You’ve dealt with them before. At your church, as a volunteer, on your staff, as customers.
Toxic people are well, toxic.
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 hope 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 suspicious 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 the first visit and warm up over time are the ones who are most healthy in the long run.
People who come on strong when they first meet you usually leave just as loudly.
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 too 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 center 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).
Hint: If someone left 5 churches in the last 5 years, they’re probably leaving yours too.
Want To Reach More People
Working through the realities of healthy and toxic people is natural activity among leaders in a growing church.
If you want to learn about why some churches grow and others get stuck, don’t miss out on the launch of Breaking 200 Without Breaking You next week.
The course provides strategies on how to tackle eight practical barriers (including a more nuanced and practical dive into everything I covered in this blog post) that keep churches from reaching more than 200 people. And it’s designed so I can walk your entire leadership team or elder board through the issues.
So whether your church is 50, 150 or 250 in attendance, the principles will help you gain the insight you need to break the barrier more than 85% of churches can’t break.
What Do You See?
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?