Accountability Guilt: Jack’s Life in the Wilderness Under Abusive Leadership

When is enough, enough?

More often than not, leadership abuse survivors struggle with “Accountability Guilt.”

When we were leaving our mission work after nearly eight wonderful years working with our fellow missionaries and our national hosts, we were driven to bring accountability to our toxic leadership.

We knew that they would shift the blame and justify and defend against individual complaints. So, we reached out to approximately fifty missionaries, no longer serving with the mission, requesting that they sign a letter asking the mission board to hear the stories of those who had been wounded by the abusive leadership.

Over forty responded to that call and signed a letter seeking some kind of accountability for the leaders.

From what we have heard, nothing every happened. No interviews. No change in leadership.

Battle Weary

At this point, do you continue to go to battle? Or do you throw up your hands and give it up?

Pastor Jack was hired by a large church in the south to be a church planter in their city.

The trouble began when he interviewed for the position. He and his wife had flown to the city where he spent the first two days in interviews, was given the third to explore the city, and then would preach on Sunday at one of the daughter congregations.

At 6:30 AM on Saturday, the tourist day, Jack and his wife were awoken to his phone ringing. It was Sam, the church’s Executive Pastor. Sam was not ordained to ministry, but acted and was treated like he was a pastor.

Sam asked Jack to meet him in the hotel restaurant for breakfast. Jack was “confused, but jumped in the shower and went down not knowing what to expect.”

After some pleasantries and small talk, Sam “leaned into” Jack and asked, “Do you want this job or not?”

Jack had sought to be humble in his interviews, noting in his answers that if they were to hire him. . . if he were to come. . . But, now that seemed to be turned on him. Later he would piece things together. The Executive Pastor took on an arrogant posture for which Jack wasn’t prepared. Jack explained that it sounded like Sam was saying,

“Hey, we are the pretty girl at the dance! You’ve been in a small town church planting/pastoring for the past seven years and now you have the opportunity of a lifetime. There are men who would do anything to work at [this church]. Do you want this job or not?”

The Executive and Senior Pastors continued to browbeat Jack following his hiring over silly and inconsequential things. They were critical of his preaching. They were critical that he wasn’t getting enough people in the pews. Jack wasn’t a “skilled master builder.”

Whose Ministry?

On Sunday mornings the various campus pastors got together to pray before heading to their various church campuses. On one of those Sundays, Jack’s wife was not feeling well. They had planned a “new comers'” lunch at their home. They held these lunches in their home over a home cooked meal and in a relaxed fellowship setting.

Jack asked the other pastors to pray for his wife. Sam responded by telling him to take them all out to lunch instead of having them into his home. Jack said,

My gut told me that was a bad idea (taking 14 people to a restaurant in the city would be difficult; plus the point of the new comers lunch was to provide a more relaxed environment for getting to know these folks in our home). So I answered Sam back, ‘If we don’t do it today, I’ll reschedule it for next Sunday.’ I used my own discernment.

The next day, Sam came into Jack’s office, sat down, and said, “Jack, what kind of man are you? The man who says, ‘Yes sir,’ or the man who says, ‘F*%# off,’?”

In retrospect, he believes he should have told Sam to never talk to him that way again and put in his two-week notice. He said,

But. . . What was I supposed to do? I had just bought a house in [the city] 6 months prior. The congregation had just started. My kids were in the schools. I felt like I was in a bad marriage. I was trapped.

Another time, the staff was on a retreat for several days. A member of Jack’s congregation had been diagnosed with leukemia and was pregnant. On the second to last day of the retreat, Jack was informed the family had lost their baby. He decided that he leave the retreat early and minister to the family.

Rather than encourage Jack in his ministry to this hurting family, the pastors took affront. Jack explained,

“Later the next week, I was called into Sam’s office and [the Senior Pastor] and Sam said, ‘Jack, you thought it was pretty important to leave the staff retreat early.’ I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Someone’s baby just died and you are chewing me out for leaving the staff retreat a day early?’ Later the next year, the woman with leukemia also died.”

A Better Place

The arrogant, harsh, and authoritarian treatment Jack received under Sam and the Senior Pastor in the end drove him out. He said,

“I do know this. [The church] was a confusing wilderness for me. And in the wilderness, Jesus did an amazing work of grace in my life. I am a better pastor because of my time at [the church]. But not because [it] was a healthy place that taught me how to be a pastor. It was because [the church] was an unhealthy place and taught me how NOT to be a pastor.”

Fortunately, the Lord has given him a much better place for ministry. Jack’s new church has loved him, cared for his family, and encouraged his gifting as a pastor. He is in a new place without bitterness or anger.

The Question Remains

However, the question remains: Does Jack have a moral duty to continue seeking accountability for his pastors?

Jack sent a letter to his denomination’s regional council suggesting there be interviews of others who have been wounded by Sam and his former Pastor. And he would like for these two men to be challenged by the words of those interviewed:

Ideally, I would love to see those two men really listen to my story and the stories of others. And as they listen, I would like them to say nothing. Just listen. And then after some time to reflect on how much they wounded those that were under their authority, how big the debris field of pain and confusion that they left, I would like their hearts to be softened, to be warmed by the grace, the love, the kindness, and the gentleness of Jesus for them. My hope is that when the Lord works His grace in their hearts, they would then respond by repenting for specific sins and asking for my forgiveness, which I have already extended to them in my own heart.

from a letter to the regional council

The regional council responded to his letter, having spoken to the pastor, and asked for Jack to sit down with the pastor and two member of the council to talk about his experience.

The pastor sent an “apology” to Jack. The letter was less than a page long and included a very general apology. At first Jack was encouraged by the words from his former boss. But, as he considered what repentance should look like from abusive authority, he began to question the wisdom of going back into the fray with his pastor.

It is the same ol’ struggle. Are we to continue pursuing the steps of Matthew 18 until there is resolution at the highest levels of church authority?

As I have written many times, our responsibility in following Jesus’ words in Matthew 18 at times end with Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:6. Jack has taken numerous steps – one-on-one and with those of higher authority – to bring accountability. But, if there is “danger” in continuing to confront the pastor, he is free to move on and allow those in higher authority to do their job.

It is indeed the council’s job to bring accountability to the pastor as his ruling authority. The question now becomes,

Will those with the authority to act on the employment of a wicked leader take their responsibilities seriously?

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