Ask a Young Clergy Woman: Toxic Church Edition

Post Author: Askie

Dear Askie,

I am currently serving in a church that is best described as toxic. The staff is dysfunctional, the personnel committee seems to be disinterested in creating a work environment that is nurturing, anytime I bring up any concern I’m automatically shut down, and I am fed up. I have been searching for jobs for many months now but am having a difficult time. I am starting to realize I may be stuck here for a while. What can I do in the meantime to survive my toxic work environment? Or should I just run for the hills?


Fed Up

Dear Fed Up,

toxicYou are not the only one. Unfortunately, all too many young clergy women are trying to serve Christ and his church in the midst of dysfunctional work environments. While we shouldn’t regard such situations as normal or acceptable, Askie fears that toxic congregations will probably be part of the lives of some pastors until kingdom come.

You’re wise to search for a new call, and Askie urges any YCW in a toxic setting to keep an updated resumé, Ministerial Profile, PIF, or whatever your denominational equivalent might be. Even if you feel called to stick it out (or are compelled to do so by your familial or financial circumstances), toxic churches have been known to turn unexpectedly on their pastors. So even if you’re not ready to pack your bags just yet, be prepared.
All that said, here are a few strategies for surviving until you’re able to move on:

  • Build (and use) a strong support network: This is important for all of us, but especially so in an environment like yours, where you can’t expect support from colleagues and lay leadership. You may want to work with a spiritual director, a therapist, a life coach, a mentor, or all of the above! Be intentional about nurturing friendships both with clergy colleagues in other settings and with non-clergy friends. Online community (like the TYCWP Facebook group) can be a great source of support as well, although it shouldn’t replace the personal, incarnational support we all need.
  • Be attentive to your spiritual life: When God is your job and your job is awful, your spiritual life sometimes takes a hit. Don’t let them do that to you, sister. Make sure to intentionally care for your soul in this season of your ministry. Could you find an evening or weekday worship service that you can attend from time to time? Carve out more time for prayer? Read books that nourish your soul?
  • Do your homework: If you haven’t studied family systems theory, now would be the time to start! Understanding how systems work can help you figure out how to survive in yours. You might gain some insight about how the system is working, a strategy about how to change the system and your role in it (hint: probably non-anxious presence), or a reminder that interactions that feel very hurtful often have little or nothing to do with you personally. Friedman’s Generation to Generation is a classic starting point, but there are plenty of great resources out there. You may want to look for a course or conference to help you dig deeper, as well.
  • Feed the function: Thankfully, even the most dysfunctional church usually has a few bright spots. See if you can identify the parts of your church that are healthy and put lots of your energy there. Affirming and supporting the healthiest areas of your church’s life helps them to grow… and not only is it good ministry, it’s also life-giving for you!
  • Put on your own oxygen mask first: There are people whom you will never be able to make happy, even if you work twenty-four hours a day and cater to their every whim. So do what it takes to keep yourself healthy physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. Get outdoors, take a yoga class, enjoy good chocolate or coffee or wine. Binge-watch some fluffy television from time to time. Spend time with family or friends. Take all of your vacation, and your days off. Sabbath is a commandment, not a suggestion, so don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it!
  • Find some distance: When Askie is at the absolute end of her rope with some bit of petty church drama, she imagines what a great chapter it will make in her memoir someday. That’s my trick, but you’re welcome to use it, or find one that works for you… something that helps you to step back, to disengage emotionally a bit, and to remember that in a few months or years, this will all be over. When it is, I hope you will find yourself with some hard-won new skills, some outrageous stories, and your integrity. Keep the faith, sister.

Wishing you deep peace and a speedy exit,

Image by: gonzales2010
Used with permission
7 replies
  1. Kathryn says:

    This may sound… odd, but one of the main things that got me through my first call were my two amazing cats. When the rest of the world was crazy, and it seemed like everyone around me was reflecting just how incompetent and silly and an utter waste of humanity I supposedly was, my little kittycats were adorably sane and loving. So I decided that my cats were accurately reflecting my true nature and not the congregation.

  2. melissa says:

    I agree with the advice about keeping denominational leadership in the loop.

    Also, I found that for me, the corollary to feeding the function was also to stop internalizing the dysfunction. Remember that the dysfunction is theirs and not yours. Which might mean being very choosy about the battles you pick, and might mean (unfortunately) turning a blind eye to some of the dysfunction so that you yourself can continue to stay safe, thrive, and make it through until a new call comes along.

  3. Adrianne says:

    Great article! I just left a toxic congregation, and all of the above were super helpful for me. I’d add two things: one, keep your denominational leadership in the loop about the situation. Second, in my situation, there was a specific incident that really brought out the toxicity of the congregation, so I found it prudent to keep simple notes about all interactions around it, and to make notes about the things that happened at council and committee meetings, just to help me make sense of the situation and to cover my behind should the congregation turn on me.

    • Margaret says:

      Document. Document. Document. That’s EXACTLY the kind of data denominational leaders MUST have to help turn the church around, support you and/or get you out. In UMC, I have heard of a bishop telling a congregation that they had lost the right to receive a pastor because of (documented) toxic behavior. What counts as documentation? Words and actions (theirs), but without your commentary. So brush off those CPE verbatim skills, record quotes and conversations, include names & dates. And if you’re not sure if it’s “time” to make your case official, use those relationship networks to help figure out the timing.

      • Anonymous says:

        I found keeping notes about actual facts of the interactions that were problematic in one congregation I served was helpful for me, too. If I would start to think that I was imagining everything or the problem was entirely me, I could return to the facts.

  4. Diane says:

    Great question & response! I would add:
    Build up as big of an emergency cash fund as you can. You want your assets to be liquid in case you need to leave before you have another job in place. Your denomination may have free financial consultants available: use them! You can also access great financial advice from your local library. Financial freedom helps because you don’t have to stay in a toxic setting just for the paycheck. (Easier said than done, I know!)


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *