I don’t believe abusive leadership is rare. I think it is common. I’m very interested in the church and Christianity, as well as religion in general. I claim these contexts create the perfect culture for abuse to occur. It is becoming so prevalent that it is epidemic. We tend to allow abusive leaders to continue their work and ministry for the many of reasons listed below. There are probably more, so feel free to add your suggestions in the comment section.
- Ignorance: I’m discovering that many people don’t understand abuse. In fact, I think this is one of the major problems facing the church today. Not just the church, but people in general. It’s not a religious problem, although religion is a great culture to abuse and get abused in. Many don’t know what abuse is. For example, many people think shaming others for the sake of a good result is necessary, like bombing for peace.
- Charm: Like many people in churches, I have suffered abuse at the hands of strong leaders, but it was sometimes done in such a charming way that I didn’t realize it until later. I admit, it wasn’t just their charm, but my own issue-filled way of processing pain. I usually numb myself until it’s over, then come to my senses and realized what just happened.
- Enjoyment: I don’t know about you, but I admire strong, charismatic, articulate, inspiring, and visionary leaders. Many abusive leaders possess these qualities. Abusive leaders, especially in the church, come with the territory. Often, there’s a silent agreement that we will agree to suffer some abuse for the sake of the show.
- Forgiveness: One of the core values of Christianity is forgiveness. When a Christian sins, but especially a leader, we feel required to forgive and let things continue as before. The Christian culture, in fact all religious culture, almost taunts people to sin, even repeatedly, in order to receive grace. Some leaders’ peers boast a kind of bravado when they forgive and restore their abusive friends to their ministries.
- Authority: I was taught very clearly never to question authority. King David executed the messenger who happily delivered the news of Saul’s death. David warned, “Thou shalt not touch God’s anointed!” This has been used on me many times to warn me to never question or disobey the leader’s authority because the leader enjoys divine protection.
- Ministry: Another scripture verse that is often used to insulate abuse is when the Jewish priest says that it is good for the one to be sacrificed for the many. This idea is deeply engrained in our psyches, that bad things can be done and endured for the greater good. In other words, it is not worth exposing this one little sin if it brings down the whole ministry.
- Gifting: Many gifted leaders can get away with so much because their sins are seen as necessary personal struggles that come with leadership, or slight slips of character from being under so much stress in ministry, or because their needs aren’t being met they have no choice but to meet them in inappropriate ways. Is it worth destroying this very gifted person’s whole life and the incredible potential and influence they will have on the world just because of this one little fall?
- Fear: I always find it very frightening to confront people in authority, especially if I’m a part of the organization they lead. I don’t like anger or being the object of rage. Often confronting abuse fans into flames the very abuse you were opposing.
- Fallout: When you question, challenge, or confront an abusive leader, you will suffer consequences. You will be demoted, rejected, or dismissed, and you will no longer be a part of the organization or community that you were hoping to improve by speaking up. I know I have been alienated many times by leaders and their fans for raising questions about their attitudes and behaviors.
- Protection: Often we hesitate because it feels like a useless endeavor to confront abusive leadership. They are surrounded by layers of protection. They usually have so many connections and such strong networks that when you challenge them you provoke their entire army and launch a full scale war all against little old defenseless you.
- Compartmentalizing: We see this all the time, especially in religion. For example, a Christian leader abuses his wife, but what happens in their marriage is none of our business and, besides, really shouldn’t negatively affect his valuable contributions to the world. His lack of discretion there does not make him a monster here. Just because he’s a bully in his personal relationships doesn’t negate the fact that he’s an effective speaker and published author.
Some people might claim that Goliath didn’t do much. He just taunted people. He only shamed people. He embarrassed people. He just intimidated people with this power. The people endured it. But when David heard what he was saying… just saying, not even doing… he was mortified and went out to face him and take him down.
All it took was one small stone precisely placed. That is, all it takes is one person to step up, speak up, and keep up the challenge against abusive attitudes, speech, and behavior. Sometimes all it takes is one sentence. Sometimes all it takes is allowing one victim to share their experience. Sometimes all it takes is one word!
Load your slings!