Put down your pitchforks.
This blog is not about bashing pastors—please hear me.
There are many fine Christian leaders who have a pastoral gifting and who live out their lives in sacrificial service to God’s people. They are called by God, recognized by the people of God, sustained by the Spirit, and often endure great hardship as they labor faithfully in the vineyard of the Lord. I graduated from a large seminary, currently work at a small seminary, and have numerous friends who serve as leaders in the church. I hold several pastors in very high esteem. They are worthy of double honor.
This post is not about those many good folk.
Instead, I want to focus on a small subsection of pastors. The few who are so abusive in their leadership that some of us wonder if there might be more going on than simple ineffectiveness, obtuseness, or—as they say in the South—“ahnry-ness.” The few who demonstrate mental illness or personality disorders, whether subtle or obvious.
In short, sometimes an abusive pastor really is psycho.
Since many evangelical subcultures misinterpret the Bible and frown on calling out sin in leaders—labeling such confrontation as “gossip” or “slander”—some truly bad pastors are allowed to continue to abuse congregations year after year.
Why is this? Can’t the congregation recognize that they are being abused? Further, can’t they see if a pastor is psychotic?
Sometimes they can. But more often, they can’t.
And lest we think that only Christians struggle with such winkin’-blinkin’-and-nod enablement of abuse, there are correlations in the business world.
Survival of the Meanest?
In a recent article in Today titled “Sometimes, the boss really is a psycho” Allison Linn describes how some bosses seem to demonstrate signs of mental illness. No kidding. But she goes on to point out that many employees or supervisors tolerate such deranged, abusive behavior if it gets results. They rationalize it away or are so charmed by the person that they overlook signs of mental illness and abuse.
I have included some excerpts from the article below. As you read, think about how you might have seen similar dynamics at work in your unhealthy church.
“There are whole climates and cultures of abuse in the workplace,” said Darren Treadway, an associate professor at the University of Buffalo’s school of management. His recent research looks at why bullies are able to persist, and sometimes even thrive, at work.
He said many people have either seen or experienced bullying at work because some bullies are skilled enough to figure out who they can abuse to get ahead, and who they can charm to get away with it.
“The successful ones are very, very socially skilled,” he said. “They’re capable of disguising their behavior.”
Smart bad bosses can be hard to spot, some experts say, because they are extremely good at manipulating and charming some people, while abusing others. Industrial organizational psychologist Paul Babiak first grew interested in studying psychopaths at work after he was called in to consult for a dysfunctional team. He found an abusive, lying boss — and a team that was staunchly divided into two camps.
“(There was) a subset of the team that really loved this guy — idolized him — and then there was another group of people who thought he was a snake,” Babiak said.
Very few companies will admit that they want a bad boss in their corporate ranks. But experts say that bad bosses do have some aspects of American corporate culture working in their favor. That includes the results-at-all-costs mentality that pervades many publicly held companies and the stereotype that a good boss should be aggressive and bold.
When Babiak presents the first part of his research on corporate professionals who are psychopaths, he said he often hears from senior leaders who wonder why psychopaths are so bad. That’s because they would actually like to have a manager who comes across as strong, decisive and aggressive.
Many experts say it can be hard, at first, to distinguish the gifted leader from the narcissist or the bully. That’s partly because some of the attributes we admire in leaders – such as the boldness and attention to detail so coveted by the likes of the late Apple executive Steve Jobs – can also turn darker.
Crumbs of Love
Sound familiar? If you’ve survived an abusive church, you can probably cut and paste the paragraphs above into a description of your own pastor. This is because the problem of abusive leadership is not primarily a pastoral problem or even a Christian problem; it is a human problem. It can occur anywhere there is a hierarchy in which people claim authority based on position rather than based on truth and trust. [For a discussion of biblical spiritual authority, click here.]
Why do we tolerate abusive psychotic pastors?
Well, did you catch the part about how “Smart bad bosses can be hard to spot… because they are extremely good at manipulating and charming some people, while abusing others”? The reason many abusive pastors remain in their positions of power is because they have learned how to alternately charm—or instill fear in—their followers. This is a brain-washing technique known as “good cop/bad cop” which leaves followers confused, fearful, and waiting for crumbs of love from the person in control.
So why do we tolerate psychotic pastors? We tolerate them for the same reason many workers tolerate psychotic bosses: because we believe we have something to gain.
In the business world this perceived gain may take the form of a raise, a promotion, or the occasional affirmative nod from the boss. In the church it likely involves our feeling of eternal security or personal worth. In either case, we have elevated another human being into a position of cosmic and ontological power over us. Uncool.
In a future post, I’ll talk about a book called The Wrong Way Home by Arthur J. Deikman, M.D. In the book, Deikman uncovers some of the patterns of cult behavior in American Society at large. It is helpful to understand that the same dynamics which can cause us to follow a psychotic pastor may also cause us to tolerate an abusive boss, vote for a slimy politician, or cower before an arrogant professor.
If you believe you are enabling or tolerating a psychotic pastor, you can stop today. Leave that church. Find a community where you can experience healing and grace. God has a feast of love for you.
Don’t settle for crumbs.