I recently listened to yet another pastor tell a story of havoc let loose in his congregation by a toxic staff member who never should have been hired and was difficult to fire.
I’ve heard this story over and over, and I’ve witnessed this same story personally in the past. Sadly, these stories almost always trace back to a person with a diagnosable personality disorder who finds refuge in the welcoming environment of a well-intentioned church.
But the results always are traumatic, and there’s always collateral damage — sometimes the resignations of the emotionally healthy staff people working alongside the chaos creator.
I’m not talking about ministers or church staff members who are surly or curt or occasionally moody. Here, I’m talking about people who get inside an organization and become a destructive tornado from within — usually while deflecting any responsibility for creating the chaos.
“Often, such staff members know to put on a good front to the larger church membership while working behind the scenes to sabotage other ministers or colleagues.”
Often, such staff members know to put on a good front to the larger church membership while working behind the scenes to sabotage other ministers or colleagues. This may range from passive insubordination to active scheming to oust a pastor or authority figure whom they can’t control.
Sometimes, what these toxic staff members do makes no logical sense. They are not motivated by logic; they are instead motivated by self-preservation and their own internal sense of order.
To understand more about this phenomenon, I recently spoke with three friends who have expertise in such matters. Gloria Martin is a therapist in private practice in Dallas who has been around church work her entire career and is the spouse of someone deeply engaged in church administration. Matt Cook is a former senior pastor who consults with congregations nationwide through the Center for Healthy Churches. And Eric Minton is a therapist in private practice who also has been a church staff member, youth minister and counselor to other ministers.
More prevalent in churches?
The first thing I wanted to know is whether churches are more likely than other organizations to hire toxic people as staff members. The short answer from all three is no. This is a problem in all organizations that hire staff.
However, there’s a caveat: Congregations in the free church tradition (like Baptists) may be more susceptible to bad hires because there is no larger screening process to flag problem people up front.
“I have a good friend who is a psychologist who does screenings for the Episcopalians, Catholics and Presbyterian Church USA, and it’s amazing what he sees and eventually sometimes sends my way in terms of ordinands,” Minton said. “Also, consider the lack of universality in background screening, churches communicating effectively with other churches, the feeling of urgency and scarcity in hiring and the interminably slow and unprofessional experience, the lack of transparency on church hiring committees and candidates due to ‘the religious component,’ the lack of professional human resources training for church staffs.”
Martin agreed: “Many denominations have assessments in place to help with the process of choosing church staff. The free church could certainly benefit from more assessment. In addition, and this is my bias, I think every church staff should require staff to be in ongoing therapy. … The problem is that there are no structures in place and just as in a failing marriage, problems become so large that a consultant is often not brought in until there is a crisis.”
For many of these same reasons, smaller churches are more vulnerable than larger ones, Cook added. “The denominations with bishops, district superintendents, presbyteries all have more systems in place to handle this and weed this stuff out. Larger free churches tend to have enough know-how to side step some (but not all) of it.”
But smaller churches may not have the resources to screen and may feel a sense of urgency in hiring that shortcuts additional screening, he said.
How not to hire toxic staff members
Although no system is bullet-proof, there are ways to keep from hiring toxic staff members, all three said.
“The easiest answer is to find anyone with real human resources experience and get them involved in hiring procedures and processes,” Cook advised. “Another answer (that is self-serving but also true) is to hire outside assistance. Between the networking that is part of our work and other organizations like us, and the high stress we place on emotional intelligence, we help churches avoid falling in that ditch.”
Any church may find good sources on emotional intelligence, which is important to understand in hiring, Cook added. “We recommend the EQ Interview by Adele Lynn, but there are other good resources out there.
“Don’t just check their references in the hiring process, check the larger network of people of which they are a part.”
“Don’t just check their references in the hiring process, check the larger network of people of which they are a part. If no one knows them, that’s not necessarily a disqualifier but it’s at least a caution light that you should check on more deeply if possible.”
Along with that, I would add: Find out why the potential employee left or intends to leave their previous employment. And if they portray themselves as a victim of someone else’s chicanery, dig deeper to find out the true story.
For churches, the hiring process also may be clouded by what Minton calls “the religious component,” meaning the sense of call to ministry a person describes. The reality is that not everyone who believes they are called to a spiritual work is suited to do that work.
“Based on my personal experience, as well as ongoing psychotherapy work with clergy folk, entire church staffs and some congregations, the religious component makes these issues inordinately difficult to ferret out and really understand fully in congregational settings,” Minton noted.
And there’s another warning to heed from Martin: “The problem comes when individuals are not self-aware, and the higher that individual is in the hierarchy of the system the more difficult it becomes to manage the toxicity.”
“The higher that individual is in the hierarchy of the system the more difficult it becomes to manage the toxicity.”
She advises thinking about these potential problems in advance.
“Churches need to look at their structure of how toxicity is going to be handled. If the toxicity is coming from the top leadership, then a process needs to be put in place for other staff to be able to voice their issues and have a resolution to problems. I agree that much more attention needs to be given to human resources policies. Even in a small church with one or two staff, the church needs to have a structure to deal with issues.”
While all employers face challenges in screening out toxic employees, churches especially need to be smart about this threat and realize they are not exempt, Martin said. “Toxic cultures can and do occur in any system because we are all humans. Every time any of us enter a system, we bring all of who we are generationally, emotionally, physically, intellectually, spiritually to the system. The more we know ourselves and the better we individuate, the healthier we are, which means we enter and operate in the system in a healthier manner.”
‘You are not crazy’
To all this, I’ll add my own bit of advice to pastors or church lay leaders faced with a toxic staff member: Realize you are not imaging things. You are not crazy. Most of the time, toxic people specialize in the ability to make you believe you are the problem, when instead they are the problem.
It helps to seek the counsel of clergy colleagues outside your congregation, to seek the help of a therapist or congregational coach. You need people outside your system who are able to give you a fair evaluation.
The hard part, then, is taking that sober evaluation and convincing personnel committees or other church leaders what needs to be done. But it can and does happen. And the result, every time, is a sense of peace after the storm.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.
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