Addressing Toxic Culture and the Courage to Change

I really do believe that when I took my ordination vows, I didn’t quite have a full understanding of how deeply I would fall in love with those whom I serve. I see how hard they are working to better themselves, spiritually, faithfully and as disciples in this world. I see their good works, their successes and how they sometimes stumble. I see them take ownership for where they are, and how the past “sins” of the church has affected them. I see them struggle and feel their passion for change and a longing for healing. And I see them doing this all while caring for their first ministry, their families and loved ones at home. That’s why, like a Momma bear, when an unknown author on public platform criticizes them, I want to defend them, protect them and hold them more tightly.

The church in which I have been called has a long history of conflict, betrayal and broken trust. It all went on for far too long. There is quite a bit of trauma. There are flashpoints in the history of the conflict and trauma that we can look to, but the truth is the toxic culture started long before the main event, it most always does. Generally the person holding the hot potato or let’s say grenade that finally explodes serves as the scape goat to responsibility and ownership. Often you will hear something like, “Things were good until so and so was here.” But that’s rarely ever the case. The toxic culture started long before “so and so” and continued long after.

Dismantleing Toxic Culture is not an easy task, and quite frankly it’s not one that every church leader has been called to do, has the strength to do or is equipped to handle. I am fortunate to have the skill set, training, support system and people in place to assist me as I walk alongside my church and lead them to a healthy way of being. I read today, “If God has called you to a toxic church, it could be the joy of what can be is greater than the pain you are facing.” Truly, I want them to know the Joy of Christ, the Joy of living, the Joy of Worship and Fellowship, the Joy of Community and Service to Others.

The Good News is many are catching on and healing, but it all takes time. When I first arrived a local leader in the community shared, “It will take you five years before you even begin to get the trust of the community.” Hard words for the first weeks of a first call in the middle of a pandemic, but I hold them close whenever I am frustrated and remeber to be patient.

I do believe that toxic environments in our churches perpetuate because it is easier to accept what is toxic rather than the pain that often comes with becoming healthy.

There are many of us who have served or are serving in a church with a dysfunction or a toxic culture? The toxic church culture can lead many to quit ministry before they’re time. Sadly though there are some churches that actually love the toxic culture they are accustomed to.

We all have joked and have heard some of the following toxic sayings, “We have always done things that way,” “Why do we have to have those people join our church?” “If we change that paint color, or remove a pew or change the hall I am leaving the church.” And here’s a common doozy, weaponizing pledges, “I won’t give another penny until they change or I get or I see, A, B, or C”

If we fear Sunday attendance and adhere to toxic threats to smooth things over, we only perpetuate an unhealthy cycle. Be fearless in your ministry, put God first and allow the Holy Spirit to claim the rest. This takes courage, resillience and the ability to stay steadfast in your love for your people and your church.

Tips on moving Forward

I share with you the Following from Lifeway Research which sums up simply some of the steps for Clergy leaders to take to dismantle toxic behavior and rebuild a healthy church enviornment. Be gentle with yourself and your flock, it’s a slow process.

  1. Preach the Word.
    The Apostle Paul told his protege Timothy,

Preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.

In a toxic environment we must trust the Word of the Lord to clear the air. As leaders we are called to trust the Lord and stand on His word. Point people back to the glorious truth of the Cross. It could be that the toxic person has forgotten that it is about Jesus not about them, money, or property. This may mean you preach on specific issues, such as the function of the church, living on mission, or discord. It may also mean your Sunday school or small groups take a break from curriculum for times of prayer for the church.

  1. Don’t be afraid to confront.
    If I am honest, I dislike conflict. Praise God as He is helping me grow in my leadership I am much better in dealing with conflict. However, one thing I had to learn, not all conflict is a bad thing. In fact, healthy conflict can cause change for the good.

Is there a toxic person you need to address directly? Matthew 18 is clear that we are to go to our brother if we have a fault with them. In any conflict, the only one we have to fear is God. People may get mad with you, but they don’t give you value, worth, or identity. Our identities come from the Lord. We should not allow toxic people to destroy others within our local church. So, confronting in love needs to be direct, immediate and clear, leaving no room for misunderstanding or questions as to what you are saying.

  1. Evangelize, disciple and pray.
    The hard thing about a toxic environment is people don’t want to be part of it. However, what if the breath of fresh air needed is new people coming to faith in Christ?

I love new Christians. They are not concerned about who left peppermint paper on the back pew on the left side of the sanctuary—it isn’t a life or death issue the church must address. The new follower of Christ wants to do just that: follow Christ and help others do the same. As leaders let us pray, trusting that God can change the hearts of people.

Thom Rainer said it best, “Change is urgent because the gospel is urgent.” Let us seek gospel change to the glory of God allowing the air to become clear of a toxic culture.

To end this blog where I began, I am proud of all the hard work and willingness my leadership is willing to engage in as we build a healthy community. I am in awe of their strength and courage and am ever more curious to the see what the Holy Spirit reveals as we continue to walk along side one another.


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