4 Ways to Recover from Toxic Leadership

Carl Dodd
February 20th, 2020

Youth ministry was not my first career. In fact, for most of my childhood I had never even imagined the idea of attending—let alone working for—a church. At the ripe old age of 16, I headed into an apprenticeship in the uranium enrichment business. When I was 19, I started having responsibility for working on radiation monitoring equipment. It wasn’t exactly a direct career path into youth ministry—but that is a story for another day.

Working with radiation teaches you a thing or two about the danger of toxicity. It was literally all around me during my regular workday. It started when I put on my work clothes and pinned on my personal exposure monitor. I would work on systems designed to monitor the air around me. I definitely made sure I washed my hands well before eating my lunchtime sandwiches. Each day ended by placing my hands in a machine that would check to make sure I was not covered in any radioactive particles, and my health was monitored by the medical team weekly. I understood the dangers of toxicity.

My first job not only taught me to safely avoid harm from dangerous physical elements, it also taught me four unforgettable things about how to handle and recover from toxic team dynamics.

Toxicity can build up without you knowing it. 

We all experience daily exposure to toxins (including radiation!). These background levels are so small they don’t usually have an effect on us. But gradual, increased exposure can build up in our systems and make us ill.Just like we can see physical effects from our exposure to toxicity over time, our spirit will start to feel the long-term effects of harmful interpersonal relationships.

Over the years I’ve sat down with and coached many youth leaders facing difficult times in their ministry—often from the frustration of unclear expectations, the pain of serving a leader that bullies, or the disappointment of being caught up in church politics. For many, this toxicity didn’t suddenly one day. Rather, it was a gradual buildup, and they felt its symptoms long before they identified its cause.

Perhaps you’re operating with a baseline level of anxiety as you wait nervously for that next email to come through or fear being called out in the next a staff meeting. Or maybe you’re feeling inexplicably exhausted, or irritable around your family. It might be hard to put your finger on what is wrong—but you know something isn’t right. I encourage you to monitor your personal exposure to leadership toxicity. Think about the conditions that you are ministering in, and weigh them against biblical standards for leadership (1 Timothy 3 is a great place to start). This can give you a healthier baseline to measure against as you consider if you are being exposed to unhealthy levels of worry and stress.

Avoid exposure. 

Here’s a simple truth that applies both to physical bodies and personal relationships: When you are trying to overcome toxicity, you should avoid even more exposure to toxicity. 

You probably have a mental list of reasons you’re keeping yourself in that toxic situation, even though you know you shouldn’t be there. But here’s the problem: When we’re surrounded toxic leadership, we run the danger of spreading that toxicity by carrying it into our attitude and conversations with others. We find ourselves unable to shake the pain of our experiences as we talk with others. Our thoughts turn negative, and we may even be tempted to play the same games we see modeled by an unhelpful leader.

Find people and places that help you detach from those toxic situations. Surround yourselves with friends, coaches, supporters and family who allow you to leave the toxicity behind…even if for only a moment of respite.

Go on a detox. 

As with any toxic exposure, it is important to get it out of your system. I’ve seen too many people, myself included, take the scars of toxicity into other ministry experiences and relationships. Strong, confident leaders can end up second-guessing even the most basic of ministry decisions. Caring people get in the habit of responding in uncaring ways. It is sadly true that hurt people often end up hurting other people.

Our experiences are the real deal, and they can leave scars in our life if we don’t heal properly. Though it’s not always possible to remove ourselves from a toxic situation as quickly as we’d like to, you can look for people who help you process your experience and allow you to move forward. Find a trusted person—preferably a therapist or counselor—to talk to. And if you have moved, or are moving to a new ministry situation, don’t take the toxicity with you. It doesn’t belong to you.

Healing often isn’t simple. But we have a Healer that we can trust, who surrounds us with people of care. Ask those people to support you in prayer. Open up the Scriptures and some good ministry books (after I experienced a period of toxicity, I read through Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark Devries), engage yourself in conversation with wise counsel, and take the time to heal.

Protect yourself, protect others. 

You get to choose your next steps forward, you have the option to define how you want to avoid toxic leadership in the future. When I was working in the nuclear field, we would think about the situations we were going into, and how to keep ourselves safe. It is no different as you transition into new places and situations. Once you’ve begun to heal, you have an opportunity to do things differently next time. Engage some critical thinking, and learn from what you’ve experienced. Use those experiences not to breed negativity, but to create plans for your safety and health. Be wary of toxic situations moving forward. Find ways to protect yourself, protect those you care about, and protect those whom God has called you to serve.

When toxicity overwhelms, too many finish their race early, leaving their calling to ministry both hurt and broken. What would it look like to break the cycle, to find healing, and to raise up a generation that leads differently? I believe we can overcome our past experiences to lead with care, with the heart of a pastor and the calling of a prophet.

If you are hurting and in need of God’s care, my prayer is that you’re able to seek God and find people who will surround you in care. Toxicity isn’t something that we should continue to carry forward. It’s a lesson to learn from, not a place to call home.

Dealing with a difficult leadership situation or healing from a tough transition? Check out Four Ways To Recover From A Church Break-Up and When Church And Leaders Go Wrong.

Carl Dodd

Carl Dodd has been ministering to children, youth and their families for 20 years. He has served in local, regional and national projects. He is currently Head of School at Eastside Academy in Seattle, a Christian High School working with at-risk students through counseling and recovery support. Carl also leads Youth Crisis First Responders (www.youthcrisis.org), equipping churches and ministries to respond to students experiencing times of crisis. Carl is married to Rachel and enjoys the outdoor life with their two girls in the lakes and forests of Washington.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.