Toxic Leadership

Click here to listen to the audio recording of this 13-minute message, or watch the video on Facebook here (the message starts 26 minutes into the video). Today we celebrate the Festival of Christ the King (20 November 2022), though this message is going out a few weeks later.

Many who are reading this post may have experienced ‘toxic leadership’ – where people in leadership positions exploit, undermine or harm the people they lead. They poison the people they lead. We may have experienced this in the workplace, from our boss or manager – someone who was more interested in targets that people, who used you to climb up the corporate ladder, who did not recognise you as a real person. We may have experienced toxic leadership from our parents, who did not nurture and nourish us, but neglected us, put their own interests first, or even abused us. We may have experienced toxic husbanding or toxic wifing, where the marriage relationship breaks down instead of building up, discredits, maligns, abuses.

We may also have experienced toxic leadership in the church – from clergy, lay leaders, and influential people – who use their positions of leadership and authority in the church to advance their own agendas and to hurt and harm others, often in the name of God. Those with spiritual or church power may seek to oppress other members of a church community, through judging, excluding, humiliating and excommunicating. We see this most grotesquely in the sexual and other abuse of children and women and young men. This happens in many denominations, such as the Catholic church, the Southern Baptist Convention, Hillsong and the Anglican Church (to name some recent examples). Few churches are exempt from this, even our own parish.

The truth is that you yourself may be that toxic leader! Here we must critically self-reflect. Am I a toxic leader? Do I use others to get ahead? Do I put myself first? Do I harm or neglect those I am entrusted to care for? Let us not only point the finger at others; let us also critically examine ourselves.

In the Bible, some of the harshest words are reserved for spiritual and other leaders who are toxic.

Jeremiah 23 is a good example. God, through Jeremiah, confronts the leaders of Israel and says they are rubbish, corrupt leaders. That he will remove them. That he will take over their leadership. ‘Woe to the shepherds who are destroying and scattering the sheep of my pasture!’ declares the Lord. They exploited and harmed the very people God placed in their care; instead of protecting and shepherding them, they exploited and harmed them.

In the previous book in the Bible, Ezekiel 34: 1-6, 9-10, we get a similar message:

This is what the Sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no-one searched or looked for them. … therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.

Strong words from God through Ezekiel! The shepherds or leaders of Israel had not only failed as leaders, they had exploited and even eaten the flock that God had entrusted to them. And God therefore utters these damning words, “I am against you!” In gangsta language, “I will take you out”. And God says that he himself will take over as the shepherd of the people (Ezekiel 34:11-16):

I myself will search for my sheep and look after them … I will look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered … I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel … I will tend them in a good pasture … I myself will tend my sheep and make them lie down… I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak… I will shepherd the flock with justice.

Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd. In John 10, Jesus says that the hired hand (the part-time shepherd) doesn’t care about the sheep – he cares only for making a living. So when danger comes, he flees and abandons the herd. But, by stark contrast, Jesus describes himself as the good shepherd, who will lay down his life for his sheep, and who will leave the 99 to seek out and find the one who has got lost. This is what good shepherding is about – taking care, putting them first, putting yourself in danger, going out of your way to look after the one.

The key word that emerges through all these readings from Jeremiah 23, Ezekiel 34 and John 10, is gather: “I will gather my flock.” The abusive, toxic shepherds scatter their flock. This is what toxic leadership does – it deeply undermines and breaks cohesion, collaboration, togetherness, trust, safety and belonging – qualities that are essential for healthy teams. And so God’s first word is to gather together the flock, to reconstitute the community, to reconcile and unite. The image of the flock speaks to us about a healthy community under the protective and caring leadership of a shepherd. The First Testament refers to the Shepherd King – a king who is pastoral, caring and protective, and who invests in the holding together a flock. This image says that being a good King means to be a good shepherd – quite a contrast in status! Shepherding is a key role of Kings and leaders.

This shepherding is central to Jesus’ ministry – both when he walked this earth, and still today. He is quintessentially our ‘shepherd’. He gathers, reconciles and unites, he binds up and restores those who are wounded and broken, he stands up for us in the face of danger, he heals and saves, he welcomes and pardons, he brings peace and safety. This is what leadership is about, in both the church and the rest of the world.

Almost every person who reads or listens to this is a leader – as a parent, manager, church leader, older sibling – you are a leader. And leadership comes with great demands. And many of us here have experienced bad leadership from clergy, who have been bad shepherds who harm their flock.

Rev’d Marti and I have no desire to be bad shepherds. We are both deeply committed to walking in Christ’s path and being good shepherds. But we are human. We make mistakes, we run out of time, we forget. And sometimes we get irritable, frustrated or angry. Power may go to our head. We might become heavy handed, thinking an issue is more important than the people.

And when we do this, we invite you to challenge us. To remind us of our role. To bring us back to the path of Christ. If you can’t talk directly to us, complain about us to the Wardens, who are the Bishop’s eyes and ears in the parish. Speak up. Send us a WhatsApp. It might not be pleasant for any of us. But this is what we need.

And hold yourself accountable, as Christ himself did. Even in this moment as you read or listen to this, consider what kind of leader are you? Are you a good shepherd? And if not, challenge yourself and allow God to work a change within you, to take up a leadership role that reflects the values and principles of Christ our Shepherd King.

“The good Shepherd” mosaic in the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia, UNESCO World Heritage site, Ravenna, Italy, fifth century A.D. from https://angelusnews.com/faith/sunday-readings/solemnity-of-christ-the-king-year-a/

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