“Susie” was employed as the Programming and Missions Director in a non-denominational church with 400 members.
She served under an autocratic pastor.
Susie was an assistant under the supervision of the Senior Pastor who, by her description, was the primary authority in the church.
He was a highly authoritative pastor who limited her abilities to use her giftedness and sense of effective ministry. In the end, she finally considered the ministry “vision” of the senior pastor to be in conflict with her own and resigned her position, leaving with damaged emotions that would take years to heal.
Susie spent three years at the large, multi-campus church. She was employed to oversee the development of teams that led all aspects of worship through videos, music, and PowerPoint.
Her background in business management provided organizational skills that were invaluable for these administrative tasks. In addition, her love for mentoring was utilized as she discipled individuals and led teams in spiritual development.
Unique Opportunities & Challenges
The position of an assistant to a senior pastor provides unique opportunities and challenges. There is real pleasure of “working together with people who believe the same thing you believe,” as Susie noted. Working with others called to the ministry can provide great satisfaction.
Susie took great joy in using her gifts to serve people in the church. She explained that she was supported and encouraged by most in the congregation where “you are seeing people’s lives grow and be fulfilled in a way that has never been fulfilled before.”
“I was a little bit nervous about going to the church setting because my background is in management and typically churches don’t manage themselves very well,” she said. But her work administratively in organizing the various teams for worship resulted in the development of leaders (where there were none when she arrived) and helpful procedures for all the teams.
“I wrote all these procedures and taught everything…everything was set up so they wouldn’t need me at all.”
The African Debacle
Susie explained that she was approached by Pastor Pete to organize a missions committee at the church and arrange for short-term mission trips to Africa.
Pastor Pete wished to begin building relationships with a particular group of Sub-Saharan African churches through short-term trips. He gave Susie the authority to build a team, communicate with the African churches, and partner with a missions organization in the United States through which they would operate.
The title of a novel written by Nigerian, Chinua Achebe comes to mind. The book describes the experiences of an 1800s African dealing with colonialism. Susie’s experience with the senior pastor reminded me of the title, “Things Fall Apart.”
As they prepared to sign up members for the summer mission, one member reneged on his verbal commitment. He had particular gifts of importance to the team, but he explained that he had been asked by Pastor Pete to accompany him on a mission trip to another African country, a trip neither Susie, nor her committee, had heard of previously.
When she and a fellow leader (an elder in the church) were told of this trip, the elder was “infuriated” and set up a meeting with Pastor Pete.
In the meeting, Pastor Pete simply “laughed” at the elder and said that the elder had simply gotten his “feelings hurt.” Susie explained that after the elder expressed his concern for the lack of respect shown by the laughing pastor, the pastor just continued to mock him.
After the very successful mission trip, the team presented an “African worship service” for the congregation. Members of the church gave thousands of dollars and many material items for the African churches Susie’s team had visited in an offering that Sunday.
At the close of the service, Pastor Pete gave an announcement that all the funds and materials would be sent to the other African churches he had visited two weeks earlier.
It was a complete surprise to the missions committee and Susie’s team who had been directed to raise the funds and materials for the African churches by Pastor Pete.
Unity & Peace
Susie observed multiple times when her supervising pastor was highly authoritative and hurtful to those under his care. The frequency of such events were instrumental in Susie’s resignation from her position.
Susie said she never felt that Pastor Pete respected her though he “handed [projects] freely over” to her, rarely checking on her to ask how they were progressing.
The lack of respect shown by the senior pastor created significant hurt. However, Susie only realized the significance of the emotional injury later. She explained,
“I didn’t realize at the time but now looking back and going through some spiritual abuse healing, there’s no question that I was deeply hurt. I felt betrayed.”
Susie’s concern for the authority of the pastor was evident in the interview. Her desire for unity and peace in the church was unmistakeable in that she was very careful with whom she spoke during the crises and when leaving the church.
As noted in other articles, it is imperative for those having been traumatized to tell their story often and in safety.
However, Susie sought to limit the relational damage of the pastor by speaking with few people in the church about their experiences. In order to cope with the emotional struggle, Susie explained, “I reached out to some family in [another state] because I really wanted to respect the church and I didn’t want to create any division.”
Susie was cognizant that her response to the pastor and to members of the church could “create a schism” or “division” and so restricted her communication to those either outside the church or directly involved in the conflicts.
Her self-differentiation was evident in her challenging the pastor during two meetings with him. She warned Pastor Pete that she expected the Lord to “get his attention” at some point if he didn’t change his behavior.
Susie believed her ultimate authority was God and not the senior pastor. She said this helped her respond with a significant level of self-differentiation. She was able to challenge him knowing that God was her real authority.
Despite having been placed in an uncomfortable position of telling churches in Africa that all commitments made to them were off, Susie recognized that the onus of the failure was the senior pastor’s. She explained that her concern that her reputation was damaged was limited by her knowledge that others knew her character and integrity. It was not Pastor Pete’s respect that she needed.
Serving the Congregation & Confrontation
Susie noted that most of the leadership (Deacons, missions committee, and Elders) have since left the church primarily due to the abusive leadership of the pastor.
Because the frustration Susie experienced was not unique to them, there was difficulty determining how to respond to the congregation in those times. Susie said she counseled others to “try to understand that even though you are part of a church and you are a part of a Christian organization, sometimes your first answer is to God and to God alone and you need to first and foremost seek Him.”
She also encouraged those who were struggling with Pastor Pete’s decisions to go to him directly as a brother in accordance with Matthew 18.
But there were complications. She explained that the pastor was unlikely to respond to any confrontation by her or congregant members. She had seen others seek reconciliation and fail.
Susie considered Matthew 18 to be the model. On the other hand, she noted that “there’s nothing you are going to do to change this guy.” Pastor Pete rejected any exhortation he was given, shifted the blame, or said he would try harder to no apparent effect. His only real accountability was to himself as the primary authority and no overarching denominational authority.
Susie expressed frustration with having had her “hands tied.” When other mission team members sought Susie out to encourage her to talk to Pastor Pete, Susie told them, “He knows the situation we are in and he has clearly told me ‘this is the decision I’ve made…this is where it’s going, and this is what’s going to happen.’ And so I have no control.”
However, upon her advice several mission team members continued to work with the African churches and mission agency, making other arrangements to continue in their commitment to the churches despite their own pastor having removed the church’s support of that particular mission.
In the End
Susie did extensive work to leave a legacy of organizational structure, fulfilling the purpose for which she was employed. Following her final worship service, she said, “I left my keys right in the middle of my desk and I walked out and I never heard a word from [the pastor].”
On a positive note, ministry happened that may have had long term effects on the congregation she served. However, the frustrations encountered dulled her hopes that she had effective ministry during those years of service.