I’ve been making my way through a new blog series on spiritual abuse in the church which I am calling “Bully Pulpit”. In the prior installment, I offered a definition of spiritual abuse:
Spiritual abuse, then, is when a spiritual leader—such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization—wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him, as a means of accomplishing what he takes to be biblical and/or spiritual goals.
But just having a definition doesn’t answer all our questions. After all, there’s a level of subjectivity in applying this definition. Some may think certain behavior is abuse, others may not. And, as we observed in the prior post, our world is often inclined to label any offensive Christian statement as “abuse.”
In many ways, rightly identifying spiritual abuse is not that different than rightly identifying child abuse. Just because a parent disciplines or corrects their child, doesn’t make them abusive. But, there are some parents who clearly cross the line. Discerning which is which is the tricky part.
While there’s not an air-tight, infallible system for identifying genuine abuse, I think there are some key signs of an abusive pastor to look out for. Over the next few posts I will lay out several of these key signs.
Let’s begin with the first sign. And it’s first for a reason. A classic, defining mark of an abusive pastor is a long track record of broken relationships.
Chuck DeGroat, in his book When Narcissism Comes to Church, argues that such pastors often leave a “relational debris field” (3) or a “trail of dead bodies” (143) in their wake. He observes, “Often, before the narcissistic pastor is exposed publicly, there are years of painful smaller encounters that are covered up” (91).
In other words, spiritually abusive pastors have a track record of hurting those they work with and eventually, usually after many years, it catches up with them. It is a sin pattern that can’t be seen at first glance; it only becomes visible over time.
As 1 Tim 5:24 says: “The sins of some people are conspicuous, going before them to judgment, but the sins of others appear later.”
But, of course, this is exactly the problem with this first mark of an abusive pastor. Not everyone sees this long-term pattern of broken relationships. They just don’t connect the dots. Let’s explore a few key reasons why.
Abused People Are Forced Out
First, many who are the victims of an abusive pastor are silenced and forced to leave. In story after story of spiritual abuse, it is clear that the recipients of that abuse are genuinely scared. Again, DeGroat observes, “[it] is not a mild fear of these pastors, but terror . . . these narcissistic pastors hold power in a way that intimidates and silences” (92).
In other words, people don’t see the overall pattern because the victims of abuse usually don’t speak out for fear of reprisal. They just leave, and the abusive pastor remains.
And if the abusive pastor remains, then he gets to control the narrative. As we shall see in a later post, the abused people who leave are often blamed for the whole affair. They are the problem, not the abusive pastor.
Abuse is Minimized as “Conflict”
Second, even when a victim of abuse does come forward, the problem is often down-played as an isolated case—something that is inevitable in any ministry. Such sentiments are usually followed with an appeal to the story of Paul and Barnabas who also had a “conflict.” Or perhaps this is just what happens when you have a “strong leader.”
We see precisely this sort of response in the case of Steve Timmis, the former CEO of Acts 29 who was eventually dismissed for spiritual abuse. His defenders said the conflicts were due merely to “a clash in leadership styles,” or that “feathers get ruffled” by strong leaders.
The reason minimizations like this are so effective is that they are partly true. Every ministry has some conflict. We live in a fallen world where such things are (sadly) part of any church.
But, there is a difference with abusive pastors. The “relational debris field” of an abusive pastor is not only different in regard to volume of conflicts, but the depth of those conflicts. The lives in his wake are genuinely destroyed—many leave the ministry and others will abandon the Christian faith altogether.
On top of this, abusive pastors often have unresolved conflict. They are typically estranged from many of the people they used to work with.
At this point, the leaders of the church just need to do the math. There is a common denominator in all these different conflicts, namely the pastor. Is it more likely that everyone else is the problem, or that perhaps he is the problem?
Abuse is Managed in Committees
Third, even if the pattern of broken relationships is recognized, it is often not revealed to the larger leadership body, and certainly not revealed to the church itself. In other words, it is usually contained within certain committees or sub-groups.
Now, some of this confidentiality is understandable and wise. Every grievance is not to be aired in front of the whole church. That said, we must careful that we as churches are not “managing” the pattern of broken relationships by tucking it away in committees so that it never sees the light of day.
Indeed, sometimes not even a pastor’s own elders know about the long-term pattern of broken relationships (or at least don’t know how deep and wide it really is).
Abusers Don’t Abuse Everyone
Fourth and finally, the pattern of relational wreckage is often not recognized because spiritually abusive pastors don’t abuse everyone. They are selective in who they treat this way. In fact, there are other people whom the abusive pastor treats remarkably well.
In other words, abusive pastors almost always have two sides. One side is domineering, heavy-handed and threatening. The other side is charming, gracious, and even flattering.
The tragic implications of this reality is that abusive pastors will almost always have avid defenders who insist that this pastor is the greatest guy in the world. And, to them, that pastor probably has been great. And such defenders will inevitably use the same logic: “He’s never treated me this way.”
In other words, they form their judgment entirely on their personal experience.
In doesn’t take much reflection, however, to realize how problematic such reasoning actually is. Bullies don’t bully everyone. Indeed, bullies rarely bully horizontally or up. They almost always bully down. They bully those under them.
In sum, this first mark of an abusive pastor is both objective and subjective. It is objective in the sense that there is a clear, definable, track record of broken relationships. It is subjective, however, in the sense that not everyone is in a position to see this track record.
This leads to one clear application: Christian organizations, whether churches or otherwise, need more transparency and openness in regard to such issues. Far too many groups foster a culture of secrecy and self-protection—and that creates an environment where abuse can happen undetected for years.
We do well to remember Luke 8:17: “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”
For me there were a couple of very valuable insights in this article – that bullies have two sides to them, and that they bully down, not sideways; showing the charming, gracious side to their colleagues, and the domineering, heavy-handed side to those below them. This was not my experience in a church environment – no, it was far closer to home than that.
This may not be the case for everyone else, but this is incredibly accurate from my own experience. “Control” seems to be such a key factor and theme. Not just control over decisions, but control of their narrative and control over people. You can be viewed as the most amazing person in their life until you disagree with them, even in something trivial. Once that happens, a dark side appears and relational distancing and/or detachment can happen immediately. You become viewed as someone who can’t be trusted at best, but are more likely to be seen as someone who is trying to lead a secret coup against them. Others are often warned not to talk to you or spend time with you. The reasoning is that you are “at a really unhealthy place”. They don’t have the liberty to explain why and they can’t “share details” due to pastoral confidentiality, but it’s out of personal courtesy that he feels it necessary to warn others to keep their distance. Unfortunately it’s only after this happens that you learn of the long line of relational carnage that’s taken place before you.
Andy Stovell says
So true, thank you!
The “feathers get ruffled” by strong leaders comment was used by enablers of Timmis to my face often. I often thought, try saying that to your wife:
“darling, the reason I hurt your feelings and cause you so much anguish is because I’m a strong leader. It can’t be helped. My harsh words and manipulative manner are just the inevitable flip side of me being a strong leader. It’s what it is”
Thank you for exposing spiritual abuse in pastoral leadership. The last three articles hit the nail on the head. Would you please address what a congregant can do when an abusive pastor– who is respected by pastors outside his church– believes it is his responsibility to “warn” other pastors in town about those whom he has abused, so they won’t be received into another congregation? It is his word (which comes with authority) against theirs. In other words, how can a congregant overcome pastoral gossip/slander amongst pastors? It seems that many well-meaning pastors are quick to believe what another pastor says without investigating to see whether it is true, compounding the grief and hopelessness of one who has been wrongly abused.
Christiana wrote, “It is his word (which comes with authority) against theirs. In other words, how can a congregant overcome pastoral gossip/slander amongst pastors?”
There is a saying attributed to Abraham Lincoln, “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” It is not his word against theirs, but his word against the truth, and the Truth never fails. Other pastors are not fools, and, given time, they will see for themselves what kind of person the abused really is, and receive him/her into their congregation with open arms.
Even if the pastors are fooled, the Lord is not, and surely He would not allow his sheep to wonder outside the flock forever. Joseph was sold by his own brothers, slandered by the wife of the Egyptian officer who bought him, and put into prison, but God raised him up in the end, and reunited him with his family. As it is written in 1 Peter 5:6, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you”
Brian Mutale says
Thank you so much for this article.
So true, everything here. They abuse you and then lie about you. So wicked.
Your reference here to 1 Tim 5:24 begins to get at the answer to the person from an earlier post who asked about the biblically erroneous defense (most common in charismatic settings), Touch not the Lord’s anointed. 1 Tim 5:17-25 concerns ordination to the ministry and discipline of pastors (elders). As physicians can commit crimes for which they lose their license and lawyers can commit crimes for which they are disbarred, elders can commit pastoral crimes for which they are disqualified from the ministry. Making oneself the head of a sheep which is to usurp the place of Christ – the core of spiritual abuse (Matt 23:8-10) – merits a man being removed from the ministry.
Spencer Kasten says
I experienced abuse by a leader of a small group. It turns out His Father was an Abusive Pastor. Later on their family was torn apart as well. Hurting people hurt people.
Chris R. says
I may have to go read some of the other articles in this series…
I think there may be another aspect or side of this where the pastor is lazy, fearful, or extremely non-confrontational that looks very similar to what is described here.
The pastor has a whole string of past relationships – people that have left and moved to a different church. When issues have come up, the pastor asks the parties involved to separate, and pray. Then meet with the pastor or route any queries, etc. through the pastor. The pastor says they are looking for a change in heart, situation, or guidance from God that allows the parties to come back together and reconcile.
For some, this means that they cannot be involved with church teams, or interact with the deacons without going through the elders.
I don’t think the goal is control so much as it is to smooth things over and avoid conflict. Often one of the parties involved leaves the church for another and thus the issue is “solved”. The “evidence” looks very similar to everything described here, but the motivation is a little different.
These articles are very interesting reads. A few things stand out-‘everyone else is the problem’ all for the ability to maintain control. And that they are selective in who they treat this way-almost to build a support system-and that they most always bully down. One of the replies here that you can be viewed as the most amazing person in the world until you disagree with them-so relevant. Interesting how much of this not only relates to pastors, but many in leadership roles-especially some of our political leaders today…
Thank you for sharing.
Annie M says
Thank you so much for this article. I completely agree with what you have said here! So many times people are hurt because of the prideful ego of a bully pastor. Leaving destruction in the wake, never looking back at the ones left behind.
I’d also like to point out that often the pastors’ wives are bullies. Acting like mean middle school girls gathering a clique of mean girls around themselves. Praising those on the inside, excluding and tearing down those who are not. The abuse alone is hard to deal with, but adding the weight of the position as a spiritual leader makes the shunning that much harder to cope with, left feeling used and manipulated in the name of Christ.
When I read your first post in this series I thought, “Scud Farkus (and Biff Tannen and the rest) had a posse- a gang who hung around and encouraged him while helping him to trash his victims.” And I wondered if you’d get to that. Sure enough, you touched on the posse in this post.
“The tragic implications of this reality is that abusive pastors will almost always have avid defenders who insist that this pastor is the greatest guy in the world. And, to them, that pastor probably has been great. And such defenders will inevitably use the same logic: “He’s never treated me this way.””
While some of the defenders are genuinely perplexed at accusations of bullying, others witness the bullying firsthand, but in order to stay close to the pastor they somehow convince themselves that it’s not as bad as what they saw or that it is somehow justified. The varying degrees of denial that are possible are truly mind-bending.
But, praise be to God, who even still works all things to our good and his glory- even situations of spiritual abuse. May his truth and justice prevail, and may he open blind eyes and give courage to fearful hearts and set the captives free…
I look forward to the rest of your posts in this series. These are so needed. Thank you.
Wow, so accurate. It is as if this article had been written observing the exact abuse I and other families went through!
I and at least three other families left a church after having been silenced by the leadership. It was an elder-ruled (not elder led) non-denominational church… so no outside accountability and little meaningful accountability to the congregation.
Now I know what we didn’t know then, that what went though was spiritual abuse / pastoral bullying. We aren’t members anymore, but are we spiritually obligated now to collect testimonies and submit charges of domineering to that elder board? Did we lose that right when we removed our membership? We had to get out and realize we weren’t crazy. My conscience is battling this because I know it would be WWIII to bring charges and there would be real trauma, but I don’t want the abuse to continue. Do we simply pray and keep the peace, trusting that God has this in control and is sanctifying those leaders and disciplining them as their Father?
Thank you for this post.
This rings true with a number of situations I have experienced. Two of those recently exposed nationally and internationally are people I have worked with. Looking back, which is always easy, the signs were there…
Twice in my ministry I have suffered bullying from those ‘above’ me. In one case I was forced out of a Bible College where I had been teaching for 16 years. On another, a denominational heirarchy closed ranks to support the bully. In the case of the former a non disclosure agreement was demanded. Both are still active in senior leadership. I have also had to support others nationally and internationally suffering similar abuse. Unfortunately it is endemic. I think we need a Me2 for ecclesiastical abuse!
If people reading and commenting here do not already know about it, there is a website called http://survivingchurch.org/ which acts as something of a focal point for those who have experienced bullying or other forms of abuse in a church environment. It was set up with primary reference to the UK (from where I am writing) and to the C of E, so I don’t know if my US brothers and sisters would want to set up an equivalent for the US, or to see if the blog owner, Stephen Parsons would like to extend the scope to include the US.
Also, I would like to point Dr Kruger to the ‘About’ page of the website, which mentions Stephen Parsons’ book ‘Ungodly Fear, Fundamentalist Christianity and the Abuse of Power’ (2000) which he describes as “… the only book in the UK to address the issue of abuse in the church beyond the sexual realm.” Although out-of-print and not sold in large numbers, it might be worth trying to get hold of a copy.
Paul Goodwin says
Another excellent article. As another who had the ‘Steve Timmis experience’ at first hand, I can only testify that every single word of this article rings true.
Stephanie R. Layman says
Pleasant! The data I got past this blog has truly helped me in understanding this is That was something, I was frantically searching for, fortunately I discovered this at the correct time.
Heartbreaking. And true.
“Biblical shepherds, in contrast to bullies pursue the flock to build it up; They feed and care for, not feed on, destroy, or lord-over.”
The wake of broken relationships is preceded by a pattern progressing from pretending, to pride, to partiality, culminating in persecution.
Patricia Evans has written on verbal abusers and shows they begin by pretending they know how the other person feels and thinks. They believe they know best. But a man cannot know how a woman feels, or what she’s thinking. Then when the real person shows up and challenges their controlled fantasy world, they respond in anger.
Doesn’t this break the first commandment? Because only God knows what is actually going on in the mind and motive of the other person.
Their pride and arrogance insists they have the monopoly on how facts should be interpreted.
There is an inherent disadvantage to the unwitting abused in churches with congregational and independent ecclesiology. They have no appellate court. A narcissistic abuser declares what can be discussed, and through tyranny shuts down any discussion that may differ. They have an evil suspicion of law enforcement, and contempt for law courts, and government. This lack of humility is not the pattern of a good shepherd who recognizes the appropriate respect for gifted members of the visible body of Christ, and those given common grace in the public square and wield the ‘sword’ under the overarching headship of Christ. Rather, they portray themselves to be the competent gifted counselors, without accreditation, certification, or licensure. They only have read books by Christian counselors. They have no internship. They practice on their unwitting flock. They believe Galatians 6:1 means they alone are the spiritual ones that can restore someone. This popish hoarding of access to the fellowship is a design of Satan. It draws blasphemy of the Gospel from the watching world. The ire of Paul in 2 Cor was more at the lack of the whole church body to pursue reconciliation, restoration and comfort of the repentant brother than maintaining a second-degree separation based on the original issue for which he was sent out.
A contrast could be the example set forth here:
Help[H]er: A Church-wide Response to Women in Crisis
Bob and Ann Maree Goudzwaard
This provides an opportunity for closing ranks in social reference groups and generating polarization of opponents. A bully gets a posse to bolster their resolve and overcome their deep-seated insecurity by deceitful presentation of half-truths, rather than full independent investigation of facts and allegations.
Having ginned up a polarized vigilante mob, they maintain plausible deniability while others pursue the victim. False shepherds devour the sheep rather than gently leading. Paul had approval from the leaders. He held the coats.
Ken Sande – Church Discipline, The good, the bad, and the clumsy
God does require holiness. It is something without which we will not see Him. Biblical shepherds, in contrast to bullies pursue the flock to build it up; They feed and care for, not feed on, destroy, or lord-over. Censure, castigation, and separation over trifles, opinions and preferences rather than objective transgression of the moral law, shows a lack of understanding of that for which Christ died. It’s not forgiving as we’ve been forgiven. It is saying we are justified by faith, but works must justify the other person.
It seems then, that keeping in close contact with the end goal of restoration and redemption seems to fit the pattern of the shepherd that breaks the leg of a wayward sheep, rather than sending it out into the wilderness.
God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. We need a way for those who are legitimate children that God has disciplined through the rough instruments of men-at-best to be adjoined to the visible body of Christ.
The Gospel is true. It can and does overtake these who do their best based on their radically corrupted understanding, which is really unbelieving ignorance.
Joni and Friends
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 4, Chapter 12, Section 10.
“When Christ promises that what His ministers bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, He limits the power of binding to the censure of the Church; by which those who are excommunicated are not cast into eternal ruin and condemnation, but, by hearing their life and conduct condemned, are also certified of their final condemnation, unless they repent. For excommunication differs from anathema; the latter, which ought to be very rarely or never resorted to, precluding all pardon, execrates a person, and devotes him to eternal perdition; whereas excommunication rather censures and punishes his conduct. And though it does, at the same time, punish the person, yet it is in such a manner, that, by warning him of his future condemnation, it recalls him to salvation. If he obey, the Church is ready to re-admit him to its friendship, and to restore him to its communion. Therefore, though the discipline of the Church admits not of our friendly association and familiar intercourse with excommunicated persons, yet we ought to exert all the means in our power to promote their reformation, and their return to the society and communion of the Church; as we are taught by the apostle, who says, ‘Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.’ [2 Thes. 3:15]. Unless this tenderness be observed by the individual members, as well as by the Church collectively, our discipline will be in danger of speedily degenerating into cruelty.”