According to Roman Catholic doctrine, a Pope speaking ‘ex cathedra’ on issues of faith or morals is infallible. In general use, the phrase has come to be used with regard to statements made by people in positions of authority, and it is often used ironically to describe someone speaking with overbearing or unwarranted self-certainty. [Merriam-Webster dictionary]
Janet sat under Pastor Joe for several years. He had been hired following the exit of a popular pastor who went on to found another ministry. Pastor Joe was encouraged to spend a few months getting to know his new church before making significant changes in its ministry.
It was a gracious congregation that had always had a stable, small town ministry. The people were friendly and welcoming to the new pastor. However, Joe did not take the advice and proceeded to shake up the church soon after arriving.
He appointed his own people to a church committee. His intent was to disband the current committee whose members were long-time, committed congregants. Members of the church became fearful of stepping out in ministry as he would possibly disapprove. They had to watch their backs.
Janet was married to Mike, who had been an elder in the church, and was very careful not to criticize the new pastor. Early on, as the volunteer nursery coordinator, Janet was completely ignored when Pastor Joe decided to make changes in that ministry. She had filled the position when it needed a coordinator, and though committed heavily in other areas of the church, believed she was fulfilling a needed role in the church.
One Sunday Pastor Joe explained from the pulpit there would be a meeting regarding the “new” nursery. Mike leaned over to Janet and asked if she knew anything about it.
She was just as surprised as her husband to hear of a ministry meeting to which she, as the coordinator, had not been invited.
She determined not allow Pastor Joe’s oversight to bother her, however she, “Expected some acknowledgement of the breach of protocol.” After all, everyone knew it was her role.
Janet decided to go to the meeting anyway and be whatever help she could be in the transition.
It was very “awkward.” It became apparent there was a “team that was recruited to replace her.” She was released of any responsibility and a paid caregiver was let go in that meeting. Janet said she was not terribly disappointed in losing her position, but “took offense at how it was done…the process.”
In addition, the nursery was going to be moved into another room. The Sunday School teacher who held her class in that room had not been notified and no one actually went to her to discuss the move.
Janet took it upon herself to “run interference,” something at which she became adept in the following years. She “buffered” some of his poor leadership as members of the congregation suffered from his relational bombs.
Authority & Control
Janet said she “was trying to make excuses or understand why it was happening this way.” She said she felt like she had “been whopped a little bit and didn’t know why.”
It was not until later that she could see the pattern. It no longer seemed like an “isolated incident.”
She realized in an “epiphany moment” that Pastor Joe simply loved exercising authority and control.
In time she recognized the pulpit was his “bully pulpit” as she came to understand the meaning of that term. “He would just bash from the pulpit as no one could respond.”
One Sunday Pastor Joe spoke of his authority while in the pulpit. She got the idea from his sermon he was saying,
“When in pulpit I am God’s man and you must obey. You must not push back.”
She was shocked. He said he spoke with God’s authority in the pulpit and must be heeded.
She looked around at the congregation to see if anyone else was shocked. Janet figured out that Joe was using the pulpit to control his congregation.
When asked if the Matthew 18 principles of confrontation came into play in their relationship she explained she was in a difficult situation. Early on she considered his poor leadership “stylistic” rather than sinful and so worked hard on her own attitude. She considered his failures small enough to overlook. Janet said others did not know she was struggling so much with him except those who picked up on her body language.
In addition, she was hesitant to confront because Janet’s husband had been involved in the ministry before. She believed it would be misunderstood since she was the wife of a former elder.
In time, her husband Mike became the target of some of his attacks. She then felt even more strongly that she should remain free of the fray. There were others who were confronting who did not have a husband in the battle.
Janet explained that when she first began to struggle with Pastor Joe she considered her biblical responsibilities to be clear. She said, she “felt like, right or wrong, it was a matter of applying principles and so not so much a matter of prayer.” But, as others were being hurt by his tactics, she began to pray “for the truth to come out” and for her “heart and motives to be clear.”
Because she was now having to take a position, she jokingly said she prayed that she “would win!” She prayed that her “position would be vindicated.” [see this article]
When I asked Janet how she has healed since those dark days, she said she “took it to the foot of cross. Put my own sin and others’ there.” She said she still carries a wound. She added, “The first incident was deep enough that I avoided that ministry for a long time.”
She said she did get some vindication. It was helpful and she is not sure how well she would have healed had there not been some.
Janet also learned valuable leadership lessons from the experience. She was reaffirmed that she should never “mistreat people under” her ministry.
Even now Janet tries to “be in a position of forgiveness.” She noted that forgiveness is transactional. There are times when there is no reconciliation in a relationship. The erring party must be ready to admit and seek forgiveness for their sin. [Matthew 18:21-22] Pastor Joe has never sought her forgiveness, but she would like to be ready to respond in forgiveness should he ever seek it.
Janet made several recommendations to those who are suffering under abusive leadership.
- Pay attention to your instincts: If you continue to struggle with the sense something is off, believe it and act accordingly.
- Don’t buy into the lie that makes you believe something that isn’t true: Hold to your core values and work it out from there. Consider getting the thoughts of a third party to assess your perspective on the leader.
- Share: Be careful of gossip, but have one person you can trust to keep it between you to share your struggles. Recovery needs community and there are leaders that cannot be confronted. You need to share it.
- The church needs educated: The church needs to learn about abusive leadership. Janet noted we are good at extending grace, but need to learn when to confront.
Because people are tight-lipped for fear of gossiping, the patterns of abuse may be difficult to see as we think we are the only one suffering.
Janet said, “We teach unity, body, grace, etc…but not wolves in sheep’s clothing.“