Guest Post: Pastors can be victims of church abuse too

This is a guest post. The author has asked to remain anonymous. Views expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog.

Last week, Steve published three anonymous articles (here, here and here) from someone who had experienced toxic, abusive church leadership. Sadly, such experiences are far too common. I was impressed by the gentle graciousness of the writer and the wisdom of their response. We have much to learn whether we are church members or leaders. It is all too easy to become so consumed by a drive to get our own way that we will win at all costs, even if that causes damage to the flock. We should be on our guard.

Steve has asked me to write something about the other side of that danger. You see, abuse does not always come from the formal leadership, from the vicar or pastor in a church. The nature of church life means that others can hold a lot of power. This means that abuse inflicted on congregations can come from any quarter and pastors can be victims as well as perpetrators.

I’ve heard a lot from pastors who have suffered in such ways over the years and so it has become clear to me that there are lots of ways that people can inflict abuse on servant hearted leaders. These include, in no particular order:

  • Church members choosing to shun and ignore a pastor’s wife so that she feels that she does not belong
  • Cruelty and favouritism against the pastor’s children
  • Gossip, slander and false accusation being allowed to sit unanswered. Often the pastor is first to defend others from false accusation but when the guns are turned on him, nobody is there to speak up for him
  • Keeping a pastor and his family in poverty to “keep him humble” and judging them if they are seen to enjoy treats and luxuries.

Such attacks are designed to undermine the pastor but they also cause collateral damage along the way.  Moreover, they are deeply dishonouring to the Gospel. Sometimes, they come from people who hold other formal positions in the church such as other elders, Sunday School teachers and the church treasurer (particularly if there is a tussle over spending). Sadly, the hardest attacks come from those that the pastor’s family have gone out of their way to care for.  Ironically, the accusation will come that the pastor is controlling and authoritarian when in fact it is their accuser who is seeking control and power.

So, how to respond? First of all, I would say that everything that the anonymous writer shared in their article is true for this situation too. If you are the wounded pastor, look at how you react and respond. Seek to be the peacemaker, seek reconciliation, acknowledge your own faults. It is tempting to put the walls up when attacked, to defend yourself and attack those persecuting you. Yet this was not how Christ responded to attack (1 Peter 2 is helpful on this). 

Second, the accountability of genuinely plural leadership is there to support you not just to hold you to account. Are there other leaders willing to check the facts, speak truth and challenge lies.  Thirdly, seek the Lord. I cannot give you a definitive answer on whether to stay or to go. Sometimes, faithfulness means sticking it out, bearing suffering and persevering with the Gospel. However, there are times when it is absolutely right to flee to safety especially when your family are being harmed or when sticking around is giving cover to abuse, drawing others into danger. Fourthly, seek outside help from your denomination or network. Don’t think you have to suffer on your own.

If you are a church member in such situations, my advice is first of all not to believe everything you hear, especially those accusations that come without evidence. Be aware that quite often the people spreading rumours are enjoying a freedom not granted to the pastor because whilst he observes confidentiality for their sake, they do not for his. 

Ensure that there is true accountability. Be ready and willing to challenge your leaders when they get things wrong. But also submit to godly leaders seeking to “let then [lead] with joy and not groaning.”[1] Serve alongside them, pray for them, encourage them. 

[1] Hebrews 13:17