While many have been watching high profile evangelical leaders who have treated staff and congregants poorly, the truth is that this happens all the time in otherwise good evangelical churches and Christian ministries. I routinely see this first hand as I consult and hear regularly from people who have experienced heavy handed treatment. I would say that there is more pain from poor treatment of staff in the church and ministry world than in the corporate world. This is partly because they can get away with it as people are not likely to cause division by broadcasting the issues.

Mistreatment of people is a sign of leadership arrogance. Often boards are complicit as well when they do not verify what they are hearing from their senior pastor or allow what they know to be heavy handed tactics. Here are some common ways that arrogance is demonstrated in the treatment of staff and/or congregants.

One: Staff who try to raise legitimate issues or engage in legitimate dialogue are shut down by senior leaders through intimidation or threats. This is far more common than many people realize. The threat can be for their job (and there are many ways to threaten one's job subtly), it can be around causing division (by a difference of opinion?), ridicule, or a pattern of simply firing those who disagree. When there is fear within a staff culture there is clear indication that intimidation is taking place and there are many churches where this is the case.

One of the most egregious kinds of intimidation is a gag order where staff are not allowed to talk about issues with themselves, with members of the congregation or with elected leaders and  their leadership will not let them into the process of ministry decisions. They are essentially left without a voice, without a place to go with their concerns and live with the fear that if they voice their concerns they will be called to task. All such gag orders are a sign of poor leadership, they are dysfunctional, they lead to toxicity and a culture of mistrust and eventually good people will choose to leave. 

A second sign of arrogance in leadership is when staff are let go without due process. Even with "at-will" employment in many places I am amazed that there are not more lawsuits for staff being fired by senior leaders for highly questionable leaders (I just want them gone) without due process. Sometimes the fired staff are not even told why they are being let go. Due process means a process where the issues are explained, there is the ability for the staff person to defend themselves and if necessary there is a third party present. I have seen countless examples where staff are "gotten rid of" by senior leaders who either don't like them, don't like their opinions or simply want to fill slots with sycophants who will do their bidding - all without true due process.

Even when there are performance issues, the first question should be, has this person been coached and mentored and can we help them get to where they need to go. If many senior leaders were treated like they treat their staff, they would understand what it feels like to be at the capricious will of a dysfunctional leader and it does not feel good. 

Another way that arrogance is expressed in treatment of staff is very simple: not listening to staff, not soliciting their views, and not engaging them in the process of ministry decisions even though they are stakeholders and will be impacted by those decisions. I am always amazed when senior pastors (many when they first arrive and are going to solve everything that is bad in the church - from their perspective) make sweeping unilateral decisions without even engaging their senior staff. It is a fast way to lose all coinage with staff. And it is highly disempowering. 

Why do I call behavior like this arrogant? Because it is clearly all about the leader and what he/she wants and not about the staff. Anytime we mistreat staff we are using our authority and power in ways they were never meant to be used. Nor did Jesus operate this way. Humility is a recognition that we need each other, honor each other, build team and always treat others with fairness, integrity and dignity. Humble leadership may take more time to get some things done but it will build to last with a reservoir of trust. Arrogant leadership can move fast but at the deficit of trust and through using and abusing staff along the way.

A word to elected leaders. Behaviors like this are usually blissfully ignored by boards. Why? Their leader is getting things done or they simply don't want to address it. Ultimately if such behaviors are taking place on your watch you are responsible even if not the agent. Poke around a bit and make sure that your staff culture is as healthy as you are told it is. Often it is not. I know because eventually I get called into situations when they come apart and I always wonder why leaders either did not know or did not intervene.

All of T.J. Addington's books including his latest, Deep Influence,  are available from the author for the lowest prices and a $2.00 discount on orders of ten or more.
  • Nov 07, 2014
  • Category: News
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