Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse – Part 3G – Step 5, Layer 3 – Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders

Part 3 – Concepts, Questions, and Continuums for Building a Comprehensive “Remediation Plan”

Part 3G. Step 5, Layer 3.

Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders


Layer 1 – How to determine the levels of personal growth and recovery needed by leaders who harm others, regardless of how gifted they are or how much they help others.

Layer 2 – How to identify what levels of peace-making are needed in personal relationships where a leader has caused damage.


Layer 3 – How to ensure individuals qualified for roles to lead the organization stay, when those disqualified should be removed, and when/if they should ever be restored to a former position.

Layer 4 – How to discern whether an organization that is toxic can be repaired, or should not even survive.

[Click on the chart to view a larger version.]

Step 5, Layer 3 ~ Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders

Step 5, Layer 3 ~ Affected Groups Need to Deal with Toxic Leaders


At this point, we switch from a focus on the individual leader with problems to address, to move to the organizations they’ve built. These are influenced by and infused with toxic strategies and structures, processes and procedures. Addressing them means shifting from individual responsibility to corporate discernment and decision-making. To put it bluntly: At this Layer, the sidelined leader is no longer in the driver seat. Period.

Some points or patterns of actions have put them in jeopardy, as far as their position as leader, overseer, public role model. They do not get to make the first or final decisions here. Hopefully they respond with humility. But if they do not, that provides a sure-enough sign of entrenchment, which means they are at a more advanced Stage in this Layer than people around them previously realized.

And hopefully, problem patterns get intercepted at the earlier Stages where it will be easier to work through, and they haven’t yet taken over as a point around which the organization orbits. The later the Stage, the more likely it will take starker levels of intervention to break through ingrained patterns. But the ultimate goal in all of this – Layers 1 through 4 – is to do whatever needs to be done so that individual and organizational transformation to do good plus do no harm becomes sustainable. When that is the case, the only major thing left to do will be ongoing maintenance through prevention. And if we happen to be in situations needing interception or intervention, may those days of just prevention come upon us soon!

Word Studies

Do some word studies into these terms and where they came from. (I’ve added links to, which is one of my preferred online dictionaries because it includes word origins and a thesaurus.) Also consider the illustration images I picked for the chart, and descriptions I wrote that go with each term. Tie in with material from other Steps, and see what you think about how these all relate to a process of personal repentance.



Life together in community always has a messy side. That’s okay. We need to get used to that. But when the mess revolves around our supposed leaders or around our organizations themselves, that’s not so okay. We should be protecting the people from harm, not defending a brand from tarnish.

In thinking through our leadership structures, we need to keep in mind that role and goal of protection to nurture individual community development. We can learn much from looking at people that our Scriptures tell us should never have been put into leadership roles in the first place and also about those we are mandated to remove if their theology changes or their character deteriorates. That is what Layer 3 is about.

Here are some thoughts to guide productive thinking about the spiritual siblings who are (or who want to be) in roles as leaders. It is based on the framework of being:

  • Qualified (by personal maturity plus skill match for the role),
  • or unqualified (by general lack of maturity or specific ministry skills missing, regardless of their potential or how nice a person they are),
  • or disqualified (by destructive character, regardless of how great one’s skills) for public roles of service that give that status of leader or role-model.

Unqualified by Immaturity – Lack of Sufficient Time as a Disciple, Regardless of Skills

Just because someone is not yet qualified to serve in a public role of leadership, that doesn’t mean anything about them being bad or less valuable of a person. It simply means it is not their time. As a study exercise, go through the following passages (if you haven’t already) and list out the “must have” character qualities and life/ministry skills (there may be “can’t have” items as well). 1 Timothy 3:1-13. 1 Timothy 5:17-25. Titus 1:5-9. James 3:1-2. 1 Peter 5:1-4. 3 John 9-10.

If we as a community or congregation or organization override this required threshold of maturity plus skills, I think we put the unqualified person at risk of particular temptations that they are ill equipped to handle. It’s not wise to think, “Oh, they’ll grow into it.” No. Instead, putting them prematurely into levels of responsibility beyond their capacity may end up with them creating disasters, falling apart, and even dropping out. They and their eventual service may be lost to the organization in the long run because of our folly in the short run.

As a point of application, I’ll say that I’ve seen this happen in ministries, church plants, and churches. In those experiences, most of the time the congregation and its other leaders (if there are any) fail to intern and mentor people into leadership roles over time. Instead, they put people in before their time. Also, many “pastors” are expected to be CEOs of a non-profit, which requires vastly different skills. Few training programs prepare next generations of leaders to handle that unrealistic requirement. And the havoc that ensues not only stresses the organization’s structures, but inevitably leads to bad pastoral care and oversight of people as well. I’ve concluded that the best approach to leadership is developing a culture of participation, with intergenerational connection and mentoring.

“[An overseer] must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.” ~ 1 Timothy 3:6, NRSV

Disqualified by Faulty Theology

Read these entire passages for illustrations of what the words and deeds of false teachers are like, and what implications it has for the individual or congregation that fails to do anything about them.

  • 2 Peter 2.
  • 1 John 4:1-6.
  • 2 John 1.
  • 3 John 1:9-11.

What do you see as common issues in terms of core beliefs in these passages? How major or minor of doctrines are the things mentioned? What correctives are recorded in these passages?

Disqualified by Pathology – Lack of Conscience and Compassion

When we look at key passages on the qualifications for elders-overseers-deacons, I think the “must have” list helps us see what level of character and life-skill development is necessary. That helps us discern those not yet qualified to serve.

When we look at the same passages, I think the “can’t have” list helps us see when there is probable pathology in place the disqualifies such people from going into the service of public ministry or requires us to move them out of those roles if they were already in them. Here are some of the “can’t have” items (all quotes from NIV).

  • 1 Timothy 3:1-13 – “Not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money … not indulging in much wine, and not pursuing dishonest gain … if there is nothing against them, let them serve.”
  • 1 Timothy 5:17-25 – “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands, and do not share in the sins of others.”
  • Titus 1:5-9 – “Not open to the charge of being wild and disobedient … not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain.”
  • 1 Peter 5:1-4 – “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must … not pursuing dishonest gain … not lording it over those entrusted to you.”

If we summarize these “can’t have” lists, it’s about substance abuse, violence, contentiousness, greed, immoderate/wild, controlling, and feeling obligated to lead. Boil these down even more, and I feel like the core issues turn out to be:

  • Lack of conscience – they are not touched by issues of right versus wrong.
  • Lack of compassion – they are not moved by empathy for those who suffer.

Lack of conscience leads to creating situations of personal and social injustices. Lack of compassion leads to infliction of suffering. On both accounts, people with deep pathology show no remorse for either way of wounding. Instead, they show a seared conscience and hardness of heart – two characteristics of false teachers who are disqualified for their theology, but whose lifestyles embody their corrupt teachings.

Abuse perpetrators at advanced Stages in this Layer are least likely to truly perceive their own negative impact. Think of a person with a severe infection who is feverish, exhausted, distracted. Or someone who is at the opposite end of spectrum and is amped up, manic. Neither can diagnose themselves. Someone else has to intervene, because if we don’t realize the seriousness of the wounds we inflict, however will we understand the level of personal recovery we ourselves need to stop behaving in such damaging ways?



Introduction: Basic Principles

Regardless of whether questionable leaders are unqualified or disqualified, and where they are on the Layer from Stage 1 to 4, what are we called up as communities to do about them and for them? How do we discern and decide the appropriate measures to take that protect the group or organization, but also promote healing and recovery for leaders at fault – insofar as depends on us?

This is not meant to be a detailed process-and-procedure manual – it’s a field guide to give an overview. So, I will suggest what I believe are several core principles for how to work with leaders who are already involved in organizations when they are found to have significant enough manifestations to demonstrate issues of control and abuse.

Keep Transformation Integrated

In an agency or community that seeks to do good plus do no harm, I believe we should not divorce the personal from the organizational. One way to work within this paradox is to match the Stages for simultaneous transformation work in Layers 1, 2, and 3. This ties together recovery in the personal, interpersonal, and organizational realms.

For instance, at Stage 1, a troubled leader is still qualified, but needs to invest in their own growth and guard against going off course himself/herself, while also personally repairing the damage done in relationships with others, while humbly accepting mentoring in both the personal and interpersonal dimensions of their life through oversight and mentoring from a qualified representative of the organization who will not show favoritism to him/her. (As a team, work through your ideas of how to integrate the depth of problems in the other three Stages with the elements for Layers 1, 2, and 3.)

Be Careful Not to Minimize or Maximize

No one is only evil or only good. Typically, those in leadership roles have done at least some good, perhaps even enormous good. That is not negated by things they do that are wrong, unjust, inconsiderate. However, neither does the good negate the bad.

In my experiences and observations, it’s far easier to excuse a leader who has exceptional charisma, trainings, and abilities and seems to do a lot of great work. Whenever I see followers deny the bad and overemphasize the good, I suspect they’ll wish they’d done otherwise eventually, as leaders with deep patterns of abuse are usually experts of deception, and the situation for the organization inevitably seems to end up disastrous.

Once the toxicity has reached a Stage 3 or 4 level, it’s likely that many who’ve been hurt will demonize the perpetrator. It is a challenge then to remember the basic worth and dignity of all people. Maybe then is when we most need to remember our commitment to show basic respect to all, even when people’s behavior clearly means they are not trustworthy and they need to undergo deep changes to become whole.

Advanced Issues: Repudiation of Power – And Restoration Versus Removal

Sometimes people in power get to a Stage 3 or 4 in how damaging their abuse goes. It is organizationally irresponsible to reinstate people into leadership roles who’ve shown no signs of genuine repair work on their own life or restitution in the lives of people they directly damaged. Being “nice” and letting them stay may seem like “conciliation,” but really, it is capitulation and the longer-term consequences could end up far worse.

In my opinion, at the very least such individuals need extended time away for personal recuperation and to engage in restitution. Even then, it could be that investigations show evidence of such an addiction to power that the only solution to safeguard the organization and community involves completely removing them from leadership and never, ever reinstated unless they clearly rehabilitate and show substantial change over enough years to validate such a return.

The affected group and not the individual in question must make these decisions, inform the community, and carry them out. Someone proven abusive at this level typically is talented at deceptive arts and cannot be trusted. And, if abusive leaders from a Stage 3 or 4 level truly repudiate their penchant for power, won’t that entrenched of an addiction take the rest of their life to work out? Forgiveness, yes. Counseling and compassion, yes. But re-entrustment for leading, no, not likely at this level.

I will add a strong word of caution to avoid putting into leadership or keeping in leadership those whose behaviors show narcissism – extreme self-centeredness – or sociopathology – no compassion, no conscience, no remorse. (Often these go together.) Your group needs to have training and identification processes in place to watch for such tendencies – whether in volunteers, staff, or leaders. This is a necessary part of creating a safe environment for teamwork, and avoiding harm.

Final Thoughts

I am concerned that in our culture of individualism and our adoption of the “theology of being nice,” we have lost our will and skill to evaluate leaders firmly and fairly. But the corporate responsibility to consider how to work with sidelined leaders is serious. The process should not be refused by errant leaders at any Stage, nor undertaken lightly by members of the affected group, community, or organization.

Good-hearted leaders prove themselves open to scrutiny and challenge. They will also be genuinely open to input before making decisions, and to corrections afterwards – especially, I expect, in confrontations that are conducted in a truthful and constructive manner.

However, if leaders are poseurs instead of genuine, common sense evidence shows they will always find ways to deny culpability, excuse their irresponsible actions, blame others, avoid oversight, and refuse accountability or consequences. But, sooner or later, their true fruit will show itself and they will reveal themselves as imposters. And what will we do then about the damage done to people, and to the viability of the organization itself?

“The sins of some people are soon in evidence; they lead on to judgment. But in the case of others, they dog their steps. Equally so are good works readily observed; while those which are otherwise cannot remain hidden” ~ 1 Timothy 5:24-25, Modern Language Bible

Here are links to the entire series on Responsibility for Spiritual Abuse: