John & the Autocrat

Autocratic PastorJohn spent one and a half years serving as a Youth Pastor before resigning, under pressure, due to an autocratic Senior Pastor.

He noted in my interview with him that his purpose for accepting the position was that Pastor “Jim” promised, “I’ll train you, give you preaching [opportunities], visits…the whole gamut of ministry.” He desired to gain valuable experience in ministry following his seminary training and this position appeared to provide that opportunity.

But autocrats mostly give trials and tribulation…

No Shared Authority

John described an incident when, as the Youth Pastor, he was encouraged to visit the local crisis pregnancy ministry. He spoke with the director, who had contracted HIV-AIDS from his wife, had experienced his baby (who also had HIV-AIDS) “die in his arms,” was divorced from this wife, and in the end became a Christian.

In the course of the discussion, John decided to bring him to speak to his youth group. There was a 16 year old mother in the group and he hoped that it would be of real encouragement to her.

Because the crisis center director had an earring, John decided it would be wise to inform the pastor due to the “fundamentalist” leaning of the church. He approached Pastor Jim to seek permission.

Pastor Jim “just killed it right there.”

In another incident, John was seeking permission to move the 16 year old mother to the “college group” because “she was still of the mindset that [she was] a teenager” and he believed the college group would provide more maturation for her.

Again, Pastor Jim did not allow him to exercise his authority as the Youth Pastor and John was “stuck in the middle” between the pastor and families that were concerned for their own young children that were in the same group.

He found it necessary, as one under the authority of the pastor, to “come up with some reason of why the pastor [thought it] better to leave her” in the youth group to calm the parents.

The Joys and Sorrows of Serving

The position of an assistant to a senior pastor provides unique opportunities and challenges. There is real pleasure in “working together with people who believe the same thing you believe,” as one of my interviewees noted. Working with others called to the ministry can provide great joy.

John said he “enjoyed the interaction with the people…there were some incredibly godly and encouraging people in that church.”

John took great pleasure in using his gifts to serve people in the church. It was evident that he was supported and encouraged by most in the congregation where you see people’s lives grow and be fulfilled in a way that has never been fulfilled before.

John, noting that “shepherding is my favorite aspect of working in ministry,” told of an opportunity he had to shepherd a teenager who had told his parents he was an “agnostic” and was finding it difficult to believe that his parents loved him and would support him nonetheless.

John was able to encourage him and help him through that time of questioning. The young man later turned to the Lord and John believed he was able to use his gifts in this assistant role despite not believing God was calling him to be a long-term youth pastor.

However

Despite his successes, John was placed in awkward positions with the senior pastor. In each case, his concern for the authority of the pastor and peace of the church was evident in the interviews.

John said, “I didn’t want to see the church hurt as I was leaving. I didn’t want to see a schism,” as he described two leaders in the church (Deacons) coming to him to discuss actions by the senior pastor. John was very careful with whom he spoke during the crises and when leaving the church.

John did experience many opportunities to use his giftedness for the building of God’s kingdom in his assistant role in the church. However, seeking to work alongside a pastor that practices autocratic leadership can be emotionally damaging.

Managing Emotions in the Storm

John observed multiple times when his supervising pastor was highly authoritative and hurtful to those under their care. The frequency of such events were instrumental in his resignation.

According to John, the employment of and subsequent “tying of [his] hands” was part of Pastor Jim’s overall strategy to prove to his Deacon board that the position of Youth Pastor was not needed.

The lack of respect shown by the senior pastor created significant hurt to Jim. However, it was only later that he realized the significance of the emotional injury.

John said he and his wife took a year and a half out from ministry to heal from the hurt caused by the pastor.

John sought to limit the relational damage of the pastor by speaking with few people in the church about his experiences (like Margo). John was very careful to keep his frustration contained by sharing primarily with family members. He added, “If I had had more interaction with the deacons, who were also frustrated, it would have been very difficult to stay supportive, to not complain, not gossip.

Healing

John noted that he spoke with both his father and uncle, who are pastors, to gain perspective emotionally. He found it helpful to have an outlet to express frustration and hurt in a constructive way with someone who was trustworthy but was not directly tied to the church.

As John evaluated his emotional response, he noted that he “spent most of that year and a half frustrated” and didn’t “have good spiritual disciplines established.”

Because of this, he said he “didn’t process through things as I would have…if I would have I probably wouldn’t have stayed as long.

His year and a half out of ministry following his resignation was because he “was more broken than I should have been had I been processing my emotions more effectively.” John believed that had he had a deeper relationship with the Lord, he would have seen his context more clearly and left the position.

Learning

However, according to John, this time of struggle in ministry was invaluable to his growth as a leader. He said, “I learned from it that my relationship with Christ needs to be what gives me the confidence and satisfaction rather than my relationships with the pastor, or church…it needs to be much more personal…that union with Christ. Who am I in Christ?”

John had an amicable relationship with Pastor Jim,

“But…he made it very clear he’s the leader of this church. He’s in charge…So…the level of authority that he exhibited was intimidating to me, because I knew his word was final. So I wouldn’t ever push that.”

He felt “defeated, like my hands were tied. Like I had no authority.” He was given the task of leading the kids, but he had to do exactly what Pastor Jim told him to do.

“But, how exactly is that leadership? I don’t have any authority to make decisions.”

There was very evident frustration in his voice as he described the inhibiting of his ability to minister to the youth by Pastor Jim’s authoritarianism. Having come to learn ministry, the actions of the pastor “really took the wind out of my sails.”

His ability to differentiate himself (not being caught up in the emotions of others) while operating in an environment of broken relationships and anxiety was a valuable lesson learned. He shared that though he “didn’t have the guts to argue with [Pastor Jim] at that time,” he would now.

In addition, he learned that much of his training in seminary focused on the idea that the pastor receives the vision from God and passes it on to the congregation. Having experienced this form of leadership from Pastor Jim, he recognized that perspective was actually devastating to the ministry.

John came to understand his ultimate authority was God and not the senior pastor and this helped him respond with a significant level of “self-differentiation.”

In Summary

A pastor that leads autocratically may leave little room for those under his authority to use their gifts and practice effective ministry.

As James Kouzes and Barry Posner say,

“People don’t quit their organizations; they quit their leaders.”[1]

It is not an infrequent occurrence that those who are called to gospel ministry find employment in churches led by autocratic pastors. The often devastating emotional effects on those who serve as their assistants are felt for years. Rather than enter into a joint ministry that provides a learning environment for an inexperienced assistant, the assistant’s gifts are squandered by “self-serving leaders [who] use the trust and authority that accrues to them to help themselves” rather than train and equip their assistant in ministry.[2]

Those caught in the emotional triangles of pastor-assistant-church must navigate relationships that are fraught with emotion, balancing respect and submission to the senior pastor and care and shepherding for the congregation. Because autocratic senior pastors are often given extensive authority by elder and deacon boards that are more inclined to “herding instincts” – keeping the peace at all costs – the assistant is left to cope with the emotional struggle, sometimes unaided by those in the church.

Though the elder board had the authority to hire or fire the senior pastor in John’s case, the perceived or real power of the pastor overcame that authority and the board adopted a herding mentality that allowed an environment of control and poor decision-making.[3]

Because strong, authoritative leaders can often be seen as God’s “anointed,” gathering around them disciples attracted to their power, it becomes more and more 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 appears to be destructive to important relationships and the witness of the body of Christ.

It is very apparent, when interviewing those under autocratic leaders, that 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.

Autocratic leaders rarely change and are rarely open to confrontation. 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.

But rarely is it worth the spiritual and emotional damage wrought by staying in the claws of an autocratic leader.

NOTES:

[1] Maxwell, Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, 122.

[2] Herrington, The Leader’s Journey, 52–53.

[3] Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 1285–1287, 1306-1308.

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