Saturday, December 17, 2011

Abuse in the church - when the bully is the pastor

As I watch the news of Penn State and Syracuse the thought that keeps running through my mind is "why did otherwise reasonable people either ignore, give a pass or not confront behaviors which it now seems were egregiousness and serious? There are probably several reasons: the perpetrators had power; people didn't want to assume that these upstanding citizens could be doing these things, and a simple failure of courage! 

Let's take that same question and apply it to the church! Why do pastors get away with behaviors that would otherwise be forbidden  even in the secular workplace? Here are some of the behaviors I have observed over the past 20 years of consulting with local churches and I am talking about evangelical churches here.
  • Pastors whose insecurities cause them to divide people into two camps. Those who agree with them and are therefor their friends and those who disagree with them and are therefore their enemies. Enemies are ignored, shunted to the side and marginalized. How does that square with loving the flock?
  • Pastors who use threats to get their way. Threats as blatant as "I could fire you if you don't do this" or "I will resign if you push me on this." "I don't care if I get zero votes on a confidence vote, I am not leaving and will take the church down with me if I have to."
  • Pastors who use inappropriate sexual language or touch and even flirting with the opposite sex in both public places and private situations (counseling).
  • Pastors who are intimidated by other strong leaders (who are seen as a threat to their leadership) and make it hard for them to serve in the church.
  • Pastors who are unaccountable with their time. When they are away from the church, no staff members has any idea as to where they are or how to reach them.
  • Pastors who will not allow their boards to speak into their lives, specific situations that have occurred, conduct executive sessions of the board or give them an annual review. This sends a loud message, "I don't have to be accountable to you."
  • Pastors who hire staff without due diligence, don't mentor or coach them on a regular basis and fire them if they become a threat to them or don't perform to their standards. This is a user mentality toward people.
  • Pastors who leave their church angry, deliberately dividing the congregation on their way out.
  • Pastors who triangulate relationships to form alliances against others whether other staff members, board members or congregants. Not only wrong but a sign of poor emotional intelligence.
  • Pastors who will take credit for any advance and find scapegoats for any failure.
  • Pastors who use their "God given authority" to lead as they see fit. After all they are "God's anointed." Again, this ignores accountability and shared leadership.
  • Pastors who speak ill of board members or congregants even as they become angry if they hear of either group criticizing them. 
Fortunately, the vast majority of pastors I work with are wonderful individuals who are deeply committed Christ followers and models of Christian leadership. But when I see behaviors that are out of the pale and ignored, as they were with Penn State and Syracuse, I have to ask myself why? I understand the unregenerate behavior but I don't understand those surrounding the situation who allow it to continue. Where is the board? Where are members of the congregation who see and are grieved? 

Often pastors who exhibit these characteristics are simply bullies. They get in the face of anyone who tries to speak to their behaviors which is why boards often back off. But why should a board back off and since when do bullies qualify to be pastors of a local church? I think of the qualifications for elders and deacons in the New Testament and the further comments of Peter on the matter and wonder why we allow behaviors that are so contrary to both New Testament teaching and the model of Jesus. 


Barb said...

Thanks for posting your insights, which many people will resonate with. Many people have been wounded by pastors and church leadership in their home church. Many have been forced to make the decision to leave their home church.

You might be interested in my doctoral research on spiritual abuse and recovery.

It is now in a book: Spiritual Abuse Recovery: Dynamic Research on Finding a Place of Wholeness.

Information about my book can be found on my website:
People can email me at:

All the best,
Dr. Barb Orlowski

Mark said...

When do bullies qualify to lead the church? When leaders choose leaders. When departure is required for a congregation to change anything. Bullies thrive under certain forms of government without accountability. Thanks for your insight on this matter.

Mark Burton, ThD

Anonymous said...

Our church is facing this right now! Our board is facing lots of division because of one man! He resigned, blames the board, and now won't leave and is causing soooo much heartache. Please pray!!!

Anonymous said...

We are having the same problem. The pastor threatens to leave if a member doesn’t step down. After the member left the church the pastor wife jumped the man who lefts wife with her reason of the issue and when another member asked to speak with the pastor on the matter and the pastor refused to unless it was in front of council. The pastor and other council members tried to bully some of the members into seeing thing their way to remove the man who questioned his actions on the matter. When they could not get all to agree they told the man who question the anointed ones accountability he would never work are be a part of anything in the church because he has a spirit of strife. The man has been bullied by the pastor and two of the deacons. Although some Sunday school members have voted the man in on teaching Sunday school class they have tried to have him removed. One Sunday a deacon came into their room fussing a member out for spreading lies about him (The Deacon). The Pastor has called some of the members at our homes to tell his side of the story and to set a time for him to visit our homes to speak on the issue of this man who questioned him. He has been telling other members that the man is doing all of the things he is doing himself. The man only went to one person in the church and after that elder said he wasn't getting involved the man never went to anyone else about it. The Pastor's family is going around lying about the man’s family and now some women of the church are posting things of face book about them. All while the pastor's wife is taunting what is going on. I am scared for that families children too. I have watched one of the pastor's daughters try and tired the mans daughter against him. Please pray for this issue.

Anonymous said...

Me and my family were in a church and faithful to that church for over 7 years..but half the church left which left the pastor upset..we could tell he was but never questioned it since its only human to be upset about such a thing. Well years later he started becoming a bullie to me and my family. he never let me do anything in church such as teaching a Sunday school other ladies were able to, that were put out of the church for sinful reasons.. it became horrible to serve God under this bullie..he put me and my family out of this fellowship over 3 years ago and we haven't been in church since.. For a long time I think it's all my fault for this pastors behavior but now after being redeemed during this time of not in a fellowship church we've realized that he was just a big bullie..thanks for this article..I never realized that their were such a thing!