When Things Go Toxic
Dear Children’s Ministry Leader, we know some of you are not thriving. We know you are struggling in your role or your confidence. You have questions about what God is up to and how to avoid burnout. We are listening and we want you to know we love you and we are with you.
Trigger warning: you may be in the middle of a toxic narrative, or experiencing feelings of self-doubt, insecurity, minimization, deflection, or lacking support, resourcing, or a seat at the table. If you find yourself triggered by this conversation, please consider talking to your pastor, counsellor, or a trusted friend.
I have had many conversations with leaders over the last year about toxic environments, teams, and cultures, and there is one common thread that I have pulled from each story: toxicity is hard to recognize until the damage is done, or at the very least there is evidence that damage has begun. Recently, I sat down with Melissa J. MacDonald for a conversation with children’s ministry leaders about how to recognize toxicity, how to handle it, and what to do when you realize you might be in the middle of a toxic situation.
I think of relational toxicity a bit like the interaction between a corrosive chemical and your home’s plumbing. The corrosion may have started as a cleaning agent (cleaning is good!), but if you don’t rinse the pipes after the cleaner has done it’s job, it will eat away at the metal (not good). Left long enough, it may create a small leak and you find some dampness under your sink. Ignored and repeated over time, and you may wake up to a flooded basement.
Sometimes toxicity is overt but more often than not it sneaks up on us. So why is that and how do we spot the warning signs early?
I find that toxicity is sneaky when we aren’t sure who is calling the shots or why. When decision-making isn’t clearly or well defined, we question the decisions themselves, or the decision-maker.
Ask yourself (and clarify with your team or senior leadership): Where do I have permission to ask a question, push back, disagree, say no? I think we often give charitable assumptions in toxic situations until we can see a pattern of behavior. We simply assume the best until we can’t anymore. Assuming the best is a beautiful default posture. Don’t ignore real actions because you’d rather believe it’s unintentional if the warning signs are real.
Spotting the warning signs early requires a deep trust in the voice and activity of the Holy Spirit. Are you well acquainted with how the Spirit talks to you, gets your attention, and has gifted you for God’s own purposes? Where are you feeling prodded or prompted by the Holy Spirit?
The beauty in utter reliance on the Spirit’s work in your life is that God will never disagree with Himself. So are the nudges you’re getting in agreement with the truth of Scripture? Does what you are hearing or sensing remind you of Jesus? Are you being asked to be like Jesus even when the actions of others don’t remind you of him?
Further, if behavior patterns or conversations do not align with scriptural guidance or truth, lean into truth. If requests do not align with your job description or the mission and vision of the organization or church you serve with, lean into what was agreed upon in health. Sound decisions made with discernment, prayer, and community can be trusted even when things get toxic. They give you a north star to point back to when you feel disoriented.
I can hear you saying 'sometimes toxicity isn’t so blatant, though!' I get it. It can feel like you need to rub your eyes to see clearly sometimes. Have you ever looked for your glasses only to realize they’re on your face? The subtlety of some toxicity can feel like that.
So, what are some of the ways that toxicity hides, especially in a Christian community?
The truth is that toxicity hides the same way in any type of community. The Bible reminds us to allow light to be shone in the shadows so that truth can set us free. The difference between toxicity in a Christian community as opposed to any other community is our accountability to each other and to Jesus as his disciples.
Toxicity can hide as gaslighting, as empirical authority, and as gossip. Toxicity hides in backroom meetings where decisions are made without all affected people present.
Toxicity hides in manipulation: 'we’re friends, you can trust me, I care about you, I would never do that to you, just don’t say anything' while behavior does not communicate care, compassion, or trust.
Gossip in particular is something I think we need to get clear on, however. Gossip is not the same as accountability. Gossip is not the same as asking questions for the sake of clarity. Gossip has the intent to harm or injure reputation, is always personal, and does not seek reconciliation. Gossip is punitive. Having a conversation to help understand a situation before reacting to it is different. Perhaps you do not know someone well. Perhaps you feel unsure how to approach a situation. Seeking wise and godly counsel from a trusted confidant is not gossip; it is humility and mutual submission for the sake of reconciliation and restoration.
Mutual submission with a mentor, a godly friend, or a proven leader is one of the best ways for me to check in to see if I’m contributing to the toxicity or even the cause of it. Can you name the root of the issue? Can you take ownership for any part of it? Is there a change you can make to pivot the problem? Maybe not. But it’s worth considering.
When in doubt, when self-reflection and examination leave you at peace with Jesus and clear with others, consider boundaries as a next step to protect or prevent further toxic encounters.
What would boundaries look like in your context? How can you model the respect, integrity, mutuality that you would like to be shown? Where do you have room to say 'no' even when it’s hard, or even when you may have previously felt pressured to say 'yes'?
One of my favorite chapters in Scripture is Psalm 139. There are beautiful verses that remind us who we are, but there are all the other verses around the pretty bits that remind us that God knows us best. Look at verses 19-24:
19 O God, if only you would destroy the wicked!
Get out of my life, you murderers!
20 They blaspheme you;
your enemies misuse your name.
21 O Lord, shouldn’t I hate those who hate you?
Shouldn’t I despise those who oppose you?
22 Yes, I hate them with total hatred,
for your enemies are my enemies.
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
I think we often stop reading before verse 19. I have had many verse 19-22 moments. I think I shy away from verses 23-24 almost as often.
But the final phrase is too sweet: lead me along the path of everlasting life. We want that. Do we want it enough for God to search our hearts, know our thoughts, and point out anything that offends Him? This may be the only posture from which we can take healthy next steps when things go toxic.
And when is it time to do something drastic like walk away or confront someone or expose it all?
A mentor once gave me some really wise counsel, in the midst of a crisis, that prevented me from making an emotional decision. I am not saying that emotions do not get a vote, or that they don’t tell us how our heart, body, and mind are responding, or even where the site of the pain is. But emotions are not how we make decisions; emotions are often how we know a decision needs to be made. And she said, 'No sudden moves.'
I was in a place of feeling like drastic measures were required (and they were). I felt like I was screaming into a vacuum (because very few people were listening). I knew that the enemy was afoot (and he was) and I was practically crawling out of my body as I witnessed people I care about getting hurt by decisions being made.
But this very real place of very real emotions was not solid footing for sound decision-making. I needed to catch my breath, cry, process and, most of all, pray. If I acted, it would be on my own. If I waited, the Lord would go ahead of me. Because He promises to never leave us or forsake us in Deuteronomy 31:6: 'So be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid and do not panic before them. For the Lord your God will personally go ahead of you. He will neither fail you nor abandon you.'
These were Moses’ last words before handing over leadership to Joshua to enter the Promised Land. After all he had witnessed and experienced, this was his resolve: do not be afraid and do not panic. God is with you. If he could get there in this emotional moment, you can camp out here. I believe it. I believe you can resolve to be strong and courageous because our God will neither fail you nor abandon you.
Finally, here are a few things I’ve learned along the way to maintain health for myself and those I serve:
The enemy uses certain predictable tactics. They can be experienced as clever, but they are repeated and rehearsed, never new. The enemy cannot run ahead, he can only react.
The enemy's greatest accomplishments can be counted inside the Church. He doesn’t need to fight for the world–that’s his domain. He is warring for the Kingdom, and that’s ours, together, as coheirs with Christ.
Toxicity that is justified, enabled, or defended allows the enemy to slink around on Kingdom territory.
Toxic culture is a masquerade party. The predictable costumes are:
Gossip dressed up as concern;
Third party information without accountability for the source;
Gaslighting weaving in and out as misunderstanding;
False humility (we've all worn masks).
All this to say: poison can be a slow way to die. You don’t always know things are toxic until the pain is unbearable, until you feel its corrosive effects in your shallow breathing, or until there is enough doubt to break trust and relationship.
When you eat something spicy, it’s better to drink milk than water. When something is acidic, you need to balance the pH. When experiencing or even sensing toxicity, the best antidote is to ask great questions.
You have the Holy Spirit. How does the Spirit communicate with you? How do you hear from the Spirit? Create that space and get real with God. Listen more to Jesus than anyone else when things get foggy, messy, or lines have been blurred.
Get quiet in your head. Get quiet with others. And let God get loud. Ask God lots of questions. Wait for answers, and then use your voice.
If you are in a toxic situation or are being abused, please get help. Here are a few resources to support you along your journey to health and wholeness in leadership:
A Church Called Tov, by Laura Barringer & Scot McKnight
The Dream of You, by Jo Saxton
Better Together, by Danielle Strickland
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