Silent Clergy Killers: ‘Toxic’ Congregations

Source: Huffington Post, with a hat tip to the American Orthodox Institute.

They are called “clergy killers” — congregations where a small group of members are so disruptive that no pastor is able to maintain spiritual leadership for long.

And yet ministers often endure the stresses of these dysfunctional relationships for months, or even years, before eventually being forced out or giving up.

Adding to the strain is the process, which is often shrouded in secrecy. No one — from denominational officials to church members to the clerics themselves — wants to acknowledge the failure of a relationship designed to be a sign to the world of mutual love and support.

But new research is providing insights into just how widespread — and damaging — these forced terminations can be to clergy.

An online study published in the March issue of the Review of Religious Research found 28 percent of ministers said they had at one time been forced to leave their jobs due to personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of their congregations.

The researchers from Texas Tech University and Virginia Tech University also found that the clergy who had been forced out were more likely to report lower levels of self-esteem and higher levels of depression, stress and physical health problems.

And too few clergy are getting the help they need, said researcher Marcus Tanner of Texas Tech.

“Everybody knows this is happening, but nobody wants to talk about it,” Tanner said in an interview. “The vast majority of denominations across the country are doing absolutely nothing.”

A secret struggle

The issue of clergy job security will be front and center next month when delegates to the quadrennial General Conference of The United Methodist Church considers a proposal to end “guaranteed appointments” for elders in good standing. The church’s Study of Ministry Commission says clergy job guarantees cost too much money and can focus more on the clergyperson’s needs rather than the denomination’s mission. On the other side, many clergy express fears that eliminating job security may lead to arbitrary dismissals. A major concern is that clergy will be judged based on their performance at “toxic” congregations, churches with so much internal conflict that it is difficult for any minister to have success.

The clergy have good reason to worry. A small percentage of congregations do seem to be responsible for a large share of congregational conflict.

Seven percent of congregations accounted for more than 35 percent of all the conflict reported in the National Congregations Study. And that conflict often had a high price.

In the 2006-2007 National Congregations Study, 9 percent of congregations reported a conflict in the last two years that led a clergyperson or other religious leader to leave the congregation.

It is difficult to get specific denominational figures, Tanner said. Many churches do not keep records indicating when a pastor was forced out as opposed to leaving voluntarily. And not only is it difficult to get clergy to open up about such painful experiences, many ministers are forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement to receive their severance package.

In their study, Tanner, Anisa Zvonkovic and Charlie Adams recruited respondents through Facebook groups relating to Christian clergy. Four-fifths of the 582 ministers participating — 410 males and 172 females from 39 denominations — ranged in age from 26 to 55.

The participants were asked whether they ever left a job

“due to the constant negativity found in personal attacks and criticism from a small faction of the congregation.”

Twenty eight percent of the respondents said they had been forced from a ministry job. Three-quarters had been forced out once, and 4 percent had been forcibly terminated three or more times, the study found.

Even one time, however, is more than enough.

A heavy toll

Ministers who were forced out of their jobs because of congregational conflict were more likely to experience burnout, depression, lower self-esteem and more physical health problems, the online study found.

In addition, more than four in 10 ministers forced out of their jobs reported seriously considering leaving the ministry.

A separate survey by Texas Tech and Virginia Tech researchers of 55 ministers who were forced out of a pastoral position found a significant link with self-reported measures of post-traumatic stress disorder and generalized anxiety disorder.

“This study shows that not only is forced termination an issue, but a cruel one that has very distressing effects on those who experience it,” Tanner, Zvonkovic and Jeffrey Wherry reported in the current issue of the Journal of Religion and Health. “It is important that Christian organizations recognize the problem and implement steps to increase awareness and solutions.”

Months of suffering traumatic and demeaning psychological and emotional abuse as they are slowly being forced out of their pulpits due to congregational conflict, Tanner said, “is a really, really horrible process.”

What makes it even worse is the complicity of silence that prevents clergy from getting the help they need to go forward.

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.


  1. This is a real and terrible threat to not only the clergy and their respective families, but also a blow to the parishes themselves. Enacting change in any parish is a slow process, and when a small handful use mischief, rumors, lies and throw money as a way to make others see their point it takes away from God’s love and growth of the parish. It manipulates the good and causes great harm to everyone else. In some parishes, the unruly few will use their voices to try to coerce others and manipulate the structure of a parish by usurping the clergy’s authority via councils, elders and even chancellors and bishops. This is an all to familiar and scary aspect of the priesthood which very often is concealed. Many change vocations, parishes or submit to early retirement feeling inadequate in serving the Lord. Their defeat is nothing short of giving into the evil one, but the clergy are only defeated when there is no support or respect offered by the structure… So, why stay? If you see this in your parish, before you judge your clergy member, look at the whole picture and find out who in that picture is truly the victim and offer them emotional support by turning away from the gossip.

    • Fr. John A. Peck says:

      My own wife said it best – whether congregations or clergy, unless there are consequences to their actions, nothing will change.

      And nothing will.

  2. Dear readers,

    Christ is risen!

    in the 25 years of my priesthood I only met with one such parish. And it was my last one. I felt like such a failure that I retired 15 years earlier than I had planned.

    A handful of wealthy parishioners felt that their financial contribution to the parish gave them the right to manage it and the pastor was not a spiritual father but a “sacramental vending machine” You put money in and out pop the sacraments.

    In this parish very little was heard of repentance and love but hours and hours were spent talking about money.

    I fought against this with all my might but when my matushka and children began becoming targets and my health took a dramatic swing (including a heart attack) I decided enough was enough. They wanted me gone and I obliged them.

    I would point out that I received no support during this painful ordeal from my bishop or other diocesan sources.

    I will not take another parish, God forgive me, I simply could not go through (or put my family through) something like that again.

    Please forgive me for assuming an anonymous persona, I have no wish to re-open old wounds or create any scandal for the parish, bishop or jurisdiction.


    Fr. X

    • Fr. John A. Peck says:

      Fr. X,

      Thank you for writing. God bless your good work and ministry. Many of us, myself included, have labored in such circumstances, and labored hard. Your work is not for naught.

      I believe every clergyman, and ESPECIALLY EVERY BISHOP, should read “The Clergy Killers” before ever receiving the laying on of hands. This should be a requirement.

      Please remember us in your holy prayers and may the Lord strengthen you.

      • Instead of writing that the bishops are “sadly” oblivious to the problems in their parishes, you’d be more accurate to write that they are “sinfully” and sometimes “willingly” oblivious to these issues. I and several other members of my now former parish sent letter after certified letter to the bishop and the dean of missions regarding our Jim-Jones-wannabe priest and received NO response. Are we really supposed to believe that the bishop is such a martyr to a crushing schedule and “spread so thin” that he simply cannot respond to legitimate concerns that a mentally ill, hastily ordained, former-cultist of a priest is endangering the souls subject to him? If that is indeed the case, then such a bishop ought to be sacked and sent back to the monastery.

        Having listed “The Clergy Killers” as required reading, perhaps you should add “Toxic Faith” to the list. The self-serving article above uses the word “toxic” several times to describe restive laymen. However, “Toxic Faith,” which is the magesterial work on toxic faith systems, identifies clergy as being the origin of toxicity in parishes. The book’s chapter called “The Five Roles in a Toxic Faith System” describes PERFECTLY the awful OCA mission parish in which my friends and I found ourselves.

        Regarding the article above, I laughed out loud when the author lamented over the strings attached to a clergyman’s severance package. One should be so LUCKY to receive a severance package! I have been laid off from the aerospace industry three times over the last 14 years and have never ONCE received a severance package. Welcome to reality, clergymen.

        Finally, it must be noted that part of the genius of Protestantism is the very fact that a congregation CAN fire its misbehaving clergy. Even a theologian as celebrated as Jonathan Edwards (Congregationalist) found himself fired by his church when he–in violation of Mt 18:15-17–enumerated from the pulpit the sins of several of the congregants in the pews. My grandmother’s Southern Baptist congregation recently fired a minister who declared himself above such rudimentary pastoral duties as visiting the sick and the elderly. The deacons contacted the SBC saying, “Send us another one when you find one. In the mean time, we’ll let the youth minister serve as interim pastor.” Practical. Biblical. American. The Eastern Orthodox would do well to learn from that example.

        • Deborah says:

          Paul, I’d like to point out that when you got laid off, you were eligible for Unemployment. You were able to receive assistance from the government to help continue to pay your bills. Priest are considered independent and are not eligible for Unemployment. Also, their pay is usually so low that they live paycheck-to-paycheck, so there is nothing left when they are released. There is no money to continue to pay rent/mortgage, bills and food. Clergy reality IS very different from layman reality and some sort of severance pay keeps them from being homeless and hungry.

          • Fr. John A. Peck says:

            If we get a severance – which is never.

            We are in this state right now, as I prepare to leave Prescott and must find work as soon as possible.

  3. Steve Robinson says:

    After being Orthodox for 13 years and dealing with nothing but mentally ill or borderline personality disordered priests and being accused of being a “priest killer” because I have eventually called out the elephant in the living room that others in leadership, including the bishops, were too invested, oblivious, co-dependent or fearful to speak up about unless someone else did, I have to say it is not so black and white as “clergy good/laity bad” as the article seems to imply. If someone has been run out of ministry positions 2, 3 or 4 times it might indicate an issue with the cleric that s/he is not willing to face or admit. (I was forced out of ministry 32 years ago, and it took me decades before I got over my “martyr complex” and could admit it really was as much my fault as the elders’). There is a difference between dealing with “normal” criticism, nay saying and “office politics” and dealing with “toxic personalities”. Leadership, both lay and clerical, if they are healthy, will navigate normal adversarial situational issues and come out OK. Toxicity is when there are serious issues that prevent one or the other from being flexible, forgiving and able to negotiate, compromise and accept criticism and direction. I was beginning to think I was just a cynic until I’ve met and served with healthy clergy the past months. Are there toxic “clergy killers”? Yes. Are there clergy that are toxic? Yes. It behooves both the clergy and laity to be a lot more careful about taking assignments and discerning who is being assigned to the parish. The symbiotic unhealthy dysfunction is a parish wanting someone at the altar at all costs and a man wanting to be at an altar at all costs. I am not a believer that enduring spiritual abuse, clerical egomania and lack of sound judgment is a “spiritual martyrdom” and a virtue on a parish or “lay person in the world” level. I understand the focus of the article is for clergy. But before a priest starts feeling like a martyr because he is being “persecuted for righteousness sake”, he needs to take a good, long and hard look within. And on the other hand, before laity judge, condemn and criticize a cleric they need to take a good, long, hard look within. Chances are somewhere in the middle is a place both can learn and grow spiritually. God bless both the clergy and parishes that have endured being beaten down by the other without good cause.

    • Fr. John A. Peck says:

      Steve, thanks for the excellent insight.

      Yes, there are toxic clergy, as well as parishes. And there are even good clergy matched with good parishes who aren’t a good match, which creates a toxic environment. All in all, these are the result of a failure in appropriate management and leadership by, sorry to say it, bishops. Rather than fill slots, parish assignments should be made with many factors in mind.

      The purpose of this website (as if anyone could not tell) is for those considering a vocation – to inform them of what they can honestly expect, and to remove any pie-in-the-sky romantic idea of serving in Holy Orders. Far from grinding enthusiasm out of candidates, we want to inspire them by speaking the truth about the battlefield. Thanks for helping us do it right!

      • Steve Robinson says:

        I agree that a lot of the issues I’ve faced and seen have come down to the episcopal oversight (and “OVERSIGHT” is probably the correct term). From ordination to assignment to removal it falls into the lap of the Bishops. Unfortunately it seems the Bishops, because they are spread so thin or for whatever reason, don’t know their parishes nor their aspirants nor their priests well enough to make informed decisions. A man aspiring to the priesthood should know that he is being ordained by someone who barely knows him and will assign him to a work that the Bishop barely understands to replace someone the Bishop probably screwed up in the first place. I hate to sound so cynical, but what the heck, I’m a layman and I can say this stuff and I know most of the priests out there would probably “like” this comment if they could do it anonymously.

  4. Keep in mind, the church operates more as a business the higher up one goes. Bishops are more concerned with cash flow to go to causes they deem necessary for the times. That type of management makes the parishes operate like a business and finding right fits (clergy) for parishes is not part of the hierarchal equation as much as filling immediate needs or vacancies to keep the finances in check. Remember, this is a site to aid current and future clergy and make them better able to handle the stresses as well as the positive aspects of the priesthood which seminaries seem to miss the mark at teaching. This is not a place to bash clergy for doing what they believe is right in situations where there is no spiritual nor paternal guidance as the structure is taught scripturally in seminary (in the most idealistic way). The article is specific to congregations that cannot cope with the clergy, usually over change or whatever the bishop sends down to the clergy as orders to be carried out. The clergy member is basically the sacrificial lamb, which both bishop and parish fail to notice how Jesus is that sacrificial lamb for all of us. I’m sorry some haven’t experienced the best situations with clergy, but the good ones are out there and abundantly so, and these are the ones that don’t need to join Jesus on the cross for doing what they believe is right for the parish as a whole. If we judge a priest or anyone for that matter, we are taking that ‘job’ away from The Judge in whom we will all ultimately be judged by. Let the parish be concerned by finances, and let the priests be concerned with us attaining salvation, and let the hierarchs focus on spiritual growth and form committees that attend to financial affairs. For those seeking the priesthood, may God guide your path and keep you safe, strengthened and preaching His love & truth always.

  5. Joe mama says:

    I’ve been in some toxic congregations with some good old boy clubs, and seen truly humble pastors and wives get chewed up and spit out- once peopl’s pipe dreams weren’t met by the new pastor. This is totally different than the scenario Steve r is describing- where the lay people are decent.

  6. Joe mama says:

    I wondered in these scenarios if people who complain and run out their pastors, really prayed for and supported them, genuinely.
    The burden of being a pastor and family is massive…
    Heavy rests the head that wears the crown…

  7. A good article!

    I am a cradle Orthodox but have in the past two decades worked as choir director/organist for various Protestant churches, from Episcopal to Unitarian to Presbyterian. It has been my experience that congregations are never toxic by themselves. It’s the individuals that infect them, and sometimes that individual is the pastor.

    Looking back a numerous internal conflicts of various churches I have worked for, there is one trend that stands out, one factor that has been common to them all: self-importance.

    A good intention to be helpful, generous, and charitable can easily turn into a trap of self-aggrandizement. Don’t you know how a desire to help others quickly turns into an ego trip? And don’t you know how after giving a large sum of money we all feel a nagging need to be praised for that? For the parishioners and the clergy alike, it is a desire to be and to feel important, to prove to themselves and others that they matter.

    If we make an effort for something to happen, most of the time driven by our desire to see it happen, but if nothing happens after that, we internalize that as a personal failure. If we are wise, we accept the failure and keep on going. If we are not, we fight – mostly with others, eventually blaming them for the failures. And if we don’t fight in the open but keep the bitterness inside, we generate toxicity that infects the church environment.

    The only way to detox a church is for EVERY member of the body – parishioners and clergy included – to look inside themselves and HONESTLY try to answer this question: “What is really behind everything I do?”

    • Fr. John A. Peck says:

      Ah, if only we were all perfect!

      • We are not perfect, and we will never be; but with toxicity, there is mechanism to any poison. Figure out its essence and come with a specific antidote before the poison spreads. If you are a pastor, it’s basically your fault as a leader that some sheep have started snapping their jaws at you.

        • Fr. John A. Peck says:

          Yes, Paul – just as it is always, and without exception, the husband’s fault in any break up or divorce. I laud your concern for the nature of such distortions in healthy pastoral relationships, but your conclusions are over simplistic and naive. There are toxic clergy, but there are many good clergy suffering at the hands of toxic parishioners. Not every circumstance is the fault of the pastor (parishioners lie regularly, and some are so twisted that they hover waiting for a chance to pounce on the honest pastor. Most resist any attempt at pastoral correction), and not every parishioner is blameless before the Lord. There are far more toxic parishes than toxic clergy.

          • Dear Father John,
            Thank you for correcting me. I hope I will never encounter such a toxic parish or choir or orchestra. And if I will, then it’s God’s way of teaching me a thing or two about how to relate to people.

          • Fr. John A. Peck says:

            May God protect us both (indeed, all of us) from anything spiritually toxic – it is so hard to heal the wounds of toxic relationships, whether they be clergy (plenty of those) or lay (plenty of those). God keep me from toxicity to others!

  8. I agree with Fr. John. It can be on either side. However, with that being stated, I’ve seen it start with ‘a’ parishioner who doesn’t like any changes or advancement to better the body of the church. In a Greek parish, it usually is the conversion to English to appeal to youth and converts to the faith, as well as American-born Greek Orthodox. When a change like that is instituted, one person starts being the wolf in the fold – spreading lies, scandal, and using influence/friendships/koumbaro/a relationships to attack the clergy member who is just trying to improve the worship life of the parish by appealing to the masses. Soon, like a cancer, there are more poisons with more gossip and less true worship going on. Any physician will recommend removing a cancer, but that is not something easily done in a parish. Any actual shepherd will tell you to destroy the wolf before it devours the flock – those sheep dogs will kill any unknown animal (man or beast) that come near its flock.

  9. James Carter says:

    I was call By GOD to do his work. His voice was so real that it frightened me. I told GOD that I did not want to this for fear of doing it wrong. He again told me that is why he wanted me. After that moment, I lead a Church for seven years only to walk away. I am a teaching pastor and I only teach the Bible without my opinion so as to not miss lead anyone or offer a false teaching. I was thorough in my presentation and alway allow the Holy Spirit Lead. I always prayed to GOD to reduce me and let His voice speak out. I was taken down, over authorized and miss interpreted in numerous occassions which led to my departure. One of the last things I did was write an article on “How to kill a Church” in which was recieved by many.
    I was once approached by the EOC for priesthood. I really never responded because of my pain. I loved what I did in the church and felt joy. I have felt spiritly dead inside for a long while and lost.

  10. ray penn says:

    I found this site as a result of wondering if there was a site that actually listed churches that have proven themselves to be clergy killers. Certainly sites exist for secular institutions; sites like Glassdoor.

    I left parish life for academic life and found my self vowing never to return to parish life. As a university prof. I had power (no show up to class no get passing grade). Not possible in parish life where it is an insult to remind non-attenders of their vows. As a prof. I had duties that were observable, measurable and achievable.

    After 24 years in academia I agreed to be an interim pastor while still teaching. I was seduced into believing that the congregation wanted new ideas, etc. etc. and left teaching. After two years I realized that the those who had not scruples about verbally hurting others really ran the church, wanted to grow only if they could find middle class folks with much money just like them. I could not find the wormhole back to the 50s. I realized I could not put up with trivial disputes, a methodist church that really was a baptist church when you pealed back the veneer.

    My only sisals affirming pastoral experience was as a bivocational pastor: teaching and ministry. I advise all seminary students to consider the tent making ministry option.

    One of my friends had the ultimate “killer” experience. A church member came by and showed him a trunk filled with frozen meat. He told my friend that it was “all for you.” As they loaded the meat into a wheelbarrow to take into the house the church member stated: “we were gone for a week and sometime during that time the electricity went off; I didn’t want to give this meat to my family but I thought you could use it.” My friend smiled, thanked the parishioner, took the meat behind the house and burned it. He called me in tears. I had no magic words.

    I wish to remain anonymous simply because to ID me would be to ID my friend. X


  1. […] As a person who served two toxic Baptist parishes and two good Orthodox churches I found this article compelling. Those two toxic parishes have definitely affected my own willingness to take on a parish […]

  2. […] complaints priests have about difficult parishes and parishioners are legion. As with complaints of the laity about their priests, some are so well-founded as to […]

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