Sometimes the church bully is the senior pastor!

Some years ago, I was asked to help a congregation that was in turmoil. It was a large church, and the senior pastor had just fired the two key associate pastors, which had caused an uproar in the church as they were loved and had many relationships. 

The first thing I did was to interview the three pastors involved. The behavior of the senior pastor, as reported to me, was not pretty, and he didn't deny it. I then discovered that six additional staff members had left or been fired in the past two years, and I asked the board if they had interviewed any of them on the way out. They said no, hanging their heads, so I called and interviewed each of them. Their stories were consistent, and painful to listen to.

This story ended with a senior pastor being asked to resign, the church dividing and the board resigning. The board had not paid attention even though they knew that the senior leader was dysfunctional. He had created an atmosphere where they didn't dare challenge him. The pastor was the bully. 

Why do pastors get away with behaviors that would otherwise be forbidden even in the secular workplace? Here are some of the behaviors I have observed over the past 20 years of consulting with local churches, and I am talking about evangelical churches here.

  • Pastors whose insecurities cause them to divide people into two camps. Those who agree with them are, therefore, their friends, and those who disagree with them are, therefore, their enemies. Enemies are ignored, shunted to the side, and marginalized. How does that square with loving the flock?
  • Pastors who use threats to get their way. Threats as blatant as "I could fire you if you don't do this" or "I will resign if you push me on this." "I don't care if I get zero votes on a confidence vote. I am not leaving and will take the church down with me if I have to."
  • Pastors who are intimidated by other strong leaders (who are seen as a threat to their leadership) and make it hard for them to serve in the church.
  • Pastors who are unaccountable with their time. When they are away from the church, no staff members have any idea as to where they are or how to reach them.
  • Pastors who will not allow their boards to speak into their lives, specific situations that have occurred, conduct executive sessions of the board, or give them an annual review. This sends a loud message, "I don't have to be accountable to you."
  • Pastors who hire staff without due diligence don't mentor or coach them on a regular basis and fire them if they become a threat to them or don't perform to their standards. This is a user mentality toward people.
  • Pastors who leave their church angry deliberately dividing the congregation on their way out.
  • Pastors who triangulate relationships to form alliances against others, whether other staff members, board members, or congregants. Not only wrong but a sign of poor emotional intelligence.
  • Pastors who take credit for any advance and find scapegoats for any failure.
  • Pastors who use their "God-given authority" to lead as they see fit. After all, they are "God's anointed." Again, this ignores accountability and shared leadership.
  • Pastors who speak ill of board members or congregants even as they become angry if they hear of either group criticizing them. 
  • Pastors who don't allow other staff to challenge their ideas or speak candidly to them about what they see. This creates a closed system where they cannot be challenged or held accountable. Those who ask questions are often marginalized and often let go.
  • Pastors who are building their own kingdom rather than God's kingdom. What matters are their ideas and their way. Essentially they use people to achieve their ends. In fact, when the bully is the pastor, there is usually a growing pile of bodies in their wake. Those who have been discarded, disenfranchised, marginalized, and left on the side of the road. 
So why do church boards allow this to happen? Unlike a corporate board that has little interaction with staff, church boards are a part of the congregation. In almost every instance where I have helped churches deal with a bully pastor or heal in the wake of one, I have asked the church board if they knew there was something amiss among them. In every instance, they said yes. When I asked why they didn't address it, they said, they were told it was not their purview, were intimidated by the senior leader, executive sessions were not allowed so that a candid conversation could not take place, and they just hoped things would get better. 

In every instance, the board members said they wish they had spoken up, asked the hard questions, had the hard conversation, and dealt with the dysfunctional leadership of the senior leader. But they didn't, and the fallout to the church was significant. It can take years for trust to be rebuilt and the culture brought back to health after bully pastors. Boards that do not deal with the poor behaviors of their senior leader are directly complicit in the damage that is done.

  • Jul 04, 2023
  • Category: News
  • Comments: 0
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