toxic systems.

Toxic [tox-sik]

Adjective

1. of, pertaining to, affected with, or caused by a toxin or poison.

2. acting as or having the effect of a poison; poisonous.  

3. causing unpleasant feelings; harmful or malicious.

dictionary.com

These past few weeks we learned of over 700 cases of sexual assault and abuse covered up by leadership in the Southern Baptist Convention in different ways through the years. These were only the reported ones and we all know how many victims must remain silent. On the heels of the Catholic Church’s cruel and damaging cover-up of thousands of perpetrators, it’s yet another reminder of why many are fleeing the systems they once ascribed to, who are done with “church”, and are finding health outside of the toxic systems they were once part of.

So many of our systems are, indeed, toxic. 

Harmful.

Damaging.

Oppressive.

Yet, for many inside of them the practices, processes, structures, ways-they-do-things are normal and accepted. In fact, when threatened, people inside toxic systems get defensive, protective, and downright mean. 

I am tired of seeing so many toxic systems appear to thrive for so long. 

I am tired of seeing unhealthy patriarchal, hierarchical, homogeneous systems continue to be replicated. 

I am tired of watching churches lead by charismatic, narcissistic male leaders appear to thrive by world’s measures—budgets and butts in seats—while many people who live inside them shrivel.

I am tired of so few examples of healthy leadership.

I am tired of seeing a toxic leader in the highest position in the United States of America and millions praise his bullying, lying, and narcissism as “strong” and “what the world needs right now.”

Yeah, I’m tired of toxic systems!

I am guessing a lot of you are, too. Many of us lived in them for far too long and didn’t even recognize it until it had done a lot of damage. 

There are a few characteristics of toxic systems I wanted to highlight today, core things that seem to be present in these types of unhealthy groups, organizations, systems, movements.

  1. Hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian, homogeneous leadership. Many churches—especially conservative evangelical, charismatic, and fundamentalist ones—love leaders who “kick ass and take names”, who exhibit what they call “godly manhood” and lead with certainty and power. It’s fascinating how valued this is in “biblical” circles, when the biblical teachings of Jesus and church structures point to something vastly different, We also know it’s just as prevalent in organizations, political structures, and families as well. 
  2. Being part of the “winning” team. This can take different forms but for the most part, it’s the “we’ve got what others don’t have” and “we are better than everyone else” mentality. Humans like to be on the winning teams, and toxic systems aim at that base human desire and use it to their advantage.
  3. Shame-infused teachings and culture. You know you’re in a toxic system when you feel shame for views that diverge from leadership or for not ever being obedient, spiritual, or godly enough or even for feeling good about yourself in any way (which is a sure sign of “self-centeredness” in many toxic religious groups). Toxic systems use shame as a tool, including jacked-up theology and phrases like “God says…” or “The Bible is clear about…” which leads people to believe that if they differ in opinion, somehow they’re not following God. 
  4. Fear. Many fear losing our place in the group, being called out, landing on the “wrong” side of an issue, and being shamed, named, or blamed. Fear permeates toxic systems and is why so many victims of misconduct, abuse, misuse of power and other true offenses often don’t come forward. This fear is usually not unfounded; boat rockers and status-quo-breakers end up on the outside of the camp when we share our truth. 

Many of you reading have experienced a toxic system and are currently in the process of de-toxing. It’s a brutal process because many tenets of these systems have been engrained in us and often we don’t know quite what to do with new-found freedom.

Those healing from toxic systems often experience some of these symptoms:

  1. Doubting ourselves. We wonder if we’re being deceived, rebellious, or self-centered in our desires for freedom and don’t know if we can trust what’s stirring up inside of us. We’re so used to having others tell us what to think, believe, and do we often feel untethered and confused. 
  2. Minimizing past experiences. We sometimes gloss over the realities of the damage we experienced in toxic systems, thinking it wasn’t all that bad or wondering why we are struggling so badly, not recognizing how much the deeper shame-infused theological constructs have damaged how we view ourselves, others, God. 
  3. Loss of identity. When we exit toxic systems, we don’t know quite who we are anymore. We know how to identify ourselves as miserable wretches or part of a certain group that believes particular things but apart from it we wonder, “Who are we, really?” 
  4. Fear.We don’t know how to live into the values of freedom, mystery, and diversity because we’ve never been taught to. It’s scary to be without the framework of a familiar system, no matter how toxic. 

I am sure you can add others, too.

If you exited a toxic system and are now healing, my heart is with you as you heal, grieve, and find integrity and transformation in deep places.  

If you are in a toxic system and are beginning to recognize it for what it is, may you can find courage over time to leave it. It will be scary, lonely, disorienting, but health is possible!  

If you are doing the work of creating new or healthier living systems, I am incredibly thankful for you! Keep on keeping on despite the costs, the lack of results in the worlds eyes, the loneliness. We need more of you!

For all of us, may health prevail. 

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Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life and online. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

6 Comments

  • What you call toxic, I call broken—we all are, so therefore, our systems our broken. Healing, for me, has come from a relationship with my Creator. It is the greatest love affair—unconditional love and always faithful even when people and systems are not. Just my two cents…

    Reply
  • A reckoning is coming… in fact, its already started. A great deal of Gen Xers (ourselves included) decided to protect our millennials (and whatever gen is next) from organized religion. We pulled “church” out of our life like a sword in the gut and moved on. Oh it hurt, still does, but our children no NOTHING of the toxicity you describe.
    The “church”… these toxic systems… sure, they have members… even of my gen X peers, but its FADING. The leaders are scared, they see the exodus, they can tell, and for now its just that, people leaving, so, no biggie right? But these leaders know the days are coming where people ACTIVELY campaign AGAINST their toxic system, people who know who God really is… inside these people, around these people, through these people, and NOT in CHURCH.

    Church as a concept, reality, and tradition will die. Church might have once long ago been a healing peaceful place, but after being coopted for hundreds of years by the patriarchy, the rulers of men, I am proud to stand against it and watch it die. For churches toxic death will cause life in other ways, ways in which God can really BE with His creation.
    I’m lovin it.

    Reply
  • Thanks for your continued voice on toxicity within the church. It certainly is a frustrating thing trying to expose and transform systems. Yes, it’s complex systems combined with individual’s self-serving (or evil) ways we are up against.

    And part of the distorting system is wrong understanding of the Bible, and abuse of it, such as mixing cultural ways (e.g., patriarchy) with universal truths.

    I attend a Congregational church (UCC) for its “better” ways of leadership (greater egalitarianism and inclusion). But I’m not fully happy that, like most progressive churches, it is still largely traditional and not fully seeking out and further embracing consistent founding in the kind of “Abba” that Jesus referred to, nor deeper spiritual experiences and things like contemplative practice wedded to our social justice (for the least among us) activities.

    Reply
  • I have been in a few toxic systems some within the church and some within work environments. I have had my fill. Coming out of a toxic family system is hard enough but tying faith or work in makes it so difficult to de-tox your life and soul from. As a person healing and searching for restoration I am learning daily that I have always desired healthy relationship stemmed and rooted in love. At this point in my life I will not settle for less than that. Thank you for giving this a voice.

    Reply
  • My heart is beating faster and my breathe is shallow as I read this. I don’t realize how angry I am about this toxic system until I really stop to think about it or read a particularly enlightening post like the one you just shared. Thank you for being a shiner of the light.

    Reply
  • My story is very similar to yours Kathy. As I heard you share it at my church and now reading your book, it resonates familiar experiences. My last few years in ministry were in a toxic environment. Painful challenges with leadership. Ended with me leaving ministry and eventually the church. Slow progression and transformation into freedom, hope and spiritual growth. Hearing your story has been comforting and helpful in my healing. Thank you for sharing your journey.

    Reply

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