need to talk to your leadership. We owe it to our calling to speak in truth and love.


When you’re in the thick of it, this is a hard concept to follow. You may want to run to your spouse or go trash talk about your church to other members and friends. You might let food be your comfort or try to distract your worries with TV. In extreme cases, when ministry leaders are faced with constant pressure in toxic environments, they will self-medicate with alcohol or turn to having an affair. The main point here though is we will always be tempted to comfort ourselves, instead of seeking God.

When you are in a season of toxicity, you are vulnerable. You need to have the mindset of letting God be your comfort every day. Read 2 Timothy 2 everyday. Yes, the whole chapter everyday. Print it out, put in places you’ll see it. Let this chapter be what guides you and keeps things in perspective. This is a chapter that my wife and I relied on heavily to make it through the day with our head high.


No one suffers more in this scenario than your family. Your spouse has to deal with a leader that’s being dragged through the mud and it takes a toll on them. Your kids have to deal with a parent that is worn out and bitter. Even more so, it can hurt their faith in this process. You need to put your family first in two different ways:

  1. Lead Them Toward Righteousness– It’s your obligation to lead your family spiritually. Your family is getting a front row seat to how ugly the church can be. They need to be reminded that this is not the church, these are imperfect people doing a poor job leading. The Church is still alive, and it’s still a miracle that spreads the hope of Christ. Remind them of who they are called to be, and keep encouraging them toward righteousness.
  2. Fight For Your Family–  Your family is off limits to the church. If your spouse or kids get caught in the line of fire, that is a non-negotiable. In Ephesians 4:26, Paul tells us to be angry but don’t sin in your anger. It’s okay to be mad when your family gets caught in the crosshairs. Your church leadership(and church members) have no right to harm your family. Be angry but don’t sin in that anger. Be firm that your family is off-limits to any attack or agenda. This might not ever happen, but when it does be ready. Its okay to fight for your family, in fact God wants you to.


If you’ve identified your leadership as being toxic or if your church is caught up in a political movement, then you need to eliminate anything that can be used against you. For you younger youth workers this may be hard to identify, and maybe you need to ask a trusted colleague to help you figure out what you can do better. Unhealthy churches will blow small things out of proportion and use it to leverage opinions.

Guard yourself in every way you can. Watch how you speak to others. Be careful about venting about issues. Meet those deadlines for the projects you hate and get everything done. Matthew 10:16 says this:

Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves,

so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.

This may come off as a paranoid mentality for ministry, but it’s a mentality that will keep you safe. Be wise as a serpent. See the danger in everything you do, and look for potential pitfalls that you need to navigate. It may be a staff member you need to tread lightly around. Be innocent as doves. Maintain the spirit of unity and purity. Have the mentality of a team player that is here to serve the church. As youth workers, everything we do is under a microscope. We need to identify what we can do better, and how we can eliminate issues that can be leveraged against us and our influence.

When you seek to eliminate pit-falls and maintain your innocence, it reinforces your reputation. Right now your reputation is your strongest influence. When others see you working hard and seeking to serve, it will speak highly of you in the future. If someone tries to drag your name through the mud, your reputation is what fights their gossip. If you ever come to a place where you need a reference for another position, your reputation among people will secure it. Reputation matters, and you need to guard it. Be wise like a serpent and innocent as a dove.


So maybe you’ve already come to the conclusion that you can no longer work in this church. You’ve already started looking at other job postings and you’re ready to be gone. So what now? You need to form a healthy exiting strategy, and it needs to be healthy in two ways:

  1. Healthy For You– If your church handles your employment in a toxic way, they will definitely handle your resignation in a toxic way too. Do not hand in your resignation letter until you find employment. If they’ve treated you toxically as an employee than it means they don’t value you as a person, and they won’t value a two week notice. Find another job first. You need to provide for you family.
  2. Healthy For Unity– When you come to a place of resigning, no matter how leadership responds, seek unity. You will have parents and students that will want the full story and you’ll be tempted to tell them. Encourage them instead, and say “God’s not done with this Church yet, and I’m excited to see how God will use you.” If they want to know why you left, just tell them it was your time to leave. You will always be tempted to tell them the truth about what really happened. Don’t. There’s nothing to be gained in that, and when it happens it makes people feel burned by the church in a scenario that had nothing to do with them. Seek unity.

If and when you get out of a toxic situation, seek help. Don’t be scared to reach out to Christian leaders you trust that can help you and your family heal. Find people that will listen to your struggles and that will speak truth and love into your situation. Find every opportunity you can to eliminate all bitterness.

Eventually you need to come to a place where you need to forgive toxic leaders for the damage they’ve done to you and your family. Pray that God will change their hearts. The greatest revenge you could ever have on toxic leaders is for them to remain in their destructive habits; the greatest blessing you could ever experience is seeing them repent and become better leaders. God is most glorified when we extend mercy in the place of vengeance. He is most honored when we seek His justice when we have every right to retaliation. 


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One thought on “Working in a Toxic Church”

  1. JB

    I wish it was this easy. My family is stuck in a terrible situation with a church and have now been hushed completely and told to follow the rules or leave. Trapped and blackmailed by all of church leadership. Praying daily for Gods leadership and grace.

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