Four Drives of the Toxic Leader

Some of you know Laura and I are working on a project to help churches move from toxic patterns and cultures into a tov culture. At the heart of a toxic cultures are leaders who do not recognize what drives them.

OK: let’s admit it. Many think their theological statements, confessions and creeds drive them. Many think their Bible teaching drives them. They are indeed at least partly right. But under those desires to be sound in theology and faithful to the Bible are drives that determine how they use that theology and how they use that Bible to accomplish what they want.

In listening and learning and watching and reading we find four terms help us think about what drives toxic leaders. Toxic leaders may well believe the right things and teach the Bible well, but their drives turn such theology and Bible off the path into toxic, septic fields.

Ambition. Life is shaped by ambitions. Some of it is good -- an ambition to master a musical instrument, an ambition to please God, an ambition to . Some of it is fleshly, like the ambition to dominate and control others. But ambition cannot be ignored in cultural assumptions: underneath our skills and talents are energies of ambition, sometimes on the part of a key leader or a set of leaders.

At work under, behind, and over every cultural assumption is power to make things happen. It is the oxygen in the air and under the surface.  

Tell me what you think are the toxic drivers at work in pastors?

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Another toxic drive is success. Success becomes fleshly when it is measured by growth and numbers. Why do churches use numbers to measure success? That is, beside being able to announce with pride new baptisms? Because growth means a church will gain a reputation of being God-blessed. It means the church acquires a big reputation and makes a difference and climbs the ladder of fame for other churches to emulate. Growth makes the church and its leaders and members feel important. Pastors and churches are driven by their measurements of success, whether they say it or even know it. Measuring success by numbers leads to giving people what they want, which statement dips our feet into a big muddy river called consumerism — for another day.

Greed. It’s too obvious for us to see. For a church to operate, it has to have enough money to pay pastors and staff, to pay a mortgage and utility bills, to send out missionaries, etc.. To have sufficient money a church has to have the kind of success that produces butts in the pew, bills in the offering plate, baptisms in water, and buildings. The wise use of money sometimes hops the rails and becomes a fleshy desire for more and more money. Another flesh-shaped word here would be greed, or the wanting to acquire more and more, which in the New Testament is called “idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). One of the most irritating terms I’ve heard used for people in a church is “giving units.” Call me naive but that’s fleshly.

Glory/fame. Among the drives of those with fleshly ambition is to be well-known, to make their mark, to be famous, and to reach the so-called top of the list of established pastors. To gain the approbation of the bigwig pastors at bigwig churches as an up-and-coming star pastor. Some will brush this off as a hazard they have to endure, but mark our words: glory runs deep in humans and is a major nutrient in the cultural system of churches. We have seen this drive for self-importance not only in senior pastors but in associates, elders, and even team leaders enjoying the glory and feelings of self-importance within their own church culture. The distinguishing marks of fame-driven pastors are comparisons and competitions. By which we mean the glory-driven person is always looking over his shoulder to see if someone behind him’s numbers are catching up to his, or looking ahead to see whom he can pass next.