Pastoral Steamroller: Michael’s Story

Editor’s Note: This is the Third in a three-part series. See Part One and Part Two.

They had started, it seemed, on a road to healing from the destruction of relationships and the eye-opening experience with toxic leadership in the church.

“It is with an incredibly heavy heart that I write this letter to inform you of my decision to step down as an elder, and my wife and my decision to leave Peace Community Church.”

The Williams were moving on finding no way to stay.

When Michael Williams wrote his resignation letter to the other elders at PCC, he was heartbroken by the actions of their pastor towards him and his wife, Kate. [P&S has shared her story]

But his story, though closely entwined with Kate’s, is also a unique story of spiritual abuse.

Michael’s Story

Michael has thought that maybe the verbal attack Kate had suffered under Pastor Ensome may have actually been primarily directed at Michael. As Michael said, “Kate got the brunt of it . . . before Pastor Ensome1 and I had a chance to meet.”

Michael had served as an Elder at their former church and was “confused and frustrated” by the elder meetings at PCC. There was a great deal of focus on Pastor Ensome’s teaching and “harmony,” whereas, the business of the church seemed to be much less talked about. To be discussing the pastor’s teaching and how to create harmony within the church were important topics, but the emphasis just seemed over the top.

Michael had come into the new leadership position ready to learn. He recognized that churches would handle their business differently and he would need to learn the leadership culture of PCC, in contrast to his previous church where he had also served as an elder.

However, leaving important budgetary requests frequently to the very end of the meeting, allowing little discussion, and the Pastor largely steamrolling the decisions seemed unwise to Michael. . . and contrary to the concept of the plurality of eldership considered important in their theological traditional.

One of Those People

So, Michael met with Pastor Ensome to share his suggestions for more efficient and effective meetings (that more time could be spent on important business) and Pastor Ensome seemed amenable, particularily to his suggestion to have an agenda and get it into the hands of the Elders in advance.

The Pastor said he would give his other suggestions some thought.

After several months of meetings and no appreciable change, Michael met with Pastor Ensome once again. But before they even got started, the Pastor asked Michael, “Are you going to bring charges against me?”

In Michael’s denomination, pastors are under the oversight of other pastors and elders. There is a “court system” that handles “charges” brought by members of the denomination. It can at times be very helpful in settling major disputes that are not necessarily matters for the civil courts.

However, Michael had no thought of taking such action to the church courts and was “dumbfounded” by the pastor’s question. Michael told Pastor Ensome,

“I was there to help and I was not making personal accusations . . . the items were primarily organizational in manner and only meant to benefit PCC.”

As they began talking, Michael asked if the church did any staff reviews. He asked to whom Pastor Ensome, for example, was accountable? The pastor clearly got his back up and responded, “Jesus, my wife, and on occasion I speak with a couple pastors.”

In other words, he was not accountable to his fellow elders, only those pastors who he would see infrequently and had little idea of his leadership in the church.

From that point on in their relationship Michael sensed a “defensive” and “cold” manner from Pastor Ensome. Michael said, “I felt I was relegated to ‘one of those’ . . . people who he held in disdain.”

Michael explained that those were “people who disagreed with him were considered less spiritual, or somehow beneath him, as I have learned from others who found themselves in a position of having different opinions than Pastor, including former elders.”

For months the pastor seemed to avoid eye contact with Michael and did not even greet him unless he was in a situation that demanded it.

Common to many toxic organizational structures is either a formal or informal policy of dictatorship. Some organizations, like Michael’s church, have a polity (church structure) that is centered on a plurality of leaders, providing mutual accountability as instructed in Scripture. In addition, the pastor is simply considered “first among equals” in his relationship to the other elders who serve alongside him.

Though the church polity provided for and directed a leadership that is equal in authority, in practice it is apparent that PCC is really a dictatorship as will be seen in Michael’s story.

Building His Legacy

A major property purchase by the church was presented to the elders by Pastor Ensome.

Pastor Ensome sent a draft letter to the elders that he hoped would be approved for him to send to the congregation regarding the purchase. Pastor Ensome was acting as if he was accountable to the other elders.

Michael responded to the letter with some questions and comments. But the pastor’s letter went out to the congregation a week later and it had misleading information without having addressed Michael’s questions.

Michael said, “I was open to the consideration of the purchase, but felt strongly there was a need for discussion, due diligence, and evaluation first for the benefit of the church.”

However, Pastor Ensome wrote in the letter, the “elders believe this is the right course” though Michael had never agreed to it.

“The whole process was one where I had questions and reservations which essentially were prevented from being discussed on a timely basis nor even with a sense of due diligence.”

On Being Shut Down

Michael asked the pastor if the Elders could spend some time in a weekend leadership meeting to discuss the purchase. Ensome told him yes, but that he would have very little time.

Michael waited and waited throughout the meetings over the weekend, finally asking the pastor when he was going to be allowed to discuss the purchase or not. Pastor Ensome grudgingly said maybe later.

It didn’t happen.

Michael was allowed to express his questions and concerns at the next Elder’s meeting. But the ball was already rolling . . . or steamrolling ahead. The purchase was moving forward. There was no encouragement of addressing the questions and concerns by Pastor Ensome, who seemed obviously disturbed by having to allow Michael time to speak. He just wanted to move along.

So, Michael also asked to be present for an inspection of the purchase and was told no by Pastor Ensome. In fact, only those selected by the pastor were allowed to attend the inspection.

As it turned out, there were major problems with the property. The building needed to be torn down and was not feasible for use as the pastor had communicated to the congregation.

The steamroller moved ahead. The purchase was made.

Staying Engaged

Michael was encouraged to continue serving by former elders. But he was learning an unfortunate lesson about PCC’s leadership:

“I found the board to be little more than, a ‘rubber stamp’ for Pastor Ensome as he regularly got whatever he wanted with little pushback or minimal discussion.”

Again, common to these authoritarian organizations or churches, boards are often hand-picked and/or manipulated by the pastor or CEO to become just an “old boys’ network.” Board members who don’t comply, are generally forced off the board one way or another (as was the experience at PCC).

After making the property purchase, Michael was asked to chair a “vision” committee made up of other elders and one other church member. They met with the staff pastor and Pastor Ensome during which “[Pastor Ensome] dominated the conversation at that time and expressed no concerns of the committee.”

The purpose was to develop a ministry plan for the purchase and involved a survey that the Elders and then possibly the congregation were to be given.

Isolating

When the survey was presented to the Elders for their review and input, Pastor Ensome accused Michael of creating an “illegal” committee, going against denominational rules. Michael said the tension among the elders was palpable and Pastor Ensome later sent a letter to the Elders apologizing for his behavior.

There were two elders present who had served on this committee and they said nothing.

It was soon after this, and before Michael could meet with the pastor, that Kate experienced Ensome’s wrath in a meeting of her own [here is her story].

After Kate’s infamous meeting with Pastor Ensome, Michael, Elder John and a staff pastor met with him.

Michael described what happened:

“To begin the meeting Pastor Ensome gave a one-page handout of scriptures beginning with John 14 and other verses including 1 Corinthians 2:14, Acts 1:6 and 14, and Acts 13:2 and 46. He then proceeded with a 20-minute sermon. The message I got was that Pastor Ensome was spiritual like Jesus, while Kate and I were not. He never admitted the cruel words he had spoken or his wide ranging and harmful accusations against Kate, but rather seemed justified in his actions and opinions.”

After the pastor’s “sermon” Michael got a chance to read Kate’s letter out loud to the elders explaining why she had come to Pastor Ensome in the first place for counsel. However, the pastor quickly tried to shut him down by interrupting him as he read his wife’s account. Michael pushed back and told him “firmly not to interrupt” but elder John and the staff pastor present did nothing to stop the bullying – they sat quietly.

The staff pastor has since apologized for his failure. “He said what was needed were men who feared God more than man and sadly, he was not one at that moment.”

In Michael’s experience and many with whom I speak, leaders who abuse their spiritual authority make it difficult for those who serve with or for them to stand against his tide. Whether weilding a sense of spiritual superiority, power over their careers, or simply taking advantage of other’s desire to please the head honcho, standing up can be difficult.

All leaders, who abuse their authority, enjoy the complicity of others who have a say in their employment but do not take the steps to stop toxic leaders.

Michael said,

“We are now aware that while at PCC and after we left, both of us were slandered by Pastor Ensome on numerous occasions, calling into question even the integrity of our faith – not being spiritually minded but worldly in our trust.  He tried to control us by how we might share our stories with others before we left, but clearly does not feel the same constraints on his own behavior.”

In a letter to the elders, not including Michael, Pastor Ensome laid further groundwork for his own narrative. That narrative made it evident that to challenge his understanding of God’s plan for PCC was to challenge God. Who can stand against such a standard?

The pastor wrote,

“Were we following a living God who has a plan for his Church, or were we following our own plans, and all the talk of prayer and keeping in step with the spirit was just a pious smokescreen? Michael thought of me as irresponsible when it came to vision; my pushback was that God already had a vision and our mission was to discern and follow it.”

Pastor Ensome’s own pious language is confusing to those uninitiated to spiritual abuse. He made bizarre judgments of the Williams’ hearts – something of which he had accused Kate – and made it clear he was in line with God’s vision.

To go against him was to go against the Lord.

“While Michael and Kate had a passion for purity, and embraced a rigorous moral ethic, I believe the focus of their lives was a personal sense of how things ought to be, not Christ and his kingdom. . . “

The pastor’s “focus” of his life was Christ and his kingdom; the Williams’ was not.

The “Investigation”

Sometime after the Williams left the church, at the urging of the staff pastor and another employee, the elders instigated an investigation of complaints. The elders were encouraged to talk to the Williams but the Williams found it necessary to contact the elders themselves.

There was a former elder who had faced Pastor Ensome’s abuse several years earlier with whom the Williams encouraged the elders to speak. The elders declined and weren’t interested.

There was a “briefing” following the investigation. The congregation was called together and the pastor gave a “confession.” The staff pastor, employee, and Williams were informed of the briefing but were forbidden to speak.

After reading a transcript of the “confession” it takes on the typical type of repentance talk common to abusive leaders. He had been called out for his sin and he found it necessary to show some humility.

However, these confessions normally take on very general ideas – no specific examples of their sin are shared. This was indeed Pastor Ensome’s confession.

Interestingly, he notes a lifelong pattern of abusing (not his term) other leaders, a clear disqualification for eldership. He admits to being confronted by his son . . . and sharing that he humbly received the criticism.

As the Williams noted, “Some members took [it] as an apology and some thought he was talking about sins all of us could relate to because he was vague.”

In addition, Kate explained that she had “an email exchange with one of the elders after and he admitted that the confession was not all it could have been but a starting point.” 

True confession and repentance includes specifics. It means truly owning up to the sin and facing the humiliating process of being wrong.

And true repentance means seeking forgiveness and making restitution.

Protecting Others

As Michael finished his letter to the elder board, he urged them to take steps to stop the pastor’s abusive leadership. He wrote that he and Kate came to realize,

“The abuse of power by bullying, control, using the scriptures to condemn, shunning, and slander have been going on for a long time.  There are many individuals, particularly those in leadership whose sin was to challenge Ensome in some fashion. We were told that for many years, other elder boards (or the remnants after some elders left) have chosen to defend Ensome, the shepherd, at the cost of the sheep scarred by his attacks.”

Michael and Kate have called upon the elders to take their positions of authority seriously for the protection of God’s people (Ez. 34). They hope that the leaders will hold Pastor Ensome accountable and not be “duped” by his manipulation.

After Michael’s resignation, two elders reached out to Michael. One said he was going out of town but wanted to meet on his return. Michael said he never followed up. The other expressed surprise on reading the letter of resignation and expressed sorrow on hearing about the difficulties (abuses) mentioned.

The details of the attack on Kate had evidently not been shared with all of the elders. Those details were kept quiet by the Elder John and another elder who tried unsuccessfully to address the sinful behavior of the pastor.

The elders have, to date, not sought to meet with Michael and Kate to understand fully what occurred. Apparently, they are content to let them go and protect Pastor Ensome.

Pastor Ensome has never contacted Michael. 

Comfort

While Michael thinks of James 1:6 when he thinks of Pastor Ensome, he does not dwell on it. “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless.”

However, Psalm 9:9 has been a comfort, and Michael has held tenaciously to its words: “The Lord is a stronghold for the oppressed, a stronghold in times of trouble.”

Indeed, Psalm 9:9 is a banner that flies before many survivors of abusive leadership in the home, church, and workplace. The Lord seems like the only stronghold at times when isolated by the abuse of others and the disbelief of those to whom we turn for help.


NOTES:

1 The names used in this article are fictitious, but the general 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 others while applying the lessons learned.

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