Why We Tolerate Psychotic Pastors

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.

Businessman silhouetteInstead, 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.”

boss-vs-leader-800x800Smart 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?

CrumbsWell, 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.

Update, 3/6/14: Here’s a related article from the BBC: “Do You Work for a Tyrant?”

Related Posts:

A Sensitive Topic: Personality Disorders in the Church (Part 1 of 5)

Personality Disorders in the Church: Narcissistic Personality Disorder (Part 2 of 5)

Personality Disorders in the Church: Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (Part 3 of 5)

Self-Deprecating Narcissists: Why Some Christian Narcissists Appear Humble

18 comments on “Why We Tolerate Psychotic Pastors

  1. Another good one Steve. This happens in personal relationships, too. The worst part about this type of emotional abuse, whether it be church, work, or home, is the aftermath of realizing you tolerated it for so long. It kind of sets of a PTSD of sorts.

    • I agree, Lisa. While I dislike using the term “blame” for victims of abuse of any kind, there are often dysfunctions or immaturities in us that often contribute to our being abused. It usually is not a pretty sight–or a fun feeling–to identify these attributes, and it can definitely result in feeling triggered or ashamed. But I’m convinced there is much grace for the healing process.

    • Yes, I believe you’ve hit the nail on the head on the “PTSD of sorts!”

  2. When you leave a church there is experience that you will never lose, but there is so much of what you have invested that you can’t take with you. The emotional trust that you have built up with your brothers and sisters in the body is something that you will have to build up all over again when you go somewhere else. The weight that your word carries in the congregation will be lost. The gifts and skills that you possess will need to be reaffirmed. It’s like starting all over again. That is hard to stare into the face of, so there is a lot that we will put up with. I know that as a “layman” I am not going to be able to walk into a congregation and get the opportunity to preach. There is a better chance that I will get an opportunity to teach… eventually… but it will take time to develop the relationships and trust to get those opportunities.

  3. Please be careful of your terms. Someone who struggles with psychosis is suffering from a very severe mental illness. They are not abusive or manipulative. The church in general lacks understanding and compassion for the mentally ill, and using terms in this way demonstrates that lack. Demeaning the mentally ill still seems to be acceptable. Their suffering is immense. I encourage you to learn more in this area.

    • Hi Carole, thanks for your comment.

      For what it’s worth, I claim no special expertise in the area of mental disorders, so I am open to learning. While I have taken a number of psychology classes both at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including a course on abnormal psych, that does not make me an expert. I have also read books on mental illness and did check the term “psychosis” in the DSM-IV prior to writing this post. I also looked it up online in order to avoid false accusation. From my research, it seems that psychosis has a very wide range of meanings and can describe anything from slight to severe mental illness. While I don’t disagree with your observation that the church in general lacks understanding and compassion for the mentally ill, I also do not believe that mental illness–which manifests on a wide spectrum–should always disqualify someone from being held accountable for their actions (I am not saying that this is what you’re suggesting, but I need to hear more from you, otherwise it sounds like a “get out of jail free” card).

      I know a number of people who struggle with mental disorders, and only a few of them are abusive or controlling toward other people. Yet those folks who are abusive accept no responsibility for their actions, refuse to admit that they have a mental illness–even after professional clinical diagnosis–and cheerfully crucify their critics while quoting scripture. This is a problem.

      Could you offer some resources that Christians can consult to better educate themselves about mental illness? Also, when a pastor or church leader acts abusively and demonstrates some degree of psychosis, how would you advise parishioners to relate to such a pastor? I imagine it would depend on whether the pastor admits a struggle with mental illness in the first place, and where on the spectrum they fall. We’re looking for solutions here. While I appreciate your criticism, I’d like even better some steps toward education and solution. Since it sounds like you have some background with this topic, I’d love for you to add some of your thoughts about how to positively address the issues I wrote about.

      Thanks for considering my questions.

      • My comments have little to do with the topic of your blog, I admit. What I am reacting to is your use of the words”psycho” and”psychotic” to describe people who are abusing the power of their position. Believe me, this is not psychosis. I am not trained academically, but I am the wife of a mental health therapist and the mother of a son who suffered from psychosis for many years. Psychosis is being tormented by delusions, either by demeaning voices or hallucinations that must be like visiting hell. I can’t point you to academic texts, but I can invite you to share our family’s life experience by watching our son’s TED talk- Google TEDxDU Andrew Steward Beating Mental Illness, or you can read my husband Tom Steward’s book called Into Solitary Places (in Amazon). If you look at either of those and want to talk more, I am open to further discussion.

      • Dear Carole, thanks so much for sharing more of your story with me. I can see that this is an area you have much personal experience with. While I took my cues for the use of “psycho” and “psychotic” from the original article I was quoting from–and while I did try to do my homework on the use of them–I can now see how these are loaded terms which do a disservice to good folk who struggle with mental illness. In retrospect I wish I had avoided using them and had nuanced my terms better. Forgive me. I look forward to watching the TED talk, reading the book, and better educating myself about this important topic.

        If you can understand that the way you feel about mental illness is the way I feel about spiritual abuse, then you can understand why I feel passionate about this topic. Likewise, I respect your experience and look forward to learning more. Thanks for taking the time to write your comments instead of walking away in disgust. This is how we help sharpen one another. Best wishes as you continue to advocate for greater understanding of mental illness within the church. And if you ever do have time to think more about my specific questions, I truly would value your input. I can even see posting your thoughts as a guest post if it seems helpful. Thanks!

  4. Thank you for your respectful reply. I can see how our differing passions align. I have thought more about your other questions. I talked with my husband today about our conversation, and he suggested that you look again at the DSM and focus on personality and borderline disorders. Again, I am certainly not an expert, but through the years we have discussed these disorders. From what I understand, people with these disorders can be very manipulative, and if they are given power, they can be dangerous. I think your questions go back to the need for more education on mental disorders in the seminaries. It is important that seminaries understand what these disorders look like , and if a pastoral candidate exhibits these disorders, they should not be allowed to enter the role of pastor. And, to be blunt, a pastor who shows signs of a personality disorder should be removed and mental health services offered. There is just too much potential for great harm. These disorders seem to be very hard to treat, and persons suffering from them often do not recognize their illness. (This seems to be a consistent feature of many mental illness.) But again, it all comes down to more awareness and education about mental illness, in all its facets.

    • This is very helpful, Carole–thank you so much. Yes, my own former pastor was diagnosed with personality disorders–narcissistic personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and paranoia. He refused to accept the diagnosis and believed everyone was conspiring against him as God’s true servant. This after 25 years of progressively more abusive ministry. So sad. He is a wreck of a man.

      I told my wife about your son’s TED talk and your husband’s book. I plan to look into both. Lord knows that most seminarians can use more nuanced courses on mental illness. I look forward to continuing my education in this area. I am so thankful for people like you who can help deepen my understanding and compassion. Stop back again anytime.

      Grace and peace, Steve

  5. Steve, You are so right about the tolerance for abusive pastors. As an interim minister, I am often called to serve churches that have been abused and now are in need of healing, understanding and a good kick in the pants to see where they cooperated with the abuse. It is heartbreaking initially but as they become healthier as a congregation it is reassuring to know that with time and the Spirit God can heal a congregation. I love the discussion that Carole introduced because I think from my own experience that many of the pastors you describe are dealing with personality disorders and the seminaries do little or nothing to weed them out. My own seminary claims it is not in the business of training pastors per se but theologians so their personalities are not their responsibility. I think it is a cop out, but they get away with it and the churches are suffering as a result. Denominations don’t do a much better job of providing psychological testing or help and so the cycle of abusive pastors and wounded congregations continues. Of course, then there are the abusive congregations but that is a blog for another day. I became an interim in order to escape the long term consequences of unhealthy congregations.
    Currently, I am a board certified life coach who works with clergy and congregations to get back on track and move forward in a healthy way.

    I look forward to reading more

    • Thanks for joining the discussion, Nancy. Wise words. I like your perspective as an interim minister. Some folks believe that this blog is against pastors or ministers, but it’s not. It’s against unhealthy and abusive leadership and for maturity, critical thinking, and love. I’d love to hear more from you, Nancy. Do you have any resources you recommend? Grace and peace to you!

  6. Most beneficial article and responses on a much needed investigation and answers to a very disturbing fact or actual reality experienced in varying degrees as staff and members. Thank you for your openness and concern.

  7. Some people stay because the church is their extended family (especially if the church is multigenerational for them) and it is too traumatic to leave. Mostly they try to keep a low profile and spread what love they can and do damage control.

  8. Psychotic behaviors happen on internet forums as well. These seem to me to often be the result of individuals whose lives have left them insecure and who must manipulate the world and those around them into some sort of submission and fealty to their dominating personality. I have left forums where this has happened. The sad thing was that at a later date, the same folks moved over to another similar interest forum once the site owner had had his fill of their games, and then proceeded to subvert it into a new personal worship center for the dominant personalities. The same stuff happens in real life, whether it be in a religious environment or a secular one.

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