Many who join Christian organizations as volunteers or paid employees understand it to be a calling from God. This calling drives them on while facing the inevitable trials associated with serving Christ in a broken world. Beat up relationships, financial struggle, and thankless service are commonplace in our service in God’s kingdom. We find shalom (peace) knowing God is in our work.
However, there is an added layer of trial when the employee serves under a toxic leader. It is shocking when those who claim to follow Christ lie, cheat, and steal. The employee may begin to second-guess the calling he has been so sure of since he joined the organization. Some employees I have interviewed have sworn off working for Christian organizations not ever wanting to deal with that level of pain again.
Called to Suffer
But, there are many reasons why an employee will continue to serve in an organization led by an abusive leader. There are unbiblical motivations of which I have written before, but there are also Christ-serving reasons.
Long-suffering (and long-serving) employees may build relational capital within the organization, giving them influence others may not have. Their commitment to the organization, if not to the leaders, may provide the clout necessary to challenge the leadership or change the direction of the ministry. Seeing a Christian ministry molded to pursue Christ rather than image or wealth is certainly a God-honoring goal and mission.
Our individual service to others may also motivate (positively) our commitment to staying. I thought for several years that the work I was doing was valuable whether the leadership was onboard or not. My family not only hoped to influence the leadership, but we had many opportunities to serve others. We joined many other missionaries believing we made a difference in the lives of others by staying and suffering through abusive leadership.
We determined the bad outweighed the good and left our organization. But, others have chosen to stay and battle on. Here are some things that have helped others to stay in that battle.
Deirdre, a missionary in a developing country, said she negatively learned from the example of the founder of the organization she served. She said, the founder would treat the national workers as “subhuman.” She said, “It was not nice. She would come out, open her door and stand there and scream at the top of her lungs.” Deirdre said, “I don’t treat them the way she did.” Despite all the frustrations Deirdre endured with the founder, she said,
In all of it – for all human beings are fallible in so many ways – I think there are so many good people out there doing different kinds of mission work…But we’re all human beings with so many trials and tribulations that may be separate from what we are doing for the mission that affect our lives. I don’t want to give up. I didn’t and it’s my desire to be there until I’m done.
Unlike all the others I have interviewed, Deirdre outlasted her abusive boss. She noted that her mother passed away when she was only thirteen-years-old. Deirdre recounted the time her father asked her if he should get someone to help with “cleaning and cooking.” Deirdre said, “No, I’m going to do it.” She noted, “I have always been that way…I just plowed through these circumstances.”
Deirdre was sure she had moments she wanted to “run away” from the mission, it just never worked out to leave to another mission in the country where she serves. Since the departure of the founder, Deirdre says she is able now to “follow through with things” that the founder “didn’t allow me to do.” She said she has always “needed to be doing something for somebody…I need to be needed,” and that motivated her during her time under the founder’s toxic leadership.
As he suffered through conflicts with the CEO, the CEO’s wife, and the founders of his organization, Adam said he would “go home and go to bed and get up the next day.” He said, he would try to think of them as like himself: sinful and broken. The humility to see his own failings helped him reject judgmental thoughts of his leaders.
In addition, when speaking of his pastoral role at the organization, Adam said, “I think the comradery of suffering became a comradery of healing as well.” He was convinced the sharing in the experience with others who were suffering at the time was also important in the healing.
Adam noted that he and his wife made a decision to limit the time they discussed their leaders. He said the amount of complaining about the leadership was evidence they had made the leaders to be “idols.”
He explained that when another person is allowed so much control over your emotions and thoughts, they have become an idol to you. Adam made a concerted effort to turn from his “idolatry” by thinking of other things.
As Harris was facing his crisis, he found direction and comfort in knowing, “The one who called you is faithful and he will do it,” quoting Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Harris considered God’s calling to be fundamental to confronting a “traumatic experience.”
He said, “I didn’t come here because it was my idea. The Lord God called, he summoned me.”
Harris also received the encouragement of friends, including well-known pastors who sought out individuals on the board or staff to help mediate the conflict. They showed by their actions, their belief in Harris’ story. Though their efforts were rebuffed by leadership they contacted, their support was very encouraging to Harris.
Frances said she felt prepared for the experience as she experienced similar toxicity in other similar situations. She said it gave her “some perspective in how to navigate what was happening.” She said it “emboldened” her. She knew she had come through the fire of former situations and would this one as well.
Like Harris, Frances was hearing from former trustees and friends of the ministry who were supporting her. She said, “Several people in those positions have been fully supportive and critical of the organization throughout.” Family and friends have not necessarily been “critical of the organization,” but have been “supportive of us, praying for us.”
One former board member showed solidarity with Frances, rejecting an invitation to a planning meeting, to which Frances should have been invited but was not. The former board member said, “I can’t look Frances in the face if she isn’t involved in the meeting.” [I have written of the incredible need for the church to stand behind those who are abused before.]
In addition, Frances said, “In the intense heat of the struggle…I had…a sense of the Spirit of God” as she awoke at night with “adrenaline flowing.” She would take long “prayer walks…that were really quite moving.”
In fact, she needed “time to recover physically a few months later because of sleep loss.” Her commitment to prayer, evidence of her dependency on Christ, was true sustenance to her.
In addition, Frances was committed to supporting others. Though “feeling a bit lost as to what was next,” Frances was “really more focused on the ministry of the organization as well as the hurt [the situation was causing other] people who had been involved in the organization for many years” rather than what hurt it was causing Frances’ family. Reaching out rather than becoming self-consumed was helpful and healing to her.
It can take extraordinary selflessness to remain in an abusive organization. It may be foolish and self-destructive. But, when someone remains committed to an organization for good reasons and not out of fear for the future [ie. where am I going to get another job?], he or she can take great comfort knowing Christ also suffered unjustly and did not run from it in the end. There were in fact times He “slipped away” when the religious leaders threatened to take Him by force, but when He faced the temple guards in the garden, He gave Himself up. His time had come to suffer cruelty in the service to others.
 1 Thessalonians 5:24.