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.
My blogs take on all topics related to recovery, including commentary on the intersection of spiritual abuse and current events.
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