Susie had a Master of Divinity and was working on a Doctor of Ministry degrees when I spoke with her. She had served as the Programming and Missions Director in a non-denominational church with a little under 500 members and served under the supervision of the Senior Pastor.
Pastor Pete was, by her description, the primary authority in the church.
Susie worked three years at the large, multi-campus church and was employed to oversee the development of teams that led all aspects of worship. Her background in business management provided organizational skills that were invaluable for these administrative tasks.
In addition, her love for mentoring was utilized as she discipled individuals and lead teams in spiritual development.
Susie explained to me the position of an assistant to a senior pastor provides unique opportunities and challenges. There is real pleasure of “working together with people who believe the same thing you believe,” as Susie noted. Susie enjoyed using her gifts to serve people in the church and it was evident that she was supported and encouraged by most in the congregation.
“You are seeing people’s lives grow and be fulfilled in a way that has never been fulfilled before,” as Susie explained.
She said, “I was a little bit nervous about going to the church setting because my background is in management and typically churches don’t manage themselves very well.” But her work administratively in organizing the various teams for worship resulted in the development of leaders and helpful procedures for all the teams.
However, her work at the church did not end well. She resigned from her position in large part due to the abusive leadership of Pastor Pete.
The Missions Committee
Not long after joining the staff, Susie was approached by Pastor “Pete” to organize a missions committee at the church and arrange for short-term mission trips to an African country. Pastor Pete wished to begin building relationships with a particular group of African churches in one country through short-term trips.
The pastor gave Susie much authority to build a team and communicate with the African churches and a missions organization through which they would operate.
As they prepared to sign up members of the congregation for the summer mission, one member reneged on his verbal commitment. He had particular gifts of importance to the team, but explained that he had been asked by Pastor Pete to accompany the pastor on a mission trip to a different African country.
Susie and the new committee were quite surprised. Neither Susie, nor her committee, had heard about this new work of the pastor’s. When an elder, who was on her committee, heard about it, he was “infuriated” and set up a meeting with Pastor Pete.
Hoping to work with the pastor to straighten out what had to be a miscommunication, the elder explained gently their difficulty with the pastor’s conflicting mission trip. However, Pastor Pete simply “laughed” at the elder and said that the elder had simply gotten his “feelings hurt.”
The elder, taken aback by the pastor’s callous response, explained the lack of respect shown by the pastor. But the pastor continued to laugh.
The two mission trips went on as planned.
The Financial and Relational Fallout
Following Susie’s trip the team presented an “African worship service” for the congregation and the church gave thousands of dollars and many material items for the African churches with which they worked.
At the close of the service, Pastor Pete stood before the congregation and gave an announcement that all the funds and materials would be sent to the churches he had visited two weeks earlier.
The missions committee and team were astonished. Pastor Pete had personally directed the committee to raise the funds and materials for the churches visited by Susie’s group.
Despite her success, Susie was placed in an awkward position with the senior pastor. Her concern for the authority of the pastor and peace of the church was evident in the interview. She was able, on a day to day basis, to minister to the needs of her little flocks over which she was given authority.
However, seeking to work alongside a pastor that practices autocratic leadership can be emotionally damaging. And draining.
Susie observed multiple times when Pastor Pete was highly authoritative and hurtful to those under his care. The frequency of such events were instrumental in Susie’s resignation from her position. She said she never felt that Pastor Pete “respected” her though he “handed [projects] freely over” to her and never came back to ask how they were progressing.
For Susie, the lack of respect shown by the senior pastor created significant hurt. However, she realized much of the emotional injury only later. Susie explained,
“I didn’t realize at the time but now looking back and going through some spiritual abuse healing, there’s no question that I was deeply hurt. I felt betrayed.”
According to authors Freyd and Birrell,
“Our preliminary findings indicate that shame is indeed associated with exposure to traumas that have a high level of betrayal, but not to traumas with a low degree of betrayal.”[Blind to Betrayal, location 485]
Limiting the Damage
Susie sought to limit the relational damage of the pastor by speaking with few people in the church about their experiences. In order to cope with the emotional struggle, Susie explained,
“I think more than anything I reached out to some family in the mid-west because I really wanted to respect the church and I didn’t want to create any division.”
Despite having been placed in an uncomfortable position of telling churches in Africa that all commitments made to them were off, Susie recognized that the onus of the failure was the senior pastor’s.
She explained that her concern that her reputation was damaged was limited by her knowledge that others knew her character and integrity. Her self-differentiation was evident in her challenging the pastor during two meetings with him. Self-differentiation [described here], as defined by psychologists and management experts as holding firm to convictions while wading the torrents of anxious, relational environments is a particularly difficult skill for those who are self-described “people-pleasers.”
She suggested to Pastor Pete that she expected the Lord to “get his attention” at some point if he didn’t change his behavior. Susie believed her ultimate authority was God and not the senior pastor and this helped her respond with a significant level of self-differentiation.
There were many emotional challenges for Susie as she interacted with members of the congregation and her autocratic senior pastor. She noted that most of the leadership (Deacons, missions committee and Elders) in the church she served have since left the church primarily due to the authoritarian leadership of the senior pastor.
Because the frustration Susie experienced was not unique to her there was difficulty determining how to respond to the congregation in those times. Susie said she counseled others to “try to understand that even though you are part of a church and you are a part of a Christian organization, sometimes your first answer is to God and to God alone and you need to first and foremost seek Him.”
She also encouraged those who were struggling with Pastor Pete’s decisions to go to him directly as a brother in accordance with Matthew 18. However, as described in other articles, this is not always safe nor biblically necessary.
To complicate matters, Susie explained that Pastor Pete was unlikely to respond to any confrontation by her or congregant members, having seen others seek reconciliation and fail. She considered Matthew 18 to be the model, yet Susie noted that “there’s nothing you are going to do to change this guy.”
The pastor rejected any exhortation he was given, shifted the blame, or said he would try harder to no apparent effect.
In summary, Susie was cognizant that her responses to the pastors and to members of the church could “create a schism” or “division” and so restricted her communication to those either outside the church or directly involved in the conflicts.
A pastor that leads autocratically may leave little room for those under their authority to use their gifts and practice effective ministry. Susie expressed frustration with having had her “hands tied.”
Susie was subjected to frustrating decisions made by Pastor Pete who had little interest in discussion or consideration of his assistant’s opinions.
When other mission team members sought Susie out to encourage her to talk to Pastor Pete, Susie told them,
“He knows the situation we are in and he has clearly told me ‘this is the decision I’ve made…this is where it’s going, and this is what’s going to happen.’ And so I have no control.”
Pastor Pete had given Susie a substantial amount of freedom to use her gifts in her position, however she had seen enough imposition of his will with church leaders that she was “not surprised,” but rather felt “bamboozled” by his decision.
However, upon her advice several mission team members continued to work with the African churches and mission agency, making other arrangements to continue in their commitment to the churches despite their own pastor having removed the church’s support of that particular mission.
As noted above, Susie also did extensive work to leave a legacy of organizational structure, fulfilling the purpose for which she was employed. Following her final worship service, she said, “I left my keys right in the middle of my desk and I walked out and I never heard a word from him.”
According to her account, ministry happened that has had long term effects on the congregations she served. Yet, the frustrations encountered dulled her hopes that she had effective ministry during those years of service.
What Can Be Learned
In the end, Susie finally considered the ministry “vision” of the senior pastor to be in conflict with her own and resigned her position, leaving with damaged emotions that would take years to heal.
Susie was employed by a church that, in policy, the elder board had the authority to hire or fire the senior pastor. However, the perceived or real power of the pastor overcame that authority and the board adopted a “herding mentality” – “an appeasement strategy toward” the pastor that allowed an environment of control and poor decision-making.
It was very apparent that the practice of leadership by a pastor who considers his vision of primary and unquestioned importance to the congregation creates an environment where there is no psychological safety for the purpose of building a team ministry.
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.
As Susie pressed on towards her goal of ministering to her congregations, her convictions regarding the Matthew 18 principles presented both difficulty in confronting the problem pastor and in coping with her emotional responses to the senior pastor’s leadership.
As was noted earlier, her coping strategies were focused on sharing her difficulties with family members outside the church. This common strategy in “workplace bullying” environments is helpful as they receive encouragement and possibly biblical advice. However, the focus of the problem – the pastor – is left unchecked. The assistant is left alone and isolated because those who truly understand and know what they are facing, the church members, are not consulted and the processing of the emotions is limited.
The Matthew 18 principles, taught by Jesus in verses 15 through 18, are given in the context of brothers in the faith with the oversight of a plurality of elders. In Susie’s context, the “brother” had authority to fire them and was under no real authority of elders. And Susie was convinced she had nowhere to turn in her church family to express and process her emotions for fear that it would be gossip. This leaves a gap in the healing process.
Of great concern for those who minister under the authority of autocratic leaders is the view that it “takes two to tango.” This perspective is evident in the writings of Friedman, Herrington, Creech and Taylor. This simplistic view does not take into consideration either the power structure inherent in the senior-assistant relationship, nor the dynamics of relating to the “ravenous wolves” that Jesus describes in Matthew 7:15-25. Friedman focuses on changing self, however there are times when it is evident that the primary problem lies in the other person and there is just no way to get around it.
It was clear in the interview that Pastor Pete could not be expected to change nor be confronted with any expectation of success. 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.
Susie took submissive postures with her senior pastor, limiting her criticism and always recognizing that his word was the “final word.” Susie’s ability to hold firmly to her own convictions, minister to others as God gives opportunity, and recognize that ultimately God is sovereign over the future of her ministry whether remaining in that particular church, under that particular pastor, or somewhere else, is of absolute importance and a lesson into which she gained valuable insight.
Recommendations for Churches and Organizations
Elders: It is advisable that the church consider seriously the Apostle Paul’s instruction that a plurality of elders be established to guide and shepherd the church.
Accountability: In addition, immediate response should be given to pastors that exhibit authoritarian practices. The church on the whole operates with no category for autocratic leaders. In my experience, it is only the leaders who have a moral failure such as sexual abuse or financial fraud that are held accountable by church boards. Leadership failure is much broader than these select moral faults. Though harder to distinguish, authoritarian leaders are just as damaging to the body of Christ and His witness.
Examinations: There should be much attention given for the identification of autocratic personalities when ordaining and calling pastors. We must understand the destruction caused by broken relationships with both assistants and members.
Seminary Training: In addition, seminaries should consider ways of providing graduates with the tools, emotionally and biblically, to confront autocratic leaders.
It is my hope that Susie’s story has provided a glimpse into the personal struggle that those under authority have when faced with autocratic leadership. Her story is not uncommon. Her story is an example of a church work environment that is destructive and extraordinarily complex because highly authoritarian leadership is destructive and extraordinarily complex.
The prophet Ezekiel, calling the religious leaders of Israel to repent of their wicked leadership said, rather than shepherding God’s sheep, healing their diseases and seeking after the lost, “you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty.”
As Christian leaders, ministry is marked by both comfortable, life-giving relationships and relationships that are a battleground. Rardin says Christian leadership is to be “motivated by love for the Lord.” This love gives strength in the difficulties pastors face in a job that is largely about relationships.
It is love that gives pastor’s assistants the motivation and roadmap for interacting with and supporting an autocratic senior pastor’s ministry. However, it is also love that knows when to stand firm, grasping deeply held convictions with integrity, when a senior pastor oversteps his biblical authority. This self-differentiation is of primary importance for assistants to authoritative pastors as they cope with the emotions that rise out of the brokenness of sinful man that is both their own and their employer’s.
God, in His grace, has prepared many excellent works for each Christian to accomplish. May the church provide the environment and love necessary that every part of the body does its part for the body.
 Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, 1285–1287, 1306-1308.
 Ciby and Raya, “Exploring Victims’ Experiences of Workplace Bullying: A Grounded Theory Approach,” 76.
 ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. Ezekiel 34:4.
 Rardin, The Servant’s Guide to Leadership, 36.
 ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. Ephesians 2:10.