Editor’s Note: This is the first in a three-part series. Part two can be found here.
It has been two years since the Williams left Peace Community Church.1 They would have remained silent had the abusive leadership not proceeded to crush others the Williams love.
The Williams had an amiable relationship with Pastor Ensome. He has pastored over 20 years in the same church and is well respected by other pastors in their denomination. Kate Williams described him as “a good preacher.” She said he could be “charming and self-deprecating.”
Kate also noted that he appeals to people’s pride and sympathies. She explained to me,
“Michael and I loved being at Peace Community Church. We loved the community, the worship and a place to serve. We were deeply hurt that we felt we could no longer stay. All at once we lost a place to worship, a church community, fellowship with people we loved. And we lost ministries that we felt God had called and gifted us to serve in.”
Why did they leave and are now telling their story?
It began several years ago when, as a member of the church, Kate was asked to help with a ministry at PCC. She spent some time speaking with each of the members individually and developed a committee to meet the needs that were expressed.
After three years of serving in the ministry, Kate was asked to head up another committee, a committee on which she enjoyed serving at a former church. This was where her heart truly was and so jumped at the opportunity. Kate felt free to move out of leadership of the first ministry as it was moving along smoothly.
After about a year, she was involved in reigniting a ministry of PCC. In the initial phase Kate called Pastor Ensome with her exciting news that there was real interest in the ministry. She was also calling to ask if they had the “church’s support to go ahead” with the ministry.
The pastor was affirming, but was “adamant that he did not want [a particular family] involved in leadership.” Kate didn’t ask why, but said, “This put me in an awkward position of having to either find someone else or do it myself. Pastor Ensome encouraged me to lead.”
It seemed that she could do no wrong. Pastor Ensome was appealing to her skills and she was encouraged. She wasn’t really seeking out ministry opportunities but rather being asked to lead ministries.
Then Something Happened
Kate and Michael were hosting an at-risk child and were struggling with feeling alone in their ministry to the child. She sought out a meeting with Pastor Ensome to share those struggles in hopes that he would share some wisdom, having had experience with special needs children. She knew her husband Michael, an elder, had a disagreement with Pastor Ensome the week before at an elders’ meeting but it did not occur to her that their disagreement could impact her meeting with the pastor.
From the very beginning of the meeting he seemed cold and disconnected from her.
She soon discovered why. Pastor Ensome went on the attack, accusing Kate of all sorts of things and defending himself:
- He told Kate she was a judgmental person. He said, “Judgement emanates from you. You can see it in your eyes and that is why people move away from you.”
- He stated, “You and Michael are so far off of how a church should be run.”
- He “confided” in her that a staff pastor had told him Kate left the first ministry she served because she couldn’t get along with the women and that said something about her personality. The staff pastor confirmed later that this was not true.
- He told Kate that John, the elder she worked closely with on a committee “had issues” with her. John, when asked the next day, said that no matter what she had been told, she had not offended him in the slightest. And, in fact, he considered her work inspiring.
- He said, “I built this church,” and proceeded to name all the things he had done for the church.
Kate began crying and he told her “that my crying was good because now he could see my heart because most of the time I just seem to be running around checking things off a list.“
She was deeply hurt by this barage, which went on for about 20 minutes, and was baffled by the hurtful comments. She felt completely blindsided.
Michael explained, “There was no love, no gentleness, no kindness expressed. Kate says that she has never been spoken to in such a mean-spirited manner in her life.”
In a later email to the elders Pastor Ensome confessed that he had dismissed Kate and Michael and added he had done that with others before. He confessed that it was offensive to the Christ’s church.
It is still unclear why Pastor Ensome went on the attack.
The Dirty Little Secret at CCC
But soon she found she was not alone.
When talking with another volunteer the next day, the woman said,
“I’m surprised that this hasn’t happened to you earlier. You have made a lot of changes here and Pastor Ensome doesn’t like change. I know of several people the Pastor has attacked through the years.”
Later, the woman found Kate and reiterated her comments, noting that her husband had been verbally attacked by the pastor multiple times.
Two days later, Kate talked with a long-time member and the member told her Pastor Ensome’s behavior was Peace Community Church’s “dirty little secret.” She explained that the pastor attacks anyone who he perceives to be threatening his control over the church.
The member shared with Kate, “There are three groups of people related to PCC: the walking wounded, the unawares, and those who had left.”
As light was shown on the darkness of Pastor Ensome’s leadership, more was revealed:
“I was told that ‘he would destroy me’ if I tried to push back and the best thing for us to do was for Michael to resign as an elder and for me to quit the committee and remove ourselves from any activity that involved Pastor Ensome so that he could not further harm us.”
Keep your head down. Remain under the radar. If you want to continue in any form of ministry. I don’t know how many times I have seen this played out by those who are suffering under toxic leadership in the church, organization, or business.
Unfortunately, the one left standing seems to always be the toxic one.
Changing the Narrative
There are numerous signs of toxic leadership. Though each experience has its unique flavor, there are many common factors.
One of the techniques used by toxic leaders is to “change the narrative.”
It didn’t take long for Pastor Ensome to begin changing the narrative. The pastor became self-righteous in his handling of the situation. He needed to bring Kate down to his level by suggesting she was just as culpable for the broken relationship.
“If both of you [Kate and Michael] feel that the offenses are only my fault or the church’s, I’m not sure anything can be done. Most reconciliation instruction used needs to include each party addressing their own sins (Mt. 7:5). When I have tried to reconcile with people who were unable to identify sins on their part it was not successful. I don’t think it wise to seek reconciliation in those situations. I would recommend you read Ken Sande’s work, ‘The Peacemaker.‘”
Later he wrote, “In my letter I was making the point that there is sin on both sides. But if you and Kate don’t think you have sinned, I don’t think we will be able to have a useful conversation about the conflict.” He added, “But in that case, we will need to discuss your roles in leadership at PCC.”
In other words, we are equal in our sin as we all sin. And if you don’t admit that, you will lose your leadership position.
Apparently, he has always occupied the high moral ground. It was those other people that could not admit their sin and he simply could not do anything with that, thus minimizing his own sin.
In addition, several months later in an “apology” letter of sorts, he told Kate and Michael that he did not have any negative thoughts towards Kate before the meeting in which he originally attacked her. However, in a letter to the elders he delineated the reasons why he needed to confront Kate.
He evidently had done some premeditation.
Pastor Ensome also said in a note that he was blindsided.
Who is the Offender?
Toxic leaders easily manipulate Scripture to their benefit.
Pastor Ensome leveled the playing field by pointing out the biblical concept that no one is free from sin. There are frequently sins committed by both parties in a conflict.
Though admitting that all are sinful, Pastor Ensome sidestepped his own culpability by suggesting they read Ken Sande’s book called The Peacemaker. It was a subtle shift from admitting his own sin to Kate’s supposed sin.
Ken Sande founded Peacemaker Ministries to help churches in managing conflicts. It is very helpful unless there is abusive leadership at work. Sande acknowledges this. He notes in his writing there are different ground rules for managing abusive situations.
In normal relationships, it may be helpful to own up to your own sins when confronting an offender, just as Kate did in one of the meetings. It may help the offending party humble himself and own up to his own sin.
But, the onus still falls on the offender and must be kept there in the confrontation (Matt. 18:15).
Pastor Ensome treated Kate horribly when she only came looking for help. It was his anger that built up towards Kate and Michael. It was not Kate’s sin and should not have been treated as such in managing the situation. There can be no backing down from this or the abuser will take advantage and there will be no resolution. . . in fact, generally there is no resolution when dealing with abusive leadership (or abusers in general).
Toxic leaders manipulate scripture so that they don’t have to come clean regarding their own sin.
Intimidating the Witness
Toxic Leaders spiritually intimidate.
After a meeting between Michael, the staff pastor, John (elder), and Pastor Ensome – that did not include Kate as she was “not emotionally strong enough to attend,” – another meeting was arranged with Kate.
There was still hope to salvage the relationship. Though Kate wanted to confront the pastor, she continued to work hard win his favor. She shared with me,
“It was an awkward meeting. . . I was in so much distress in encountering Pastor Ensome for the first time that I don’t clearly remember all that was said. I found it difficult to even speak. I had shared what I was planning to say with long time members and they told me that was the ‘stupidest thing I could do.’ They told us the only way to stay [at PCC] was to submit to the Pastor. So, at that meeting I basically said I was a sinner, I was open to rebuke, and that if I had done something offensive someone should have told me earlier. Pastor Ensome had already devastated me and I could not risk being destroyed by him.”
Pastor Ensome apparently was pleased by her humility and told her he didn’t mean to hurt her. He stated that his issues were with Michael.
He had effectively intimidated both Kate and other members into believing it was necessary to bow to his superior spirituality or suffer the consequences.
There is more. Kate’s story continues in Part Two (2). Part Two will be posted on Thursday, September 1.
1 The names used in this article are fictitious, but the story is not. Pearls and Swine does not publish names, places, or identifiable information as it is our desire to keep victims of abusive leadership safe and to not distract from the lessons that can be learned from their story.
 Ken Sande, The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict, 3rd edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2004), 156.