Timothy Witmer said, “The exercise of authority is designed to serve the well-being of those under its care.” It is unfortunate when those in authority fail to consider that little detail.
The pastor of the local church has been given the authority and responsibility to care for his congregation made up of people often referred to as “sheep” in scripture. The analogy of sheep is apt as they are particularly vulnerable to predators and have an extraordinary propensity for self-harm.
A sheep rancher in Wyoming responded to a school child who asked if sheep sleep at night, saying, “No, they lay awake thinking up new ways to die!”
On the other hand, the picture painted of the pastor in scripture is that of a “shepherd” who protects the sheep. As a shepherd of these sheep, the pastor is charged with being “motivated by love for the Lord,” says Richard Rardin, author of The Servant’s Guide to Leadership: Beyond First Principles.
Rardin adds that the “servant of God must die to self before he or she can be of much use to the Father.”
This means the pastor is at heart willing to set aside his own comforts for the care of the congregation, putting the interests of the congregation above his own.
Scripture instructs the sheep to consider the shepherds “worthy of double honor.” Witmer argues that God has called congregant members to live in submission to church authorities, specifically those called as “teaching” pastors. He goes on to say that the arrangement of a leader who dies to self and a congregation giving a “willing response of obedience” is an “advantage to all” involved.
That is in the perfect world.
But church members are very vulnerable to those leaders who would take advantage of their weakness as those under authority. The prophet Ezekiel warned the leaders in Israel in the seventh century B.C.,
“You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal.”
Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing
The people of God are “easy prey” for wolves in sheep’s clothing, as Jesus refers to false prophets. They may look like sheep, meek and mild, but behind the façade of harmless sheep they are “ravenous wolves”. As the sheep, the nation of Israel, was scattered by the “harshness and cruelty” of the leaders, so church members are at times scattered by autocratic pastors and elders in local congregations.
To add to the complexities of such circumstances there may exist “mid-level management” in the form of pastor’s assistants who must navigate between submission to a senior pastor’s authority (giving honor to those who teach) and shepherding the congregation (having been called to a pastoral care position).
The assistant who seeks to lead from the “second chair,” [drawing on the terminology of the position of those in an orchestra who perform under the “first chair” player] must walk a fine line between having authority and being under authority.
This becomes treacherous when the senior pastor is acting like a wolf rather than shepherd. I have been fortunate to serve under a humble and empowering pastor, something not all assistants enjoy.
“Margo” served as the Programming and Missions Director in a non-denominational church with 400 members and has a Masters of Divinity. She served in a pastoral role under the supervision of the Senior Pastor of the congregation who, by her description, was the primary authority in the church.
Margo 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 lead teams in spiritual development.
Margo resigned from her position in large part due to the autocratic leadership of Pastor Pete.
The Mission Trip
Margo told me of a time that she was approached by Pastor “Pete” to organize a missions committee at the church and arrange for short-term mission trips to a southern African nation. Pastor Pete wished to begin building relationships with a group of African churches through short-term trips.
Pastor Pete gave Margo much authority to build a team and communicate with the African churches and a missions organization in Colorado, through which they would operate.
As they prepared to sign up members of the congregation for the summer mission, one member reneged on his verbal commitment. He had particular gifts of importance to the team. He explained that he had been asked by Pastor Pete to accompany him on a mission trip to Eastern Africa, a trip neither Margo, nor her committee, had heard about.
When she and a fellow leader (an elder in the church) were told this, 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 gotten his “feelings hurt.”
After the elder challenged the pastor for his lack of consideration, the pastor continued to laugh at him.
Making Matters Worse
Following the trip the team presented an “African worship service” for the congregation and the church gave thousands of dollars and many material items for the southern African churches in which they ministered.
However, at the close of the service, Pastor Pete gave an announcement that all the funds and materials would be sent to the churches he had visited two weeks earlier. It was a complete surprise to the missions committee and team that had been directed to raise the funds and materials for the southern African churches by Pastor Pete.
The Real Power
Margo’s church had an elder board that had the authority to hire or fire the senior pastor. However, the perceived or real power of the pastor overcame that authority and the board adopted a “herding mentality” – “an appeasement strategy toward” the pastor that allowed an environment of pastoral control and poor decision-making.
The practice of leadership by a pastor who considers his vision of primary importance to the congregation creates an environment where there is no psychological safety for the purpose of building a team ministry.
Because strong, authoritative leaders can be perceived as God’s “anointed,” gathering around them disciples attracted to their power, it becomes difficult for a leadership team to reject the autocrat.
Autocratic pastors may provide skills and gifts in many areas, but the overwhelming effect of their leadership is destructive to important relationships and the witness of the body of Christ.
As Margo pressed on towards her goal of ministering to the congregation, her convictions regarding the Matthew 18 principles presented both difficulty in confronting the problem pastor and in coping with her emotional responses to the senior pastor’s leadership.
She was concerned that sharing her struggles with others in the congregation would be gossiping and missing the point of Matthew 18 where much of the focus is on one-on-one confrontation and reconciliation.
So, Margo focused on sharing her difficulties with family members outside the church. This common strategy in “workplace bullying” environments is helpful for those who are bullied to receive encouragement and, possibly, biblical advice from those removed from the situation.
However, the real problem – the pastor – is left unchecked. The assistant is left alone and isolated because those who truly understand and know what the assistant is facing, the church members, are not consulted and the processing of the assistant’s emotions is limited.
The Matthew 18 principles, taught by Jesus in verses 15 through 18, are given in the context of brothers in the faith with the oversight of a plurality of elders. In Margo’s context, the “brother” had authority to fire her and was under no real authority of elders. And Margo was convinced she had nowhere to turn in her church family to express and process her emotions for fear that it would be gossip.
Two to Tango
Of great concern for those who minister under the authority of autocratic leaders is the view that it “takes two to tango.” Like in the experience of many who have faced domestic violence, a well-meaning brother may suggest that since both individuals involved are sinful, they are both responsible for the broken relationship. This perspective is evident in the writings of Friedman, Herrington, Creech and Taylor.
This simplistic view does not take into consideration either the power structure inherent in the senior-assistant relationship, nor the dynamics of relating to the “ravenous wolves” that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:15-25. Friedman focuses on changing self, however there are times when it is evident that the primary problem lies in the other person.
Having said that, the emotional response of those caught in less than optimal ministry environments must be understood and moderated by principles of self-differentiation. It was clear in my interview with Margo that Pastor Pete could not be expected to change nor be confronted with any expectation of success.
Responding to the Situation
Therefore, how an assistant copes with the daily interactions with this type of pastor is of the greatest importance, particularly if the assistant feels trapped in the job with little recourse financially or vocationally.
Margo took submissive postures with her supervising pastor, limiting her criticism and always recognizing that his word was the “final word.”
It also provided helpful lessons to Margo to work under Pastor Peter.
She was forced to hold firmly to her own convictions, minister to others as God gave opportunity, and recognize that ultimately God was sovereign over the future of her ministry. This was true to Margo whether she remained in that particular church, under that particular pastor, or went somewhere else.
“Margo” is not her real name.
 Witmer, Shepherd Leader, 89.
 ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. Psalm 119:176, Isaiah 53:6, Jeremiah 50:6.
 Rardin, The Servant’s Guide to Leadership, 36.
 Ibid., 102–103.
 ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. 1 Timothy 5:17.
 Witmer, Shepherd Leader, 92.
 ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. Ezekiel 34:4–5.
 Ibid., v. Matthew 7:15.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 1285–1287, 1306-1308.
 Ciby and Raya, “Exploring Victims’ Experiences of Workplace Bullying: A Grounded Theory Approach,” 76.