5 Toxic Behaviors in the Pulpit

Preaching can be powerful when the pastor is fully submitted to the Lord and fully committed to pursuing excellence in the pulpit. Sadly, not every pastor meets these criteria.

Never do this during preaching

Over the course of a lifetime, pressures mount, circumstances change, and hearts can be led astray. When this happens to a pastor, the result can be an ugly mess that leaves a battered congregation in its wake.

Throughout my lifetime and ministry, I have been under the leadership of several different pastors. Some experiences were pleasant and others were more difficult. It was in the midst of a particularly difficult season in which I learned a valuable lesson, “The local church is only as healthy as its pastor.” If the pastor is healthy, the church will be healthy. If not, the church will struggle alongside its pastor.

As you continue to read, consider whether or not these toxic behaviors are present in your preaching. Perhaps you’re not a preacher, but you’ve been burned by a pastor who was exhibiting these behaviors. Please use this post to consider how you could best minister to that pastor.

1. Anger

Anger is perhaps the most toxic and volatile behavior a preacher can exhibit. It’s what happens when bitterness is allowed to fester and arrogance is left unchecked. When anger rears its ugly head in a sermon, you can be sure that it is the outworking of the pastor’s inner turmoil. The pastor’s heart is poisoned, and he’s spewing venom. Anger with a microphone is detrimental to the health of the church.

Not only that, it can also be difficult to spot at times. An angry rant from a dynamic preacher can be misinterpreted as passion or zeal, but there is a big difference between a passionate pastor who is able to inspire his congregation to love and purity and an angry pastor who is able to mobilize a cadre of militant “Christians”.

However, it’s when the anger turns inward that it becomes much more visible. When the yelling and name-calling are directed at church members, the pastor’s anger has reached critical mass and destruction is near. Pastors who consistently spew anger will eventually tear apart their congregation.

But where does all this anger originate? The reality is, most anger is rooted in bitterness. Some deep hurt has been neglected and allowed to infect the pastor’s mind. In the pulpit, anger is an outworking of the pastor’s inner turmoil.

Anger can take many different forms in a sermon, and all of them are toxic.

2. Arrogance

Proverbs 16:18 teaches us that, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” This means it’s dangerous for anyone to walk in arrogance, but when a pastor exudes arrogance from the pulpit, it is fully amplified and on display for all to see.

Like anger, arrogance can take many forms. When a pastor postures himself to be the hero in every sermon illustration, you can start to see the arrogance. When a pastor believes he has all the answers that nobody has ever thought of before, you’re seeing arrogance on display. Boasting about accomplishments or education can also be a form of arrogance.

Other facets of arrogance are revealed in several behaviors. When the pastor refuses to prepare sermons, he’s displaying an arrogant belief that God will speak through him regardless of the amount of time he spends in preparation. When he uses jargon or esoteric language, the pastor alienates his congregation. This behavior is often rooted in the pastor’s need for everyone in the room to know how intelligent he is and how much he knows. Arrogance can even be displayed when a pastor launches his vision irresponsibly. Whatever the expression of arrogance, it’s always toxic.

Arrogance destroys the soul, and a pastor’s arrogance will destroy his congregation.

3. Sarcasm

Sarcasm is our words working against us. It’s when we say one thing, but we mean another. At first glance, this might seem harmless. We could make excuses for sarcasm by saying things like, “That’s just my sense of humor.” But there are several deep implications to this toxic behavior.

For starters, it’s inconsistent with the Christian worldview. Sarcasm is literally saying one thing and meaning another. It’s being two-tongued. It is inconsistent with the biblical concept of being forthright. Christians are supposed to say what they mean and mean what they say. If sarcasm is a dangerous practice for followers of Christ, how much more dangerous is it for the pastor to model sarcasm in a sermon?

Second, it cuts people down instead of building them up. Sarcasm is intrinsically destructive. Its sole purpose is to cleverly manipulate irony in order to mock or ridicule someone. Sarcasm is completely foreign to the concept of encouraging one another, so when a pastor tries to preach 1 Thessalonians 5:11 (encourage one another) while employing sarcasm, he is inadvertently preaching the wrong message.

Lastly, it fosters a culture of bullying. That’s one of the main reasons sarcasm is not allowed among the leaders at my church. Sarcasm, at its heart, is bullying, and when the leaders are sarcastic, everyone who follows the leader will be sarcastic as well.

4. Shaming

Calling out your congregation is a big problem. Shaming them for not tithing or not attending regularly enough is a really bad idea. Nobody wants a pastor who belittles them or tells them they’re not good enough.

Shaming people for their sin is the quickest way to lose the attention of both sinners and saints. I’m not saying you shouldn’t address sin. You should. But don’t humiliate people from pulpit.

Sometimes, shaming takes the form of passive aggression. This is when you hear a snide comment that is intended to mock others in an indirect way. Shaming is always reprehensible whether it is done directly or indirectly.

I’m also going to include a remark about pastors who use their families as sermon illustrations. Please stop. Your wife and children are already highly cognizant that they live in a fishbowl where everyone is watching. Don’t take the people who are already under a magnifying glass and shine a spotlight on them. They’ll only get burned. Even if you’re intentions are good, you are more likely than not to cause them to feel shame and embarrassment.

Shaming is a serious misappropriation of spiritual authority. It is a toxic behavior that should be corrected immediately.

5. Passivity

The last toxic behavior on the list is passivity. As with the other toxic behaviors, passivity can take many forms. In some, it manifests itself the pastor’s laziness. If the pastor is unwilling to put in the time necessary to accurately and passionately proclaim the word of God, then he has grown passive and his congregation may suffer from a form of spiritual anemia.

Another common form of passivity is a pastor’s unwillingness to take a stand on the core issues of the faith. There are many issues on which Christians may disagree and continue fellowship, but where Scripture speaks clearly, the pastor should repeat.

Any pastor who refuses to affirm Scripture as true and boldly articulate its content is displaying toxic passivity, and this passivity will actively derail the church.

Summary Sentence

There are several toxic behaviors in the pulpit. Among them are Anger, Arrogance, Sarcasm, Shaming, and Passivity. Each of these traits is dangerous and each holds the potential to shipwreck both congregation and pastor.

Discussion Questions: To which of these toxic behaviors are you most prone? How have you experienced these behaviors from other pastors?