As I have been thinking about the events at Harvest Bible Chapel, Mars Hill, Willow Creek and a number of other large congregations that are walking down the same path I have been reflecting on some common traits of dishealth and spiritual abuse. The sad thing is that these behaviors are antithetical to what a healthy church looks like (think the book of Ephesians) and the fruit of the Spirit. Sometimes this spiritual abuse is found mainly on staff, other times like Harvest Bible Chapel and Mars Hill, it is or was pervasive. These afflictions are not confined to any church size but rather a mindset among leaders, usually led by the senior leader. If you observe a number of the following characteristics in your church be wary!
A strong leader who others cannot question
The pastors of the above congregations and those like them have leaders who are a "force of nature" that others, even elders and staff, find hard if not impossible to challenge. In fact, these individuals often have a very black and white mentality toward people: If you agree with them you are a friend. When you disagree with them you become an enemy. This is how they see people in life: Either friends or enemies with no grey in the middle. Staff, elders and those who are close learn quickly that if you cross a certain line you are done and your job or ministry is in jeopardy.
Use of a board to manipulate and legitimize behavior
Boards are used in these churches not to evaluate issues or guard the health of the church (on the last score, firing the dysfunctional leader would be in order) but to legitimize the wishes of the senior leader and provide a kind of "spiritual cover" to them where they can hide behind the decisions of the board. Ironically, while these individuals talk as if the board has real authority and power the reality is that they don't. It is the senior leader who has the authority and power. Even now, at Harvest Bible Chapel it is clear that the board still does not have freedom to act as a board even though James MacDonald is physically gone.
An inordinate degree of secrecy
Decisions are made with secrecy in many of these situations. When people ask questions about budgets, ministry decisions or things like discipline and resignations they are told, "trust your leaders," "there are many things you don't know," "these are Godly men (or women) with the implication that you therefore should not question them. In fact, the Godliness of the board and pastor are often way overblown as it is simply a cover for their decisions. After all if they spent all this time in prayer and Scripture study who can question them? The truth is that in these boards, there is not time given to Scripture study or prayer beyond the formal necessities. It is far more about self preservation, politics and scheming than it is a spiritual group.
Lack of truth
Secrecy is not the only issue. There is a consistent lack of truth in these situations. Decisions are spun to fit the narrative of the leadership whether it has any relation to truth. Even here, those in the know don't dare speak out making them complicit in the lies being told. The thinking is that the "little people" don't have the ability to handle the reasons for the decision so just like Washington there is a lot of fake news that comes from church leaders.
Disparagement of critics or those who ask questions
Remember that those who disagree are seen as enemies, especially if they cannot be brought around to the party line. The group think in these situations is massive and it is very difficult from a relational standpoint to buck the party line or to question what everyone else seems to agree with. In reality many may not agree but they are unwilling to speak up as it disrupts the unspoken code that we should agree with the party line. Why else are so many former staff members or board members from Harvest Bible Chapel only now speaking out when they have left their positions or the church. The same can be said for Willow.
These dynamics extend to the congregation as well. When congregants ask legitimate questions they are told that the Godly elders have looked at the situation and after a great deal of prayer and deliberation (usually a falsity) they have chosen the best path. In other words, don't question our decisions. In many cases, financial transparency is not present as well. This is nothing less than manipulation and intimidation at its worse, a shutting down of legitimate discussion, and an attempt to evade any kind of accountability as the pastor, senior staff and board of Harvest Bible Chapel did for decades. Congregants learn quickly that they don't want to create waves and choose to simply follow. Those who do insist on asking questions eventually are driven out of their staff or board position or out of the church.
The liberal use of charges, church discipline, public rebuke and shunning behaviors
Here is the cost of speaking up, of disagreeing, asking questions and not going away. These churches will ensure that you go away but with your reputation in tatters, your character impugned and your joy destroyed. Spiritual sounding charges with lots of scripture and long letters or phone calls are designed to bring people back into the party line. When that does not work, church discipline is applied and made public as a rebuke and manipulation tactic to bring people back to the fold with their "repentance." When these tactics don't work, people are shunned and other members of the church told not to speak to them as they have been given "over to Satan," because of their sin.
This is done with maximum public exposure through announcements from the pulpit, video messages to the church, email or letters, all designed to impugn the reputation of the "guilty" and to justify their behaviors which are indefensible. This is not only politics at its worse but with the use of spiritual language is designed not only to justify but to intimidate the whole congregation to toe the party line. The more people are intimidated, the more cover the senior leader has (and the board) because people are not going to challenge them. In the case of Harvest Bible Chapel, dissidents whose information is now proven to be true, wrote a blog called "The Elephants Debt," because of the massive financial mismanagement of the church. James actually sued them to shut them down until he discovered belatedly that there was this thing called "discovery" which would force him to open his books. That caused him to drop the lawsuit.
Frequent use of language like submission, obedience and trust
When words like this are used often in a church it is a sure sign that leadership are seeking to shut down discussion. Congregants are told that they should "submit" to the leadership of the church. While Scripture says that, it says a whole lot more about the character and behavior of leaders which in these cases is of course ignored. Trust us, obey us, submit to us and if you don't you are in violation of Scripture and subject to discipline and action by the board. Congregants are never to submit to lies or dysfunction.
A culture of fear on staff and on the board
Fear is the end product of these behaviors which is why it is a spiritually abusive system. That fear is a tactic by leaders to intimidate staff into doing what they want done. Years ago I was told by someone who was there of an annual event at Willow where staff members had to get up in front of Bill and other staff and share their ministry results and goals. Many were harshly criticized in public by Bill, which was devastating to them. My friend, a church leader from another church was impressed. He learned much from Bill! I remember saying, "I would never work for a leader like that." Angry, manipulative, coercive, verbally abusive leaders are not fit to lead. None of these behaviors exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit. In these systems, a spirit of fear prevails and serves the purposes of the leader.
Bodies pile up
When many people are left in the wake of a ministry, and good people at that, one needs to ask the question why? I once did a conflict intervention with a church of a thousand and interviewed nine individuals who had left staff in the past 18 months. All their stories were the same and they all revolved around the senior pastor. The board had never asked any questions! When the bodies pile up it is a sign that something may be amiss and that it is time to ask some questions.
A closed system
All of this describes a closed system that does not allow anyone but the senior leader to truly think for themselves. It is rotten to the core as a system and is designed to eliminate accountability, force compliance and allow the senior leader to get their way. People don't even realize how sick the system is until the senior leader has been gone for a period of time.
Don't ignore symptoms like this in your church if you should see them. They are warning signs that something is amiss and many people will be hurt if not addressed.
TJ Addington of Addington Consulting has a passion to help individuals, churches and organizations maximize their impact and go the next level of effectiveness. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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