Abuse Keeps Flourishing in the Church. Here are Four Reasons Why.
From Ravi Zacharias to Mark Driscoll, we can trace a number of similarities between church leaders who abuse their power.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.” James 3:1
Politics, sports, weather, and another story of a pastor or director of a ministry who has abused someone seems to be how the news goes these days.
What is going on? And more importantly, what can we do to stop it? The church is to be a sanctuary, a refuge, a healing place. But for many it has become the source of their pain and wounds, and often at the hands of the church’s leaders.
There have always been evil people in the world who are bent on finding opportunities to exploit others for their own gain. Unfortunately, some of these people make their way into leadership positions in the church. There are others in leadership who have a level of brokenness starting out and though they intended well, over time their personal issues grew to where they become abusive to others.
But this is the church! The bride of Christ! And especially when we are talking about its leaders should we not have a high standard of conduct?
There are many facets that contribute to the problem of allowing people who are abusive in positions of power in the church. Here are some:
That seems like over-the-top phraseology as if we are talking about making pastors into one of the Avengers. Specifically, I mean the tendency to hyper focus on and over-value a few characteristics of the leader and largely ignore character qualities. For example, valuing speaking ability and assertiveness and not being as concerned about kindness and patience.
The goal often when evaluating a Christian leader is “Can they fill the seats?” or “Can they grow the ministry?” Taylor Swift or Kanye West can fill the seats. What is really the mission of our church or ministry and does the leader in place exude the values of our mission?
Lack of accountability.
Because of the hero worship (they can do no wrong), our propensity towards having a solitary leader, our focus on efficiency and production and not community and intimacy, and at times the leader’s giftedness in spinning situations the way he or she wants them to be seen, then there is often little to no accountability.
“Protection” of the institution.
We see time and time again where an abusive leader is not handled quickly and effectively when abuse has become evident due to those in power desiring to protect the ministry. As has been well pointed out by many, this devalues the victim, the vulnerable, and enables the abuse to continue.
These reasons and others play into how a situation like Ravi Zacharias’ occurs. There is a blind eye to the red flags that there are problems with the leader’s conduct because this cannot be true, the ministry is doing great, no one is holding the leader accountable, and those who could hold him accountable have a responsibility to protect his ministry.
The values driving hero worship, goal confusion, lack of accountability, and protection of the institution contribute to the problem of having abusive leaders in place. Does the leader create the culture that values these, or does the culture create them and the leader steps into them? Both, it would seem. And both can take steps to change these values and replace them with appropriate ones.
Here’s an example from outside the church: my son’s elementary school has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying or other forms of victimization. They aim to achieve the goal of zero bullying through several means: the goal (value) of respecting each other is clearly and repeatedly communicated from the top down, healthy ways of dealing with issues are taught, immediate communication regarding the witnessing or experiencing of any abuse is encouraged to persons who can hold the abuser accountable, the rules and process for dealing with abuse and one committing the abuse are written down and clear, and protection and support for the one abused is in place. The church would do well to have a zero-tolerance policy that is in place and supported and communicated from the top down.
Yet, we can do better. No abuse is a good goal, but it is not the goal. It is eliminating the negative, but what about the positive? What should we be looking for in our leaders? Scripture is clear. It is Christlikeness or in other words, the fruit of the Spirit of Christ. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22,23a. We as followers, supporters, and members of churches and other ministries need to deeply value these attributes and seek them in the ones we chose to lead. If our leaders exude the fruit of the Spirit not only will abuse stop but healing will happen in our churches.
Michael MacKenzie is a licensed professional counselor, ordained pastor, and hospital chaplain. He has served for ten years as the clinical director of Marble Retreat, a Colorado retreat center that specializes in ministering to pastors and ministry leaders in crisis. He studied marriage and family counseling at Denver Seminary and has a DMin in pastor care from Lincoln Christian University. He is the author of the forthcoming book Don't Blow Up Your Ministry (to be released December 14, 2021).