I sat down with John and Susan over coffee to hear their story. I had heard parts of it before they were done passing through the fire. Now, over two years later, it was time to hear the whole story of abusive church leadership and see the healing that had taken place in their lives.
John and Susan [not their real names] were attendees of a church-plant in a large city. The pastor was known for his hospitality and clear vision. John noted the common traits of a church-planting pastor he read somewhere:
- Top of their class in seminary
- Coming from the world of business
- Great at planning and executing those plans
- Rarely good at pastoral care
The Trouble Begins
Trouble began when John questioned one of the pastor’s budget plans during a church meeting. He apparently was perceived as a threat and John felt like the pastor “shut him down.” Following the pastor’s angry outburst at his wife at a church event, several men in the church scheduled a meeting with him to encourage the pastor to seek counseling. It was apparent to them there was some level of emotional abuse happening in the home.
They planned to encourage him and his wife to seek counseling and continue in his ministry. In this initial meeting, with his wife present, the pastor agreed to seek marriage counseling. However, the men got a feeling from the pastor and his wife that they were “going some place they shouldn’t go…stepping over a line.” John continued to feel that the pastor believed John was questioning his God-given authority.
Three or four months later, John met with the pastor to try to clear the air. In that meeting the pastor suggested John and the other men’s confrontation was against Jesus’ principles outlined in Matthew 18. In addition, he applied the passage to an email John sent to him that included the others as recipients when asking for the original meeting. The pastor said the email was “something someone would do in a corporate setting, copying others in…he felt very threatened by that move.” John said, “It doomed me. That night was when I started to question what was happening.”
Rejection from Leadership
The pastor’s anger at the men became more and more apparent as the church moved from being a “mission” to a “particularized” church. At that time, men in the church were nominated for leadership positions as elders and then went through training. At the end of the training, the pastor chose those whom he wished to have on the board.
John was not chosen for leadership even though, during the training, he humbly admitted to the pastor his need to approach confrontations with more sensitivity. The pastor put the responsibility for the decision (of rejecting him for leadership) on another pastor that was overseeing the process.
John was deeply hurt by the rejection, but his family continued to minister in the church, leading a bible study and doing outreach. However, when an assistant pastor was hired by the church, he joined John’s home Bible study. Later, John believed the pastor was intending to replace John with the assistant.
John and Susan took a year hiatus from leading the small group Bible study and the assistant did step in as leader. John and Susan sought permission to begin a new group. It was to be a group that included teenagers. The pastor and elders refused to allow the start of the group, suggesting John was not a good teacher – though it was his profession – and others would not want teens in the group.
John and Susan requested a meeting with the pastor. In that meeting, survey data from when he led the group before, was brought out. It was from a year and a half before. The pastor showed him parts of the survey in “isolation” that included “inadequate leadership.” John realized he needed to “stay in his box or die.”
When it became apparent John and Susan had little opportunity to use their gifts in the church, they determined it was best to move on. When resigning their membership, John and Susan asked for an “exit interview” with the Elders. However, the elders “shamed” them rather than seeking to know why they were leaving the church. The pastor was particularly “aggressive,” John said.
Over a period of four or five years, several assistants to the pastor “abruptly” left the church. One of the assistant’s wife has “rejected the faith” following their tenure at the church.
John’s assumption is that these assistants, who he assumed were pushed out, “questioned the pastor’s authority and were not operating inside his box.” Each time an assistant would leave, the pastor would speak very “negatively about them and their performance…not meeting his expectations.”
The move to another church was a slow and tentative process. John was very hesitant to commit to another church body and to put himself “out there…to be vulnerable in any sort of way.” They went to several churches and he said it “almost felt better to keep shopping” which he has never done. “It felt comfortable to be in that role and stay detached.”
John and Susan wondered what it would be like to “dredge” up the story once again when I asked them to tell it. However, John said, “It doesn’t feel as personal now.” He has since seen the hand of God working in and through them as they began attending a church with humble leaders. It was very apparent that significant healing has taken place now that they have a safe place to be.
- John’s story involved spiritual abuse where scripture, usually taken out of context, is used to beat down and control others. The pastor shifted the blame of his behavior to others as he suggested they didn’t approach him according to scripture. However, he didn’t take into account the Apostle Paul’s challenge to leaders in 1 Timothy 5:19-20 as having great responsibility for their behavior. In that passage, there is no mention of one-on-one confrontation. Rather than humble himself before them, admit his wrong, seek help for his abusive behavior, he criticized his counselors’ behavior.
- On the whole, the congregation values the community the pastor has created so highly, they overlook his deep moral failing. This is not unusual. It is likely the number one reason corporations keep abusive managers or churches their authoritarian pastors is they have gifts and talents the organization feel they cannot do without. Unfortunately, research suggests in the long run, abusive leaders destroy rather than build effective organizations.
- Had the pastor been humble, he would have sought out the various views of others when making decisions regarding the church. Rather, he clearly wanted “yes-men” in his chamber. One toxic pastor I met asked his board to resign so he could replace them with his own chosen elders.
- Unfortunately, the pastor is yet to be brought up on charges at the denominational level. I am praying now that members in the church will recognize his destructive behavior and bring it before leaders in the denomination. But, unfortunately, this rarely happens. Until clear evidence is brought forward, much like in a domestic violence case, the “court” will fail to convict the perpetrator and allow the church to suffer further violence.
Consider sharing your story. These are intended as a means for understanding abuse of leadership and how we can get out of it, get on with it, and heal.