Addie ProvidenceDear Addie,

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,
I am deeply sorry that you find yourself serving in a toxic church environment, longing for a way out. You face a difficult decision—should you stay or should you go? Before you make this decision, I encourage you to talk through the issues with someone outside of this dysfunctional congregational system—a neutral party like a spiritual director, a counselor, or a mentor who will listen to your concerns and ask you the questions that God can use to bring clarity to your situation.

The word “toxic” is a powerful one. Is this church environment so toxic that the act of serving there is taking a toll on your health—physical, emotional, or spiritual? If so, leaving sooner rather than later may be the healthiest option for you. Yes, Jesus urged his disciples to take up their crosses and follow him, but he also instructed his disciples to shake the dust off their feet and exit a home or town where their words were ignored. Only you know whether or not you have reached that tipping point.

That said, I do find myself wondering if perhaps God has placed you in this congregation “for such a time as this.” What difference does your presence make in this place? Could it be that God has brought you to this church to be a catalyst for change? It is certainly frustrating when change seems to come at a glacial pace, but perhaps you are making more of a difference than you think.

Are you familiar with the family systems theory work pioneered by Edwin Friedman? Learning how a congregation operates as a family system may help you to better understand the dynamics that are at work within this toxic environment. A heightened awareness will not only be helpful for you as you navigate the minefield in which you are currently serving; it will also prove to be invaluable as you face challenges down the road in other congregations, for no church family is perfect.

Friedman emphasizes the importance of being a well-differentiated leader – a minister who takes responsibility for her own emotional well being, one who has clarity about her own life goals, one who can be separate while remaining connected, one who can manage her own reactivity.* Can you model self-differentiation for this staff, for the Personnel Committee, for the congregation?

As you seek to discern God’s will in the midst of this difficult situation, pay attention to the lessons that you are learning in the context of this particular ministry setting. What are you learning about yourself? What are you learning about God? What are you learning about your God-given call?

Pray. Meditate on Scripture. Journal. Talk to a trusted advisor. Rest. Play. Trust that God is at work in ways that you cannot yet perceive – in your life and in the church.

With empathy,

*Edwin Friedman, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007): 14.