the shape of leadership


Toxic behaviors that can wreck your ministry

Chris Sonksen on October 26, 2022

I wasn’t sure whether the man sitting across the table was going to cry or curse — or both. The lead pastor of a growing church, he was facing a storm behind the scenes. In fact, it seemed like the entire leadership team was hunkered down amid a hurricane of suspicion, accusation, and despair.

“A year ago, we were in high gear, running well, and seeing God do great things,” the pastor told me. “But now … .”

He took a deep breath and continued: “Now I dread every staff meeting. People are taking sides against me and against one another. They change loyalties so often I don’t know what in the world is going on. I need a scorecard to keep track of who is against whom.”

During the next several months, the pastor and I talked every week as I tried to help him understand how his team had come to this crisis — and how they could rebuild trust.



We all have a tendency to drift away from trust and toward misunderstanding, hurt and suspicion.

Over the course of my ministry, I’ve served as an associate pastor, a lead pastor, and a church leadership consultant. In these roles, I have observed church leaders and their teams, and I’ve noticed an alarming tendency to drift out of effective ministry.

In almost every case, people didn’t want to shift off course. They didn’t plan to become suspicious and then cynical, or to distract team members from what God had called them to do. Yet it happened.

Over time, there is often a subtle, negative change in a pastor’s attitude or behavior toward the team, board, and volunteers — or vice versa. I call this “leaderdrift.” Through a thousand paper cuts, people drift into skepticism, resentment and, finally, character assassination.

This is the enemy’s strategy to derail the Church. Satan waits for an open door to the heart of a leader — either the pastor or any other person with ministry responsibilities. The devil then tries to plant toxic seeds of doubt, self-pity, and division.

These seeds may be something the person is thinking or communicating to others, such as, “Things would be better if I were in charge.” They may involve serving the vision while barely tolerating the pastor; questioning the mission of the church; unfairly assigning blame or casting doubt on a leader’s character; gossiping; withdrawing from the rest of the team; becoming critical of every decision; and creating alliances with others who are disillusioned and disgruntled.

This is how leaderdrift starts. Like a cancer, it can begin almost anywhere in the Body. Without detection and treatment, it metastasizes to harm every part. It might take months or years, but eventually even one negative seed will produce bad fruit and create vision misalignment.

Alignment is not optional. With it, the synergy of people working together produces amazing results. Without it, power plays, gossip, and cynicism take root like weeds.

An aligned team understands the goals and aspires to achieve the same vision through the contributions of individual strengths. Members keep their motives grounded in gratitude for God’s grace and their attitudes positive. They avoid negative conversations, refusing to be toxic. They are loyal — both publicly and privately — to the pastor, vision, mission and church.

Satan waits for an open door to the heart of a leader — either the pastor or any other person with ministry responsibilities. The devil then tries to plant toxic seeds of doubt, self-pity, and division.

Such unity starts with the pastor. We can’t expect grace and loyalty from people who don’t experience those things in their relationships with us.

I’m not suggesting people should never disagree. Debate is healthy when the purpose is to help the team arrive at better decisions. It’s all about motives.


Six Toxic Behaviors

In my consulting work with pastors and their teams, I’ve noticed six toxic behaviors that erode trust and destroy alignment. People seldom shift dramatically into these behaviors. More often, they slowly, gradually, and perhaps surprisingly drift toward them.

1. Pride. There is nothing wrong with feeling a reasonable sense of satisfaction in our accomplishments. Such pride is perfectly valid. But that satisfaction can easily become a self-focused, self-absorbed feeling of superiority. The latter kind of pride is sinful.

Sinful pride ruins unity and alignment among leaders and their teams. It keeps people from celebrating others’ successes, apologizing when they’re wrong, hearing criticism, admitting weakness, and being honest with themselves and others.

Prideful people root for the failure of others, demand the final word, exaggerate to impress, shade the truth to avoid looking foolish or incompetent, surround themselves with individuals who agree with them, and carefully manage their image.

These attitudes within a church jeopardize ministry. It is no wonder Proverbs 6:17 lists pride — or “haughty eyes” — at the top of the list of things God hates.

Pride was at the root of each of the three temptations Jesus faced. The devil started the first two temptations with the phrase, “If you are the Son of God” (Matthew 4:3,6). Satan tried to put Jesus on the defensive by attacking His authority, status and position.

During the third temptation, the devil took Jesus to a high mountain and said, “All this I will give you … if you will bow down and worship me” (verse 9). Here, the devil tempted Jesus with worldly achievements, accolades and honor.

You can be sure the devil won’t hesitate to use pride against you and your ministry either. If you see signs of sinful pride, deal with it immediately. Do everything you can to keep it far from your heart and the hearts of your team members.

The antidote to pride is experiencing the wonder of God’s grace. We were so sinful it took the death of God’s Son to pay for our transgressions, but we’re so loved Jesus was willing to die for us. We need to return often to that deep, life-transforming truth. There, pride gives way to humility and gratitude.

2. Artificial harmony. A pastor once asked me to help sort out some relational difficulties on his church team, primarily with one of the associate pastors. They had been close friends for years, but during the previous year, the pastor had experienced a growing sense of distance from the associate.

After meeting with the pastor, I spent an hour or so with the associate. He was positive about his role in the church, but when I asked about his relationship with the pastor, he avoided the subject.

Finally, I went to lunch with several of the church leaders. During that gathering, I quickly noticed the interaction between the pastor and associate. It was cordial but not authentic. They were operating in what I call artificial harmony.

Genuine harmony is based on trust, respect, honor and a willingness to listen. The artificial kind is a thin veneer of smiles and small talk, without a willingness to do the hard work of building or maintaining trust.

Competing visions derail teams, soak up a lot of time and energy, sow confusion, and threaten the mission
of the church.

Artificial harmony is a defense mechanism people use to avoid uncomfortable conversations. The pastor and his associate didn’t start their relationship that way, but after failing to address problems over time, their relationship arrived at this awkward and painful place.

3. Isolation. When we pull away from others, Satan can more easily manipulate our fears and insecurities.

Isolation happens when people feel mistreated, underappreciated, or caught off guard by an unexpected change. In these kinds of situations, some people will step up and speak up to resolve the problem. Others will find an emotional hole to crawl into. Those who take the latter approach are just putting in their time until better offers come along.

4. A critical spirit. A chronically negative attitude always has a driving force, an underlying cause that shifts a person away from constructive contributions and toward destructive ones.

The outward signs are reflections of what is happening in the heart. An unresolved hurt or an unhealthy way of thinking about oneself or others can lead to simmering animosity.

Critical people are difficult to engage for a number of reasons. They believe their way is the right way. Their criticism becomes a seat of judgment for everyone except themselves. They justify their opinions and actions instead of managing them.

We don’t have to look far in the Gospels to see the archetypes of a critical spirit: the Pharisees. With few exceptions, they were harsh and judgmental because they failed to grasp the immensity of God’s grace.

Seeing other people’s faults is far easier than seeing our own. When individuals fail to extend grace to others, it is often because they themselves have not fully experienced God’s grace and mercy.

5. Division. Differences in goals and strategies can sharpen people on a team. Fresh ideas and creative solutions aren’t the problem. In fact, we need everyone on the team fully engaged and bringing their best.

The trouble arises when people insist they’re right and others are wrong and talking things through only produces more entrenched differences. Competing visions derail teams, soak up a lot of time and energy, sow confusion, and threaten the mission of the church.

You might be thinking, This doesn’t apply to my church. Our team doesn’t have deep divisions. But I would challenge you to look again.

Is there anyone who isn’t on board with the vision, regardless of how often and how clearly the pastor communicates it? Is anyone creating alliances, openly or covertly, to challenge the direction of the team? Does anyone claim another respected leader is a better source of wisdom and direction for the team than the lead pastor?

6. Gradual shutdown. You will never go further than the team you develop around you. I always say, “Vision tells you where you’re going, strategy tells you how you are going to get there, and your team will tell you whether you will arrive.”

That’s why I continually stress the need to work toward alignment. The goal is building a high-functioning team that runs in the same direction and chases the same goals.

Keep your antenna in the air to detect any signs of drift among your team members. Gradual shutdown is dangerous because, at the core, there is usually an unresolved offense. The shutdown is a response to the festering hurt.

As a leader, don’t try to judge whether the hurt is justified. If people feel it, it’s real to them. Identify the triggers that can initiate the process of shutdown for a team member.

A culture of respect, trust and honor doesn’t just happen. To avoid leaderdrift, we must build and protect a positive culture.

You need to recognize both the why and what. Why do team members feel disengaged? What caused it to happen? If you become familiar with the triggers, your understanding can help you get ahead of the problem before it becomes loud and messy.


Avoiding Leaderdrift

History is full of tragic stories of leaders who ignored warning signs. Before President Abraham Lincoln went to Ford’s Theater, he was warned his life was in danger. The Titanic captain received repeated warnings about the presence of icebergs. The day before the space shuttle Challenger exploded, engineers warned NASA officials launching amid the anticipated cold temperatures could prove disastrous.

Whether you’re the lead pastor, a staff member, or someone on the board, the first step in dealing with leaderdrift is paying attention to the warning signs. And let me assure you, they’re always there!

The tendency to drift is human nature. I’m not suggesting you become paranoid — just alert and perceptive.

The next step is courageously initiating hard conversations. Do this in a timely manner, before a minor problem blows up into a catastrophe.

Enter such conversations with a plan. Be specific, clear and kind, making space for dialogue. You have something important to say, but you also need to listen well and look for solutions that are reasonable.

Finally, recognize the inherent tension each team member experiences — between authority and submission, leadership and servanthood, creativity and boundaries, and personal vision and the lead pastor’s vision.

Jesus provided a model for managing this tension. Although He gave His disciples authority, Jesus knew they would still have to be submissive. After all, the disciples were not angelic beings. They were thoroughly human. Jesus recognized this and addressed it.

Matthew 10:1 says, “Jesus called his twelve disciples together and gave them authority to drive out impure spirits and to heal every disease and sickness” (emphasis added).

Later in the same chapter, Jesus told the disciples, Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it” (verse 39).

Did you catch that? In verse 1, Jesus gave the disciples authority over evil spirits, diseases and illnesses. That’s a lot of authority! Then, in verse 39, Jesus told the disciples to give up control of their lives.

So, which is it? Do we have authority, or are we supposed to surrender and submit? Jesus would say, “Both!”

That’s the tension we all experience — staff members as well as lead pastors. I often tell teams, “You have authority, but you also have to submit to God, to your spiritual authority, and to one another. You have freedom, but you also have to work within boundaries. You have personal vision, but you also have to submit to and support your pastor’s vision.”

A culture of respect, trust and honor doesn’t just happen. To avoid leaderdrift, we must build and protect a positive culture. Your ability to address leaderdrift will not only protect your church or organization, but it will also develop those God has placed under your care.

If you’re on a team, work diligently to fight leaderdrift in your own heart, motives, and mind. Your calling, purpose, and role are bigger than the frustrations and offenses you experience.

As we get better, the Kingdom gets better. Let’s get better together.


This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Influence magazine.

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