In this blog, I examine the spiritual abuse of pastors and church leaders. Usually I have written about spiritual abuse as abuse that comes from the top down, but upon further reflection I believe that leaders can also be subjected to spiritual abuse. The same techniques like shame, blame, isolation, intimidation, threats, and financial abuse, can happen to leaders at the hands of their membership or boards. Here are some examples of these techniques at work.
Pastors can be shamed for not having the "right" theology. As an example, a pastor may be open and affirming to people who are LGBT, and be shamed into being quiet about it. One pastor I know was isolated because of his acceptance. Other leaders in his denomination held private meetings that excluded his participation. The purpose was to silence his voice during an upcoming vote on becoming more inclusive as a denomination.
Pastors can be financially abused when expectations change and more and more work is piled on him or her without increased compensation. It is also abusive to expect the minister to serve 24/7, for years and years, without proper rest periods or sabbaticals. The minister’s family is also often expected to be of endless service, even though they are not the person who was hired.
Sometimes assistant pastors suffer verbal abuse at the hands of senior pastors, and the board members who are to serve as checks and balances, fail to respond or investigate. Unpleasant tasks are heaped upon those with lessor power, leaving them to choose between their calling or suffering in silence. The verbally abused person begins to lose confidence, self-esteem, and feels trapped. They can be intimidated when others have an attitude that suggests they should just wait on the Lord.
No. The board should do its job.
Church members can be abusive toward pastors by endlessly criticizing, gossiping, or sowing seeds of discontent. A healthy leader allows others to have different understandings of Scripture, rather than trying to enforce a strict belief system. Mature members understand that people of faith, including their leader, can have a variety of understanding because of their research, life experiences, and prayer on a matter. Healthy members allow for dialogue and differences.
Members also may develop an unhealthy reliance on the minister; they call upon the minister instead of seeking a professional therapist. It pulls the minister away from their family and other obligations.
Not all abuse is intentional. Pastors can suffer when congregations take, and take, and take. It is discouraging when members fail to offer praise, support, or thanks for a job well done.
Female ministers can receive a special form of abuse when members challenge them just because they are female. Many female ministers lament and say, “That would have never happened if I was a man.” It’s abusive to block, or withhold agreement because a woman is in the lead; yet sadly, this does happen. To prevent this you can ask, would I have objected if a man said, done, or suggested this? You can offer public words of support.
To help create a healthy environment, congregations should have healthy expectations. Members can be responsible for their own wellbeing instead of relying on the pastor. Members can ask others to stop complaining and gossiping. Members can offer sincere praise about the weekly service. They can offer to pray for the pastor and his or her family. They can volunteer.
Boards can check in and ask the pastor for feedback. They can observe what is going on and can offer support during difficult times. A simple, how are you doing, or how can I help, can show a tremendous amount of support and confidence in their leadership.
Pastors are fully human. They face trials, disappointments, good and bad times, like everyone else. They can develop compassion fatigue from constantly caring for others who are in crisis. Being mindful of the intensity of the pastor’s role, can help everyone provide support and community for their leader. Pastors are not immune to spiritual abuse and healthy congregations are aware of the techniques used in spiritual abuse and work in partnership to help create a healthy environment for all.
Faith communities can provide many good things like leadership, community, structure, a set of beliefs, purpose, and meaning. When these strengths are taken to extremes, spiritual abuse can occur. Instead of comfort, burdens are placed, rules are enforced, individuality is suppressed, and meaning is lost.
For people who have experienced spiritual abuse, there is discomfort and upheaval. Loss of what we held dear is disorienting.
We like things that we can count on, for it can bring a sense of security. But I would like to suggest that part of healing will be to keep your mind open to changes. Can you consider yourself to be under construction?
What you believe today may make sense, and maybe even for years, and then something happens, an event, a new piece of information, and your world view no longer fits. You find you’ve out grown your friends. You connect with new people.
You can cherish something deeply today and five years from now think it was a mistake. If you think you have everything figured out and a perfect situation, things can happen that make it all unravel; cancer, divorce, death, boredom, betrayal, anything can push you in a new direction.
While you are healing from spiritual abuse, please see yourself as under construction. Through our whole lives, we have opportunity to learn and to change our minds. Mistakes are opportunities to learn. How we define things like leadership, community, structure, our personal beliefs, our purpose, and meaning, can change. Let them change. Some mistakes lead you to deeper compassion for yourself and for others.
Awaken to the surprise of changing your mind. Find a love you never expected. Let joy sneak up on you.
We lose interest in the thing we thought we couldn’t live without. We can learn to live with the expectation that the new will come to replace that which is old and worn out and no longer useful; sometimes we need to let it go. Sometimes we are led out. Sometimes we make space for it to happen. One door closes and another one opens. Don’t cling tightly to the past.
It’s more than okay to change and grow. Our story is still being written. As long as we breathe, we have freedom to change and grow. We never know what will help us become our best selves. That’s the wonderful part of being under construction.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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