Experiencing Psalm 55 Under a Toxic Boss

This is part 2 of a series of articles describing the experiences of Christian organization employees working under abusive bosses. These articles are the fruit of interviews with employees who sought diligently to respond to their foul bosses in biblical and thoughtful ways. This article describes their application of Psalm 55 – a prayer for the destruction of the wicked. For an analysis of Psalm 55 in the context of employment, please see two of my earlier blogs: Imprecatory Praying & Hatred.

King David wrote Psalm 55, an imprecatory psalm, praying for mercy as he suffered the “oppression of the wicked.” He says, “They drop trouble upon me, and in anger they bear a grudge against me.”

In the middle of the psalm, David explains the enemy he has been describing is “my companion, my familiar friend.” David cries for God’s judgment saying, “Let death steal over them; let them go down to Sheol alive; for evil is in their dwelling place and in their heart.”[1]

My interviewees were asked if this psalm, or the principles contained in the psalm, were considered applicable to their experience. Most the participants expressed discomfort with praying in the way David prayed – for the destruction of the oppressor. However, they each shared the pain of working with, what they thought was, a brotherhood only to find betrayal.

A Friend

Adam, an educational mission director said, “I thought we were colleagues, respected professionals, fellow missionaries and Christians.” Adam had worked with the founders of the mission for several years and took holidays and meals with them. He enjoyed “the ear” of the CEO / Founder and he seemed to be a trusted friend.

Graham, a mission manager said, “We really, really thought we were a Christian family, and that God’s will would be made crystal clear that [the founder] would seek the help that was available, he would be restored, and life would go on just lovely.” Graham had a great deal of respect for the founder and believed they were all on the same page as a mission.

Isaac, a director of a mission graduate school program added, “You think you have family, you think you have brothers, and then its ‘whoop,’ what just happened?” Isaac worked for two toxic leaders in two different organizations and in each case seemed to be welcomed into the family of ministry.

Isaac’s orphan ministry founder and CEO was very welcoming and encouraging in what Isaac’s family sought to do while with the mission. The CEO told them to “continue to do all the ministry you feel like God is calling you to…just help keep an eye on the kids and help do things.” Isaac and his family developed the publicity for the mission and worked on medical, agricultural, and educational programs for the children. He said, “It was good for our family. We had grand plans…just being there.”

Over time, the founder expected more and more of them and made them feel guilty for living there. A local villager shared Psalm 55 with Isaac after they were asked to leave the ministry. He said, “It really hit home.” He said,

In the ministry, you kind of feel like you have a common goal or vision or end goal. You are brothers and family and you also, I guess automatically expect some of the fruit of the spirit, some of the qualities of Christ in some of the people in the workplace, because some of your expectation is that you are in a relational setting. You are in a friendly, family setting, that maybe there is a common thread that binds you and goes beyond what you have to deal with…there’s a level of trust and faith in one another, then you realize it’s not there.

Eugene considered himself a friend of the CEO. He said, “We were close enough, I had never done anything to provoke him. We’d known each other for ten years.” When he was fired, he said, “It was really hard emotionally, because of the friendship.” As he noted, he had worked with the CEO prior to joining the mission and believed he also, like Adam, had the ear of the CEO.

Though Frances’ relationship with the board chairman was not considered very close, it was “collegial.” She was hired as the CEO by a missionary leadership training organization. She worked for four years before being strangely cut off from the board and fired. Frances came the closest to praying David’s prayer. She was “asking for the Lord to bring judgment and thwart the purposes of this person.” Frances said there were others as well, when they “learned about the situation,” who were praying, seeking resolution to the toxicity of the leadership.

Going to Bat

When there is relationship that is perceived as familial, there often is a willingness to go to bat for the leader…even when their sins are egregious and deeply destructive to relationships within the organization.

As Adam worked under the CEO, he believed he “could be used by [the CEO] to make the campus healthy.” Several students and other missionaries came to Adam for advice as they suffered at the hands of the CEO. Adam believed he had developed a friendship with the CEO and could see him “in a different way,” making it possible for him to call “people down from pure hate or misunderstandings.” However, in the end, Adam believed he “was playing for the wrong team and didn’t know it.” He realized he had simply been making excuses for the toxicity and prolonging the suffering of others (and himself). He felt that he had been duped by the toxic leader.

Graham said the team that confronted the founder on sexual harassment and abuse charges “worked really hard to not think in terms of adversary and enemy.” Even while in meetings with a Christian reconciliation team, he “didn’t allow [himself] and those who were part of [the team] to think of him as an adversary or an enemy.” They were hoping for a response from the founder like “David’s contrite psalm…’Oh my goodness, against Thee and Thee only have I sinned and I am going to do whatever I can to have a clean and contrite heart.’” Unfortunately, according to Graham, “That never happened.” Graham does not regret the attempts they made at seeking the leader’s repentance, but in the end the CEO continued in his sin for ten more years with the organization before finally being fired.

Our family had enjoyed vacations, dinners, and a seemingly respectful relationship with our leaders. I was given leeway to develop a degree program in the mission college we served. I had the sense that, since the leaders (CEO and founders) knew little of my area of expertise, they would trust me and others involved with the task of developing the degree.

However, as was often the experience of those in “middle management,” the narcissistic tendencies of the CEO got in the way of truth telling and seeking the good of the students. Rather than working like a family, we were treated as expendable and with suspicion.

We had a number of other missionaries share their stories of frustration with us. We would go to bat for the leader, suggesting the missionary give grace as God had given them grace. We suggested it was the founder’s mission to do with as they pleased. “Keep your head down and do ministry.” We, like Adam, felt duped in the end by our manipulative and authoritarian leaders.

Conclusions

It is often suggested by those with whom I speak about toxic leadership in Christian organizations that the hurt is greater in these organizations due to the expectations of familial relationships in ministry. There is an expectation that our brotherhood in the grace of God will limit the hierarchical structure of these organizations and make it possible to pursue the same basic goals with joy in that brotherhood.

We expect grace from others as we give grace. We go to bat and expect some loyalty in return. However, it is to this very thing that David speaks in Psalm 55. The pain is unimaginable for these ministers of the Gospel as they face off with leaders who seek to take advantage of their sheep for their own ends rather than work together for the Kingdom of Christ. Where scripture defines us as brothers and sisters in Christ, the reality can at times be very different.

[1]Psalm 55:15.

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