Things are not always as they appear.

Soon after arriving as their new pastor, I was delighted to meet an energetic young couple in the church. They invited me to their home, spoke glowingly about what I could bring to their church and helped me get connected in the community.

The church needed plenty of work. While still viable, the congregation had been in decline for two decades. Without a change in direction, they would have no future. I thought this young couple would be a key part of the turnaround.


What I didn’t understand is the only person who considered this a turnaround situation was me. The members liked their church. They had been there for years. Sure, it was in decline, but it was a slow decline. The kind you barely notice from year to year. The general attitude was, “We’re fine. No need to do anything crazy.”

Unfortunately, God didn’t get that memo. As time went along, the Holy Spirit did a crazy thing and led one of their own to Christ, a woman in her late 30’s. She was the first adult conversion in that church in many years. When she gave her testimony one Sunday, it blew the lid off.  

Not Here

The young couple made it clear. “That kind of thing should never happen at church, certainly not at our church.”

Their opinion of me quickly changed. They began to speak negatively and tried to turn others against me. Before long, they called my supervisor. In their view, I either needed to stop this nonsense or be removed from the church.

Now, pause it right there. What would you do? It’s not uncommon for a church to have one or two toxic people. All is fine as long as things go their way, but the moment that changes, they move quickly to sow negativity, disruption and disunity. They’ve been doing this for years.

Sadly, instead of dealing with this problem, everyone just hopes it will go away. Of course, it only gets worse and results in the church withering away year after year.

Ways to Deal

Here are three ways to deal with toxic people.  

  1. Start with prayer

Toxic relationships throw us on the defensive. Prayer draws us back to a centered place. There’s a reason Jesus said, “Pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44 NIV).

Prayer not only changes situations; it changes us. In particular, it changes our view of others. A toxic person is not a dragon to be slain. He or she is a broken and fearful person to be loved. This kind of transformation takes time.

In addition to praying for a toxic person in your life every day, invite other praying people to join you. If at all possible, spend months praying together for this person. It will open doors you didn’t know existed.

2. Build a coalition

It is unwise to deal with a toxic person on your own. Build a guiding coalition of spiritual leaders who can offer wise counsel and help you determine appropriate next steps as well as the right timing for each one.  

3. Lovingly confront the person

At some point, you must sit down with a toxic person and have a loving conversation about their behavior. Jesus understood these kinds of situations would arise. He counseled his followers to follow his three-step approach in Matthew 18:15-17.

  • Go to the person one-on-one.

Use “I statements.” I feel hurt when you say unkind things about me to others in the congregation. Is there another way we could address your concerns?” If the person doesn’t listen…

  • Go to the person with one or two others.

Continue to use “I statements,” but help the person see this is a larger issue affecting the whole congregation. If the person still doesn’t listen…

  • Invite your church leadership to talk with the person.

If after talking with your leadership, the person is still unwilling to change, your leadership will need to set clear boundaries regarding acceptable behavior or invite that person to find another church.

Risky Business

Although following this process often leads to a resolution, there is no guarantee of success. In some cases, a church will split. Sometimes the toxic person stays, and the pastor is forced out. It’s definitely risky.

You might wonder how things played out in the church I served. Fortunately, my supervisor was supportive. He agreed that people converting to Christ and testifying to it is an essential part of our mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.

Although I had hoped for a reconciliation, the couple decided to leave the church and influenced a few others to go with them. It was painful for everyone.

But after some healing, the spiritual dam broke and dozens of people came to Christ in that church. By God’s grace, we experienced one of the greatest seasons of growth in its long history.

Only Guarantee

Turns out, with great risk, there can also be great reward. But growth is not assured. There is only one ironclad guarantee. If a toxic person is not redeemed or removed, the church will continue to decline and die. Guaranteed. Every time. No exceptions.

Your church matters too much to God and your community to allow a single toxic person to pull it down to death. Start with prayer and take the steps necessary to give your church a future with hope.

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Roger Ross

A native of Cambridge, Illinois, Roger has served as a pastor in Texas, the British Channel Island of Guernsey, and Illinois. While in Illinois, he led teams that planted two new churches and served for 10 years as the lead pastor of one of the largest United Methodist Churches in the Midwest. It was his privilege to serve as the Director of Congregational Excellence in the Missouri Conference before coming into his current role with Spiritual Leadership, Inc (SLI).

Roger now comes alongside pastors, non-profit leaders and their leadership teams as an executive coach, specializing in leadership that inspires change. As a side gig, he loves teaching evangelism and church planting as an adjunct professor at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, Texas.

Other passions of his include SCUBA diving in warm blue water, Krispy Kremes, and board games with family and friends. He also has a weakness for golf.

Roger is the author of three books, Meet The Goodpeople: Wesley’s 7 Ways to Share Faith, Come Back: Returning to the Life You Were Made For, and Come Back Participant Guide, all through Abingdon Press.

Now for the best part. Roger is married to Leanne Klein Ross, and they live Bloomington, Illinois. God has blessed them with two adult children, a son-in-law, several tropical fish, and one adorable granddog.