Daniel faced off with a toxic Senior Pastor and lost. That is usually the case.
But in Daniel’s denomination there should have been oversight that stopped the abuse. And yet, the abuse of leadership continues in his former church. It should have been Pastor Jim who packed his bags, not Daniel.
But generally, it is never that simple.
Many denominations have little recourse for those caught under abusive leadership in the church. They may be “congregational” in their church polity, meaning the congregation makes all or most of the major decisions and there is no group of individuals who have oversight outside the local church.
However, there are many denominations that do have some kind of board that practices oversight of the local church. They should provide safety to those in a congregation who are blowing the whistle on toxic leadership.
Daniel knew Pastor Jim as a leader of his college ministry. After being fired by the college ministry, Jim planted a church in a bustling metropolis. Following seminary, Daniel was asked to join Jim as an Assistant Pastor. It seemed like a great opportunity to minister with Jim so, he packed up his young family and moved across the country.
For a year things went swimmingly. Daniel was getting all kinds of experience. Upon arrival, he immediately started an adult Sunday school, taught Sunday school for kids, led the college ministry, oversaw communication for the church, and sought nursery volunteers.
He even filled the pulpit in Jim’s absence 10 days after arriving.
Despite the long hours, he saw it as an incredible opportunity to get varied and valuable experience preparing him for future ministry.
Who is He Really?
But things fell apart quite suddenly.
Daniel lost his job, but as he noted, “The real abuse was not in being fired unjustly [which he was], but in [Pastor Jim] having to control the narrative in every situation…the manipulation, gas lighting, and his constant need to fight.”
Missy, Daniel’s wife, had not met Jim when they arrived to begin ministry. Daniel had said, “He is a big personality. People either love him or hate him.” She noted that Jim was very “charismatic.” “People were really drawn to him,” she added.
However, when things went sideways, things got very nasty for Daniel and Missy. There was such a sudden shift in Pastor Jim’s attitude, it deeply hurt the young couple. Daniel said, “In our final months there, he seemed to be driven by anger, fear of losing control, and a desire to have me painted in the worst light so that he looked like the good guy.”
Messy Accountability Model
When Missy, Daniel, and I spoke, she explained they did not know the “right questions to ask” when Daniel interviewed for the Assistant position. They were young and just out of seminary. They were excited to get going in ministry. It was a great opportunity.
As a church plant, it had “borrowed” leadership. There were several elders who were tasked to oversee Jim’s ministry, but were not local. In fact, all were out of state and two were Jim’s close friends.
As his friends, they would simply do Pastor Jim’s bidding. They really did not provide any oversight to the ministry as an elder board should according to Missy and Daniel.
But Missy noted they would not have likely listened to the answers to tough questions about Jim and the leadership structure had they even known to ask them. They were ready to jump into ministry.
The Battle Began…
One Sunday, Pastor Jim and Daniel had a disagreement when preparing for a particular element of the worship. Pastor Jim decided not to go ahead with that part of worship and seemed fairly gracious, in Daniel’s view, in explaining it to the congregation.
The next day, Monday (which happened to be Daniel’s day off), Pastor Jim called Daniel to come meet him in his office. There was a congregant there as well, one of Jim’s good friends from seminary. Pastor Jim explained how disappointed he was in Daniel bringing up his conscience “right before the service” – no matter that it was an hour and a half before and Daniel had provided a solution that had been used another time when the same problem came up and Daniel had for some reason rejected it.
Pastor Jim proceeded to “suspend” Daniel until the elders met the next week. He was not to have any contact with church members (except the elders). Pastor Jim included students returning to college that week with whom Daniel would normally meet.
Daniel summed up the situation, saying, “Our ‘face off’ on that Sunday morning was only made into that because Pastor Jim took a concern that I had and turned it into a black and white, right vs. wrong conflict, instead of listening and discussing our options and moving forward together.”
When he met with the elders over Skype the next week, the board reinstated him but “with caveats.” He was to “obey and follow” Pastor Jim.
From this point on, Daniel and Missy felt they were “walking on eggshells.”
A few weeks later, Daniel was presented with a document by Pastor Jim that included a variety of men’s names with whom he was to meet regularly. The pastor had complained to Daniel that he did not do all the things with which he had tasked him. Pastor Jim would regularly give him responsibility for piles of work.
Daniel noted that it was presented to help him grow personally in ministry, but “much of it seemed arbitrary or like busy work.” The document was not presented as, “Do these things to the letter, or you are out.” With so many other responsibilities, he had to figure out what was really important to the running of the church.
Pastor Jim struggled with articulating priorities. “Everything was a high priority in his mind,” and so, over the months, these tasks for Daniel’s personal growth became secondary to the weekly operation of the church.
Daniel said he “never received any feedback from the elders on those extensive reports, and only confirmations that they had been received from Jim.”
Following a very hectic summer of leading retreats and a camp, Daniel was once again called into the pastor’s office. Pastor Jim said, “I am very disappointed in your lack of getting things done. The priorities you set. I have been following up with the guys I had you meet with. You didn’t meet as often as I had specified. I will meet with the elders next week and determine what to do with you.”
Again, Daniel was required to refrain from any contact with anyone at the church while awaiting the meeting with the long-distance elder board.
The elders in the end voted to “dissolve” his calling to the church and ask for his resignation.
It was explained that if he chose to go to the hierarchy of the denomination to challenge their decision, he would give up his severance package. After getting much advice from other pastors, he chose to resign and move on from the “nasty situation” it had become. As I have shared this with others, their responses have been like mine: it sounded like blackmail.
Pastor Jim wanted him to stay on for a few months to help in the transition. Daniel graciously agreed hoping things would settle down. Unfortunately, following a congregational meeting where they were told that Daniel had resigned, he was given
“strict guidelines to not meet with certain people and had to tell Pastor Jim” what was said if he did meet with someone.
Daniel noted, “If I did talk with people at all, my narrative was to be that ‘I fired myself’ by my actions…that I was the only party to have acted wrongly.”
Pastor Jim continued to retain control as Daniel explained,
“He and his close friend on the [board] constantly followed up with me after I resigned, and would call to berate me if they heard that others were dissatisfied with the way things were being handled, even when I hadn’t had any contact with those congregants. It reached a point where they actively threatened my severance, my ordination, and informed me that they would never recommend me for a position in ministry.”
Where Do We Go From Here?
Pastor Jim is driven, a “fighter,” “opinionated,” and “rough around the edges.” But, of course, very talented. He has attracted many to the church.
But this kind of leadership comes with a high price tag. The fallout may largely be in the inner circle of leadership – losing assistant leaders and elders which has happened – but it is very destructive to the whole body nonetheless. I have yet to see a church continue to flourish under such leadership.
It is a cancer.
There is always a reckoning.
Abusive leadership leads to destruction.
It is imperative that an abuser of God-given authority, like Pastor Jim, be brought to account. That accountability in itself can bring him to repentance…but if it does not, at least God’s people will no longer be oppressed.
Daniel said, “The real hurt came from working closely with him in ministry for three years and then having all bridges of our relationship burned so quickly, and then to watch his efforts to burn the bridges between us and the congregation.”
Daniel finished with a hint of hope.
“We trust that God will use our story to bring light to abusive leadership, give comfort to those who are experiencing similar situations, and be a catalyst for the peace and purity of the church.”
- Crippen, Jeff. Unholy Charade: Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church (p. 48). Justice Keepers Publishing. Kindle Edition.