Whistleblowing glorifies Christ: challenging narcissistic leaders and toxic cultures

Recently, Michael Jensen wrote an Eternity article called “Loyalty is a dangerous virtue: The church needs whistle-blowers.” It’s an excellent article on how too many church leaders reject critical feedback and demand unconditional loyalty.

Michael reminds us that our ultimate loyalty is to God and not to any particular leader. The church needs whistleblowers who speak up to power and challenge abusive behaviour. I believe that whistleblowing often glorifies Jesus Christ. Christian whistleblowers challenge narcissistic leaders and toxic cultures and invite us to truly be the church.

Abusive Christian leaders

Narcissistic leaders

When I listen to the stories of abuse, I notice two things: narcissistic leadership and toxic cultures.

Abusive leaders are often narcissistic. They reject critical feedback and demand absolute loyalty. Let’s look at some examples of this kind of leadership.

John is the senior pastor of a church, and he loves to control the vision and direction of his church. He also loves being in the limelight and in front of a camera. One day John decides that the church needs a compelling public vision to attract new members. He’s sure that the best way to do this is by posting videos all over social media. Without consulting anyone, John develops a vision and mission statement over a couple of days, which he expects everyone to follow. He then films himself talking enthusiastically about this vision and posts these videos all over social media.

When they raise the matter with John, he is immediately defensive and angry. How dare they question this “biblical” vision?

When a few members of John’s church leadership team see these videos posted all over social media, they are very concerned. They can’t see how the vision looks anything like their church or is the right one for their church. They don’t understand why no one was consulted before this went public. So, they decide together that they need to talk with John about this.

When they raise the matter with John, he is immediately defensive and angry. How dare they question this “biblical” vision? Why are they so disloyal? Can’t they see that he only did this for the good of the church? Why do they always undermine him and ask negative questions?

John is so angry and hurt that he shuts down the conversation, and tells them not to talk to anyone else about their concerns. To do so would be disloyal and disobedient to God’s instructions to honour leaders! Talking about these things would hinder the work of God and would be the cause of future problems. If they were truly following Jesus, they would support, honour, and praise God’s leaders.

A few months later, John removes these members from his church leadership team. He’s convinced he’s doing the right thing. There is no place in God’s church for disloyalty, negativity, and a critical spirit.

Sadly, these stories are common in churches.

As Michael Jensen says, we need people who challenge such leaders and refuse to give uncritical loyalty.

We need whistleblowers who, like the prophet Nathan who challenged King David, challenge powerful and influential leaders when necessary.

Toxic cultures 

Abusive leadership often happens within toxic cultures. When you listen to people who’ve come out of abusive churches or organisations, they tell you that the system was toxic. The organisation behaved in a damaging way, and we can’t lay all blame at the feet of one leader.

Let’s pick up where we left off on the story of John and his church. A couple of years after our first story, Anthony, who is one of John’s associate pastors, questions the way John treats people. Anthony tries to talk with John about the way he shuts down and attacks the character of anyone who expresses a different view or who asks any questions of what John is doing.

John is hurt and furious. How dare Anthony question his behaviour? Why did he ever employ an associate pastor who is so disloyal and critical? John tells Anthony this behaviour will be addressed in his performance review and if Anthony ever raises such issues again, he won’t have his employment contract renewed.

But the reaction from the board is not what Anthony expected.

But Anthony decides he can’t ignore what’s going on. Too many lives are being damaged. So, after conversations with his mentor and wife, Anthony writes a respectful letter to the church board (leadership), asking them to help, to intervene, and to address this issue. Anthony points out that many people in the congregation are talking about John’s abusive leadership in private, but are afraid of the consequences of speaking up publicly.

But the board’s reaction is not what Anthony expected. One month later, the board demands Anthony meet with them. At the meeting, they tell Anthony that, after much prayer, they’ve agreed they can’t have someone on the pastoral team who is undermining John and stirring up trouble.

They give Anthony a letter of termination, and tell him they will provide him with two months’ pay plus an additional $40,000, but first, he must sign an NDA (a non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreement). Anthony is also told he must sign a ‘Deed of Release’ that prevents him from ever seeking damages through Fair Work or a court for the way he has been unfairly treated.

Anthony signs these documents, because he’s now lost his job, and he’s afraid he won’t be able to feed his family or send his children to school without this money.

Anthony feels traumatised by the experience and walks away from pastoral ministry.

Christian narcissists usually have two faces.

John’s abusive, narcissistic, controlling leadership continues. The toxic culture of the board and congregation support this leadership style. This church culture defends John at all costs, punishes those who speak up, and rewards silence and submission.

Such toxic cultures nurture and protect narcissistic leadership and reward uncritical loyalty.

Narcissistic leaders need to be challenged

I listened to a leadership program on the radio recently, and it tackled the issue of narcissistic leadership. Narcissists tend to do four things when people challenge their decisions or actions. First, they deny they’ve done anything wrong. Then, they blame others for the situation. They also feel indignant and angry that they’ve been challenged or criticised. Narcissistic leaders work assiduously to shore up perceived allies and isolate the complainant through carefully distributed character attacks. Finally, they retaliate – they perceive all critical feedback as a personal attack, and they will always retaliate.

Christian narcissists usually have two faces. The first is the moral, spiritual, and angelic face they show the world. The other is the controlling, uncompassionate, and abusive face they show their spouse, family, and those who are closest to them. They break the spirit of those around them, ‘gaslighting’ and blaming and manipulating people around them, and creating a position where they are no longer accountable or questioned.

Narcissistic leaders treat people as tools for their agendas, edifices, and egos. They view their closest allies (and supporters) with private condescension and as disposable items. That’s until those persons challenge them; then their behaviour becomes vicious and unforgiving.

Whether narcissists get away with their denial, blaming, anger, and irrational retaliations depends on the strength of will and conviction of those around them. The problem is that people around these narcissistic leaders have often been gaslighted and bullied to an extent they have no will or conviction left. So, whether people challenge the narcissist often depends on checks and balances outside the organisation.

There must be a mandate for regular, independent leadership ‘360s’ – workplace reviews by colleagues, congregation members and others who work with the particular leader.

There must also be external leaders available who have the power and will to act when damaging leadership behaviour is identified.

Want to be a leader that serves Jesus and his church and world well? Live with integrity and humility.

In my experience, it’s often the “little people” who speak to power and act with extraordinary courage and fortitude, and then, usually, pay a heavy price. The higher-profile, more senior leaders often stay silent, more interested in protecting their jobs, role, and status. When they do speak up, it is very often because people have finally stopped ignoring the voices of the “little people” – who have paid a heavy price. So, taking action now looks more virtuous, and the price is less costly.

Narcissistic, toxic, controlling leaders always demand loyalty (and they narrowly define loyalty). They then act like victims when people challenge them.

In a narcissist’s mind, they are always heroes or victims, but never perpetrators. This mindset is one of the reasons they feel so offended by whistle-blowers, and seek to slander the character of truth-tellers, and fight against truth-telling with such sincerity and conviction. They rarely see the damage they do to others, but always focus on the hurt they feel themselves.

Different leadership types deal with shame in particular ways. A narcissistic leader deals with shame by refusing to admit to themselves or anyone else that they’ve done anything wrong. They build a story for themselves and others that absolves them from guilt and saves them from shame. But, a healthy dose of shame plays a crucial role in empathy, in leading toward regret for one’s actions and attitudes, and in change.

The Bible defines Christian leadership by character, humility, service, and love.

Good leadership starts with repentance, humility and love, and a desire to listen and learn.

Want to live a life that matters? Want to be a leader that serves Jesus and his church and world well? Live with integrity and humility. Value people and relationships. Love God and be a servant. Be conformed to Christ.

What does the Christian faith do to breed so many unaccountable, domineering, narcissistic leaders?

The church needs whistleblowers who speak to power and challenge abusive and narcissistic leaders. But the toxic cultures which support them in churches and other Christian organisations must be confronted too.

Toxic cultures need to be confronted

Churches and Christian organisations are rife with narcissistic, controlling leaders. But these leaders don’t exist in a vacuum. They are often nurtured, protected, and enabled by groups of people.

What does the Christian faith do to breed so many unaccountable, domineering, narcissistic leaders? Is it the power we give them? Is it the fact they think they are representing God? Is it that they don’t get challenged on the way up because we avoid conflict? Is it because we don’t have enough models of servant leadership? Is it because we over-emphasise cognitive ability versus empathy? Is it because we don’t take supervision serious enough and fail to implement checks and balances? Is it because we put our leaders on a pedestal and don’t take Jesus’s words on servanthood serious enough?

But to be fair, narcissistic leaders are often charming and persuasive. They have a way of drawing persons and whole systems in, and then shaping these into a safe haven for their disorder, egos, and control.

Narcissistic leaders create harmful churches and organisational cultures and are created by them. The leaders usually exist within toxic (or compromised and co-dependent) groups and are inseparable from them. You can’t deal with the wounding leader without dealing with the damaging church or organisational culture that protects and enables them.

How do you know if your group, church, or organisation is toxic (or is becoming toxic)? In these organisations, service and love is being replaced by power and control. Dissenters are silenced or removed. Uncritical loyalty is demanded. Some people prop up the narcissistic leader and support or enable their behaviour. Others put their head down and try to be invisible or not rock the boat, to survive.

Avenues for addressing the problems are closed down, or it’s made obvious that the consequences for speaking up will be severe. Intimidation is tolerated. Emotional abuse is common (for example, minimising and denying problems, ‘gaslighting’ and blaming victims, and accusing or assassinating the character of whistleblowers).

Those who speak up are isolated or removed. Coercion and threats are used to control and silence people (either subtly or overtly).

Complicity runs deep.

When the behaviour of the narcissistic leader or the toxic culture is challenged, the peers of the leader (inside and outside the organisation) will often rally around the leader in support. These peers will then ignore or minimise the complaints, trying to sweep the issues under the carpet without dealing with them. The whole system becomes toxic.

In his Eternity article on whistleblowers, Michael Jensen rightly introduces the biblical metaphor of family as a corrective to more damaging and corrosive images. But it’s also worth noting that family systems theories tell us a lot about how family abuse operates and how family systems can support abuse.

We often focus on an individual abuser — someone who takes advantage of their spiritual, positional, or relational power. But, there is almost always a complex system supporting them (theological, structural, interpersonal, and other). Complicity runs deep.

I’m all for confronting individual leaders when needed. But the harder, more complex and dangerous, and possibly more necessary task is to confront the abusive theologies, systems, and structures that enable and even cultivate such leaders.

The loyalty we must challenge isn’t just loyalty to a person; it’s unwavering loyalty to a particular theology, institution, or system. Otherwise, you may end up just scapegoating the problem, and avoiding the real work of collective conviction, lament, repentance, and change.

The prophet Nathan indeed confronted King David on his abuse of power. A single prophet did challenge a particular king. May God give us more Nathans.

But most of the time, the prophets and the apostles confronted collective sin. Individual repentance is essential. But very often, a whole group, church, leadership team, Board, or organisation need to lament and repent and change. Toxic, sinful, harmful groups and their cultures need to be challenged by whistleblowers and by the gospel; not just individual narcissistic leaders.

Growing healthy leaders and church cultures

Recent (and ancient) high profile leadership failings show us that leadership idols and dysfunctions are severely damaging the church and its witness. These include narcissism and pride, and the desire for (and pursuit of) status, brand, power, control, popularity, and success.

It’s time for our servant-ministers to adopt a different posture and language among us and within the world – one patterned after Jesus Christ. And it’s time for our churches and Christian organisations to refuse to accept anything less than accountability, humility, service, and love as the defining features of our leaders and our collective life together. Our loyalty is firstly and primarily to Jesus Christ and no one else.

Our leaders, churches, colleges, and Christian organisations must nurture a way of life (discipleship) shaped around at least these things:

  • Love (including loving service).
  • Kindness (being a person and community of empathy, gentleness, patience, and compassion).
  • Humility (relinquishing brand, power, ego, status, and control).
  • Integrity (in every aspect of life).
  • Prayer (as the heart of Christian community, service, and ministry).
  • Collaboration (giving yourself genuinely to the Christian community, and to cultivating unity in diversity, and unity in dissension).
  • Faith (formed in trust and dependency).
  • Openness (to constructive and critical feedback).
  • Truth-telling (protecting and listening to whistle-blowers, and amplifying the prophetic voices and the voices of “the least of these brothers and sisters”).
  • Grace (honouring and esteeming others, and being gracious and forgiving).
  • Discipleship (as our primary vocation and call).
  • Vulnerability (weakness, transparency, vulnerability, and honesty).
  • Hope (putting your legacy and efforts into a different, Christ-centred frame).

What I’m describing here is the kind of leadership and community that honours Jesus and the gospel. Will we rise to the challenge? Will we follow our crucified, self-giving, servant Lord?

Rev Dr Graham Joseph Hill is the Interim Principal of Stirling Theological College, Melbourne, and is the author of several books.