Retooling Ministry: Mark’s Story of Abusive Pastoral Leadership

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Mark was a church planter, establishing an off-site satellite campus. He was hired by a large, multi-campus ministry to resurrect a church with less than twenty members, all in their elderly years.

When interviewed for the job by the senior pastor and the offsite coordinator, he was told he would be starting to lead services that same week. He described the Senior Pastor as autocratic.

They started with approximately 200 in the service that week, including members of the main campus with whom Mark and his wife were friends. Beginning in the second week of worship, the numbers settled around 50 per week for a few months.

One week before Thanksgiving, after their first year of ministry, Mark was invited to a meeting with the Chief Operating Officer (COO). He told Mark he was fired, though they wanted him to stay on until they found someone to replace him. And he was not to tell anyone he was leaving.

Mark described the COO as breathing heavily and tearing up as he told Mark he was fired.

There are a few things that make Mark’s story all the more discouraging:

  • Within the first year of ministry, extensive follow-up plans for visitors had been implemented. Mark was seeing fruit come from their attention to welcoming new people.
  • There were multiple baptisms, new professions of faith, and new members during the year.
  • A Small Group Bible study was developed on Sunday morning.
  • A Worship Leader was hired.
  • The church had grown to nearly 100 in average attendance.
  • A summer VBS reached 90 children that summer.

Yet, Mark had received no communication from his boss for nearly six months prior to being fired.

Mark was never told why he was fired. Incredibly, he stayed on with the church for nearly six months until he was offered a position with a major international mission. At that time, the COO told him, “We didn’t expect you to get a job so soon!

However, he asked Mark to train the new pastor when he was hired. As it turned out, the worship leader was hired soon after. His severance package included a gag order – he could not say anything about the ministry when he left.

There Were Signs

Mark said there were signs of toxicity he should have seen before he signed on. A worship leader was sent from the main campus to lead each week when they started. However, Mark never knew who it would be and for several months it changed from Sunday to Sunday. He had no choice in the matter.

In the weekly off-site leadership meetings at the main campus, Mark noticed that there was no discussion. The Senior Pastor, well-known globally, would “instruct” the leadership team – tell them what to do and when to do it.

Mark’s wife attended one meeting with the off-site coordinator to discuss reaching young families of which they had few in the church. His wife is an experienced children’s ministry director and had a plan for a Saturday carnival for families in the neighborhood. When presented with the idea, the OC said, “No!” and suggested another event that had little hope of drawing families.

Mark said his firing was not uncommon. There seemed to be frequent firings and other employees were unhappy with how those firings took place. But, no one spoke up about it. Mark attributed that to good salaries and their desire to keep their jobs. It was necessary for the staff to keep their heads down and stay out of “trouble.”

He was told not say anything about the Senior Pastor’s family who were highly integrated in the ministry. He was also told later no one should ever challenge the Senior Pastor, a mistake Mark apparently made when seeking encouragement in his planting efforts. According to one of his fellow pastoral staff members, the Senior Pastor expected them to be tough and not need any help.

The Tools in Ministry

When I asked Mark what biblical principles he focused on in the middle of his agony, he passed on the advice he had received from a mentor when he first was called to pastoral ministry:

There are two ways to do ministry: Use or Train People.

He pointed out that using people as a tool for ministry normally results in a trail of broken people. The focus is on the ministry image. Is the lawn mowed nicely? Are we getting good publicity? Do we have a strong donor base? How do we look?

But, if the ministry is used as a tool for developing people, the people grow to do the works of ministry and train others (Ephesians 4:11-12). The ministry invests in people rather than uses them.

As a mega-church ministry, there is a great temptation to prop up the ministry by any means necessary. Mark believed the ministry leader(s) were using people as tools to continually build the ministry rather than seeking to invest in their staff and leaders so that they might minister to people.

I found this a particularly helpful perspective as we experienced people being used as tools in one of our ministry organizations. The leaders treated the employees, whether missionaries or nationals, like mules to take care of the ministry’s image rather than doing what the organization marketed: training future leaders.

Taking the Moral High Ground

As Mark told me his story, he frequently said he and his wife wanted to, “Take the moral high ground.” I asked him what that meant when in the fire of his experience.

He gave the following standards he sought to live by:

  • They would not attack those who attacked him.
  • They would not “rally troops to go against the leadership.”
  • He would not defend himself.
  • He would not leave attempting to overthrow leadership – he would leave voluntarily.
  • He would leave protecting those to whom he ministered and not try to turn them against the church.

Mark did meet with a board member while with another ministry to discuss the toxic issues in that organization. He is not against challenging the organization at some level, but clearly determined to keep relationships in tack where he can.

Advice from Experience

I asked Mark what advice he would give to someone under toxic leadership in the church or Christian organization. He had some very helpful advice:

  • It is important if you are considering going into cross-cultural ministry to do some self-evaluation: Am I able to self-feed? Am I actively spending time learning from the Word, praying, and in fellowship? There will always be toxic leaders and co-workers…am I prepared to go to the Lord when the going gets tough?
  • Go back to your calling – did God call me to this work?
  • It is imperative to have a support system in place where you can freely vent and receive encouragement. Sometimes mission agencies (or churches and organizations) fail to provide any real support. Make sure you do not leave home without it.

Though Mark has been hurt more than once by toxic leadership, it is evident that the Lord has worked through him in those settings both for his own personal growth and in aiding those around him. The grace he exhibits to others, including the toxic leaders, is an excellent example and witness to Christ.

One of the last pieces of advice Mark shared with me was to remember Proverbs 14:4An empty stable stays clean, but there’s no income from an empty stable. In ministry you are dealing with real people and it gets messy. There is no growth, nor ministry to others that does not involve the messiness of a broken world.

If the stable is clean and tidy, you have to wonder if any real ministry is actually going on.

One thought on “Retooling Ministry: Mark’s Story of Abusive Pastoral Leadership

  1. Pingback: Toxic Survival Guide: The Action Plan – Part 3 | Pearls & Swine

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