The Allure of Toxic Leaders

By Joe Hellerman Mar. 4, 2011 5:09 p.m. Ministry and Leadership

I am presently at work on a book about the use of power and authority in Christian leadership. The provisional title is When Pastors Were Servants: Recapturing Paul’s Cruciform Vision for Authentic Christian Leadership. The primary biblical materials in play are Paul’s letter to the Philippians and the apostle’s ministry in Philippi, as related by Luke in Acts 16.

The motivation to take on the project came from numbers of students at Talbot, and colleagues in pastoral ministry, who have found themselves on the receiving end of abusive, hurtful leaders. The book will contain, among other things, a series of narratives (well disguised, of course) detailing the various experiences that these men and women have had at the hands of narcissistic, dysfunctional leaders in their churches.

Here is perhaps the most counterintuitive reality I have encountered in the whole process of researching the topic: all but one of the dozen or so abusive local church leaders described in the book are still in their churches, fully in control of the church’s vision, ministry, and staffing. Jean Lipman-Blumen’s insightful book, The Allure of Toxic Leaders (Oxford University Press, 2005), helps explain why.

We are apparently attracted to toxic leaders. Psychological dynamics that lead us to rally around such leaders include a subconscious longing for a parental figure later in adult life, the need for security and certainty in an unpredictable world, and a desire to feel chosen or special, as we join together in community with others to support the noble vision of a bigger-than-life leader. We tend to look the other way, where integrity is concerned, if we can find an inspiring, confident leader to satisfy these pressing psychological needs.

At a deeper level, people respond to powerful, charismatic leadership out of a profound longing for a god-like figure in their lives. In religious contexts this person can be a gifted, celebrity pastor who simultaneously serves as both God’s representative and spiritual father to a willing, compliant congregation. Jesus was apparently well aware of this dynamic: ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven’ (Matt 23:9).

The public reaction, in this regard, even to a person who is good leader, tells us a lot about our longing for a savior figure, especially in the face of crisis. Consider the following excerpts from an op-ed article about Mayor Rudolph Giuliani in the New York Times. The piece appeared on September 20, 2001, a little more than a week after the tragedy of 9/11:

[Giuliani] moves about the stricken city like a god. People want to be in his presence. They want to touch him. They want to praise him….On Central Park West, a woman searching for just the right superlative for the man who is guiding New York through the greatest disaster ever to hit an American city finally said, ‘He’s not like a god; he is God.’(New York Times, September 20, 2001, A31).

Wow! Fortunately, Giuliani proved to be a relatively selfless, compassionate leader throughout the 9/11 crisis.

This has not been the case in numbers of such incidents. Some of our gods turn out to be devils in disguise. This is true of public officials, and it is true of certain pastors in our churches. Yet we continue to tolerate and even encourage strong leaders who clearly misuse their power and authority.

Human leaders have clay feet. That’s why we need more than one of them at a time leading a local church. It is no accident that virtually every church in the New Testament was led by a plurality of elders-pastors. Maybe that’s how Jesus’ earliest followers interpreted his command ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father.’

Short of isolating ourselves completely from the family of God, there is no 100% safeguard that will protect us from abusive church leadership. But the right kind of church government can take us a long way in that direction. What we need, in each of our churches, is a team of pastors who share their lives with one another, and whose oversight of God’s people arises organically from the relational soil they cultivate together as a leadership community of peer brothers in Christ.

By some remarkable expression of the goodness and grace of God, I have had the privilege, for some thirteen years now, of ministering in just such a relational, team-oriented setting. I am better for it. My family is better for it. And my church is better for it. I can only pray the same for you.


  • Eric Lewis Mar. 4, 2011 at 5:41 PM

    It is no wonder many believers turn to toxic leaders, with this cold, cerebral article (not that I disagree with it). There is not a mention of the spiritual battles, and self-isms that lead people to such toxicity. The alluring words of materialism and prosperity reflecting earth bound spirits with itching ears who only want preached to them things that reflect their own selfish desires. They are drawn to the spiritually charged speaker, who is only fueled on emotionalisms, and demands responses from their captive audience. The desire for spirit filled and fueled sermons are what captures others who feel as if they are dying from thirst from seminarians dry sermons, and from the lack of spiritual food that is given to their hungry souls. Unfortunately, many get duped into thinking that feelings are always godly. "I got this "feeling" from the Lord..." Where feelings, experiences and sermons are not measured by the word, but by how many "amens" and claps a "preacher" receives. The coldness of this article and what it represents (the lack of truly spirit filled preachers) is the reason many are attracted to "toxic leaders".

    In His Service

  • Chris Baker Mar. 4, 2011 at 6:08 PM

    I don't know if I would describe this article as "cold and cerebral" (and if you get to know Dr. Hellerman, I guarantee you will find a spirit-filled preacher - not a "dry seminarian").

    I suspect that the reasons people are attracted to toxic leaders (and the reasons why they don't get rid of toxic leaders) are wide and diverse - I think Dr. Hellerman hits on some very poignant reasons, and I bet he would not disagree with some of the points Eric is making as well.

    It seems to me that spirit-filled leadership will be evidence by exactly what Joe is advocating here - a team of gifted leaders who lead and pray and preach while making every effort to have unity, while relying on the word and Holy Spirit for wisdom and discernment.

  • Annie Mar. 4, 2011 at 7:12 PM

    Having experienced Dr. Hellerman on many occasions, I feel confident attesting to the fact that he is anything but "cold" in regards to the church. Dr. Hellerman has been and continues to be an inspiring scholar whose passion for the local church is truly contagious.

    As far as the article goes, I for one am so thankful that Dr. Hellerman is addressing a topic that has caused so much pain in my own life and in the lives of many I know. He does so graciously, scripturally and wisely under the guidance of the Spirit.

  • Eric Lewis Mar. 5, 2011 at 3:59 AM

    My comment was not critical of Dr. Hellerman's integrity as a scholar or as a minster, simply in critique of the article. In my humble opinion, there was nothing addressed in respect to the spiritual aspect of why people are drawn to such toxicity. For ultimately, it is indeed a spiritual issue. For our battle is not against flesh and blood....

  • Adam Omelianchuk Mar. 5, 2011 at 9:29 AM

    Why would people be attracted to toxic learders because of this article, again? Not see that one...

    Dr. Hellerman, so much of this describes the early years of the denomination I came out of. The central leader was very charismatic and cast a larger-than-life vision that attracted lots of people who felt honored to be under his care. Unfortunately, he did not know how to handle criticism well, and a lot of people unjustly experienced church-discipline. Pretty crazy when looking back on it, but in the middle of it, it all seems perfectly normal.

  • Danny Teevens Mar. 6, 2011 at 5:23 PM

    Saul comes to mind, yet so does David. In the end God gets His way, but we cause further grief and suffering for each other as we give ourselves too much credit in knowing what 'we', the church, need. There is a deception that seems to be permeating among all of us these days more than ever. Lack of family values and people speaking truth into one another's life has caused us to live insulated, bubble, lives ... Believing, for example, that the pictures we put on Facebook, text that we write about ourselves and others 'is who we are'. We are isolating ourselves.

    I agree that we must live in authentic relationship with each other, allowing people to speak into our hearts, as God would will to happen. I think the fellowship described by Dr. Hellerman truly does take time which contradicts our face-paced, want-it-now, decision-making life styles.

    It is a joy to hear someone speak with conviction that it takes time to develop pluralistic and personal leadership. As a principal in the public school system, I find this a challenge that is worthy of much prayer, patience, and boldness. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Rosemary Mar. 7, 2011 at 7:52 AM

    I can relate very well to what you've described here. My husband and I were members of a small church led by such an individual.

    At first, I bought into it all ... maybe because I felt I was becoming part of something big for the Kingdom. I had served in leadership roles in youth and women's ministries in churches I had attended previously, and this pastor's enthusiasm was infectious. But as the months and years went on, we saw and experienced many concerning and disheartening situations that caused us to question the pastor's integrity. I witnessed him telling children to stay away from other kids who were "ugly;" he promoted HIS church and counted others as worthless; he insulted people from the pulpit or wherever else he was; and oh yes ... thrived on the emotionalism demonstrated by the congregation; he blasted us if we weren't "into it" during worship (which he also led). He asked me to oversee the women's ministry and yet would talk down about me to those same women he expected me to lead. The people who demonstrated unwaivering (and unquestioning) loyalty to him were rewarded with being part of his inner circle--we were part of it until we began raising questions about some of his actions. My husband and I are convinced that he only tolerated us because of the amount of money we brought in.

    One day, while attending a birthday party at our home, he began delving into my parents' sex lives out loud--not that doing it quietly would have been okay. My mom--who is much older than him--was embarrassed to say the very least and ended up leaving. His only reaction when he hurt(s) people was (is) to laugh and say that there's something wrong with them; they weren't emotionally tough enough and they needed to grow up.

    When we approached him after service the last night we were there, to tell him that we were withdrawing our membership, he was livid and began insulting my husband--implying that he wasn't man enough to fight against the "outside voices" (mine) that were influencing him to leave. (My husband was leary of this man from the beginning--I never had to say anything.) After we finished our conversation, he walked us straight to the front door--not allowing us to say goodbye to anyone--opened it up as if shooing us out and then shut it "firmly" behind us.

    I thank God that He didn't take long in healing my wounds, and that He led us back to our home church. We are now under the leadership of a pastor who fears the Lord, leads his congregation with grace (and accountability when we need it), and is more convinced with God's glory than with his own.

    Where can we find your book?

  • Q Mar. 9, 2011 at 6:19 AM

    Bill Kinnon’s blog led me to this posting of yours.

    I find myself stunned by your post—stunned by your ‘spot on’ comments concerning abuse by church leaders. You mention things like the word narcissistic (which I now know how to spell having done a Google search on it numerous times); you comment on your shock that these leaders still have churches; you refer to the Matthew 23 passage; you address the question of why we stay so long under these leaders. It helps me to see that someone seems to understand.

    My family and I have gone through what are now years of repercussions for standing up to the abusive behavior of the senior pastor in our local church. He, the senior pastor, went after us in a lawsuit. The denomination appeared to just look the other way the whole time. We are hurt, angry, dismayed, lonely…

    But as I sit here trying to write a response, I am afraid. I am asking myself, what do I dare write in a public forum? There just doesn’t seem to be a safe place to talk about it all.

    I will be looking forward to your book, and I’ll pick up Lipman-Blumen’s.

    Thank you for taking this subject on.

  • Karen Russell Mar. 17, 2011 at 8:54 AM

    Perhaps this is how the Antichrist will gain his power; by people being overly reliant on an earthly leader.

  • martin Apr. 16, 2011 at 7:49 AM

    people are attracted to toxic leaders for one simple reason.....they do not really know Jesus intimately. I speak from experience.

  • martin Apr. 16, 2011 at 7:55 AM

    a clue: who are the nicolaitians in Revelation? I am sure I did not spell it right....on an iphone so forgive me. I think we have been warned all through scripture....even Acts 20 Paul warns.

  • Paula Apr. 16, 2011 at 6:22 PM

    Martin, I have a theory...

  • Jennifer Apr. 27, 2011 at 11:25 PM

    Dr. Hellerman is an absolute warrior! Once again, I am blown away by how men of God can be bold and strong to face down evil, and yet be composed and gracious throughout. May we have the same courage in our church settings to honor Christ.

  • Joe Hellerman Apr. 29, 2011 at 5:42 PM

    Rosemary (Mar 7 post), please contact me through the Biola/Talbot website. I'd like to chat with you about the experience you describe. The book will be published by Kregel, probably in a year or so. Not sure of the title, yet.

    Karen Russell — Is this THE Karen Russell of CBC/OCF/Benjamin fame? :)


  • Tim Aug. 1, 2011 at 4:12 PM

    Or.... The Allure of any kind of top-down, position driven, title oriented, one-way communication dominated, perpetual dependency leadership in the household of faith.

    This is pretty much the discription of institutiomalized faith which has chains around 99% of American believers. The problem is way before it gets ugly. It's a carnal system said to be godly that nullifies many commands of Christ.

    In my opinion the biggest reason for it all is the the rejection of Paul's passionate teaching and life example on "refusing the rights" to be paid for preaching the gospel.

    There is much more to explain. I hope the book goes into this.

  • Beth Jan. 28, 2012 at 12:58 PM

    My former husband was removed from the church for clergy sexual mis-conduct with one of his members. He devasted a wonderful congregation. In a very short period of time after being removed he started worshipping at another church of another denomination. He did not tell them what had happened. Instead he told them he was a pastor and chaplain. Before long he was preaching there. When the denomination found out his story they told the church he cannot be there acting as a pastor. The church left there denomination. It was not long after that he married his former parishoner in a large wedding at the church. The church is growing. The sad part is those people do not realize they have a wolf in sheeps clothing. A full blown narsissist as a pastor. People are attracted to this false the person who has a very good ability to read people. He is a master manipulator. Underneath is a very disturbed human being. Until people stop putting pastors on pedastals and denominations get bettor at who they let in to the ministry. This problem will keep happening.

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