11 reasons why we allow abusive leaders to continue

"Stand Up to Abuse" cartoon by nakedpastor David Hayward

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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?
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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!


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21 Responses

  1. Tom Wilson says:

    The church IMO is a man made Pharisaical system that like politics attracts people who are greedy for power over people and/or riches. In contrast Jesus took away the power and riches motivation as he spoke against hierarchical leadership withing the community he is building, against giving titles to anyone, and against using the place were people gather together for monetary gain. I say it is a Pharisaical system, because the man made Church is everything Jesus confronted the Pharisees about is found within the vast majority Pastors and other Church leadership.

  2. This is an extraordinarily good list of reasons for tolerating leadership abuse. You must have observed a lot of such abuse–but then, unfortunately, so have many of us.

  3. Sadly, I only had the courage to confront abusive leadership once. It was in college and it was an assistant librarian. When confronted (after months of observing his behavior), he repented and changed. It gave me hope. No such luck with church leaders at a regional level who had authority over my life. Those who confronted them were punished. One difference is that I was confronted a person who was abusing others, not myself. When I was being abused, the relationship was different.

  4. So many have Jesus without baggage. Good story John. I wish your version would happen more often.

  5. purvez says:

    “Four that wanna own me,
    Two that wanna stone me,
    One says she’s a friend of mine. ”

    As soon as I saw the cartoon the above verse came into my head. Particularly the first line. There are ‘many’ people who ‘like’ the abuse. I use ‘like’ in it’s most bizarre psychotic sense here.

  6. Yes, often churches can be a mutually agreed system of abuse.

  7. purvez says:

    I should have added:

    and that’s why abusive leaders continue.

  8. jim rogers says:

    This was svelte excellent. I would add money. It is hard to speak up when your livelihood is at stake. This is why many abusers keep fighting and those around them support the defence, book deals, tours…

  9. Eric says:

    #1 is huge. I’ve been floored at the complete lack of any awareness or knowledge of abuse and the abuser – abused dynamic. Both IRL and on the net. I agree with all of your other points but #1 I think is the root of this particular vine. Maybe “willful” ignorance is the next stage.

  10. Yes, willful ignorance abounds. Turning a blind eye.

  11. Carlos says:

    ouch. I’ve been that guy. More than once. And I feel challenged to change, again and again. There’s hope for me… I hope.

    Great list. Hugs from Raleigh.

  12. Shazza tha dazzla says:

    We’re also taught that any criticism we might hold ‘in our hearts’ towards the leaders can grieve the Holy Spirit and pull down the worship.

    All that writhing in guilt keeps us occupied and under control, with the added advantage to the leader that every problem in the church can safely be laid at the feet of those writhing ‘Jezebels’ who are ruining the spiritual atmosphere for everyone.

  13. Akrokid says:

    I have witnessed years and years of abusive behaviour. When I eventually confronted it I was effectively isolated. The abuse is subtle and insidious. Usually the abuser is a high scorer on the Narcissistic Personally Disorder (NPD) scale but may not be fully In possession of a NPD. The root of the problem is a kind of passive selfishness (often not passive too). As long as they get their way – there’s peace. I have, and will never, conform to their carnal schemes. I will remain in love though – they really hate that.

  14. Jill says:

    An excellent post, and one to revisit frequently. Abusive behaviors abound in tightly-woven circles like the described. It’s all couched in service, obedience, inperfection and the like, but people are gaslighted into believing this is all part and parcel of a deeply held faith. ‘How dare anyone be so selfish and question God’s chosen authority on earth?’ is what we’ve heard many times, many ways.

    Because if we were meant to be sycophantic sheep, we all would be baa-ing in unison. The creation of the human animal is more dynamic than mindless follower, and I move in my world as though I’m meant to utilize all of my God-given abilities, like my courage, determination, conscience and compassion.

    Oh yes, and my mind…

  15. Angela Hurst says:

    This is a very good summary of why church people tolerate abuse. When I was subject to the abuses of a spiritual leader, it took me quite a while to label it for what it really was. All the research I did talked about toxic leaders in the business world, but I found very little to address the abuses of pastoral authorities. I am grateful that someone is bringing this problem to light. It is true that people don’t know about or understand abuse, but it is also true that those who suspect it don’t really WANT to know for sure. Ignorance is preferred because knowledge forces a decision. It is easier to turn a blind eye and go along rather than lose community. Scripture is misused to keep everyone quiet and in-line. The most heartbreaking part of it all is that many, many times the abused makes honest efforts for repentance and reconciliation (following the commands of Christ regarding love and unity) only to be met by lies, slander, name calling, and a refusal to reconcile by the leaders who abused them. I am understanding more and more what Jesus was talking about when he called out the religious leaders of His time. I’m just praying for renewal in hearts and for awakening in the Church to truly be what He has called us to be.

  16. Barb McRae says:

    Thank you once again for confirming my experience. I vacillate between anger and sadness about this issue. I refuse to work as a pastor in a church anymore because I’m so sick of how leaders get away with it all. At least I had the comfort of a member from a former congregation who said to me, “We should’ve kept you and gotten rid of him.”

  17. Grace says:

    Such a great post! I highly recommend Dr. George K. Simon’s book: “In Sheep’s Clothing”, which will go a long way to demystify abusive leaders … and disordered characters in general. Helps one step out of their damage by understanding how they operate and do what they do, especially the covert-aggressives. Thanks for such a fabulous article that certainly validates my experience with abusive Leaders!

  18. lesley says:

    Great post. This really sums up why I no longer go to a mainstream church. I no longer have the desire to filter out all of the rubbish. I think you are totally right in saying that most people do not even realise what is really going on, and the ones who do, generally leave – and are subjected to shame for it.

  19. Allen P says:

    The list is great. Better still is to have the church organized so that abuse cannot even start. To do that, it cannot be a one-man show. If a church follows the Biblical pattern of having elders, and those elders exercise their authority as elders, then any abuse will be nipped in the bud. To ignore this Biblical way of organizing a church is to invite abuse. Plural leadership is in the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation. The only exception is the fulfillment of a task, like Moses (getting the people from point A to point B), or Paul (planting new churches). As soon as that task is accomplished, elders are supposed to take over.