How to Respond to Pastoral/Church Abuse

Recently, I read an article in USA Today regarding pastoral abuse and felt strongly convicted to write about it.  Over the years, I’ve heard painful stories told by those who’ve been bullied by church leaders.  I hope my words here help bring clarity, as well as hope, to the bruised and hurting.

My personal commentary follows my “short answer” as to how to respond to pastoral/church abuse.

Also, I have been a pastor for over 36 years. So, I write this as I “preach” to myself, reminding myself of what is biblically true.

First, the short answer:

1. Never – never – tolerate abuse of any kind from a church leader.

2. Because of the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer, church leaders (pastors, clergy, priests) have no more access to God than any other Christian. Don’t allow them to twist scripture and tell you differently. They are on no “spiritual higher plane” than another believer in regard to status.  Further, they are subject to greater judgment due to their vital role in the spiritual growth of others. They’ve been entrusted by God with leadership, not authority. (see commentary)

3. Don’t confuse abuse with disagreement. We can disagree – even strongly – and still be civil, kind, respectful and honest. Abuse, on the other hand, involves any level of feeling dismissed, invalidated, ignored, intimidated, bullied, threatened, or humiliated.

4. You have every right to confront a church leader you feel has abused you, or a friend or loved one. You have every right to question a church leader. They are as flawed as everyone else on planet earth. As such, church leaders are as capable of the same level of abhorrent sin of which every other person on earth is capable. This is why we see church leaders experience moral failure all too often. And this is why you never – never – place your trust in a human being, even if that church leader is on the cultural level of a celebrity.

5. Church leaders are merely human beings with, hopefully, a genuine call of God on them to “shepherd the sheep” God has entrusted to their care, commanded by Christ, the Chief Shepherd, to lead not by flaunting artifical authority, but by serving others. Using degrees and job titles to inflate their self-view is biblically prohibited.   The 18th century, British theologian, John Wesley, wrote, “this may be demonstrated in a church leader behaving in a haughty, domineering manner, as though they have dominion over the church.”

6. The good news: for every abusive pastor, there are dozens of godly, humble men and women who have committed their lives to leading people as Jesus led. I heard years ago – and always remind fellow pastors – “sheep are led, not driven.” A shepherd leads sheep. A butcher drives them.

Commentary on the USA Today article:

Cowards and/or bullies, serving in church leadership, have been hiding behind intimidation tactics for centuries. Sadly, these tactics are as old as the Bible, both Testaments being filled with examples of abusive, ungodly church leadership.  Later on, the medieval Roman Catholic Church, driven by indulgences, perfected church abuse. Still afterward, the Puritans, with their witch hunts, were adept at it as well. These tactics of psychological warfare involve demeaning, intimidating, ignoring, dismissing, and invalidating a person.

The pastor in the USA Today article pushed back against the alleged abuse of the two girls due to wanting to protect his church by covering up the truth. The sad truth is that he wanted to protect himself. Unity never trumps truth. For when unity is created upon a foundation of cowardly lies, or half-truths (which are still whole lies), it’s only a matter of time until that foundation crumbles underneath the weight of the truth. When truth suffers, everything suffers – and the house of cards begins to fall.

NOTE:  Before you begin defending the church in the story, I get it. Were the girls in the story foolish getting involved with the fool (youth pastor) in the story? Yes. Was any crime committed? No. Because they were of age.

But, search the scriptures. Never – not once – will you see Jesus ignore, intimidate or dismiss a person the way these girls and their families have been ignored, intimidated and dismissed.

Does a pastor have biblical authority over his church?

First and foremost, it’s not, nor ever was, “his church.” Jesus said, My house shall be a house of prayer.” The church belongs to Christ. We’re merely stewards and shepherds of such.

A pastor (the biblical term literally means “shepherd)”, has been entrusted with the leadership of his flock/church, but has no authority over them. Abusive, biblically inept pastors will snatch Hebrews 13:17 out of context when it serves their narcissistic purposes. The verse begins, “Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority.” But the very misuse of this passage is, itself, abusive. The command here is in the same vein of Paul’s command for women to “submit to your husbands” in Ephesians 5:21-30, where the context is crystal clear: abuse disqualifies you from receiving submission, whether in the context of marriage or a church. By the way, the second half of Hebrew 13:7 reads, “because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” A reckoning is coming for abusive church leadership.

What pastoral abuse isn’t:

Pastoral abuse is not when a pastor interprets a biblical passage differently than you and strongly, albeit kindly, defends his position. Additionally, abuse is not when a pastor chooses, for whatever reasons, a methodology of “doing the practical side church” with which you strongly disagree i.e. whether or not to meet on Sunday nights, whether or not to have Sunday School, what time the offices should close, what style of music to sing, etc.  Should he be supported by the vast majority of the church, you are free to join a church that more closely agrees with your practical preferences.

Healthy pastoral accountability:

The key word here is “healthy.”

By all means, lovingly keep your pastor(s) accountable. In Acts 17, the Bereans “examined the scriptures daily to see if what Paul was teaching was true.”  Church leaders desperately need healthy accountability. Through the prophet, Jeremiah, God warns, “the heart of man is deceitful above all things.” Left to our own devices, we all are living recipes for disaster. This is why Paul used the metaphor of the body to describe the Body of Christ. Simply put, we need each other. This is by God’s own design. And even the most humble and loving of pastors need trusted friends who may notice something amiss.

To be clear, you have every right – and are encouraged – to visit with a church leader any time you have a concern, always speaking your heart in love. And he should respond in kind. You have the biblical right to be heard and for your opinion to be validated. Who knows? Perhaps you misjudged the pastor. Perhaps not. Respectful dialogue will help clear up any misunderstanding.

Do you know a pastor who resists or refuses accountability or correction? The Bible has an adjective to describe him that needs no clarification:  “stupid.”

Closing thoughts:

The families in the USA Today story who confronted the lead pastor about the youth pastor’s actions with their daughters were dismissed and ignored. My guess is that they felt intimidated and/or weren’t certain they could argue with a pastor.   I don’t know – I wasn’t there.

But this do I know: the Bible is full of clear, principled teaching urging Christians to keep one another accountable, regardless of what role in which they may serve. In 2 Samuel, Nathan lit King David up when he exposed him for his adulterous affair with Bathsheba and the consequent murder of her husband he had been trying to cover up. In the book of Acts, the Apostle Paul confronted the disciple, Peter, about his blatant hypocrisy.

My heart hurts for the girls in the article, as well as for their families. (It hurts to see your children hurt.) Alas, since no state laws were broken, outside of exposing the church that abused them and then tried to cover it all up, they will have to leave those responsible for all of this to a higher court. As we already saw in Hebrews, all church leaders “must give an account.”

In sum, when the subject of perceived abuse, never tolerate it. Never. God doesn’t. Neither should you.

Soli Deo Gloria, Nick

Toxic Leadership

Jesus warned his disciples, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

Translation:  Be kind & respectful.  But, being kind & respectful doesn’t mean being a naive idiot.

These examples from Psychology Today and Forbes are a hint of the myriad of resources out there should you Google “toxic leadership.”

We’d all like to to believe everyone we hire and/or work alongside is a solid, honest individual with a healthy work ethic. I think I speak for everyone on planet earth when I say – nothing could be further from the truth.

Recently, I read a pamphlet titled, Toxic Leadership, by Tobin Perry, where he cites five toxic personalities within the context of leadership. I’ve included four of them here (the fifth one was similar to the others).  Although Perry writes from a vocational ministry perspective, the principles pertaining to each personality translate across all vocations.

Additionally, I added two “toxic personalities” I strongly believe need to be included in the list. Each includes a brief description of the personality listed.

NOTE:  It’s important to know that many toxic personalities come with a remarkable ability to use passive-aggression as an art form.  At its root, toxic personalities are, on various levels, abusive.  If you work alongside one or more of these personalities, hopefully you have a supervisor who will validate your concerns, and then has the courage to address it.  If the personality is your supervisor, this list should at least give you insight into his/her behavior, help you engage in further research about said personality and, hence, help you learn how to coexist with them.

Ever met, or worked with, these people?

  1. The Blamer – This is the person who habitually plays the “victim card.” One thing you’ll never hear from this person is, “Sorry – it was my fault,” since this would force them to take responsibility for whatever went wrong. It would be a miracle of biblical proportions for this person to ever “own” a mistake/bad decision, apologize for it, and learn from their mistake. On the contrary, their objective is to pass the blame. This person needs to be taught to own their mistakes, learn from them, and grow from them.
  2. The Old-Schooler – “there’s no school like the old school.” While we should be extremely cautious about always believing “newer is better simply because it’s newer”, this person is almost hostile to newer, more effective methods, even attempting to sabotage progress in this area. This person not only “doesn’t get it,” they don’t want to “get it.” Rather than offer healthy debate when faced with a newer way of doing things (healthy debate is vital to making certain a new method has “checks & balances”), this person has no interest in discussing it at all. Like dead weight, they drag progress to a crawl, having nothing but negative, discouraging things to say. Always talking about the “good ol’ days”, he/she chooses to forget that not everything about the good ol’ days was good. This person needs to be taught that “newer is not always a threat to older, but an improvement upon said older methods.” As a friend of mine joked once, “The pony express used to deliver the mail.” 🙂 Glad we’ve seen progress in mail delivery.
  3. The Do-It-All – This personality basically comes down to pride, arrogance and a zero understanding of teamwork. This person is the consummate “Lone Ranger.” Worse, they not only don’t need “Tonto’s” help, they don’t want Tonto’s help. “I can do it all myself. And, for that matter, I can do it better than anyone else,” they convince themselves. This person (1) stunts the growth of those with whom they work because they’re stepping all over them, attempting to do their job, and (2) because they’re trying to do everything, absolutely nothing gets done well. Ironically, while this person wants to “help” everyone else with their job, they want no help with theirs. This person needs to be taught to “stay in their own lane” and to focus on doing their own job well. Additionally, it would help for someone to introduce them to the word “synergy”, the principle that states: together, we can accomplish far more than on our own.
  4. The Ivory Tower – I see this a lot in pastoral ministry and it never ceases to make me shake my head. “I”m not a people person,” they say. In fact, they almost come across as bragging about it. This begs the question: in what universe would a church search team call a person to be a pastor in their church who isn’t a “people person?” (Aren’t you glad Jesus was a people person?)  While some personalities are clearly introverted, and all of us require private time for various aspects of our job, this person has no interest in “being among the people.” Most tragic is that he/she robs themselves of the wealth of blessings received from relationships with coworkers.  If serving in a supervisory role, this person is rarely – if ever – seen “among the troops.” This person, if a supervisor, is a leader in title only. Anyone with half a leadership brain knows that if your employees are valued, coached, led by example and set up for success they’ll work harder and more passionately. Sadly, this person comes across as not only uncaring, but downright lazy. Engaging with people, getting to know them, learning how to work effectively together is hard work. This person needs to be taught that “leader” is a verb, not a title.

 

Here are the two I would add to the list:

  1. The Martyr – I had a pastor friend who had been in ministry for quite a while. He met himself coming and going, never able to catch their breath and, as a result, never really getting anything done well in their ministry.  I could see they were dying a slow death so I offered them some unsolicited advice, “As you mature and age, you’ve got to learn to work smarter, not harder.” In other words, take careful inventory of those around you who are gifted in areas you’re not. These people are just waiting to be asked to serve. Basically, I was ignored. This type of person would rather play the “martyr card”, desperately vying for attention and sympathy “due to how hard they work”, than learn how to delegate tasks to gifted, capable people. He/she perpetually complains about not having enough time or help to get everything done, trying with all their might to appear as the hardest-working – and most unappreciated – person in the office. But when offered help, the result is always the same: they simply reject it. If they received help, they would not receive the “payoff” they crave: having everyone feel sorry for them. Of course, over time, no one feels sorry for them. This person needs to be taught that they are actually moving backward in work and life by not being willing to swallow their pride and allow others to help them succeed.
  2. Narcissist/Sociopaththis person is, by far, the most dangerously toxic. A person can be a narcissist without being a sociopath. But a sociopath will always be narcissistic. This person has a grandiose, inflated view of themselves, becoming quickly defensive if questioned. At the deepest level of the narcissist is an acute insecurity starving for their “payoff”: obsequious adulation & admiration, confirming to them what they tell themselves everyday:  they are superior to anyone else on the planet. I commented on a FB post recently on this topic.  I wrote:  There’s a fine line between a narcissist and a sociopath. That said, both can be equally charming, winning over an immediate following of the unsuspecting.  But, the moment you see through their facade and question their motives you become Public Enemy No. 1 as they frantically scramble to prevent you from exposing their true self to others. They are adept at deception and diversion, having no ethical problem with denying statements they’ve openly made to others. (There is a line from the 1996 movie, The Preacher’s Wife, where a comment is made about a narcissistic character in the movie:  “That man’s so oily you can fry chicken on him.” Such is the narcissist.) Should the narcissist suspect you see through their carefully crafted facade, they will methodically attempt to assassinate your character in order to minimize your credibility, getting even your trusted friends to side with them and question your integrity. While a narcissist may potentially realize down deep they are a pathological liar, a sociopath actually believes their own lies. Both personalities are delusional. Further, it’s never the narcissist’s fault. As master manipulators, they are often able to convince you you’re the “crazy one,” that you’re the problem, and the one who needs to be fired (if they are the supervisor) or reprimanded (if they are a coworker).  This diabolical talent of theirs often successfully deflects all attention away from their deceit onto the person who is threatening to expose them as the liar and manipulator they truly are.

 

Nick