Serving Under the Authoritarian Pastor: Jim’s Story

“The exercise of authority is designed to serve the well-being of those under its care,” says Timothy Witmer, author of “Shepherd Leader.”[1]

That seems basic to the Christian, and yet how many bosses view their leadership this way?

The pastor of the local church has been given the authority and responsibility to care for his congregation made up of people often referred to as “sheep” in scripture.[2] The analogy of sheep is apt as they are particularly vulnerable to predators and have an extraordinary propensity for self-harm.

A sheep rancher in Wyoming responded to a school child who asked if sheep sleep at night, saying, “No, they lay awake thinking up new ways to die!”

The picture painted of the pastor in scripture is that of a “shepherd” who protects the sheep. As a shepherd of these sheep, the pastor is charged with being “motivated by love for the Lord” that is expressed by “words and deeds” says Richard Rardin, author of “The Servant’s Guide to Leadership: Beyond First Principles.”[3]

Rardin says that the “servant of God must die to self before he or she can be of much use to the Father.”[4] This means the pastor is at heart willing to set aside his own comforts for the care of the congregation, putting the interests of the congregation above his own.

Unfortunately, some ministries fail due to shepherds who take advantage of their position and power over the sheep.

To add to the complexities of such circumstances there may exist “mid-level management” in the form of a pastor’s assistant who must navigate between submission to a senior pastor’s authority (giving honor to those who teach – 1 Tim. 5:17) and shepherding the congregation (having been called to a pastoral position).

The assistant who seeks to lead from the “second chair,” drawing on the terminology of the position of those in an orchestra or jazz ensemble who perform under the “first chair” or lead player, must walk a fine line between having authority and being under authority.

This is particularly treacherous when the senior pastor is acting like a wolf rather than shepherd.

John’s Story

John’s story is very similar to Susie’s [her story]. I heard his story along with Susie’s nearly the same week.

John spent one and a half years serving his congregation before resigning, under pressure, due to the autocratic behavior of the Senior Pastor. He noted, as we talked, that his purpose for accepting the position was that Pastor “Jim” said, “I’ll train you, give you preaching [opportunities], visits . . . the whole gamut of ministry.”

John was very excited to gain valuable experience in ministry following his seminary training and this position appeared to provide the opportunity. However, John resigned from the position in large part due to the autocratic leadership of Pastor Jim.

Pastor Jim’s toxic leadership came out particularly in “pharisaical” ways which can be understood as practicing (and normally) advocating for extra-biblical rules, treating them as necessary for holiness.

The Pharisee

John described an incident when, as the Youth Pastor, he was encouraged to visit the local crisis pregnancy ministry. He spoke with the director, who had contracted HIV-AIDS from his wife, had experienced his baby (who also had HIV-AIDS) “die in his arms,” was divorced from this wife, and in the end became a Christian.

In the course of the discussion, John decided to bring him to speak to his youth group. There was a 16 year-old mother in the group and he hoped that it would be of real encouragement to her.

He approached Pastor Jim to seek permission. Because the crisis center director had an earring, John decided it would be wise to inform the pastor due to the “fundamentalist” leaning of the church.

After telling him about the earring, Pastor Jim “just killed it right there.”

Stuck in the Middle

In another incident, John was seeking permission to move the 16 year-old mother to the “college group” because “she was still of the mindset that [she was] a teenager” and he believed the college group would provide more maturation for her.

Again, Pastor Jim did not allow him to exercise his authority as the Youth Pastor and John was “stuck in the middle” between the pastor and families that were concerned for their own young children that were in the same group.

John found it necessary, as one under the authority of the pastor, to “come up with some reason of why the pastor [thought it] better to leave her” in the youth group to mediate between his boss and the anxious parents.

Shepherding the Agnostic

John said to me, “Shepherding is my favorite aspect of working in ministry” and related an opportunity he had to shepherd a teenager who had told his parents he was an “agnostic.” The teenager was finding it difficult to believe that his parents loved him and would support him despite his unbelief.

John was able to encourage him and help him through that time of questioning. The young man later turned to the Lord and John believed the Lord has used him in the young man’s life.

However, despite his success, John was placed in awkward positions with the senior pastor, particularly when he was leaving the ministry. His concern for the authority of the pastor and peace of the church was evident in our discussion.

Like Susie, John said, “I didn’t want to see the church hurt as I was leaving. I didn’t want to see a schism,” as he described two leaders in the church (Deacons) coming to him to discuss actions by the senior pastor. Though John did not mention the word, “gossip,” he implied that he was very careful with whom he spoke during the crises and when leaving the church.

He also sought to limit the relational damage of the pastor by speaking with few people in the church about his experiences. Though John was very careful to keep his frustration contained by sharing primarily with family members, he said,

“If I had had more interaction with the deacons, who were also frustrated, it would have been very difficult to stay supportive, to not complain, not gossip.”

The Emotional Damage

John experienced many opportunities to use his giftedness for the building of God’s kingdom in his assistant role in the church. However, like Susie, he noted that seeking to work alongside a pastor that practices autocratic leadership can be emotionally damaging.

John spoke extensively about the emotional difficulties of ministering under Pastor Jim.

Again, like Susie, John observed multiple times when his supervising pastor was highly authoritative and hurtful to those under his care.

However, he realized the significance of the emotional injury only later, as Susie said when I interviewed her.

Long Time of Healing

John said he and his wife took a year and a half out from ministry to heal from the hurt caused by the pastor.

John noted that he spoke with both his father and uncle who are pastors, to gain perspective emotionally. As he evaluated his response to the toxic leadership of the pastor John noted that he “spent most of that year and half frustrated” and didn’t “have good spiritual disciplines established.”

Because of this, he said, “I didn’t process through things as I would have.” His year and a half out of ministry following his resignation was because he “was more broken than I should have been had I been processing my emotions more effectively.”

John believed that had he had a deeper relationship with the Lord, he would have seen his context more clearly and resigned more quickly.

However, according to John, that time of struggle in ministry was invaluable to his growth as a leader. He said,

“I learned from it that my relationship with Christ needs to be what gives me the confidence and satisfaction rather than my relationships with the pastor, or church . . . it needs to be much more personal . . . that union with Christ. Who am I in Christ?”

His ability to be self-differentiated, while operating in an environment of broken relationships and anxiety was a valuable lesson John learned. He shared that though he “didn’t have the guts to argue with [Pastor Jim] at that time,” he would at this point.

In addition, he learned that much of his training in seminary focused on the idea that the pastor receives the vision from God and passes it on to the congregation. Having experienced this form of leadership from Pastor Jim, he recognizes that it is actually devastating to ministry.

Sharing With Others

There can be many emotional challenges for the assistant as he interacts with members of the congregation and an autocratic senior pastor. John noted that most of the leadership (Deacons) in the church have since left the church primarily due to the autocratic leadership of the senior pastor.

When John was preparing to leave this particular ministry, two of the deacons came to him and asked him about his experiences with Pastor Jim. He said,

“I was much more open with them. I knew I could trust their discretion . . . not go blabbing around. I didn’t want to see the church hurt as I was leaving.”

But, to complicate matters, John explained that his supervising pastor was unlikely to respond to any confrontation by him or congregant members, having seen others seek reconciliation and fail.

When describing the pastor, John said,

“He was convinced of his philosophy of ministry so the problem was the church, it wasn’t him. I don’t feel like that there would have been a way for him to see his own shortcomings in that.”

Pastor Jim rejected any exhortation he was given, shifted the blame, or said he would try harder to no apparent effect.

He’s in Charge

John had an amicable relationship with Pastor Jim,

“But, I knew it was very clear, from the moment I got there, he made it very clear he’s the leader of this church. He’s in charge . . . So, the level of authority that he exhibited – that was intimidating to me, because I knew his word was final. So I wouldn’t ever push that.”

John felt “defeated, like my hands were tied. Like I had no authority.” He was given the task of leading the kids, but he had to do exactly what Pastor Jim told him to do.

“But, how exactly is that leadership? I don’t have any authority to make decisions.”

Having come to learn ministry, the actions of the pastor “really took the wind out of my sails.” There was very evident frustration in his voice as he described the inhibiting of his ability to minister to the youth by Pastor Jim’s authoritarianism.

Quitting Leaders

As James Kouzes and Barry Posner say, “People don’t quit their organizations; they quit their leaders.”[5]

It is not an infrequent occurrence that those who are called to gospel ministry find employment in churches led by autocratic pastors. The often devastating emotional effects on those who serve as their assistants are felt for years.

Rather than enter into a joint ministry that provides a learning environment for an inexperienced assistant, the assistant’s gifts are squandered by “self-serving leaders [who] use the trust and authority that accrues to them to help themselves” rather than train and equip their assistant in ministry.[6]

Those caught in these emotional triangles of pastor-assistant-church must navigate relationships that are fraught with emotion, balancing respect and submission to the senior pastor and care and shepherding for the congregation.

Because these senior pastors are often given extensive authority by elder and deacon boards that are more inclined to “herding instincts” – keeping the peace at all costs and doing what the pastor says – the assistant is left to cope with the emotional struggle, sometimes unaided by those in the church.

Assistants that have a high view of the Matthew 18 principles of confrontation have little recourse as the one with whom they seek to correct for the purpose of reconciliation holds the keys to the church humanly speaking and are unresponsive to confrontations described in Matthew 18.

Two to Tango

Of great concern for those who minister under the authority of autocratic leaders is the view that it “takes two to tango”.

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.

Sometimes it is evident that the primary problem lies in the other person. 


[1] Witmer, Shepherd Leader, 89.

[2] ESV New Classic Reference Bible, v. Psalm 119:176, Isaiah 53:6, Jeremiah 50:6.

[3] Rardin, The Servant’s Guide to Leadership, 36.

[4] Ibid., 102–103.

[5] Maxwell, Christian Reflections on The Leadership Challenge, 122.

[6] Herrington, The Leader’s Journey, 52–53.

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