The Allure of Toxic Leaders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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5 Comments on “The Allure of Toxic Leaders”

  1. Patsy Momary Says:

    Beautifully put, Joe. As one guilty of participating in such an abuse incident, it has taken a lot of apologizing and soul-healing on my part. So you can imagine the comfort OCF is to me and my family. We have a story to confirm your findings if you ever need a first-person confirmation for your stats…Hallelujah for the Cross, Hallelujah for the Blood, Hallelujah for the Empty Tomb.* “He is Risen!”(response:) “He is Risen, indeed!” (Antiochian Orthodox Easter Morning Greeting) Pat Momary P.S.the * statement is a phrase of music I have been given by the Holy Spirit I think; at least I have no memory of ever having heard it anywhere else, but in my inner spirit.

  2. Ron Kelleher Says:

    Dr. Hellerman,
    I look forward to the the publication of your new book! Having worked 36 years in corporate America I saw my share of toxic leaders, but my pleasure was in seeing the difference among the leaders who were Christian; God honoring men and women who were a testimony to their faith in every way. How sad it is to see toxic leaders in our churches, but as you say they are men like all other men with feet of clay! They are subject to the same temptations and the allure of power as anyone else. In some ways, I think it is even harder for our pastors to remain humble servants as their position gives them a certain celebrity which can fuel the feeling of power.

  3. Ron Marrs Says:

    Fascinating. Just presented to class summary of Rima and McIntosh overcoming the dark side of leadership. I will look forward to your book. When will you finish it?

    • hellerman Says:

      Hi, Ron. The book is basically done. I’m assigning an M.A. class and a couple D.Min. cohorts to read through the ms a chapter-at-a-time. The critique/input will help me to fine-tune it.


  4. John G. Says:

    Hey Dr. Hellerman,
    Just stumpled across your blog. I am fascinated by this project of yours, and too sense the need for a massive corrective in the exercise of pastoral authority in the local church. Actually, this is the practical upshot of my Durham thesis, though it focuses largely on 1 Corinthians (esp. 1 Cor 9). I do believe leaders have been granted authority in their churches, but as Paul remarks, “the authority that the Lord has given me [is] for building up and not for tearing down” (2 Cor 13:10; cf. 10:8). Though I don’t agree with every aspect of her model, Kathy Ehrensberger has some great stuff on this. I’d love to see an outline of your book at some point. Do you have a publisher yet? Please send me an email about it when you get a chance.

    Best wishes,

    John G.

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