Pastors' Forum


Toxic People

Is there a time for a pastor to cut off communication with toxic people?


Pastor Stan Saunders – Chillicothe, MO
I don’t know if “cut off” is the term I would use. However, rarely haven I been able to satisfy the complaints of toxic people either. When toxicity gets into the heart of a person towards me or the church, it is nearly impossible to remove it. I will meet with anyone about their complaints. If they have valid points, I will agree with them and thank them for their concerns. If I do not agree with them, I say so. This is when the fun begins.

I try to keep peace with toxic people as much as possible. However, I will not allow them to control me. Because I will not yield to their demands, they get offended and weed themselves away. I don’t have to cut them off. They eventually leave on their own. They leave angrily with accusations that question my leadership and spirituality. It is just part of pastoral ministry. I don’t believe that it can be avoided completely.

Pastor Jack Yurus – West Harrison, NY
In 33 years of ministry, I have not seen a problem person turn around and be productive in the kingdom of God. Almost all of the people that are serving in church with good attitudes started serving almost the moment they arrived. I believe we need to be pouring into those people and they in turn will reach other people. Many times toxic people are sent from the enemy. You must protect the anointing on your life.

Pastor Jim Graff – Victoria, TX
A pastor definitely needs to find a balance where he protects himself from toxic people while helping them grow at the same time. Paul told Timothy, who dealt with this issue, to ‘entrust himself to faithful people who will be able to teach others.’ I think that’s a great pattern for pastors.

Pastor Bill Anzevino – Industry, PA
Yes, there is a time when even a pastor must recognize the need to cut off communications with toxic individuals. Yes, pastors are to be loving, tolerant, patient, understanding, available and ever ready to minister to the needs of hurting people, but when people threaten their wellbeing and possibly the wellbeing of others, it’s time to recognize they don’t really want help and turn them over to God. You tell them you’ve done all you know to do and now they must look to God from this point on.

Only you have the power to stop a toxic person from draining you spiritually and threatening your wellbeing. Only you can stop a toxic person from threatening the wellbeing of your family and church body. In 35 years of ministry, only one time did I have to publicly name a toxic individual who refused godly counsel and continued to poison the minds of people in our church body. Every effort was made and every warning was given, but this person continued her toxic ways. It wasn’t easy, but it benefited the whole body and stopped the insanity!

Toxic people have unresolved issues that in some cases can be attributed to mental disorders. Every effort to help resolve these issues seems to be rejected or fall on deaf ears. We can’t take it personally and we can’t allow ourselves to entertain any guilt or criticism for protecting ourselves from the effects of continuing in a toxic relationship. Look to God to give you the wisdom you need to progressively end any unhealthy relationship. Some situations are more difficult than others due to the nature of the relationship, but, no matter, where one’s life and ministry are suffering because of a toxic relationship, it’s necessary to cut it off before more damage is done.

Pastor Jim Blanchard – Virginia Beach, VA
It greatly depends on the specific behaviors that are defined as toxic. Naturally, the pastor and his family should not be abused by people who do not respect or honor the pastor or his valuable time. A pastor should try to make equal time for all of the people of his congregation. There are certain individuals that are very needy and will try to monopolize the pastor’s time and even the church’s resources. There are some Scriptural guidelines in this area: (1) “A heretic after the first and second admonition reject” (Titus 3:10). (2) “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; He is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof comes envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Timothy 6:3-5).

These are only two examples of Scriptures that justify separating from certain individuals that are involved in behaviors that are counter-productive to the work of the Gospel. It is also good to talk through issues with your board or other pastors that you trust who will pray with you and give you wise counsel as well.

All of God’s best!

Pastor Kevin Berry – Lansing, MI
Absolutely, yes!  In Dr. Henry Cloud’s book, Necessary Endings, he points out that when you are dealing with a toxic person, there is a necessary ending that must take place in that relationship—and the sooner the better. There may be part of you that wants to make things work. You want to give it another try; you might see signs of them doing better. But here’s the thing, toxic people are toxic and you have to make the tough call to guard yourself.

Think about the guys on the boat who had Jonah as a passenger. Jonah’s disobedience made him a toxic passenger, and there was only one thing they could do—toss him overboard. You see, you can’t have Jonah in your boat and not feel the effects in your own life and ministry. Some of the hardest decisions I have had to make over the years was when a once, good person became toxic. Like the guys on the boat who didn’t want to throw Jonah overboard, I wanted to row a bit harder. I wanted to try and figure a way to make it work. But at the end of the day, I had one thing to do and that was to distance myself from toxic people.

The reality is your time is valuable and who you allow to have your time is completely up to you. I want to invest my time and life in people that are full of potential and greatness; not in people who are full of toxins and venom.

Hope this helps!

Pastor Duane Hanson – Saint Paul, MN
If I was required to give only a simple “Yes or No” answer to this question, I’d have to say “No!” Why? Because I believe this: If Jesus is our pastoral example, I can’t imagine any circumstance where He would “cut off” the opportunity to communicate with someone, no matter how “toxic” they might be. The reasoning for my “No!” answer is simple: I understand that this question is being posed specifically to “a pastor!

Before I address this question from a pastoral position, I would make this observation. Let’s face it. Many Christians just don’t know how to handle “toxic” people and the difficult situations they may create! Obviously, I would advise a member of the congregation to consider who they associate with, and if that friend was “toxic” in their attitude and behavior, then they should be scriptural and separate themselves from their negative influence. Unfortunately, in today’s culture of compromise, many Christians just haven’t found out how to balance the tension between two conflicting Biblical commands; “Go into all the world and make disciples…” and “Come out from amongst them and be ye separate!” Well…which one is it? When do we “Go” and make a disciple of someone, even if they seem to be “toxic,” or determine that it’s time to “separate” from them? When should we act on Ephesians 5:11 which states, “…have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness…” as compared to other scriptures which instruct us to let the light of the Gospel shine into that darkness? At what point do we ask that difficult person to leave, or should we continue to fellowship with them, hoping they’ll change? Would “love” really allow someone to continue to “leaven” the church with their toxic attitude and sow the seeds of doubt and unbelief? When should the leadership of the church be informed, and at what point should they be involved with confronting the “toxic” person and dealing with their attitude? These are all serious questions, but then, the above question isn’t being applied to the average believer in the church today. Again, this question is being posed directly, and specifically to “a pastor!

The primary definition of the word “toxic” is “poisonous!” (The Dictionary further explained it as “Toxic, due to or caused by a poison or toxin [for arrows < toxon = a bow].”) We’ve all seen examples of hunters using poisonous arrows to their advantage. The poison can slowly incapacitate the intended target and allow the hunter to overpower their prey without much resistance.

Our enemy has devised and used this same tactic against many in the Church, and especially tried to “poison” and influence those in leadership positions, intending to slowly incapacitate them. The scriptural instruction to “take the shield of faith and quench every fiery dart” seems applicable for every pastor in this situation! When someone has demonstrated that they have a toxic personality, from that point forward, a pastor should seriously consider how they are going to communicate with them. It does seem easier to just ignore, shun, or even “cut off” a toxic person. But should “a pastor” disregard why this person is so determined to “poison” others with their toxic attitude? Ultimately, they will “reap what they sow” when it comes to their personal relationships. They’ll find themselves alone and frustrated, and hopefully come to their senses.

Regardless of the apparent conflict between the idea of “Go” or “Separate” from someone, as a pastor, there’s never a time that I would completely “cut off” someone and not give them an opportunity to be influenced by the Truth. However, if they refuse to submit to Biblical instruction, or need scriptural discipline, then we have Paul’s advice from both First & Second Corinthians. We should deal with that person as a “sinner,” and minister to them as such. We should not allow them to influence us, but instead, keep preaching the truth and expecting the Word to influence them.

If I’m secure in my leadership abilities, and confident that I’m doing what the Lord has instructed me to do as the pastor of His flock, then I’m the one who determines if someone will affect me, or not. I’ve had to learn when to accept or reject criticism from members of the congregation, even when it seemed toxic at the time. If it’s constructive criticism, I should take heed and consider their input. If it’s destructive criticism, which becomes toxic and poisonous, then we should quench it! But sadly, I’ve known too many ministers that can’t handle any kind of criticism, positive or negative! They have a tendency to quickly label anyone who disagrees with them, or seems rebellious to their authority, as a “toxic” person. A pastor with that attitude will tend to spiritualize the situation and label these people as being an Absalom, or having a Jezebel Spirit. As the pastor, we must not “cut off communication” with a toxic person, but they should be “cut off” from influencing the church, and dealt with scripturally.

As pastors, we are instructed to be examples of Christ to the Church, and to the World. We are required to be strong enough to deal with anyone who would try and poison us, or the church, with their toxic attitudes, and be quick enough to “quench” their poisonous darts with our shield of faith. Ultimately, it comes down to how we choose to respond to the toxic person, because there’s really only one person who should be negatively affected by someone with a “toxic” personality, and that’s themselves!

Pastor Thom Fields – Kennewick, WA
It really comes as no surprise – toxic people are everywhere!They’re in the next cubical at work, shopping for sweet deals at the mall, holding up progress with the clerk at the grocery store, lifting weights on your machine in the gym, wanting to join your foursome on the links, AND sitting in every one of our services! They really are everywhere.

The worst part, though, is that they’re people. Just People. I know, I know…we’re talking about a specific group of people. They tend to be negative, controlling, manipulative and judgmental. They are real joy at the Sunday Potluck. But the issue is…they’re just people.

Our concern is usually based from our fear of getting sucked in. The last thing we want is to become victim to their latest drama. It’s a hopeless feeling that attempts to overwhelm us as we begin to lose sense of our own being as we find ourselves shrinking in the presence of the spirit of an uncircumcised Philistine.

The issue, however, isn’t truly what we’d like to think it is. It’s not that people are actually toxic. The real issue is our response to negative, controlling, manipulative, and controlling people. We need to set very clear boundaries and refuse to be thrown off our game when someone with a strong persona or negative attitude sounds off. We need to know who we are and not be fearful of demonstrating our leadership.

Most people who fall into the category of toxic are in great need of strong leadership. But the very last thing you can afford them is the luxury of providing leadership to you. You won’t need to cut off communication with toxic people if you lead the way. They may, however, choose to go a different way on their own. That would be their decision and it should have no impact on the direction that you travel.

We can both learn and grow when dealing with all kinds of difficult people. While it’s important to honor an individual’s feelings, we simply need to very clearly communicate that we refuse to be sucked in to any emotional drama and continue leading people. If they refuse our leadership, that’s their prerogative. Don’t question your own leadership.

John 14:27b (Amplified)
Do not let your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. [Stop allowing yourselves to be agitated and disturbed; and do not permit yourselves to be fearful and intimidated and cowardly and unsettled.]

Stop allowing yourself to be agitated. That isn’t saying, “never get mad.” It’s speaking of being moved. Don’t allow other people to toss you around and knock you off your game. Don’t be intimidated and cowardly and unsettled. Just lead!

Pastor Doug Foutty – Parkersburg, WV

YES! Treat everyone with love and respect, but you are not in this world to have all of your strength drained by toxic people. Be led by the Spirit, as far as a time frame. Every situation will be different. The devil sends people along your path to occupy your time and to frustrate you. If you haven’t realized this yet, then you haven’t been in the ministry very long. You are vital to God’s plan in your part of the world. Don’t be surprised when the occasional toxic personality is sent your way. You aren’t wrestling with flesh and blood. Protect yourself, your family and your congregation from these people. ENJOY the abundance of dedicated and kind people that are in your life. Don’t dwell on the toxic folks. If they are truly toxic, then there is no real communication going forth. Walk away (in love) and leave the guilt behind. This life isn’t perfect and neither are the people in the Earth. Agree on the common ground with these folks and leave it at that. Lift them up in prayer, and hopefully the next time you see them, they will be changed for the better.

Pastor Virgil Stokes – Tucson, AZ
When I read this question, I immediately had a gut-level sense of its meaning, and a mental collage of specific individuals who could be considered “toxic.” As I undertook to respond, however, I found it necessary to clarify the definition of “toxic people.” A little internet research revealed a few basic characteristics: habitual negativity, gossip and evil speaking, blaming others for one’s own misadventures, accusing and fault-finding, bottomless neediness, etc. The common denominator is that toxic people demand a lot of time, they don’t amend their behavior when corrected, and they leave you feeling drained, despondent, and often angry.

As I thought on the “toxics” in my 30+ years of ministry, I realized there are differences based on their relationship to me. The characteristics are the same, but my responsibility varies based on our relationship.

My own family: Unfortunately, some of the more toxic folks in my life have been related to me by blood or marriage. The problem with kinfolks is that they are kinfolks. You can’t just get rid of them, short of criminal behavior. What I have had to do is limit my contact with them, especially when I am preparing to minister. Keeping myself spiritually, emotionally, and physically fit for maximum effectiveness in ministry is the essence of my life. To do less is to disrespect the call of God. Thank God, my wife recognizes this, and goes above and beyond the call of duty to protect me before and after services. She is in “seek and intercept” mode at those times: “No, you can’t talk to him now. He is busy.”

Other ministers: There are some of my brethren whom I find it better to avoid if at all possible. There are two basic types that I avoid or limit my contact with. One is Rev. Nestor Needy who is always about to go under. His life is constantly on the brink of disaster. He reports his difficulties with the unspoken message that he wants me to somehow intervene to fix it. I walk away thinking, “Lord, should I do something more?” The other guy is Pablo Peacock. He is always one step ahead and one level better than I am. His church is bigger, his worship more anointed, and his messages mere insightful. Talking to him leaves me feeling irritated, inadequate, and wondering, “Lord, what am I doing wrong that I am so unfruitful?” I can often avoid these guys by telling my wife and my secretary to “take a message,” and by being sure I avoid getting left alone with them at public gatherings.

Friends and acquaintances: This one is easy. If you are part of my congregation or one of the ministers for whom I am responsible in my leadership position, I will speak with you. Other than that, if you don’t add some value to my life, you are not my friend. You are a person with whom I am acquainted. I will be polite to you, but I will not make time for you. I am a busy man.

Members of the flock: This is often a difficult issue. I have a responsibility to help and disciple the people in my care. That often means I have to spend time with people I don’t particularly like, and who are very draining. With a little guidance, some of these folks will become productive members of the community. Others are just looking for sympathy, affirmation, or money. I value my time very highly. Therefore, I don’t like to waste it on this last type of individual. As soon as I am convinced there are unworthy motives, I have to confront their behavior and reallocate my time. This is my responsibility.

I value my anointing and my serenity. I must protect both. This means I have to discipline myself to deal with significant issues on an appointment-only basis; no after-service-in-the-aisle counsel. Make an appointment or we can’t talk. If I find a particular individual too draining, and/or I don’t see any attempt on their part to help themselves (by doing what I advise!), I have to refuse to see them again on this subject. If they need professional help, I refer them. If there are others on staff who may be more effective with them, I offer them that opportunity. In the extreme case, where an individual is not just an irritation to me, but is purveying his poison to others, it may be necessary to ask him to find another church.

The bottom line: If it negatively impacts the care of the flock, it has to be dealt with. Be gracious, truthful, and firm. Build a fence around it, assign someone else to intervene, or cut it off; whatever it takes.

Pastor John B. Lowe – Warsaw, IN
Is there a time for a pastor to cease communication with a toxic person? Absolutely yes. When any relationship is unhealthy, one has to consider the other people we live for in the future. Cut of however you deem necessary, and let them go into the hands of the Lord. He can deal with the emotional baggage.

Pastor Phil Edwards – Ennice, NC
Yes, there is a time to cut communication with toxic people. If you allow it, some will require more and more of your time. However, you never stop praying for them.

Pastor Brad Allen – San Mateo, CA
Great question! Pastors are held to a higher standard of conduct than any other profession or title in our society. Because we pastors believe in walking in love, preach it, and practice it, walking in love is our duty before God and in society.

However, there are limits. Here are the limits I use:

  1. If it’s a church member who is being inappropriate, I will confront them and talk about it. If they continue to be disrespectful toward me or other church members, I will ask them to change or take a break from church attendance. I will follow up with them over the next few weeks to see if they calm down and try to re-engage and draw them back. Sometimes this works, and sometimes they move on. Either way, toxic behavior toward church staff or church members needs to be addressed quickly.
  2. If it’s a new or relatively new visitor to the church, I will try to have more grace as their understanding of God’s love, grace, and favor is limited. The main thing I’m looking for is PROGRESS. If they’re progressing, then there’s hope and I will continue to show grace and encourage others in the church to do the same. If it’s a cycle or bad habit that they are unwilling to change, then it’s time to refer them to counseling and/or offer them the same choice as in example number one.

Why? Because we are under shepherds of God’s flock and we need to protect the flock against critters that bite. If you cater too much to toxic people, good people will stay home or go elsewhere to church. This goes for pastor’s families and staff members as well. The senior pastor needs to step in against attacks on his family and staff.

Church growth needs to be rooted in un-churched people. Therefore, it comes at a price. But be careful what behavior you allow in God’s house. Teaching your ushers how to use firm, calm, and loving authority is a great key to keeping everyone on the same page in church services. Good ushers will keep the peace and keep the flow of worship uninterrupted.

Taking the tough phone calls and meetings yourself will keep your staff happier and saves you time. Why?  Because they’ll want to tell you all about that last caller and then you’ll still have to deal with the issue anyway.

Lastly, sometimes people can be really, really, mean. Things can be said that hurt a lot. Take these things to God but also find a friend in ministry you can talk to. When you really get hurt by someone, you need an understanding friend you can talk with.  When it’s really ugly (and it doesn’t happen often, maybe once every 2-5 years), I’ll try to talk it through with another pastor before I go home. Try to cultivate ministerial relationships for this kind of support, and feel free to call or email me if something like this happens to you. We’ve all been through it.

Yes, we should walk in love always, but there are limits based on our additional duty to protect the flock and our families.

Pastor Gil Zaragoza – El Paso, TX
In 19 ½ years of pastoring, I have found that there comes a time when you will have to remove “toxic people” from your church/ministry. My suggestion is to do it quickly. Why? Because the longer these “toxic people” stay in your church/ministry, the worse it will get in the overall local church (or ministry) because it will affect the church atmosphere and the morale of the congregation (or ministry) as well.

Four years ago, I had the unpleasant task of dealing with “toxic people” and frankly told them, “Obviously, our church is not your fit…and since our church is not your fit, then I ‘highly encourage’ you to look for another church STARTING THIS COMING WEEK.” Did they get offended? Yes they did; very much so. However, sometimes you have to “push ‘toxic people’ out the door,” so to speak, so that their “toxicity” towards the church/ministry will cease to affect the rest of the congregation or ministry.

Pastor Guinn Shingleton – Terre Haute, IN
I believe we must first identify which group these “toxic people” fall into. Are they critics, peers, or congregation members?  Each one must be dealt with in slightly different manners.

Let’s look at the dictionary meaning of ‘toxic.’ Toxic means: having the effect of a poison; harmful or deadly; extremely harsh, malicious; (financially) likely to cause significant loss to the holder.

If someone is a critic of you or your ministry, you must determine whether anything they are saying has merit. Just because they have a bad attitude doesn’t mean they might not be right. Be honest and weigh the criticisms. If there is no merit to what is being said, then make it clear that you do not appreciate what they are saying. If they persist in speaking things that are harmful to you or your ministry, break off communications with them altogether. If you allow harmful talk and behavior to continue against you or your ministry without acting against it, then people will wonder if there is some merit to it.

2 Timothy 2:16-17 (NLT)
Avoid worthless, foolish talk that only leads to more godless behavior. This kind of talk spreads like cancer…

If it is a ministry peer, meet or talk with them privately to find out what they have against you. Even if, in your heart, you can readily dismiss what they are saying or doing, still take it to prayer. If you are convinced that they are just being malicious, ask them to please desist in their actions. If you allow this type of behavior to continue unchecked, it will ultimately “poison” you!

Hebrews 12:14-15 (NLT)
Work at living in peace with everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not see the Lord. 15 Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you, corrupting many.

If you allow what is being said by “toxic people” to poison YOU, then it will spill out from you onto others around you and ruin your testimony and thereby ruin your ministry. Before this point, courteously disassociate from these so-called “peers.”

The third group is the hardest: Congregation members. If you have pioneered a church, then many members will have been there as long as you. If you have taken over a church, some members may have been there longer than you. If some of these “long timers” develop a bitter spirit such as we saw in Hebrews 12:14-15, you will have a battle on your hands. Always pray for God’s wisdom when confronting “toxic people” who are poisoning the minds and emotions of your congregation members.

I have found in many cases that “soulish ties” between congregation members can run deeper than the relationship between the pastor and congregation member at times. As hard as it may be, you must confront the person or persons who are causing strife and you must tell them, in no uncertain terms, that this cannot and will not be tolerated. If they will not listen to your pastoral counsel, you must ask them to leave. Be prepared to lose not only them, but also others who have been poisoned by their poor attitudes. This may cause a short-term loss of helpers and finances, but it will pave the way for long-term healthy growth in your congregation and ministry.

Pastor Terry Scheel – Fenton, MO
There are times one needs to cut off communications with toxic people. Two verses of scripture—Romans 16:17 and 1 Corinthians 5:11—support this advice.

Of course, we should believe the best of everyone, and it would be wonderful if there were no toxic people in the world, much less in the church. However, sad to say, there are some people who are toxic and simply refuse to repent.

In my life, there have been a few people that I have had to cut off.  One person in particular comes to mind. Over a 30 year period, this person (a Christian) has caused me many problems. To be fair, this person also has (at times) been a blessing to me. However, the negative has far outweighed the positive. At times, I would push this person out of my life (then feel guilty after being condemned by him for not walking in love and forgiveness) and I would eventually let him back in. He would never truly repent and would eventually poison my life again. It finally got to the point where his negative influence was adversely affecting my wife. Therefore, I had to totally stop any and all communications with him. I decided it is better to love someone from a distance than hate that person up close.