This is the second part in a series on the experience of Jim and Mary [not their real names] as they navigated the stormy seas of pastoral abuse. Jim was hired as a youth pastor in a medium-size Midwestern church. The youth program grew significantly, but the pastor, who was also newly hired, continually sought to discredit and discourage Jim’s ministry. See Part One before reading this.
Near the end of three years, the Pastor Carl preached a message on Psalm 34. Jim said,
“He preached on how the wicked person would soon be removed! It was clearly targeted at me.”
Jim said after preaching the sermon, Pastor Carl just walked out of pulpit and “left the church angry.”
By this time, there were over 100 students attending youth group on Wednesday evenings. Jim had made the church youth center available to the kids after school until youth group began in the evening. Many did not have good homes to go home to.
One church Deacon, who was a farmer and very “insurance-minded,” expressed worry that a “majority of the students were non-white…new to church.” Pastor Carl told him, “We’re going to get sued” if one of the kids knives someone.
It became policy that youth were not allowed in the church between school dismissal and 5:30 p.m.
And then they appointed Jim to stand guard outside the building and force kids to leave the property.
“The church was their only place to go besides the parking lot of a nearby McDonalds or a row of abandoned storefronts next to the church.” Jim said the after-school ministry went “from three adults supervising 30 students to nothing.”
Finally, Pastor Carl gave the church leadership an ultimatum: if Jim does not go, he would. Jim was offered a severance package to leave but he felt he needed to defend himself so did not resign.
One day Jim was standing outside the church and thought to himself, “This is getting nastier and nastier each time. If I go to youth camp and a student makes a bad decision, it is going to be on my neck.” He felt that at that point Pastor Carl would use anything possible against him.
He finally had complete peace about leaving. Jim went to a deacon that had been ill (like Jim) because of all the conflict and asked him, “Are you okay with giving me a severance?” Jim had three children and was living in a parsonage so would lose everything when he left.
The day Jim left the church was his hardest day of ministry.
On that Sunday, lots of students were there. It was announced that morning that he was resigning.
The pastor was trying to control the situation – he asked visitors to leave before he announced Jim’s resignation. Jim said, “[Pastor Carl] was excited, shaking hands, smiling.” But the “energy was sucked out of the room” when he made the announcement.
Jim described the horror and loss:
“The majority of the church didn’t have a clue. Everyone was crying in youth group. During the worship one of the members of a church council came to me and said he could fight it. He said, ‘Will you let us fight for you?’ But I had peace about leaving…It was going to be framed as youth pastor against pastor – it was the youth pastor who was insubordinate and angry at the pastor.”
Jim felt he needed to move on so the church could deal with Pastor Carl.
As I heard Jim and Mary’s story, I continually recognized elements in their own story that related to the stories of so many others I have interviewed. There can be comfort in knowing that what you are going through is not new under the sun.
Like those who face spousal abuse, men and women caught in toxic ministry and organizational settings can begin to think they are crazy or their situation is unique and they must just live with it.
But our situations are not unique and below are identifying toxic leadership similarities that stand out in Jim and Mary’s story.
It is common in toxic work environments that leadership is authoritarian.
Many people want to follow a “strong” leader. They want someone who will go before, make decisions decisively, and give vision to the ministry.
Jean Lipma-Blumen, author of “The Allure of Toxic Leaders,” said,
“When our freedom unnerves us, we tend to gravitate toward any leader who will make us feel safe, protected, and good about ourselves. Toxic leaders, who promise security and assure us that we are special or ‘chosen,’ become particularly powerful magnets for our unmoored egos.“1
The difficulty is that these kinds of leaders will frequently run rough-shod over the gifts and skills of those under his or her authority. He will tend to make all the decisions. And he will tend to expect others to toe the line.
He will demand authority rather than seek to earn the respect and submission of his subordinates.
We shoudl be suspicious when we hear individuals talk about someone being a “strong” leader. They may indeed be strong in the right ways:
- Helping subordinates use their gifts, encouraging them to grow in their skills.
- Sharing authority with those who have leadership potential.
- Giving voice to those who may disagree with his own views and vision.
But it is all too frequent that they are simply authoritarian…and destructive to the organization, her employees, and its witness to Christ’s love.
Domestic abuse is often marked by an abuser who isolates his target.
In like ways, a toxic boss pockets his target’s fellow workers by schmoozing and seeming to be the reasonable one. I have seen multiple abusive husbands become very chummy with their pastor. One even lived in the basement of his pastor’s home for several months. I have observed abusive husbands win over his target’s family leaving her estranged from them.
In doing so, they then enlistist the aid of those whom they have pocketed to stand up for them and spy for them. The target is traumatized even more by well-meaning people who do not understand or identify abuse, but only want to “help the relationship be reconciled.”
In the case of Jim and Mary, Pastor Carl had much of the congregation bamboozeled by his “strong leadership” and sought the aid of the babysitters and chaperone in spying out the lay of the land in order to control Jim.
Another common isolation tactic is for the toxic leader to suggest that “everyone” is against you. Pastor Carl drew on this age-old tool with Jim and Mary arguing that nobody thought he was doing a good job.
Do not be bamboozeled!
Narcissism is not necessarily part of being an abusive leader, but often is a driving force. Those who are narcissistic in their personality will do everything in their power to keep on top of their subordinates. Jim said,
Pastor Carl was continually spiritually troubled! He was obsessively trying to control his image. Always trying to control perception of the church in the community. Not concerned with evangelism as much as recruiting influential people.
If the subordinate is doing well, he must do better. If the subordinate comes up with a good idea, he must either squash it or take credit for it. Jim said whenever he had success it would “result in a blowup in the office or attempt to get me out.”
The goal of the abusive leader is to be the “big man.” And he will do whatever is in his power to gain and hold that power.
Unfortunately, Jim and Mary learned the hard way.
God Bless the Oppressed
Jim’s understanding of ministry was formed through the poor leadership of Pastor Carl. As we talked he led me to Ephesians 5 where he said scripture gives direction for the “balanced” ministry.
He noted that the pastor is not called to be a CEO or “bully,” but to
- Feed the sheep [training]
- Lead the sheep [define direction for church]
- and Care for the sheep [pastoral care]
He said this “undermines” the CEO view of church leadership.
In the end, Jim realized that Proverbs 19:19 spoke directly to their situation.
A man of great wrath will pay the penalty,
for if you deliver him, you will only have to do it again.
He realized that he had rescued Pastor Carl many times by staying and by leaving the church, “[Pastor Carl] was exposed and it gave him the rope to hang himself.” The pastor left the church a few months later under a cloud.
It was a long time for Jim to forgive, but he considered it an absolute necessity.
Jim said he needed to “release the things that [Pastor Carl] did that messed” with their lives. Though he noted, forgiving others is not necessary for salvation for the Christian, it is a need and a command.
He said he had experienced forgiveness from the Lord and therefore, like the servant in Matthew 18, he needed to turn around and forgive others.
But it was not a once and done deal. He realized it would take time and the old feelings of anger would resurface. Talking about the situation with others helped in that healing process.
A woman who ministered to children in a Native boarding school nearby shared with Jim while he was in the midst of the battle. The woman’s husband abused her and she understood Jim’s situation.
She gave Jim a book that was a parable on Saul and David’s relationship. Saul and David’s relationship now makes sense to Jim after this experience. The toxic environment Saul created illumines Jim’s understanding of his own life under Pastor Carl.
Jim ended our discussion by saying, “Forgiveness is the most healing thing.”
Do you have a story of abusive leadership? Please contact Pearls And Swine Site so that others may gain from your experience and wisdom learned.
1 Lipman-Blumen, Jean. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians–and How We Can Survive Them (p. 35). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.