Eight Steps to Leaving a Toxic Church or Cult Unscathed

church narcissistic religious leaders Apr 22, 2024

Are you thinking of leaving a toxic church, a spiritual community, or a workplace but not sure how to come out of it unscathed?

In this blog, I will give you eight tips on how to leave a toxic church without getting traumatized in the process.

You might be part of a church, ministry, or workplace, and the leader is toxic. What do I mean by toxic? 

Two Characteristics of a Toxic Leader

There are two characteristics of a toxic leader. 

Abuse of Authority

When leaders abuse their position of authority, they take themselves way too seriously. Instead of representing God, they act like a god. Rather than using the ministry God has entrusted them with to build up the people He sends to them, they use the people to build their own empires. Their work might be all about God, but God is not part of it. 

Hypocrisy

Toxic leaders demonstrate hypocrisy, meaning that their private lives do not reflect what they teach. They may have insightful biblical teachings. They may be gifted. They may be called by God. However, they are not living out what they teach. Their lives are a big sham. While these leaders often present a benevolent, loving, Christ-like facade to the public, they may be monsters after church. Perhaps only their closest staff, friends, and family know what they are truly like. They are hypocrites, the blind guides that Jesus warned us about.

These leaders may have begun their ministry following the leading of God and the power of the Holy Spirit. This likely is what attracted you to their community. But, sadly, they may have fallen prey to one of the three temptations every human faces: money, sex, and fame. 

It is also possible that the leader of your community started off with a hidden agenda. This kind of leader may be a covert passive-aggressive narcissist. These people are charming to the world, but behind closed doors, they are tyrants. They have a Jekyll and Hyde personality. You don’t want to mess with such people. They are masters at manipulation and gaslighting. Once you cross them, they can destroy your reputation. Nothing is out of bounds for them, and they will not hesitate to punish you by turning your friends against you. From personal experience, I can testify that this is an incredibly painful, isolating, and confusing experience. If you are concerned that you are dealing with a covert narcissist, you can read more here on how to spot a covert narcissist. I have also written an ebook on how to spot a narcissist at the beginning of a relationship, which you can access here.

Eight Tips on How to Leave

Since toxic leadership often penalizes those attempting to leave, it's crucial to master the art of exiting such environments smoothly. Below, I've distilled eight vital tips from my own experiences that can spare you significant anguish.

1. Don’t Rush It

Give yourself a window of time to make your exit. The longer you’ve been with an organization or community, the longer you should give yourself to leave. This might be a few months or even a year. Start doing little things each day to prepare for your exit. In environments where leadership is especially manipulative, abusive, or controlling, take care to keep things subtle and avoid making noticeable changes. This will allow you to be fully in control of when and how you leave rather than being at the mercy of the leader.

2. Keep Your Plans Quiet

If you are in a toxic community or workplace, do not tell anyone that you are thinking of leaving, and don’t share the feelings you are struggling with. In such toxic settings, voicing complaints typically leads to further manipulation, punishment, or isolation. Be on your guard to keep your issues with leadership to yourself. Do not wear your emotions on your sleeve. When you need to vent, pour your heart out to God, or consider keeping a journal.  Seek out a trusted individual from outside the community to confide in.

It can be difficult to keep your plans to leave a secret. You may feel that you are betraying your people. I also struggled with this feeling. If you find yourself grappling with this sense of betrayal, chances are you're a deeply empathetic person. You always seek the best in others, and you forgive easily. You have a lot of grace for people. However, if you are in a toxic environment, dealing with a cult leader or a covert narcissist, you are vulnerable to having your God-given gift of empathy exploited. While it may be uncomfortable, it is so important to keep these plans to yourself. Here’s why:

If everyone in your community is expected to follow and agree with a single leader, if there is no room for criticism, discussion, dissension, or debate, then your experience in this community is almost certainly riddled with gaslighting. Pause for a moment and reflect: Do you often find yourself doubting your own judgment, perceptions, and ability to discern things clearly in this environment? Have your sincere concerns or questions been brushed off, making it seem like the problem lies with you rather than with the issues you're raising? If yes, this is a pattern of gaslighting and manipulation. This kind of environment is highly toxic, and with time, it erodes your sense of self, your self-confidence, and your ability to have a personal relationship with God. 

These patterns also apply to the process of you leaving. You may have years of shared history with this community, but if you were to express your intention to leave, you would be met with a barrage of manipulation aimed at preventing you from leaving. These tactics could include instilling fear, using intimidation, enforcing punishment, or exerting control. In some instances, the trauma inflicted can be so severe that it effectively dissuades you from ever contemplating leaving again.

 Remember that the control that you want to escape is not only affecting you: The others in your community, people that you love, are also affected by it. This makes them much more likely to betray you than you would expect. Your decision to leave causes cognitive dissonance in them. 

To deal with that dissonance, they write you off as having gone off course or taken a turn for the worse. The risk of discovering the issues in the community and the consequences in their own lives is too high. So, instead, you become the villain in the story. Depending on how toxic the environment is and how much control the leader has over other members, you may be shunned by the entire community.

3. Seek Wise Counsel

Find and consult a counselor, coach, or mentor who is mature with wisdom. This person should be outside of the community you are leaving. Prayerfully ask the Holy Spirit to guide you to the right person. If you ask Him sincerely, He will guide you. 

Don’t be pressured by a narrative that issues with your community shouldn’t be discussed with outsiders. You may have heard leadership hint that outsiders don’t understand the community’s special culture or how God operates within the group. These comments elevate the group and suggest that outsiders are not mature enough to understand the dynamics within the group. They are a subtle but powerful tool to keep you quiet.

Take the plunge and trust the Holy Spirit to lead you to the right person. When you find a reputable, Holy Spirit-filled person in a helping profession, go and see them. Tell your story without holding anything back. It will take courage but do it. Share everything. Do not be afraid of what might come out of it. Trust God with this process. Breaking the power of silence and secrecy is a powerful step towards freedom and healing. 

After spending a long time in a controlling environment, it is not uncommon to be deeply afraid of being deceived or going astray. You may feel guilty for seeking outside counsel at all. If that’s you, take time to put your faith in God. Have more faith in God’s ability to speak to you through this counselor than in the devil’s ability to deceive you. Keep your eyes on God. The Bible says that God gives grace to the humble (James 4:6). As you make yourself vulnerable, you are humbling yourself before God and inviting in His grace. He is always found by those who earnestly seek Him.

4. Let Him Guide Your Path

Take time to be with the Lord and plan an exit strategy. If possible, leave your home for a few days and spend time elsewhere to process and develop an action plan. Recall the story of the wise men who visited Jesus to worship him as a newborn child. Those wise men sought God, and God warned them in a dream to change their plans and take a different route home. They obeyed; it likely saved their lives. Similarly, God spoke to Joseph, Jesus’ father, directing him when and where to go. If you also seek God and spend time in prayer, He is faithful to give you a route out of dangerous situations. 

5. Withdraw Slowly

Detach your heart, but carry on as usual. Withdraw little by little. If possible, a slow withdrawal is better than a sudden, dramatic end. A sharp cut-off can be traumatic and unnecessarily stressful. If you can avoid it, be slow and strategic about your departure. 

6. Build New Relationships

As you gradually disengage, begin forming connections with other people and nurturing new relationships. Be subtle about it, avoiding any obvious signs of your intentions. Take some time to do this before announcing your departure, keeping it confidential until you're ready. People might not understand your reasons for leaving, so it's essential to have a support network in place for after you leave, and in case things become difficult during the process. Your new friends can pray with you, and act as a buffer between you and the isolation that often accompanies leaving a toxic community. 

Before you leave, you may want to start looking for a new church or spiritual community to be your new home. Or, you may need to take a break from church altogether.

If you do need a break from church, I get it. I’ve been there. But I want to encourage you not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If you have had a bad experience with a Christian leader or community, remember there are many other healthy communities out there. Don’t give up on God. Don’t give up on Jesus. Don’t let a bad experience cause you to miss out on what He has for you. Take a break from church. Ditch the religiosity. But stay in touch with Jesus. He, too, hated the abusers and hypocrites, and He cares so much for you. More than anyone, He wants to help you and restore your life.

7. Eliminate Leverage

Before announcing departure, resolve any administrative or financial ties with the toxic leader or community. Minimize their ability to exert control over you during and after the transition.

If you have money owed to you, try to get it back. However, if getting your money back will keep you entangled for the long haul, it may be better for your emotional and spiritual healing to cut those losses and trust that God will provide for you. 

8. Depart with Dignity

Leave quietly. Don’t make a big scene or try to prove a point. Use your emotional and spiritual resources to rebuild your life rather than fight or seek justice. Let God be your avenger. He can do a much better job than you can. The more you try to seek justice for yourself, the more you prevent God from intervening on your behalf. The fact that you rebuild by God’s grace in silence speaks volumes against the community you leave behind. 

When you feel the urge for revenge, remember that the community you left expects to see your demise. In their minds, you failed; you are out of God’s favor and deserve to be punished. However, God is with you. Lean on Him as you rebuild. And, as He establishes you and you prosper, you will have your greatest vindication. So resist the temptation to confront them and get them to see their wrongs. Just focus on moving forward yourself and fulfilling your God-given purpose.

Conclusion

These eight steps are critical. Don’t underestimate how devastating the loss of a relationship can be, even relationships that were toxic, abusive, and controlling. No relationship is ever black and white. Even toxic relationships have good moments and fond memories. It is normal to need to grieve those good things. However, you cannot stay for the good moments at the expense of your spiritual and emotional health. There is nothing worth more than your freedom. You deserve the freedom to pursue and live out your God-given purpose. 

I pray for peace for you—peace that surpasses understanding. I pray for grace—so much grace. I want to encourage you to look to Jesus if you are afraid of leaving and losing all that you have. He is the God who provides way more than you can ever lose. He is the God who restores the years that the locusts have eaten, and He redeems abundantly. There is no hole so deep that God cannot get you out of.  

If you have left a toxic or abusive environment and are in a season of transition, I have a gift for you. This is training on three keys to navigate difficult transitions. These insights brought breakthroughs in my life when I went through difficult seasons, and I pray they will be an encouragement to you. 

Related Resources

Watch the video version of this blog here.

Spotting the Signs of a Toxic Church:

  • 10 Signs Your Church Is Turning Into a Cult. [Read] [Watch]
  • 10 Subtle Signs of Spiritual Abuse: How to Spot a Wolf in Sheep's Clothing. [Read] [Watch]
  • Is My Church Turning Turning into a Cult? 10 Signs to Watch For. [Read] [Watch]
  • Shepherd or Wolf? Telling True Leaders from Narcissists [Watch]
  • Malignant Narcissists in Ministry: How to Spot Their Covert Tactics [Watch] [Read]
  • The Addiction of Religious Narcissists: How They Pursue Narcissistic Supply Through Religious Camouflage [Read] [Watch]

How to Navigate a Toxic Church:

  • The Addiction of Religious Narcissists: How They Pursue Narcissistic Supply Through Religious Camouflage [Read] [Watch]
  • 5 Things You Must Do When There Is Spiritual Abuse in Your Church [Read] [Watch]
  • Can God Speak Through a Narcissist? How to Tell and How to Safeguard Yourself Against Deception [Read] [Watch]

Should I Leave a Toxic Church? 

  • 7 Steps to Leave a Toxic Church Unscathed [Watch]
  • Should I Stay or Leave the Narcissist? [Watch]

Religious Narcissism

  • A Religious Narcissist’s War with God; How They Claim to Love God but Covet His Position. [Read] [Watch]
  • The Addiction of Religious Narcissists: How They Pursue Narcissistic Supply Through Religious Camouflage [Read] [Watch]
  • Three Unforgettable Things Jesus Said You Should Do When You Encounter Religious Narcissists. [Watch]
  • Malignant Narcissists in Ministry: How to Spot Their Covert Tactics [Watch] [Read]
  • Can God Speak Through a Narcissist? How to Tell and How to Safeguard Yourself Against Deception [Read] [Watch]
  • How God Sees the Narcissistic Pastor [Watch]
  • Why God is Not a Narcissist [Watch]
  • How God Deals with a Gaslighter [Read] [Watch]

 Downloadable Resources 

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