7 Warning Signs Your Church Culture Is Toxic

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Every church has a culture. But how do you know if your church culture is toxic?

More importantly, how would you know whether you’re creating a toxic church culture as a leader?

I’ve interacted with many church leaders (and readers of this blog), and the sad reality is that there is no shortage of toxic church culture stories and experiences.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. And it certainly isn’t always that way.

Leaders are the architects of culture.

You create a culture whether you intend to or not.

Part of shaping a healthy church culture is being aware of the signs of toxic and healthy cultures. I blogged about the early warning signs that a person may be toxic here. But organizations have different symptoms than individuals do.

So how do you know if your church culture is toxic? Believe it or not, the Bible gives excellent practical advice. The longer I lead, the more I use Galatians 5: 16-23 as a health check for me personally and for anything I lead. It describes what’s healthy and unhealthy – as a leader and for the Church.

Leaders are the architects of culture. You create a culture whether you intend to or not. Click To Tweet

Below, I outline the 7 warning signs of a toxic church culture.

This article was updated and republished on 14th of August, 2023.

1. The Politicians Win

One sure sign of a toxic culture is that you have to play politics to get anything done.

You know things have gotten political in your church when:

  • Decisions rarely get made the way they’re supposed to be made.
  • Most decisions happen outside of meetings or any agreed-upon process.
  • You can’t get a yes without offering something in return.
  • You have to lobby to be heard continually.

If you’re constantly jockeying, lobbying, and courting favor to get the right decision made, it’s a sign your organization is unhealthy.

In the local church, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there’s sin.

When you do what you say you’re going to do the way you said you’re going to do it, you bring health to an organization.

In the local church, having to play politics to win is a sure sign there's sin. Click To Tweet

2. What’s Said Publicly Is Different from What Happened Privately

Another sign things are becoming toxic is when what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately.

Things are bad when there’s a spin on every issue, and nothing can be said publicly without ‘agreeing’ on what gets said first.

For sure, there are times where a situation is delicate, and you will want to ‘agree’ on what gets said publicly to honor everyone involved. Still, in too many organizations, few things that get done privately can be announced the same way publicly.

And, to be sure, when you’re crafting any public statement, you want to pay attention to the words you use and perhaps even find agreement on them.

But the end product should never be the opposite or even different than what actually happened.

I have the good fortune of being part of several healthy organizations. I love it when people pull me aside and ask (in hushed tones), “So what’s the real story?” and I get to tell them, “Actually, that is the real story.”

Living in that kind of culture really helps you sleep at night too.

When what gets said publicly is different than what happened privately, things become toxic. Click To Tweet

3. You Deal With Conflict by Talking About People, Not to People

Never forget The Golden Rule of Conflict Management: Talk to the person you have an issue with, not about them.

In too many churches and organizations, the opposite is true.

People talk about people rather than to them.

The Church should be the BEST organization in the world in dealing with conflict. Often, we can be the worst.

The next time you want to talk about someone (i.e., gossip), speak to them instead. If you can’t or won’t, there’s something wrong. Pay attention to that.

Want to know what’s wrong most of the time? You’re gossiping. That’s what’s wrong.

Trying to resolve conflict by gossiping about the person you’re angry with is like trying to extinguish a fire with jet fuel. It only inflames things.

Sure, occasionally, you need advice from a friend about how to approach a situation. When I’m in that situation, I try to assume the person we’re talking about will hear everything I say. Even if they don’t, the fact that they could speaks volumes.

Do I always get it right? No, but it’s an excellent integrity check, and I try to live by it.

If you want more, I outline seven steps for dealing with conflict and character blind spots in a healthy way.

Trying to resolve conflict by gossiping is like trying to extinguish a fire with jet fuel. Click To Tweet

4. Church Fights Are Normalized

Church conflict is normal. Church fights shouldn’t be.

Yet, so many congregations are in perpetual fighting mode. One day it’s the music. The next day, it’s the carpet. The next day, it’s some staff member everyone ganged up on.

Failure to correct the third warning sign (talking about people rather than to them) is why churches come to accept in-fighting as normal.

Another reason churches fight regularly is that personal preferences have trumped organizational mission.

Churches fight regularly when personal preferences trump organizational mission. Click To Tweet

Essentially, members decide what they want is more important than what others want (or what the church needs to do to make progress).

When that happens, it pits one selfish person or group against others.

And when that happens, everything dissolves.

If your church is in constant conflict with itself, there should be zero mystery as to why it isn’t growing.

If your church is in constant conflict with itself, there should be zero mystery as to why it isn't growing. Click To Tweet

5. There’s an Entrenched ‘Us vs Them’ Mentality

The Church should always be a ‘we’ – not an ‘us’ and ‘them.’

Fundamentally, being a Christian causes us to die to ourselves and rise to something bigger than ourselves.

Some Christians forget that.

Whether this mentality exists between factions in your church or between your church and the community, it’s always fatal to health and growth.

The job of a leader is to raise the church’s vision high enough and urgently enough for all of us to become bigger than any one of us.

United, the Church will always accomplish more than we will divided.

The job of a leader is to raise vision high enough for all of us to become bigger than any one of us. Click To Tweet

6. No One Takes Responsibility

So, who’s going to fix your church?

No one.


Anybody but me.

As long we believe the problems are someone else’s fault, the situation will never get better.

Your church is toxic when no one takes responsibility. Instead, people just blame everyone else.

As long as we believe the problems are someone else's fault, the situation will never get better. Click To Tweet

You can blame the culture, the pastor, or the deacons, but until you take responsibility, things will never get better.

Blame is the opposite of responsibility. Leaders who stop the blame cycle and take responsibility have the potential to usher in real change.

But, you say, “I’m not responsible for all of it.” True.

But you’re likely responsible for some of it. Own what you can. Own all you can.

If no one else does, still take responsibility.

You’ll get healthier. And if the others don’t, you’ll leave and eventually join a healthier church.

Health attracts health.

You may not be responsible for all of it. But you're likely responsible for some of it. Own that. Click To Tweet

7. Toxic Church Members Are Causing Division

Leadership is one thing, but church membership is another. Toxic churches are also fueled by toxic church members. 

One sure sign toxic members are at work is when any given issue becomes polarized. Toxic members love to turn everything into an ‘us’ and ‘them,’ and let you know that if you’re not for them, you’re an enemy. 

The reality, of course, is that most people despise division and find themselves somewhere in the middle of most issues. Researcher Chris Bail discovered that 73% of the extreme content online is driven by 6-7% of users. In other words, a tiny minority of people drive most of the division you’re facing day in and day out. What’s true online is true in life too, especially when dealing with toxic church members.

The best thing you can do is move those toxic members out of leadership, and if necessary, ask them to leave the church unless and until their behavior changes. 

In the same way a small bacteria can infect the entire body, a small faction of toxic members can infect the whole church.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.