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6 Early Warning Signs You're Dealing With a Toxic Person

You’ve dealt with them before. At your church, as a volunteer, on your staff, as customers.

Toxic people, are well, toxic.

 toxic people

An unhealthy person can infect your team like toxins infect the human body. After some exposure, everyone feels sick.

The optimist in you and me hopes toxic people will become better. The good news is, sometimes they do.

Unhealthy people can grow healthier with the right care and attention in a healthy environment.

But some toxic people just don’t. Some remain difficult, despite all attempts.

And as you know, if you don’t address toxic people—or worse, let them gain influence—they can infect your whole organization, diminishing your effectiveness and taking everyone’s focus off the mission.

So…how can you tell early on that the person you’re dealing with might be that person?

Here are 6 signs:

1. They come on too strong. In my experience as a pastor, the people who show up and want to make it headline news are rarely (I’m being generous here) healthy people. What’s perplexing is that the people who end up being the most toxic at the end of the relationship are over-the-top positive when they first meet you. I have learned to be suspect when people tell me on first meeting and first hearing that ‘That’s the best message I’ve ever heard in my life!” or “This is the best church I’ve ever been to anywhere.” I find usually the people who are moderately impressed or even neutral on first visit and warm up over time are the ones who are most healthy in the long run.

2. They give you advice during your first meeting. Whether it’s a casual conversation or even a job interview, people who tell 15 ways you can improve your organization or your speaking often end up being toxic people. Are there ways we can improve our organization? Of course. Can you improve your speaking? Sure you can. But when someone leads with off with loads of advice…well, that’s just not healthy. When people I first meet start telling me about all the ways we can improve our church, I thank them and tell them point blank we’re probably not the church for them and offer to help them find a new one.

3. They tell rather than waiting to be asked. Naturally, we all have opinions that are valid. But in a healthy human relationship, we reserve opinions about others until we are asked the share them.Toxic people rarely do. Toxic people volunteer them (see #3 above). If someone is telling you things all the time and never waits to be asked, it’s a sign of toxicity. (In really close relationships, it’s natural to volunteer opinions. But it’s done with humility, respect and concern for the person.)

4. They want to be the centre of attention. They hijack conversations. They never ask questions. They want to get involved to soon. They tell you what they’re an expert in. They tell you what they think. They tell you about their amazing track record. They tell you about their accomplishments. They demand your attention. Truly healthy people wait to be asked.

5. You hear from them far too often in the first month. Often a toxic person, because they want to be the centre of attention, will try to get on your calendar soon. They’ll email you, call you, ask for breakfast, try to figure out how they can ‘help’ or be influential early on. Again, most great leaders wait to be asked. They have the humility to be obscure for a while, and to serve rather than to want to be served.

6. They have a track record of moving around. Usually a person who comes on that strong has a history of moving around. When I’m picking up some of the other signs, I’ll ask a question such as “Tell me where you’ve gone to church over the last few years.” Often people will tell me about 3 or 4 churches they’ve been to (flag) or about a major schism they were a part of that caused them to leave their last church (big flag).

If a person displays one or two signs that may not demonstrate they’re toxic, but if the person displays 5 or 6, it’s fairly good evidence you might be dealing with a toxic person:

So what do you do with someone like this?

For starters, put up clear boundaries.

Don’t let them get involved. Watch carefully. Usually, if you don’t give them influence, the truly toxic ones leave.

And if, after watching them for a few months (true character is revealed over time) you realize you’re wrong (which I have been), then you can invite them to get involved.

Have you met this person? Any other signs you’ve seen?

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  • Sergio

    This subject of identifying or dealing with toxic people is for those in leadership positions, preferably for those serving in pastoral positions, and for mature believers. It has nothing to do with accepting or rejecting new believers, or those with “lot’s” of personal problems. As leaders our mission is to assist those whom Christ puts in our lives, regardless of who they are, or where they come from. What this article is about is about those “silent” leaders who lead others even when they themselves hold no official positions but use their influence to control the actions of others, even if its going against the mission of the Church. The article also gives some pointers on identifying the characteristics of people who are more interested in controlling the leaders rather than submitting to them. Also people working in secular organizations put up with whatever attitude or character flaws a person may encounter, why? Because they need that paycheck, and these organizations pay for talent and experience, in a church our workers will be from those who walk into our churches, those who have been redeem, many times it will be a drug addict, a homeless person, a single parent, a backslider and by the grace of God, sometimes a college educated person also, nevertheless they are volunteers who have caught the vision and the mission of Christ and the Church.

  • ???

    I must be perceived as toxic because I certainly get “special boundaries” others do not, and if you are in a crisis situation (no lease landlord is taking advantage of me) but so have others because they can. I have been told by police to reach out to church and when I do, the boudaries and ignoring start and I generally move on from a church were many are perfectly pleased with.

    Long term, why do so many in authority make it clear the do not intend to grant me any favors, and even say in front of me they don’t like me. Others say I’m bright, funny and sweet and no need for counseling.

    My mother wants me to be “severely medicated, knocked out and kept in a home” since I had to be “a bit wheel” and think someone like me could grow up. At best she says I need to speak to counselors (most of whom have demonstrated in word or deed they don;t like me, some have sugarcoated me, others have told me I have a tough row to hoe and they have nothing for me. She is hoping I will become committed involuntarly or be found “incomp”.

    She is drawn to high functioning down syndrome and autistic and mentally ill people and there are those who even mentioned Menschberger’s where mother’s want illness so bad they encourage and even invent it. Yikes, not for me.

    Sadly, my son quit speaking to me when his dad left me (early 20’s) and my mom has told him she should have raised him and she would have raised him right.

    • JR

      I don’t think many would label you as toxic from your description. But you might get labelled as co-dependent or ultra-needy with some of the same results. A couple of suggestions: make friends with someone for a month before you start sharing your problem(s). Ask yourself if you are giving to the friendship as much as you are taking. That’s how relationships work. After you’ve invested in a relationship for a long time, it can go through a period where you can just take for a while without giving because of a crisis, but you can’t just take, take, take right from teh start.

  • Eileen Kirch

    Who is toxic? The one who judges or the one who is being judged? . . .
    I am beginning to wonder if our former pastor read your article and took it to heart. The elders of our church recently placed our pastor on sabbatical for doing the things you suggest in this article. He was deciding who should be “allowed” to be involved in ministry. Apparently, he determined certain good people to be “toxic.” There was even a “black list” shared with leaders of the church. All of this divided a once united congregation and has been a painful experience for everyone. Apparently, by doing what this article suggests, he was the most toxic member of the church after all…

    • robin

      AMEN!!! I agree with you…. we are all broken people, we are to be the church and love one another. I have been on both sides, and what I see is Carey is cautious and that leads to control.

    • JR

      Did you not notice his words like “might be” and his suggestion is basically to “wait a few months” which is a reasonable time-frame to let people get involved anyway. Carey is talking about trying to avoid being burned by people who
      church-hop and cause problems wherever they go — which is a very real
      problem in churches.

      In the church I am part of, we generally want people to attend services for 6 months before they are put in any “up front” or otherwise significant leadership role. They need to demonstrate some sort of commitment to the body before they lead the body. That isn’t judging, it’s just basic wisdom about relationships, and usually those who are “toxic” aren’t patient enough to wait and leave for elsewhere before the time is up, or they otherwise demonstrate their spiritual immaturity within those six months, which helps us to recognize what is an appropriate level of ministry for them.

      Appropriate scriptural support would be found in places like 1 Timothy 3:6 – an overseer… “must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. Also, 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (the implication is that the hands are being laid on someone to appoint them to ministry). Other similar passages warning about testing people before they are given ministry would be 2 Tim 3 (where Paul warns Timothy about “teachers” who “worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women,” and Titus 1 – is it any coincidence that in Paul’s only letters instructing younger ministers he effectively gives them instructions for avoiding giving leadership to toxic people? (Maybe because it was a significant problem then too!)

  • Eileen Kirch

    This article empowers the judgmental Christian that turns so many away. I am beginning to wonder if our former pastor read your article and took it to heart in the wrong way. The elders of our church recently placed our pastor on sabbatical for doing the things you suggest in this article. He was deciding who should be “allowed” to be involved and minister. Apparently, he determined certain people to be “toxic.” A report was released that shared that he black listed members from involvement and ministry. Some of the people on this list were past enthusiastic outgoing leaders of the church that he must have thought, “came on too strong.” This was just plain wrong. He recently left and started his own church bringing some of his so-called nontoxic members with him. This divided a once united congregation and has been a painful experience for everyone. Apparently, by doing what this article suggests, he was the most toxic member of the church after all…

  • Tina

    I would like to gently point out from my experience that not everyone who is enthusiastic about getting involved is toxic. Some people generally come to the table excited to contribute, wanting to do the Lord’s work for the sake of that itself. From what I’ve experienced, some people’s personality types are more naturally more energetic and take-charge. I would not write a person off with those traits, as not everyone is a reserved “hang-back and see” type. Some people honestly want to jump right in. I think there is room for different personality types in the Church, and the diversity of personalities is needed.

    There is a guy I knew who was part of a Church congregation I was a part of many years ago. He was a young man then, and I believe during a Friday night devotional where the Church was singing he was fired up (as some of the younger members would be), and at the end of a song he must have been really into, he said “ow!” after it was over (as in, “that was awesome!”). A person in the Church approached him afterward and told him they were discouraged he did that. … Sometime later he stopped coming to Church services. He fell away. When talking to him about why he didn’t come out to Church anymore, one of things he mentioned in his response was that incident. He also said it just felt like his mission was to show up at Church and straighten his tie. I wish the person who said that to him knew the effect of their words on this young fired up Christian, (who is no longer a Christian anymore and is now deep in the world). I wouldn’t want the person to know the effect of their words so they can walk around with a lot of guilt, but for them to realize the effect their words have on others. I would also like to ask the person whoever it was, what was so discouraging about a brother in Christ making a noise to express his joy. Though there were also other entanglements of the world that had influence on this man’s decision to walk away, the incident I mentioned seems to have played a part. Though this isn’t exactly the same as a new person showing up to Church eager, I think it’s a good cautionary tale on what could happen if we put out another person’s genuine zeal.

    It’s my personal opinion that people should be careful about judging the hearts and intentions of others prior to a person bearing fruit that reveals their motives. May it never be that any of us put out someone’s zeal for the Lord’s work and discourage them from earnest participation in what matters most to God. I hope that none of us ever foster an environment where a person feels there is no room for the authentic expression of their natural personality, leading them to feel more accepted in the world instead of the Church.

    I like that other examples were given in this post. I think zeal or eagerness to contribute should only be looked at with concern if other behaviors indicating toxic motives are present.

    God bless.

    “Acts 2:38-41: “38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” 40 And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” 41 So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.”

  • Mark Henri

    I’ve written about this too. I also have noticed that people who are extremely forceful in the beginning often cause immense problems quickly. One thing that I noticed in your article is that you didn’t really discuss the roots of the toxic behavior. I think it would be beneficial to talk about two types which are especially dangerous and some behaviors that are often not recognized as sinful. My comments are from the perspective as an assistant worship leader.

    First is the perfectionist. Perfectionism is a DSM-V disorder in which the person believes “If it’s
    not perfect, I’m not OK.” Never ever make them a leader. They are highly
    destructive and people will be damaged by them. There will be a trail
    of wounded wherever they serve. They create bad morale and they are
    unbearable to work with. If they are also rote musicians, they are
    exponentially harmful. They can put whole churches to sleep and all the
    while, the music will sound very adequate.

    Toxic baggage resulting from abuse (especially sexual abuse) is particularly dangerous to a worship team. The stage is like a magnet for these folks and they are often being run by dark forces despite being redeemed. For those on the outside, this probably sounds strange but think of it like an addiction and it will make sense. My friend Margaret, another worship leader, once said “Oh those demons, always clamoring for attention.” She sounded like the church-lady at first and then it started resonating as I dealt with one particular volunteer hopeful.

    I wish that more pastors would recognize that ambition is counter to the Christian paradigm and that an excessive desire to be on the team is actually a form of coveting. While that seems harsh, what often happens is that a worship leader will tell a volunteer hopeful ‘no’ and they do an end run to the pastor. Later, you’re told to integrate this person and “help” them. It mystifies me why a person would want to work under a leader that they didn’t fundamentally respect? You nailed it though. Excessive excitement at the beginning is the tell. Also, note that this behavior is divisive and it served to split the relationship between the worship leader and the pastor. Way too many pastors enable this one.

    Thanks for all the great posts.

  • Kala-ada

    i think the article is about toxic people (in relation to you, your vision, your plans and pursuits) and not toxic Christians..
    the truth is the person that maybe toxic to you and your church may not be toxic in another place..i know a brother in Christ who was coming off as described until he went to another church where his viewpoints and contribution are needed

  • Amber

    Except, to be balanced, you can burn through a lot Churches these days–especially if you come from outside the bubble–just desperately trying to find a Church that will accept you and love you. I heard one person say she can feel the moment she walks in a Church if they are earnest or not. I’m the same way. Also, Churches are not managed as well as professional, secular organizations, in general. When you see the favourtism and perhaps the amateurism–or flagrant conflicts of interest that would never be okay in secular institutions–it is easy to get frustrated and walk out the door. If you notice injustices so shocking, I think it’s probably good to walk out the door (and that’s why Church attendance is probably dropping). However, for many of us, hope springs eternal. I know no community is perfect, I’m just looking for the same standards I see in the secular world, not perfection, but a willingness to actually work on issues and some intelligence. Too often Churches couldn’t care less–even if you’ve been a good member and mostly kept your head down in a non-toxic kind of way.

    • andia

      Also, when an unchurched person “comes back” they often have a hard time finding a church where they fit in at first. Part of fitting in is finding where your gifts will be welcomed. If one is not allowed to participate, people will often on.

      And to be fair some of the MOST toxic are the folks who have been around forever and run new folks off.

  • Mel Ross

    What would Jesus do? Well of course none of us are Jesus but supposedly wanting to become like him. You explanation of a Toxic person is so repulsive that I am sure it even hurts Jesus.Now I bet right now you are thinking “here is a toxic person”. You obviously have the absence of experience in that I mean haven’t come from an abusive, fearful, unloved, abandoned, lonely,painful environment . Otherwise you would know how to deal with these “toxic” Christians or like a lot of churches dwindling in size, and quality, are becoming exclusive and cold. ( it will happen) Jesus is about healing, restoration, relationship and love not numbers and affluence. Why so many churches are dying. Christ cannot deny himself. Why I love Him so much. Same yesterday, today and forever. Amen

  • Frances Bernard

    Thanks for this article. Attraction and promotion of church followers while trying to serve each other sure can be problematic when there are some people in attendance who are feeling unstable and acting out. I like the idea of not giving them influence.

  • Sarah-Jane Bastarache

    I would love feedback on what to do when this blows up. We are a new church plant and were totally blindsided by someone coming in saying they want “to be servants to the leadership” but than as things progressed they kept wanting more and more leadership, influence & responsibilities, in a matter of mere months and if there was any pushback, huge emotional explosions and attacking not only of the leadership – but of anyone that would listen to them and not agree with them. It was a bit of a nightmare and created a lot of turmoil in the young church. They have since been asked to leave while we try and sort this out, but they continue to reach out to a few individuals, and these people are getting pulled in both directions, seeing, as some people below have mentioned, how hurting and wounded these people are – which is why they are so unsafe to be around, so I guess basically, not wanting to let go in hope’s of restoration.
    So here is my question – what recommendations would you give on a) how to communicate to the congregation that them holding on to this couple is continuing to cause turmoil, or is this even the right approach?
    b) What would restoration look like and what would the time frame be (potentially) I think some people thought it would be a few weeks and they could cool off and pop back in – but to me, the issues are so deep rooted, it could take months if not years to deal with this stuff. How do you know when they are safe to come back? If ever?
    The conundrum is not wanting to “ban” or exclude people from the church, but also there’s a need to keep the rest of the congregation safe.
    Direction, experience and feedback from those that have gone through this would be greatly appreciated. And prayer!!!

    • Anglican_geek

      Wow. That is a tough call. I’ve never been part of a church plant. My experience was in a church with around 250 average Sunday attendence. I don’t think I have anything helpful for you, sorry!

  • Anglican_geek

    I *was* that person. This kind of behaviour comes from deep woundedness. Fortunately, my pastor did let me get involved – in a small role at first. When issues came up, he called me on them and I leaned. I now lead a ministry and am much, much healthier than I was when I first joined the parish, because my pastor saw the wounds behind my behaviour and guided me towards seeking the healing I needed. Don’t be so quick to write off so called toxic people.

    • Sarah-Jane Bastarache

      Would love your feedback on my above post of what your experience was with your pastor who brought you into healing.

    • Mel Ross

      love it..Me too.Now thats what Jesus would do xx

  • HoosierConservative

    There is a 7th sign I’d like to add: after chatting with you once or twice, they come to you saying “God told me we’re supposed to work together on _____ ministry idea.”

    If they seem to have a lot of stories about old ministry partners who blew them off, run fast and run far.

  • Selma Sales

    Truly helpful

  • Adam Welch

    I was initially looking for insight on the idea of toxic relationships in regard to specific individuals whom I’d considered to be toxic, but reading about your experiences caused more meaningful self-reflection about the ways that I have approached church/business leadership in the past. Read, “6 signs you might be a toxic person.” Thanks for the insight Carey.

    • Adam…that’s incredible self-awareness. Great stuff. Your insight is huge and the first step to getting healthy. Way to go!

    • Kala-ada

      thats humility..the Lord also helped me from being like that..i have a tendancy to wanna lead or fill any leadership vacuum immediately, if I see things going wrong I am quick to intervene and be the saviour. This can come off very domineering..till the Lord taught me how to hold back and shut up, not speak accept i get the release..even in discussion classes at bible study these days except my contribution is specifically requested or the Holy Spirit specifically asks me to contribute my mouth is on zip prevents u from getting hurt and u from being too pushy

  • Jason Silver

    Overall great article and I know first hand what it’s like dealing with toxic people. On the other hand we need to be careful not to confuse toxicity with boldness.

    As one commenter said below, “Some people are more bold and direct than others. That doesn’t make them toxic.”

    Psychology Today says…

    “We can think of “toxic” people as those who consistently behave in ways that make others feel devalued, inadequate, angry, frustrated, or guilty.”

    Hopefully I’m not being toxic in this post… 😉

  • timbole

    Thanks Carey! I have some friends who it seems that every relationship they have turns toxic. Most of it isn’t because the people are purposely toxic but they never set any boundaries…ever. And so, it is a bit self-inflicted but they need to learn to set boundaries with people. I would add to your list people that always take and never give. Takers are toxic people.

    • ???

      I resemble that remark but attempting to set boundaries generally gets me mocked or set up for more failure.

  • Brother John

    Carey, thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your wisdom and experience to help other pastors and church leaders.

  • Whatsmyname2

    Some people are more direct than others. That doesn’t make them toxic. It is a matter of instinct usually who you sense is toxic. Some people are overenthusiastic and it is fake, but that seems to be most people in a church. I mean they are told when and how to jump and and give praise, so they must think they are just supposed to love everyone and everything in charge. If you can only handle timid people who wait in the shadows to be summoned, maybe your ego is a little bit toxic.

    The thing is, when you realize that someone is toxic, how do you extricate yourself from them? They do usually cling and find excuses to involve themselves with you.

  • Connie Clark

    Thank you, Carey. This is right on point. I wish I’d had this last when I began parish ministry! I would have saved the church, the toxic people, and myself a lot of misspent energy and/or pain. Shepherding the flock requires standing guard at the gate. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

  • Patrick Grizzly Campbell

    At one time…I probably was “this person” :-/

  • Jim Hagen

    When you sense there is an agenda that is more important than you. When there are reactions to things that are hyperbolic. When you walk away from a conversation feeling condemned… Especially if you revealed something sensitive. When the other person wants to change the conversation when it bothers them and you oblige them but they don’t show you the same courtesy when you ask to move on from a subject. When they have unrealistic expectations of their friends.

  • Ricardo

    Wow. I know some of these people. And, I’m exhausted trying to lead them. No wonder. Also, I recognize some of the ways I can tend toward one or two of the characteristics you mentioned. Especially the “trying to get on the calendar too soon” one. I see that I often approach people out of desperation or a scarcity mentality rather than trusting and waiting for the right thing to happen, for God to draw us together or apart. Good stuff!! Thank you!

    • Ricardo…stay encouraged, and draw those boundaries friend. You’ll be so much healthier in the future.

  • Rich Davies

    One trait I have seen is some people who quickly develop a habit of doing “extras” like praying for someone off to side who was just prayed for by the whole church. It’s not done blatantly but just publically enough for all to see. A Similar tactic is new folks who attach themselves to vulnerable people they identify in the congregation and attempt to become their confidants, often speninf inordinate amount of time with them after service/during the week

  • Mike

    So any advise for someone who read this post and seems to fit all 6 signs?

    • See a counsellor! 🙂 Seriously, its an investment in your long term health and an investment in the people you love.

  • Ruth Priscilla Brittain

    So having just finished a Family to Family course by NAMI on helping family members cope with mental illness of a loved one I’m struck by the correlation between symptoms you describe of a toxic person with those that struggle with (often undiagnosed!) brain disease. Just working through what a compassionate response looks like within the church (or, as you point out in this case, between churches!) Stigma produced by mental illness is a huge issue. Reaching out to these brothers and sisters is uncomfortable and potentially divisive I’d like to learn more about how that can be addressed between believers in a way that cares for each member of the Body while promoting unity.

    • Totally agree mental health is a separate issue. Thanks for your compassion and the distinction.

    • Single Mommas Struggle

      I’m not sure she was making a distinction, I think she was talking about correlation. I think she was saying that you may not be able to tell the difference between what you call a toxic person and a person suffering from mental illness at the start. And because you can’t tell, though you’re saying that healthy people wait to be asked, they wait to lead, they wait to be noticed, you’re willing to turf these particular souls off to another church on the first day, should they meet your toxic-but-could-be-mental-illness criteria. I like your teaching, I’m learning a lot, but this was a flat tire. I agree with Ruth, you run the risk of attaching stigma to people who need our love and compassion the most when often we’re their last chance.

  • Dave

    I’ve seen this work in both directions. There are many non-leaders who have an unhealthy need to be seen or have influence without taking on responsibility nor making otherwise positive contributions. Can you speak on the flip side where well-meaning often healthy people come under the influence and charm of a toxic leader or leadership team? I am referring to spiritually abusive situations that are not overtly obvious as in the case of extreme authoritarian leadership. Are there tell-tale signs that your readers could watch for? What are some ways as a non-leader or aspiring leader I can test the waters to identify this characteristic early in my affiliation? Much thanks in advance. Also thank you for this article. It goes very nicely with a book I read called Toxic People and the Boundaries series of books.

    • I agree. I think the signs are similar, whether the person is a leader or not. Toxic is toxic wherever you find it.

  • Kay

    This is very simply and brilliantly put. And describes my parent to a T, who happens to be a church musician. I would be curious how you would deal with someone like so who worked for you in a church.

    • Thank you Kay. Glad you see what maybe you couldn’t see, but sorry it’s family. Boo. I think you just have to have clear boundaries. I wouldn’t let a toxic person on our team, and if they got on, it would have to end quickly but gracefully. As Henry Cloud says, you need to protect yourself and your church from toxic people.

  • Naaz Charania

    I like your post. I have met many people who are evil. They come on too strong or are very forward. Some times evil people appear to be nice but later stab you in the back.

    • That’s too true!

      • Naaz Charania

        Thank you for your reply, I am happy to hear from you.

      • Naaz Charania

        Sent from my iPad

      • anonbristol

        I get what Anastasia is saying. Complex issues of bereavement, for example, where a person loses their spouse in a foreign country (for example) and are proverbially drowning and trying to get help in a socio-spiritual setting of a church (for example), but the fabric of the church isn’t up to the challenge for whatever reason – the victim of the bereavement (for example!) can be labelled as “toxic” when they are simply desperate for help.

        Personally I’ve even seen such a person spiritually abused by a toxic church environment, from the assumption that “we are the leaders and therefore we are “right”” when there is probably a combination of “toxicity” in both parties vying for whatever rights they perceive (attention or healing on behalf of the parishioner – or peace and quiet on behalf of the clergy member — all both reasonable).

        I think the article is so very very good and insightful. We also must take care before labelling people that we might otherwise help. Fear can drive us to extremes, don’t you think?

        Barristers talk about a person showing “insight” after breaking a code of law or even a minor infraction. The truly toxic person is the individual who shows *no* interest in showing insight – and wants to carry on hell-bent on destruction, no matter about anybody else. That person is not drowning and coming up for air (needing a true rescuer) but rather is coming from a place of bitterness and hardness of soul and heart instead of a place of insight. That is the person that needs to be treated with the contempt they deserve – not the person desiring healing and help.

        Otherwise we can throw around the toxic label as an excuse to avoid helping someone – though not saying that any of us can develop toxic tendencies, I know I can x

        Good wishes,

    • Anastasia B

      Naaz, I know there are people who have done great evil. I know that people from different cultures, families, heritages, etc have different ways of doing things, behaving and expressing themselves. If someone is too forward for your taste, this doesnt make them “evil”… It just means you arent comfortable with people different from you.

      There is often misguided or even toxic behavior in people. Often, health issues, previous abuse, life cicumstance, and/or mental health issues can cause offputting behavior. Its important to realize that people who may say or do things that can be perceived as “strange” or even “toxic” are not necessarily “evil”. Please do not lump such behavior together with the entire person! For example, if you had extreme circumstances in your life (death of loved ones, loss of income, a chronic, disabling health problem, and your cat died)….and you happened to behave badly because of all this…how would YOU feel if people permanently labeled YOU as “evil”? Hmm? I’ll bet you would feel that you were being treated really poorly. Try to have COMPASSION for all beings. You dont know WHY people behave the way they do. You dont always know WHAT is going on in a person’s life! By all means, protect yourself from other people’s unwelcome or toxic behaviors, but don’t LABEL the person. 🙂

      • Naaz Charania

        What you are saying is not true, l know people have different values. My family’s multi cultural so I know what is wrong and what is right. Don’t play the race card with me. I love every race and I am not a narrow minded fool. Thanks.

  • David

    This is quite an educative post. Every Pastor must learn to be cautious and spirit led even in attempting to disciple people

  • Myra Rose Ilisan

    This was a great post. Why not add in effects or results of being around toxic people as well?

  • Myra Rose Ilisan

    He is all that! And I was tagged by my friends as the “submissive one”. So a toxic person and a submissive one. How’s that? I would say a disaster. I was advise to get help as this kind of relationship has or been destroying me. I feel pushed to the limit and always on the look out to push him back away.

  • Neil Young

    I would say this was the best blog post ever and ask you to meet for coffee but I don’t want to appear toxic!! Ha. This is a very helpful post Carey, thanks for being prepared to put time into these posts to help us learn. Neil

  • disappointed

    Question what would Christ do with “toxic new members to the church”? Really? I think he would teach, love, and encourage!

    • I appreciate the sentiment, but he really did treat the toxic Pharisees differently than he treated outsiders.

  • David Nemeshegyi

    Admittedly, from an outside point of view there is a fine line between a controlling and selfish leader and a cautious one who protects the congregation our Father called him to lead from toxic persons.
    Personally, I agree with your points, Carey. All of them are spot on.

  • Dissenter29

    Individual personality can account for a lot of what you describe above as “signs.” I wonder if you are turned off by terrific people who are simply not as guarded as you have come to expect. Spirit-filled people are sometimes quite willing to reveal themselves honestly, and fearless about rejection, because they know that others who are distrustful and protecting personal secrets will often reveal those problems more readily (and without being aware of it) as they project bad motives onto a friendly and open Christian, rather than risk the possibility that love may actually beget love. While advice-giving may be a bit forward and presumptuous, expecting everybody to hang back for months is perhaps instead sending the message that you actually want people to remain in hiding, instead of showing up as their true selves. There can’t be much love in that situation.

    • Thanks for this. I think you’ve read a lot into my piece that isn’t there. I certainly don’t want people to be in hiding for months. I do look for people who honour others around them. Toxic people never do.

      • Jim Hagen

        I think honor is a key word. Ministry sometimes involves getting close to people and listening to their stories. The problem is that if the person trying to help is not humble they can cause more harm than good and actually push people away from the church. Then the person who was “helping” walks away with a sense of self righteousness and says to themselves “I was defending the faith but they weren’t open”. That always concerns me when someone is more concerned about “Defending the Faith or God” than in the fact that in their overzealousness they may have lost a new church member who was ready and open. Defending the faith… from a hurting person who opened up about their life… Only to be lectured and to be let known “You are down there and I am up here”.

      • You don’t get it, what this person is saying is that these “signs” are really just parts of individual personalities. Everyone is different. These by no means describe people with bad motives because personalities have absolutely nothing to do with motives. This article is just a bunch of different traits of personalities that are assumed to correlate whatsoever with the person’s intentions.
        Giving excessive advice from the first meeting is rude, yes, but maybe those people just search for ways to make improvements and make a difference in the world. Them unintentionally being rude when trying to be helpful because they weren’t raised to know better is no indication that they’re toxic and neither is anything else on this list. There are just as many toxic people with every trait on this list as with no trait on the list because they’re not related whatsoever.

  • Ann MB

    I don’t know if these are signs of a toxic person. Toxic people are usually dishonest, hurtful, depressing, and unwilling to take responsibility for their bad behavior. These sound like the signs of a busy body. A busy body who is good-intentioned, may just need a little direction. When people are enthusiastic about volunteering and have ideas to make things better, I would take that as a positive sign. I am more of an empathetic doer type, and some of these items applied to me and I don’t think that I am toxic. #2 is definitely me. I like when people give me ideas for improvements as well.

    • True…motive is key. But these definitely describe people with bad motives.

  • chris

    This is great stuff and great perspective. Thanks for posting. Wisdom here. No doubt helpful. Those of us who have been called into a leadership role have a responsibility to make wise dicisions (sometimes difficult and not popular with the masses) that we are held responsible for. This is great post. Thank you

  • lance

    Wow … how could anyone think of gods children this way … does not the bible say to love one another and to hate the sin but love the sinner ?? Are we not called to be salt and the light of the world?

    • I think this will always be a controversial post, but I stand by it. Have you read the book “Necessary Endings” by Henry Cloud? If not, I strongly recommend it. It might help you see where I’m coming from. And I do believe this is a Christian response.

      • bossnosee

        Cloud has been toxic to the Church. You may be coming from reading Cloud, but this is not necessarily good, as Cloud wrote that boundaries book that caused people to get rid of toxic people and cause schisms in the church, rather than counseling people to stick it out. The guy in #6 got in trouble after reading Cloud half the time, or else he tried to buck the person who did.

        If you step back a minute and realize as a Pastor, you come on strong from the first minute, 1.They come on too strong (this blog has a lot of marketing gimmicks and SEO tactics on it) 2. They give you advice during your first meeting (Hello, Pastor, how’s that pulpit today?) 3. They tell rather than waiting to be asked (You were preaching at me before asking me a thing) 4. They want to be the center of attention (see comments to points 1 and 2 ) 5. You hear from them far too often in the first month (First time on your blog is like a whiff of whoa, slow down there with the feed filled with recommendations of what advise I should take next from you ) 6. They have a track record of moving around. Jesus moved around, and wasn’t he a part of a big schism? Toxic is labeling other people toxic who do the same thing you do, without slapping the title “pastor” on themselves. See comment at the beginning and ask if it might be Cloud’s fault that they caused a problem to begin with. Cloud and Jesus were not on the same wavelength.

        • Well, since both me and Henry Cloud are apparently toxic, I’m sure people will enjoy reading what you’re writing. Best wishes.

          • bossnosee

            I watched the Cloud drama eat through a couple of churches (and not because I toxically left but rather relocated across the country for a job) and have been astounded at how easily people cut each other off due to perceived “boundary” crossings, rather than dealing with situations openly and staying in relationship. I believe it was Cloud and Townsend back then, though, perhaps the two have split since then.

          • I have been far more surprised at the number of people who have almost no boundaries and suffer needlessly for years. In my view, Cloud and Townsend remain a gift to many people and leaders. And of course we’re human…

          • AS2

            Carey, I agree whole heartedly with you! Dr. Cloud and Townsend have blessed so many with the importance of setting boundaries – both with ourselves and with others. God has given us boundaries to abide to as well. I find that those who do not abide by boundaries usually use members of the church as targets, to manipulate and use them so that they do not have to take responsibility for their own lives. I fully realize that as Christians we are to reach out to others, and most of us do. However, my experience has shown me that there are some people who have no desire to change and are not willing to accept help or counselling that would help them deal with their situations. Because of their lack of accountability the toxic individuals have plenty of ’emergencies’ that they want the pastor or others to handle for them. They are quite happy circling the church body looking for new targets that would ‘enable’ them, instead of helping them become responsible for their own lives. In effect they drain others emotionally, physically and financially. This often results in the genuine needs of others who truly need help and sincerely want to change, not being helped. Setting healthy boundaries is essential. Jesus helped those that genuinely wanted help, and wanted to change. Sadly, some people never want to change or take responsibility for their lives. And that is their right to make that choice. But, it is also their responsibility to be accountable to their choices.

          • Thanks for this! Great explanation.

          • bossnosee

            nah, you are human, like all the rest of us…

  • Dana

    I think I would be more concerned with people who have funky unbiblical ideas. In my experience I have been involved with toxic pastors. But don’t get me wrong I am not trying to undermine the church. The pastor I grew up with started out as a very dynamic pastor who grew a church from nothing to a congregation 500 in a predominately Catholic town. This man was very intelligent & even had several degrees in psychology (big red flag). He ended up a very controlling individual & was involved in some immoral relationships with several women of the church including with my mother. She got pregnant by him & he told her she needed to get an abortion. I was 19 at the time. Latter I joined a very large church with a membership of 3000 & by the time I left it was up to 6000. Now that same churches membership is at 15,000+. I was young at the time & was just starting out, I was pretty poor, but non the less my wife, daughter & I were a very content family. I never really fit in because they were a “name it & claim it” kind of church. The attitude was “we are here on the earth to get rich” kind of church. In one of the services I was attending, the Pastor mentioned that there was a car in the lot that had the side bashed in. He said that it didn’t reflect the churches ideals. This happened to be my car… I was devastated & embarrass because several people knew exactly who owned it. And again the pastor was a very dynamic person, so yes I do evaluate pastors in this same manner. By now you are probably thinking that I would be done with church & God, but no I am not. That stuff wasn’t God’s fault. I am fed up with people & pastors who teach the Bible through their denominational goggles and don’t know what their job is in the church. These pastors thought that their job was to do everything & not as the Bible says “to equip” the saints for the ministry. But the interesting part of this article is that it sounds like the person you are describing is the apostle Peter.

    • Dana…so sorry for the terrible experiences you’ve had in church. That’s so sad. I love that you still love the church. For sure…this could describe at some level Peter, except toxic people mean ill, not good. Peter had good intentions, and Jesus worked with him. Most truly toxic people don’t. It’s about them.

      • Dana

        Yes that is true. No I don’t count it as a bad experience, it’s just life & life is sometimes not fair. I count it as refinement & the real trials haven’t even begun yet. I didn’t want to sound negative because God has done a lot of good things in my life. He’s given me visions & dreams, protected me from certain death, from gangs, routed weather around where I live, given me mercy when I didn’t deserve it. He’s given me a wonderful family & a great Book to instruct them with. I am looking forward to my Messiah’s return & everything that happens along the way makes me a stronger Christian. In the mean time I strive to know more about my Lord & tell others about the wonderful things he has done in my life.

        • Love your heart for Christ. Love it.

        • David

          I have probably never met a better christian in this generation as you. Continue to grow strong in the Lord. I am a pastor reading all these has just strengthened my resolve for balance and thoughtfulness in utterance.

    • The bible isn’t the word of God, it’s the word of man. If you allow yourself to put faith in the claim that the Bible is 100% God’s belief, with no manmade intervention, you are weakening the meaning of FAITH. You can’t have faith in the impossible and expect to be taken seriously. The bible has so many contradictions it’s not even funny. It has been translated thousands of times through hundreds of ancient languages and dialects and retranslated into all current languages in several different versions. In other words, the bible says MANYYYYY things that are COMPLETELY opposite from each other, if it was truly God’s word cover-to-cover he’d be saying so many opposing viewpoints all at the same time. How do you determine from that what god wants? You don’t. The problem with Christianity today is people follow the bible instead of God, and since the bible has so many opposite instructions that people are forced to pick and choose what to follow, which is what leads to people thinking Gays are abominations but still sin by eating meat and cheese together and would never stone their daughter to death if she got pregnant without permission (both are also in the bible). And it’s funny, those people who pick and choose what parts of the bible they want to follow many times will end up just using it to be hateful and judgmental to the people they consider sinners, when that in and of ITSELF is a nonnegotiable sin. The judgement of who will go to heaven and who will go to hell is up to God and God alone, and being hateful shatters one of the biggest of the 10 commandments, to love thy neighbor. Religion is supposed to serve a purpose to better people’s lives by making them a better person, which many times it does, but stupid churchgoers these days don’t even care about spreading love, only spreading hate through a stupid manmade book. Please, people, learn to separate religion from God, because too many put their faith in the wrong one.

  • atirsch

    By the way, all of these “signs”, are signs of an enthusiastic, strong-willed, and even sometimes brilliant person. And it’s no surprise that somebody who has established themselves as leader of a church is opposed to people who have ideas of their own and are eager to suggest them before “being asked”.

    Nobody asked for a light-bulb. Nobody asked for a computer. Nobody asked the American colonies what their grievances were. In fact, they were ignored even so. Human beings should not wait for other human beings to ask for things before they freely offer them, be they ideas, suggestions, comments, demands, or otherwise. This article is in direct contention with free speech, and promotes the discrimination of people with a mind of their own. These are not “toxic people”, to quote a bunch of cute, dime a dozen blog-speech. These are people who make you look bad. Be honest.

    • To some extent that’s true. Great insight. But there’s one more difference. Toxic people don’t build anything of value. they tear down. There’s a world of difference between the two.

  • atirsch

    Well, then I won’t apply to any churches. Should be easy.

  • Heather

    A lot of these signs of a toxic person match up to the red flags to look for in dating to protect one’s self from an abusive person: coming on strong/serious too soon/fast, overly critical of you right off the bat, talking very negatively about people from past relationships, calling/texting constantly, ignoring boundaries, etc. I’m not in ministry, but even as a lay person I found this article spot on and helpful should I ever find myself in a leadership position in the Church or otherwise. Coming from a toxic family I can speak from experience, toxic people are remorseless and purposely abusive and destructive. There is no helping them, one can only protect one’s self/organization from them. I’m no pyschologist, but I’d bet most of these people have personality disorders (Narcissism, Anti-social, Borderline, etc.) which there is no help or cure for. Their toxicity is the core of who they are. They see no reason and have no desire to change. If you let your guard down they will not only damage, but outright destroy a person or an organization. They thrive on attention, power, and control. When encountering a toxic person be it in Church, work, school, or socially, run don’t walk away. Praying the whole time for you and them of course! Thanks for this post!

    • Heather…thank you. I hadn’t thought about the dating thing, but that makes sense. These are good all around flags. Sorry to hear about your background. Glad you can see it for what it is and move forward in love.

    • MaSi

      Thank you so much for your honest post. The Church needs to stop pretending that evil people don’t exist. They do exist, and can and will destroy your entire life if you let them. Christianity is not about tolerating bad behavior. Some people are downright dangerous, and the flock needs to be protected from them. You are absolutely right, these are the same characteristics of people who are abusive in romantic relationships. Thanks again.

      • MaSi…thank you.

      • Heatheray

        Everyone with a mental illness is evil and beyond hope and redemption? How do you decide if someone is “difficult” or “evil”?

        • Not at all. Read Henry Cloud’s Necessary Endings. Fantastic book. So clarifying.

    • David

      well said. incisive!! God bless you

  • MJMR

    Sometimes people rightly speak out about unbiblical practices in their church so your saying it’s automatically a red flag if they were involved in a fluff up in their former church is unwise. I’ve experienced that myself when years ago my former church became heavily involved in what was known as The Pensacola Outpouring, and inviting charlatan speakers and con-artists to the church, as well as participating in slaying of the spirit and other unbiblical practices.

    • atirsch

      Because being a charlatan is one thing, but not knowing you’re full of crap is permissible.

  • In the pastorate, you may have those people who are the most willing individuals who want to serve. And, they may give inordinate amounts of time and resources to support the mission of the church, However, in that process, they may feel as if the church is their church, rather than Christ’s. And, in some cases, said or unsaid carry with them a sense that ‘no one has done more or given more to see this church succeed, and if I was to leave the church would fail.’

    These people are well intentioned, and they carry with them longevity, and serve faithfully. However, there is a fuzzy boundary between serving with grace, and serving with an unhealthy or unhelpful expectancy.

    The same person who does all of this service may also sit in your office and tell you, ‘the church isn’t growing, and you’re a lousy pastor,’ unsaid (because you disagree with me, or don’t do things my way)

    A pastor, unless their totally committed to the vision that he/she has for the church can then find themselves losing sleep worrying about the influence of this or these individuals.

    One would hope that together, the willing servants, and the pastor would be able to serve together humbly. However, in many pastor’s experience, and unfortunately, my experience, the servant aforementioned, has determined, ‘it’s my church, and I run things around here.’

    We all need to be reminded Whose church it is, and His promise to build it.

    Thanks, Carey for penning helpful counsel.

    • Timotheos…thanks for this. You are right. When I started ministry I read a piece by Lyle Schaller who warned about church matriarchs and patriarchs who behave as you describe. That’s toxic to everyone, including themselves. Thanks!

  • Woman pastor

    Thank you for this article. I have been pastoring more than 20 years and I appreciate your insights. They are very true. Toxic people are not many (most of us are just ‘normally’ difficult), but making clear boundaries for them is essential, otherwise the whole community suffers greatly. Detecting them early is the best way to go. The Bible clearly advices us not to accociate with tocic people who destroy.

  • Uber Genie

    By the way, I am not denying there are such people as described above. But don’t we want to determine the character of anyone who wants to serve in a ministry, not just so-called toxic individuals. Secondly I find board members and pastors gossiping and slandering individuals in the church a common occurance over my 39 years of gathering such data. These so-called leaders are more sophisticated by far than “toxic” members, but there hearts are no less corrupted. When a pastor volunteered that an individual probably was not morally equipped to be my assistant for an apologetics class to adult non-members, I responded that he had been transparent with me about his life before Christ and I was glad to find a partner that was almost as immoral as I was before I became a Christian to partner with me in helping other immoral nonchristians wrestle with the facts of why it is reasonable to believe God exists and the message of Jesus’ gospel.

    Further, as a class, board members and elders seem to blatantly violate the teachings of stewardship in the old and new testaments. Yet these eldors thrive for decades in our evangelical churches despite their violating the requirements for basic Christianity let alone the more stringent requirements for elders. This statement is not true of all churches, and is more common in large evangelical churches located in the suburbs of large cities in the US. One such individual walked me through his $2.6 million dollar home shortly after starting to attend my church 10 years ago. Although there were great candidates for eldership who both knew scripture, had a 10+ year record of service, and meeting the biblical requirements for elder! I was stunned to see this wealthy individual elected over other proven men. The pastor told me he had selected them due to their stewardship (large donations to the building fund). Two years late the rich elder had divorced his wife of 23 years and replaced her with a woman that was 2 years older than his oldest daughter. It wasn’t until he admitted to the pastor that he had commited adultery with several women (not the divorce and remarriage) was he finally removed. This is an extreme example and anecdotal, nevertheless pastors might look at the sins common to their culture to see if they are selecting “sophisticated” immature believers over “toxic” immature believers.

    • That’s a sad story indeed. Christian maturity is something utterly different than what some in the church think it is. Sorry to hear that.

  • Uber Genie

    Seems like a sweeping generalization. Actually many of Jesus’s disciples would qualify as toxic and certainly Peter and Paul ( how audacious Paul is to complain about Pastor Peter in Galatians)!

    I come from a church in the Midwest of 8000+. Our pastor fits 5 of the 6 items on your list ( all except moving around a lot). staff continually tell me that they are weary of trying to guess the answers he is looking for in staff meetings. I encourage them to have a mature conversation with the pastor 1 on 1 and to resist fawning behavior. “It is his show,” is the consistent reply, “and if we don’t conform or we make suggestions he doesn’t like we could get fired like the last 3 staff members and blackballed (hardly believable but true).”

    Never the less he meets all of the positive criterion listed on your post of why churches don’t grow past 200 members. By that post’s criterion he is doing great. But every year staff members pour out of our church to start other churches or join other church’s staff. They carry with them list of things they would never do as a pastor. Yet if they shared these lists with our pastor they would be considered “toxic”.

    This was the third church I have attended in 39 years as a Christian. I have moved on to a small church of 60 members but wanted to share my experience.

    I have a list of what to watch out for to see if you have a toxic pastor.
    1 – A pastor who doesn’t genuinely loves people (two of my three pastors were not interested in interacting with the congregation other than coffee after the service).
    2 – Pastor as rock star (only measures quantity of church growth not quality I.e. Conformity to Christ).
    3 – A pastor who thinks they are the only knowledge expert when it comes to the Bible and spiritual matters.
    4 – A pastor who is transparent from the pulpit but not in their private life with friends and family.

    So what do you do with toxic pastors?

    Don’t let them get involved influencing your life before you are able to determine their character.

    If they act like prima donnas to their staff and then act like well-balanced transparent leaders from the pulpit (known as faking maturity) move on to a church with a pastor with some emotional and spiritual maturity who is not a hypocrite.

    Don’t go along to get along. I attended this church for over ten years thinking that I could encourage the pastor and staff to be unified and mature together. The staff was too afraid to share the pain of their pastoral mistreatment. And the pastor was careful to only act that way behind closed doors.

    • Again…so sorry to hear this. It’s heartbreaking. This is not a lot of pastors I know, but when it happens, it’s awful. Sorry to hear that.

  • Sharon Holmes Roberts

    Great information thank you so much for your blogs. I have only been a pastor for a little over 2 years and I am still learning.
    We are not part of a denomination so, I really don’t have connection to many other pastors A lot has happened over the last two years that I needed advice on, and if not for your blogs I would have been lost on how to handle some situations

    • Sharon…this is such an encouraging note. Thank you! So glad you’re serving in ministry. I love this community and how we can all learn from each other!

      • Sharon Holmes Roberts

        It’s a great blessing and helps me a lot

  • David

    Great post. I’ve been doing full-time ministry for 20 years and have seen all of these over and over.

  • PeaceBang

    I completely agree with these red flags for toxic people, but I wonder about the repeated use of the phrase, “healthy people wait to be asked.” We want to be an open, accessible system for people to get involved in and we want them to be able to integrate into the church right away. There is something itself “red flaggy” about that cautionary phrase. It tells me that the system is cautious and closed. I’d rather welcome enthusiastic leaders in early on without having to be paranoid that everyone who wants to use their expertise is a toxic control freak. They aren’t. Sometimes they’re just ready, willing and able. If a congregation sets up a dynamic where everyone has to be vetted and personally invited into leadership, many healthy and enthusiastic folks may walk back out the door to find a place that welcomes them with appreciation. I’ve seen it.

  • Mel

    i think we can also add that toxic people expect grace and forgiveness when they stumble but refuse to give it if the leader makes a mistake and they are on the front lines of condeming that leader and also the first one to leave the church.

  • Guest

    Literally in the last month I said “so if I’m hearing you right, over the last decade you’ve opposed the Sr. Pastor at every church you’ve been at (3 in the same area), and you get nothing out of what goes on at our church, where we just finished baptizing more people for the 2nd year in a row than your former church ever did in a year, and we’re the problem?” Yet people still say “he’s the most godly man I know… he has more biblical knowledge than anyone I know…”

  • Andrew

    I’m sorry but I’m starting to sense that everybody is toxic. I can fall short of being meek and patent like most others, but like Many want live righteous. I guess I just hope for my short comings my church still takes me seriously.

    • All of us our flawed people Andrew, but not everyone is toxic. Toxic people are people who damage many others. Most people, flawed as they are, don’t do that.

      • Andrew

        Thanks for the reply. I enjoy your blogs

  • Angela C.

    For me, point number 6 is the biggest “flag” out of all of them. People who try to “help” or “fix” pastors/churches usually have a collection of stories from several churches where they were “victims” of some evil pastor. If somone show up ready to jump in and automatically “loves” the pastor, just start asking them about their past and the numerous “victim” stories with start coming out. Of course they were never at fault anywhere or played any part in any church conflict of any kind. Church boards, you NEED to check references and make calls to previous churches of where a job candidate served. Several years ago our church missed doing that and got burned in a big way. The person had a reputation for causing church splits and had burned many bridges.

    • All great points Angela. Thank you!

    • Jenni Lovsey

      Yeah right, it’s NEVER the church that is in the wrong. Do you know why churches are closing left and right? Arrogant “leadership” who act as if they can do NO wrong. Sounds more like anyone questioning this guy’s authoritarian rule is “toxic”, this guy comes off as a jerk who wants his “yes” people involved.

  • Jim

    I have been recently asked to leave a church for disagreeing with the Pastor. This is after I heard the message on how it is ok to disagree… Until I disagreed. Many church Pastors, not all, but most thrive on control, and misappropriate authority, and lord it over people. Most people are not toxic when you love them instead of judge them.

    • Jim, I’m sorry to hear that. That’s so hard. Thank you for adding “but not all”. Gives those of us trying to create healthy climates some encouragement. I pray you find a great church!

    • Mel

      Jim, just like there can be toxic members there can also be toxic leaders…but thats a whole other article

  • Beau

    You should rename this: 6 Early Warning Signs You’re Dealing With A Pastor Who Is Stuck In A Rut And Is Not Open To Change.

    • Well there you go…:)

    • Mel

      wrong…not the focus of this article. there are obviously pastors like that but but i believe that we can assume that leaders referred to in this artixle ARE open to change but also refuse to allow the church to be damaged by legitimatley toxic people

  • Brandon

    I have a pastor friend who is literally all 6 of these. How can I help him in this. I’d love to forward this article to him and see if he can see himself in this but I’m not sure if that’s the right idea. Advice?

    • Wow…Brandon…that’s a tough one. Good for you for caring enough to want to help. Because he’s lacking self-awareness, I wonder if you can start off a conversation with him by saying something like “Jake, I wonder if you’re open to me sharing some things with you about you. You might be. You might not be. That’s okay. Just let me know.”

      If he is, then say something like “Have you ever wondered how you come across to other people?” If he says no, end of conversation…if he says yes, then maybe say “You may not realize it, but you tend to come along really strong….

      See how that works.

  • I wholeheartedly agree with this post. I’ve been in pastoral ministry for 17 years and have observed this tendency toward toxicity in a handful of people whose only agenda is their agenda. Very few people think only of themselves all the time. They are a small minority, but they have the resilience to spoil it for everyone. They don’t know how to think in Kingdom terms. Sad, but true.

    • Thanks Derek. That’s the heart behind this post for sure.

  • Happy Sober

    Toxic people toxic.

  • Ancient

    Fools find no pleasure in understanding but delight in airing their own opinions. (‭Proverbs‬ ‭18‬:‭2‬ NIV)

  • disqus_5T2jXBEN10

    I recently concluded a four year ministry in Mexico,without getting into to much detail,I can say my experience left me with a new appreciation with the Lords advice of not giving what is holy to dogs and casting our pearls before swine. The Gospel and knowledge we bring is the most valuable thing anyone can possess and we should act accordingly. I also learned to be way more choosy about the Christians[ and ministries I align myself with because many of them are not from God or at a minimum not walking in the Spirit, which is essentialy the same. Keeping wolves away from your sheep or keeping tares from gaining root in the body is not being un Chrisitan it is following Scripture.

  • SAS

    I’m glad Jesus surrounded himself with toxic people. Just look at all of the self centered ways they acted before Jesus returned to them in a glorified body. He stuck with them and returned to them. He even told one of them “do what you must do and do it quickly.” Yet another he reinstates giving him a new name and charging him with great work. The accounts go on and on. Jesus chose “toxic” people. I will choose to do what Jesus did and continue to let God work out the messes. And this coming from someone who has left organized church planting ministry for a decade working with all types of wild ones with agendas. The one I found that could not change and was the most toxic was the one who was supposed to be the pastor of the pastors. When things became toxic to the point of hurting my family I put up a clear boundary and said adios. The difference was I didn’t ban him or kick him to the curb. I said I must go. I can’t be a part of the direction that was not glorifying God. Sometimes you have to do it but I still think it’s a pretty rare occasion.

  • Sadly to many are viewing this wrong… this is more about the ministry teams of the church. It does not reflect on those that need to be ministered to. In a simple way, I would not want to go to a doctor who could not control his drug us and expect to get sound advice on how to not use drugs. True we all sin but we should not be out of control or how could we lead others into the light. The shepherds calling is also to protect the ministry, lead the ministry into godly work, and make sure the scripture is followed. There is no way to please everyone but we should be more respectful as Followers of Christ.

  • Priscilla

    This is one of the weakest posts I’ve read in a very long time. Dr. Cloud, though a respected leader with many helpful things to say, is not a substitute for the authority of Scripture that is so lacking in this piece! Sir, you are portraying yourself as very judgmental not discerning. As with everything, we must hold all advice up to the light of God’s word.

    • Whoops

      Let’s now observe toxic internet users.

    • Chris

      Thank you for proving his point

  • Burnt Out

    I’m married to this type of person ( 2 years now) This has not only major conflict in our marriage and relationship with my teenage daughter who lives with us, but our ministry has also suffered greatly. Our leading styles are way different, his being demanding and controlling.This demeanor of superiority has lead to alienation from our team members and distanced us from our church body. In short it has caused a severe case of isolation and loneliness because he’s so very difficult to work with and others assume I am like him or they just don’t want the exhaustion of being my, friend, co-laborer in Christ. The inner turmoil I struggle with is great. I am to the point of resolving to do ministry separate from him, which breaks my heart becasue my desire is to work along my husband and serve our God together. This strengthens a marriage, being a know it all kills it. Not being able to talk about this is also frustrating, as I do not want to berate my husband to our church family (he has his good points too). It just seems I spend so much time as a referee and peace keeper for the sake of those he hurts, then he directs his anger with toxic accusations to me and my daughter. Believe me I have spent many hours in prayer and still only feel emotionally abused and manipulated and spiritually inadequate. This has lead to our removal from ministry positions which I never experienced personally before we married. How do we “detoxify” this relationship when he thinks everyone else is the problem?

    • Angela C.

      I experienced this to a lesser degree but I do understand feelings of being a referee and basically cleaning up your husband’s messes and putting out relational fires. You need to talk to someone you trust. Follow the example of Biblical discipline in Matt. 18. You being quiet and keeping the peace is not submission. You need to confront him one of one. If he doesn’t respond, bring a friend. Probably a male spiritual leader because it sounds like he has woman issues. If he isn’t receptive then, then you need to go to your church board or invite them over to have a discussion with you and your husband. If there’s still no repentance, then seek spiritual wisdom from elders or spiritual parents/grandparents that you trust. You may need to provide some Godly consequences for your husband. The other thing you need to do is stop cleaning up his messes and protecting him from the consequences of his actions.

    • Rev Dr Diane (a training institute for therapists) has a course on “Emotional Manipulation: Understanding Manipulators & Helping Their Victims” that illuminates the kind of behavior of which you speak. Emotional Manipulators are very dangerous to the environment in which they live, be it church, business, home, etc. (Look up Emotional Manipulators on the Internet.) It’s easy to say we need to love people like Jesus did but not understand that even Jesus did not interact with certain people. (Luke 4:28-30) Plus, we have to remember that Jesus was more of a traveling evangelist and not a pastor. He chose his followers (those he chose to work with more closely.) Our church structure is set up very differently than the way Jesus operated. Some of the folks who are in our churches are probably the ones Jesus did not choose to follow him. It also might be a reason Jesus did not stay in any given synagogue.
      Good luck learning about Emotional Manipulators. I pray your learning helps you heal

  • Lucia Fiero

    The person you are describing sounds like a person with Aspergers or someone with other deficient social skills. The commenter who talks about the member who spreads gossip and tries to turn people against one another? THAT definitely sounds like a toxic person. My son is a dear who is eager to help, but he comes on like this. I used to, too, but not in an effort to disrupt but because I didn’t “get” it. Throughout my life, patient mentors have made the difference in my life and helped me grow into a useful member of society and an effective volunteer activist. Tread carefully!

    • Lucia….this is not at all a post aimed at people with Aspergers or other disabilities. Thank you for that caution. I have friends with Aspergers and this description is very different. Hope that helps!

      • Heather

        I agree with Lucia that you should offer grace first as many people do not have the benefit of knowing all the “rules” of behavior. I was raised by a sociopath with bi polar disorder and was never modeled appropriate behavior. I do not have these mental illnesses, so I knew even very young that these behaviors were not right (stealing, manipulating, etc) but it took many years of adult therapy and careful observation of “normal people” to construct a set of social skills that did not immediately mark me as awkward (at best). Before that, as a child, I used tv as a behavioral handbook (as you can imagine, that was hit or miss). My rambling point here is don’t always judge so quickly. I’ve always had a good soul, but needed help finding my way.

        • Heather thanks for sharing your story. I really appreciate it. I agree fully…there’s always room for all kinds of personalities in the church or any organization. This post was directed at people who want influence and power or who intend to harm others, which is very different than belonging. Appreciate you sharing your story.

  • Pingback: 6 Early Warning Signs You're Dealing With a Tox...()

  • Sherry Bell

    I am a Youth Director currently cleaning up the damage from a toxic
    person. My Pastor stepped in and removed “the person” from all ministry
    leadership for the time being, but has made it clear that if this person
    isn’t willing to be a team player and continues to be double visioned
    they will not be able to be in any form of leadership. This person has
    been asked to meet with the Pastor to get to the root and He for a time
    is willing to council with them. This person is welcome to participate
    in any other way other than leadership. As for me, I wish I had read
    this article years ago! A toxic person brings the focus to them. They
    say verbiage that they are doing what they are doing for others, but it
    becomes very apparent its about them. They ask you if they can say
    something in the middle of what you are doing and don’t give you the
    chance to answer. Then they say what was already said, but in their
    words which apparently is better. If they can’t say what they want to
    say, they pray it, so you are going to hear it one way or another! They
    whine that you never give them enough to do, or you never put teens in
    their small group that actually come (Oh they came…the first week of
    the small group and then didn’t come back, I wonder why???!!!) They are
    very committed week after week, so you are thankful cause not many
    people are, so you keep them around until you have worn yourself out
    trying to make them happy. They use the Holy Spirit as their excuse to
    do the things or say the things they believe they must do or say. They
    do not respect authority. I can not give this person enough, they never
    feel needed. Interestingly enough, feeling needed for them is leading
    worship, but not spending 5 hours at annual fall event we have just
    helping with activities and spending time with teens (relationship).
    That actually happened. Because this person couldn’t lead worship, this
    person would not come for the rest of the day(5 hours) to encourage
    teens through relationship and then say to me. I don’t feel needed. That
    was the straw that broke the camels back. I can not express the
    freedom, relief, joy in ministry since this person has been removed.
    Some of the teens who left are making their way back as well. The focus
    is back on the youth. Don’t get me wrong. I pray for this person
    regularly and hope they can be healed because their are definitely
    crippling things in their life. And yes, this person has gone to a few
    different churches in the past having the same problems. I believe this
    is the toxic person Pastor Carey is referring too! Head his advise!

  • don

    Apparently some of the folks writing here have never dealt with truly toxic individuals. Wolves will come in amongst the sheep, in the nicest, shiniest sheep’s clothing. It is any pastor’s role to be discerning and make sure these wolves don’t get entrenched and start eating sheep. Because they will, it is their intention – whether it is a conscience decision or not. These are not the hurting and sick, they are the ones who intend to hurt and divide. Don’t be fooled, there are truly hurting, sick, depressed, wonderful people that deserve our time and attention. And then there are wolves. Biblically, as a pastor or church leader, you cannot tolerate them doing the things mentioned in this article in your church. Great job Carey, thanks for bringing truth.

    • Amanda

      I agree with you. There seem to be a lot of people who got angry about this post, and it’s probably because they have not dealt with a truly toxic person, just difficult, awkward, unsocial, or even hurting people. This post isn’t about those people. Those are very normal people that we will work with for years to come! This post is about people who want to damage ministry for their own gain. Thankfully, they are rare. In my experience, I only have met 3 working at a large church for many years. They were:
      1 – A woman who actively tried to turn friends and church members against one another through vicious gossip. When she was reprimanded for it she turned to social media to publicly gossip about other church members, including making up lies about the youth I work with and how they “probably are rooting for her husband to kill her secretly.”
      2 – A man who was so fond of talking about theology that he would corner first-time attendees, even kids, to preach to them about why their theology was wrong – but he would do this with debatable topics, not the core values of any church. He turned people away because of his bragging of his own knowledge, despite being kindly confronted by caring people who tried to explain why his tactics were turning people away.
      3 – a man who yelled at our teenagers for not being “intergenerational” on several accounts. We soon learned he wrote a book about it (a terrible, unBiblical book, mind you) and was trying to gain attention to promote his book. He yelled at teenagers who attended a church dinner… their first time at church.

      Those were truly toxic people who caused others to leave our church, and sometimes their faith. Most people that are difficult to work with aren’t actively trying to harm others, they are just having a rough time or come from rough backgrounds and often don’t know any better. HUGE difference, and a good one to be aware of before attacking the author of this post!

      • Carey Nieuwhof

        Amanda…this is exactly what I was talking about. Thank you for the helpful, clarifying comment!

  • Luisa

    Wow. I would never go to your church. What kind of pastor doesn’t want to care for the hurting and sick? Jesus said it was not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. Thank god in his grace I never came across someone like you into battles with depression and anxiety. And you’re probably the first to complain that no one volunteers to help for things in church. Just. sad.

    • Luisa…I appreciate that this article might have surprised you, but I promise you that some people do not mean well. They are toxic. They are not just depressed or anxious. I have many people I work with regularly who struggle with a whole variety of issues. But toxicity is different. As Dr. Henry Cloud has said in his book Necessary Endings (it’s a great read), some people (not many but some) are people you simply need to avoid. If you allow too many toxic people in your organization, it will make your organization toxic. That’s the last thing we need the church to be. It’s about intent, motive and willingness to be helped in the end. I think Don is right (above).

      • Scot Fourowls

        Carey, I agree with Luisa. You sound like you’re projecting your own shadow side onto others. Sad. And sad for the people you supposedly “shepherd.”

        • Tracy

          I cannot understand why you are so offended at this article. It’s a well balanced article on an unpopular subject. It happens. There are people in churches who demand way too much attention and boundaries help regulate stuff so that their demands to infringe on the vision. Your accusation makes YOU sound toxic

      • Emily

        If the church will not love and help them, or at the very least, for starters, hold up a mirror to them to show them how they are affecting others, then who will, in a way that will point them to the kind of life they were meant to live?

        • Emily…good point. It’s not I’m saying don’t help them. It’s just I’m saying ‘Don’t put them into leadership’ and ‘Here are some signs to help you know what you’re dealing with.” That’s the point of the post.

  • db

    While I had enjoyed all previous articles. This one’s the exception.

    • Scot Fourowls


  • Alison

    I think that toxic people inevitably come from a place of being hurt themselves or have had difficulties in their own lives that lead them to toxic behaviour, some aren’t even aware of it. The Bible says that the Lord restores our soul, Psalm 23, so he can and does restore pople. Toxic people need to be in an environment where they are loved, admittedly you have to protect sheep who aren’t as strong as some other members so it sounds like you want to protect your sheep against toxic people. It sounds like you are thinking on the lines of the best way to move your church forward and for it to be healthy and protecting people from being hurt which is admirable, but Jesus said that he came for all and that means toxic people, so would it not be healthier to ask the Holy Spirit how you can love toxic people better. Have a good bible word based discipleship course within the Church, training people up and starting with the basics. When everyone is moving in love towards others it will eliminate fear and help to change bad patterns, along with the word and the spirit, its the anointing that breaks the yoke. We can’t change people but Gods love can, along with his word and the spirit. Maybe the questions to ask is why is that person toxic, what have they been through in their life, can I get some people who are stringer in the Church to come alongside them and disciple them and have heart to see them set free. This is the same for any Church you will get new converts who will come in with all sorts of issues, have you got anything in place for these people, discipleship, mentoring, healing prayer etc. etc.? Church can be a spiritual hospital. Love is the key and sometimes I think we take on worldy ways of doing things that can verge on humanism. It’s not about us, we aren’t here for ourselves. (not saying you think this)

    • Some great points here. I think one of the differences between a dangerous toxic person and one who is not dangerous is their willingness to get well. I agree with everything you’ve said, but even Jesus made a distinction when he asked one of the people who came to him for healing if he wanted to get well. Unfortunately I have met a few toxic people who insist nothing is wrong with them, it’s everyone else. Those people aren’t ready to receive love.

      *Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor *
      *Connexus Church*
      *546 Bryne Drive, Unit E Barrie Ontario L4N 9P6* * * * *
      *facebook & twitter cnieuwhof*
      *instagram careynieuwhof*

      *Sent from my personal email account. **If adding others, please use to include me in the conversation. Thank you!*

      • Alison

        yes, agree some people are like that, and the boundaries you have at the bottom of article are good to put in place. But I think keep loving them despite the toxicity (we can’t do it with our human love, only Gods spirit of love) some people are so entrenched in their negative behavioural patterns they are blind to the truth, as a consequence they continue. The weapon to use is love. Love will break things down in the long run, if you are too busy to be love to them, (not saying you don’t, but I know that pastors leaders can sometimes be, esp if apostolic as they are all about moving the church on etc.) find others who can, or train a love team up, to love toxic people whether they are willing to change or not. That would sure help to see peoples character grow! (I mean the people on the Love team) I mean its easy to love people who are willing to change or people we like etc. True love is different than human love, its activating Gods love so it permeates into our love and how we react etc. I think it’s a very hard thing to do in our own strength, divine love is not the same as the worlds love, it goes beyond. But we can do all thing through Christ, so we can do it by abiding in him and by the spirit

  • bobthechef

    Isn’t this blog post an example of such un-asked for advice? Or we you asked? I agree with you on the whole, but just saying.

    Also, Protestantism kind of dwells on schisms. There aren’t 40,000 denominations in the US for no reason. If you’re looking for a low schism rate, try Roman Catholicism (sure, you have the Orthodox and Protestant schisms, a few minor ones here and there, but you don’t see this Tower of Babel nonsense like you do in Protestantism).

    • Bob I’m going to assume you were trying to be funny about your first comment.

      Unity expresses itself in many ways. One of my favourite things about the cities in which we minister is that the pastors of various denominations all support and encourage each other. We are one, even if we’re not the same (someone should turn that into a song…).

      *Carey Nieuwhof, Lead Pastor *
      *Connexus Church*
      *546 Bryne Drive, Unit E Barrie Ontario L4N 9P6* * * * *
      *facebook & twitter cnieuwhof*
      *instagram careynieuwhof*

      *Sent from my personal email account. **If adding others, please use to include me in the conversation. Thank you!*

  • Drew Mahan

    Carey, sometimes pastors (ESPECIALLY planters) are desperate for people with energy, and are therefore vulnerable to allowing toxic people to gain ground. Thanks for these 6 warning signs. They provide a great filter for someone early in their ministry (like me) to tame the eagerness of having anyone and everyone with energy and ideas at the table. Thankfully, I have had the experience as a youth pastor to see the damaging effects of toxic people, on a church. I’m not at all glad that the previous church was nearly destroyed, but I AM glad that I learned from it.

  • Theophilus2014

    What if the toxic person is your pastor (or his wife)? You mentioned the “coming on too strong in the beginning,” and I had to comment because when I first joined the church I am a member of right now, I noticed that it felt very much like I was being “love-bombed.” The pastor and his wife were welcoming but in an almost overwhelming way, they invited me to be part of this “special” leadership class right away, they asked me to take on a mission project that they couldn’t (due to family circumstances), etc.

    Everything was fine as long as I showed up and supported what they wanted to do. I even started a ministry at the church that is still going strong after 5 years. (I did attend for a few weeks prior to joining, because I wanted to get to know things and people). I also joined the choir and taught a Sunday School class one summer.

    When my own life (job, health, etc.) caused me to have to step back on my involvement in the church, the support wasn’t there anymore. Sure, there were people who asked what they could do to support me, but it was more like, “what can we do so that you will still stay involved,” rather than whatever else was going on in my life.

    The breaking point was when I had surgery, and my pastor never came to the hospital to see how I was or to pray with me – I went into that surgery not knowing if I had cancer or not (thankfully, I didn’t), and my pastor never came to see me, either in the hospital or after. I tried to stay in touch with his wife, who I thought was my friend, and after she found out that my family had been friends with her former pastor (with whom she had had some serious conflicts), she dropped me almost entirely.

    My own father is a pastor – has been in ministry for 40 years – and I have talked to him about some of these things. I understand that people have issues, and that being a pastor is difficult; mistakes get made all the time, and I get it – I really do. Part of the reason I still have my membership here is because I’m not one to just walk away when things get difficult or messy. I recently sent a note to my pastor’s wife suggesting getting together for lunch to catch up; her response was that she doesn’t have any free time right now but “thanks for the invitation.”

    This has just been really rough – I am not attending church anywhere now, although I have been able to visit online with another church on the other side of town (different denomination) so that I can worship, but I have to say that I am really, REALLY leery of going anywhere, and I want to try to sort out what to do about the situation, including my own contribution to it, so that I can move forward.

    • Scot Fourowls

      There’s something inherently wrong with the modern formal church model that in practice denies the “priesthood of believers,” as Carey proves by this article. Jesus didn’t start a church with pastors or buildings. The gospel’s Koine Greek word translated (later by Roman Catholic churchmen into Latin and then English) as “church” from a discussion with Simon/Peter can also mean power or several other nuanced things. The Acts-era Jewish and Paulinist churches were communal collectives nothing like the hierarchical separated church model developed by the Roman Empire and adopted by Protestants with a few differences carried forward to our time.

      Jesus is calling us to the reign of God, without walls, where we meet people for His rule wherever we go, without paid clergy or the rest of the self-righteous pontificating of those who play God in the lives of Jesus followers. I’ve found 12-step groups for fun and for free with rotation of leaders as trusted servants — you can do the same, or start one for your particular favorite dysfunction. In the meetings after the meetings, you can find your fellow Jesus followers who like their Bibles, too. No 12-step overhead other than pay-as-you-go room rental, and because formal churches are doing such a poor job keeping people involved and contributing, you can probably even find 12-step meetings in churches! There’s a 12-step tradition of attraction, not promotion, so I’m just sharing my experience, strength and hope.

      I can find plenty of Christians in 12-step communities who don’t attend formal church, and lead happy, creative lives including joyous but not depleting service to others. But I can’t find any formal churches that aren’t toxic from the top down.

  • margo

    This post confused me a bit. It seems to me that no one would really want to be toxic. If they are excluded for a few months, wouldn’t they pick up on this and feel hurt? If they leave the church, then what is the right place for them?

    I hear a lot of truth in your post and really enjoyed reading it but it also struck a chord in me…perhaps there is something for me to learn. It’s just that so much of the word of God, seems to be about acceptance, understanding, love, forgiveness, non-judgement. Jesus even speaks of being child-like.

    I know that there is also scripture to support what you say
    I guess what I’m trying to understand is…

    How can these two message not contradict each other?

    • Henry Cloud talks about three categories of people: wise people, foolish people and evil people.Truly toxic people border between foolish and evil. What moves a person toward the ‘evil’ category is intent to harm others. That’s what you have to avoid at all cost for the sake of the mission. If you want to read more, I suggest reading Cloud’s book “Necessary Endings”.

      • LuiSa

        I’m sorry but Henry cloud is NOT Jesus

        • Scot Fourowls

          You said it, LuiSa! Nothing to be sorry about. It’s time we started calling out the false shepherds and stop deferring to them. Jesus wasn’t always “nice and polite” in the face of hypocrisy and He’s our model.

    • Scot Fourowls

      @ margo — nothing for you to learn here but to run as fast as you can from toxic pastors who think they know best when they won’t work on their own emotional control-tripping dysfunctions (preferring the avoidance of scholarship and being an expert) and project their unhealed emotions on others.

  • E_nation

    Hi Carey. You are a Pastor. What’s the point of your post, Sir? Do you have a duty to preach about traits of a toxic person or to preach the gospel? When Pastors get on this bandwagon, they diminish their calling and undermine their focus. More so, while there are indeed toxic people with some of these traits, your theory is that only introverts are healthy people to deal with, and that is grossly misleading. Secondly, you assume that a laid back person the first few months WON’T cause you problems later. Who says some do not reserve their toxicity for later?

    • I think the point is simple that if you let toxic people gain too much influence, everyone suffers, including the toxic person. This is not at all about introverts/extroverts, but about looking for signs that may signal unhealth that needs to be dealt with. The early church dealt with this on more than one occasion and the early church leaders were quick to remove people who damaged other people from leadership.

    • Miz Iz

      He does have a duty to teach about the traits of a toxic person. In his blog he is not preaching, he is teaching. I like preaching but I also like to be taught in detail and be able to ask questions about the subjects and to be able to make comments. You can’t do that when someone is preaching.

      • Scot Fourowls

        Nothing, Miz Iz, in the Bible or teachings of Jesus states as you contend that he has a duty to teach about the traits of a toxic person. In fact Jesus unambiguously preached, as 12-step fellowships honor, “They that are whole have no need of the physician, but they that are sick: I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” Mark 2:17 (KJV).

    • Scot Fourowls

      Agreed, E_nation.

  • Janie K

    Hi! I don’t think Carey is giving us strategies to identify “toxic” people and advising us to cut them out of our congregation or marginalize them. I find that sometimes a paster/priest may even be too close to the situation and may not have the perspective to see people the way the congregation sees them. Good points to alert leaders to step back and observe their people. And, not to be confusing, to watch how congregants participate with each other. We can always learn from first-hand experience, but we can also learn from the third-person perspective as well. Thank you, Carey.

    • For sure Janie. I appreciate that. Sometimes we are too close to be neutral, but I have found that the more vigilant leaders are about protecting congregational health, the healthier a congregation becomes.

  • CommentGuy

    Hi, I believe anyone who knew Saul, later to be St. Paul, would have said he was very toxic. So we should never give up on anyone, as transformation is possible. Everyone is part good and part bad.

    • I just don’t see that. He was passionate. And he was determined. But he wasn’t self centered at all. And there’s a difference between someone who is filled with God’s spirit and someone who isn’t. But I do admit some biblical characters would have come off as socially strange. Toxic, no. But strange. Yes.

    • Scot Fourowls

      CommentGuy, see how Carey believes below he’s entitled to denigrate and deny your assessment of Saul/Paul? Your comment is accurate by any fair reading of the entire Bible and history of the early church as well as Saul/Paul in his terrorist mode murdering Christians before his conversion and chronic dealing with a thorn in his side from the devil. Saul/Paul is the very definition of toxic dysfunction, which proves God can work through and never gives up on anybody.

  • Dan Wolters

    “Never trust the first person to meet you at the train
    station.” An adage from yesteryear that
    I think sums up what you’re saying quite nicely.

  • MarkyVanD

    So the action plan is to “not let them get involved” and hope they leave?

    I have found the best route to take is visiting with them often (however painful that might be) and making some of the small changes they want to see. When those changes are made I communicate to them that we have listened and found some of their suggestions were valuable based on Scriptural principles. This way they learn the litmus test and feel valued.

    • I think one of the mistakes leaders make is we tend to favour people who harm us by giving them more of our time than we need to. Our great leaders (who are advancing the mission) suffer when we’re out fighting fires. We only have so much time in a day, and I think there is a point where even like Jesus and Paul we shake the dust off our feet and move on with those who want to advance the mission.

      • MarkyVanD

        I don’t think the “shake the dust off your feet” teaching applies in this situation. Jesus said that about people who did not want to listen to the Gospel. Many of these toxic people believe the Gospel and have a desire to see it spread, but their sins (mostly pride) make them a hindrance to the church’s work. As pastors we have to help those people feel welcome (just like an alcoholic) while challenging them to die to their old self and be risen into Christ-likeness. Jesus spent a whole lot of time with the Pharisees, teachers of the law and scribes. He did that because he wanted them to see the kingdom and be transformed by the Gospel.

      • E_nation

        Pardon me, but you strike me as a Pastor who will not tolerate anyone who raises questions or worse still, disagrees with you- even from long loyal members. I may be dead wrong, but that’s what I get. I apologize if I’m wrong.

        • Scot Fourowls

          E_nation: You have nothing to apologize for! You are stating a valuable truth that may help others reading here start to come out from under toxic pastoring and instead start following Jesus.

  • viaimages

    this is your opinion and is not necessarily the case for every person as situations and people act differently for different reasons. for instance: i encounter positive people who are outspoken and want to be proactive to protect their peers from false facts during work product training’s and need to always interject (a sales person spouting wrong information is never trustworthy in the eyes of the consumer), but by your opinion are seen as toxic people

    • I don’t think sales people fit all six criteria. So for sure, one or two in isolation is not toxic. But under most circumstances when you add all six together it’s often a reliable indicator of a toxic person.

  • Guest

    This assumes that the toxic person is a choice. What happens when it is family? What happens when you grow up enough to realize the person is toxic and despite realising it and trying to deal with it appropriately, nothing seems to change? Where does “Honour your mother and father” hold and and not letting him or her have influence, get involved and boundaries are received with guilt trips and disownment repetitively. Prayer for understanding and forgiveness are a regular theme for one of my parents.
    Thank you for your posts. I really enjoy them. God bless.

    • Thanks for the encouragement. Yes, the issue can be families and groups. Some of the best material I’ve read on those issues comes from Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. Anything they’ve written concerning “boundaries’ will help you.

      • Guest

        i see people with all 6 signs that are not toxic. for a pasture, you sure are prejudiced.

        • Scot Fourowls

          Agreed. … a pastor who should perhaps be put to pasture …

  • Oh man, this is so true. My experience with toxic people comes in the context of relationships, and I wrote a little guide for guys on how to identify these types and deal with them.

  • Ellen Pullen

    I concur with another reader, your messages transfer to business and the home. The image of the two folks in masks is soooo funny! I am still giggling! I am sitting here reading the blog realizing the word, “toxic,” is a perfect description of two family members we have living in our lower level. Their true character was revealed after about two weeks. It’s now 6 months later and we cannot get them to move out. We are truly stumped as how to help these two toxic folks. One blogger mentioned the word, “personality disorder.” One of the two is a chronic, habitual liar who has spent his entire life buying stuff to impress others. He believes his own lies. He can’t grasp the fact that money does not give you value. Now all they have is “stuff” & NO home to put it in

    • Ellen..this is a significant issue and I’m sure it has a complexity to it that’s hard to summarize. Two suggestions. The book “Necessary Endings” by Henry Cloud might be very helpful. Sounds like there might be some boundary issues to look at. Second, I might try to ask a pastor, counselor or trusted adviser who knows you and the situation to speak into it. Clearly, something has to change. Hope this helps.

      • Ellen Pullen

        Thanks bunches!!! I spent much time in the Word and found some answers as to how we should conduct ourselves towards them. I just wrote 5 pages of notes to guide my husband and I. We have asked for direction and the situation has been prayed over. In this toxic environment, a few of our goals: don’t beat them over the head, be consistent, happy, peaceful and have joyful behavior. Don’t preach or nag. Let the power of God function in our life. Yes, there are definite boundary issues. We will read the book for help. We will do all we can. You are a super busy man and I appreciate your notes. Have a wonderful week.

  • Wow, that was the best blog post I’ve ever read!

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  • Faye

    Wow Carey… I am loving your blogging… Do you know I often read your blog as it really helps me in business (this stuff is not just for churches) and something I have been working on is setting up clear boundaries and expectations with clients so that we don’t attract toxic people. Something that I have noted along the way is that sometimes if we attract alot of the toxic, there is something toxic in our lives whether it be personal, professional or in this case a church that needs to be cleaned up… and sometimes they just come along, but it gives a really good flag to perhaps look inward and see if there is something we need to work on ourselves or just as you said, start establishing healthy boundaries! 🙂 So again, thank you!

    • Hey Faye…this is so encouraging. Thank you! I try to write with transferable principles in mind, and I’m thankful you’re finding them helpful.

  • Julia

    I have been gauged as a toxic person before. I am an external processor and an “ideation” person. Most of my thinking is explosively creative and I can get carried away with talking about it, without realizing it. It took me years to learn that, 90% of the time, advice that isn’t requested is seen as criticism. I had to learn to reign in my external processing until good relationships have been established.

  • Adam

    Do you ever fear that gauging people this way limits your opportunity to mentor, grow or disciple believers who have shortcomings? Thinking people are toxic early on seems much stronger than to identify immaturity or lack of discipline or even to think someone is maybe self-absorbed. I’m a person who comes on strong, engages quickly, offers ideas and tries to connect early on for a meeting. When I moved 2 years ago, I did this because I wanted to get engaged and committed quickly in a local church where I could serve. I received an incredibly warm welcome, had lunch with the pastor 2 weeks in, and was welcomed to serve in a variety of ways. Had the pastor evaluated me on this criteria, and concluded he should hold off and watch me for a few months, I would have left and never become involved, assuming they don’t need volunteers.

    • Hi Adam…sorry I missed your comment earlier. I think that’s a good point. Toxic is more than just the 6 points, I think there’s a vibe to it as well. And clearly you are not that person.

  • No. 1 is the best predictor, in my experience, because it’s actually the earliest one you see. What’s remarkable about this phenomenon is how consistent it is. I wonder if this happens in other contexts besides church?

    • Karen Rabbitt

      Yes, happens in dating, too. Typical of borderline personality disorder. They idealize and then later, devalue.

  • jeffcook

    I found your concluding thoughts here helpful.

    I’d love to see more on this topic of wrestling with those who come into our communities (especially small ones like mine), who are passionate and toxic. Shall we tell such folks of their toxicity? Do we say that we don’t find them trustworthy? If there are spaces in our community that need help, what shall we do? Thank you for your great work.

    • Thanks for the question. I think we need to have clear boundaries. Often the best thing to do is to simply keep the boundaries clear and offer an explanation only if they ask. And then it’s time to make sure that the truth is spoken with grace.

  • Chuck

    Dumb question… I’m already subscribed to receive blog entries by e-mail. Is THAT the “Insider List” or is this something new/different?

    • That’s a great question. And yes, if you signed up you are on the list. 🙂

      • Chuck

        Thanks for the feedback. P.S. Positively KILLER story (Joe/Melissa) after sermon this week. I was listening to it while grading papers and it just laid me to waste. Good shot!!!