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October 25, 2012

Dealing with Toxic Staff

How I learned to exercise both grace and courage

I slumped on the bench in my church’s main hallway. The footsteps and voices all around me receded as I let the words that had just come to mind sink deep: “For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others (Romans 12:4-5, NIV).

Slumping on that bench, back hunched and eyes closed, I knew that I just couldn’t take any more. Ken (not his real name) could no longer work on my administrative team. He had been a critical part of that team for more than 10 years. He’d designed, engineered, and now controlled all the technical and computer systems at our church—all on his own time. As administrative pastor, responsible for all the day-to-day operations of the building and staff, I supervised Ken.

Ken’s e-mails and conversations, not just with me, but with other members of the team and with our senior pastor, were the kind that make you wonder why “church” allows such behavior when, at any other organization, he’d face a three-month probation. He resisted accountability with every fiber of his being—just getting him to a meeting to collaborate on writing a job description for his role had taken me months. As for my requests for documentation, group training, and an emergency backup plan…five years later and counting, I still hadn’t received a single piece of information. Worst of all, he’d violated basic privacy and confidentiality protocols more than once by reading and responding to the e-mails that leadership and staff sent via the church’s server. That had been easy for him to do—the server lived in his second bedroom!

Yes, it had hurt when he’d called me incompetent, lacking in interpersonal skills and theological acumen. After that conversation I’d limped home, drawn a hot bath, and gone to bed, praying I wouldn’t have to go to work the next day—church ministry was too hard, too lonely, and too “crazy.”

Yet sitting on the hallway bench, the Spirit had been quite clear: Was I courageous enough, patient enough, strong enough to take Romans 12:5 seriously? What did it mean that I was a member of a church and that I therefore belonged to each person who called that church home…just as they belonged to me? Clearly, Ken didn’t think I belonged and frankly, the feeling was mutual. But we both belonged. Belonging meant that quitting my role as administrative pastor because of six years worth of toxic buildup with a team member wasn’t an option.

If You Can’t Speak the Truth in Love, Say Nothing At All

I had to remember that truth three months later. Black and blue from Ken’s latest round of e-mails, I set out to phone the chair of our deacons’ board. I stopped, literally, as I heard a voice in my left ear (no one was in my office at the time): “Until you can speak the truth in love, you cannot confront Ken or ask him to step down.” I hung up the receiver.

Truth was on my side. I had the e-mails, dating back years, to back up every point I needed to make: Ken had to either change his ways or go. Love? I began to pray.

If You Can’t Pray God’s Best for the Person Involved, Don’t Call a Meeting

It took another 16 months of sweaty, grunting, tear-filled prayers. Those prayers didn’t make going in to work, leading my team, or leading worship (Ken coordinated the sound team and manned the sound board most Sundays) any easier. But they changed me. “Lord, I hate Ken. He hurt me so,” I sobbed one night. “Lord, remind me today that Ken has a place at the foot of the cross that’s right next to my place,” I prayed some weeks later. “Lord, forgive me for not wanting Ken to know your grace. It’s not my place to say he doesn’t deserve it!” And Romans 12:4-5 forced me to be consistent: If I belonged, so did Ken. I couldn’t have it both ways. And so, one day, with open hands and relaxed shoulders, I prayed: “Lord, bless Ken today.” I meant it. It was then that I felt free to approach church leadership, and Ken, to begin the first of several hard conversations.

What I Learned

I do three things differently now, wherever I lead. They’re obvious, yet so often, the tugging drama and intensity of the “Ken” situations we all face suck at and sap away the energy and focus we need to lead with courage, patience, and strength.

1. I pray—sooner rather than later

I had waited too long to pray for Ken. I had prayed for Ken as part of the prayers I offered for my team and indeed for all the church’s leaders. But I had needed to begin praying for revelation, guidance, the clear evidence of the fruit of the Spirit, redemption the minute I realized Ken’s ministry to us lacked integrity…not six years later.

I had also needed prayer partners as I’d pastored, not just sounding boards. I wonder what would have been different had I prayed for Ken, immediately, the way my current prayer partners pray for me.

2. I trust myself

I’ve learned to trust my gifts of discernment and intuition. In the beginning, during my first-ever conversation with Ken, I knew almost instantly that he needed to be “hemmed in,” given a job description and an opportunity to function as part of a team. Ken needed to be led! And I had needed to tell our senior pastor, my boss and the one who’d given Ken free range for so long, that Ken needed to be led. Today, I would not wait six years to lead—either my bosses or my team.

3. I trust the Holy Spirit

Today, I trust that the Holy Spirit will temper my words, my gifts, and my abilities so that all I say and do reflects him in ways that are appropriate and helpful. Indifferent colleagues, stagnant bosses, and toxic team members don’t let me off the leadership hook. So I breathe deeply and lean in, even when I don’t have all the words or answers, even when I’m scared that I will be misunderstood; even when I remember the virulence of some of Ken’s e-mails to me, particularly those over how I’d used words, chaired meetings, or led worship. Those e-mails had almost shut me down for good. No more.

You belong to the community you lead, just as its members belong to you. That’s a divine promise that’s not easily lived out. But it’s yours.

Renee James is the former administrative pastor at a Convention Baptist church in Toronto, Canada. She now directs communications at Canadian Baptist Women of Ontario and Quebec and serves as a regular contributor to Today's Christian Woman.

Related Tags: conflict, issues, leadership, resolution, staff


Strong words, Renee, and worthy of a leader. What a great lesson to pass on to others. You are gifted and courageous. Thanks for this.

The 'dream team' is generally just a dream, but as long as we can disagree agreeably, then our teams can be strong and mature and in unity. When this doesn't happen, the sooner it's caught and addressed, the better, but it's true that if you can't address something without personal wounds bleeding all over the project, you are better off waiting to heal.

This is a great piece of writing for a leadership context.

Thank you for sharing this wonderful experience.

But how did you resolve the dilemma? We DO tolerate a lot of toxic behaviour in the bride of Christ today and we do it under the guise of love for all but what about the call to watch out for the wolves in the fold? A good or bad tree will be known by its fruit...

Very similiar situation in our church; the wrong people given too much responsibility and no accountability. I can really relate to stuff like servers, equipment, and files being kept in someone's home instead of on-site, and requests for information/meetings etc.being ignored. Sometimes even years of prayer doesn't work for the truly hard-hearted (or the passive/agressive!)- then we must be willing to "shake off the dust of that town from our feet" and let that person go. Perhaps God is waiting for us to make that decision so that He can use or teach that person in another place. The climate of our church vastly improved once staff/pastors didn't feel they were walking on eggshells anymore once that person was formally asked to step down. They decided to leave the church instead. Hopefully their next church will be more savvy than we were in giving leaders job descriptions and enforcing security measures. We continue to pray for them.

And sometimes, you just have to make the hard decision and move them on, particularly if they are a stumbling block to progress within the ministry. In this way, I think we can learn from the business world. Of course, we do it with compassion and we employ the steps outlined in the article, but in the end, they still might lead us to do what we dread doing. And hard as it may be, letting a person go could be the best thing for that person and the ministry; it could be what's needed to move them to an environment where they can really expand their wings and flourish. Sometimes it's just easier to stay stuck miserable and making others around you miserable than to do the hard work of conducting a job search.

So sorry to hear you struggled so long with person. My hunch is that man did not respect you and that if you had been a man it would have been different. That said, codependency runs rabid in churches. Having good boundaries, enlisting the help of other leaders, confronting the abuser with consequences is healthy. Confusing "loving each" with lack of boundaries is toxic and perpetuates a system that is false and sick. Best reading in this area is from Townsend and Cloud see "boundaries" and "Safe People" also "false assumptions" about crazy making in the church.

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