In the last weeks blog article I mentioned in passing how many church pastors and ministers fail to fulfil their calling because of the opposition and pain they get from the very church members they’re supposed to lead? I talked about the reality of “minister abuse”.
I said “Many congregations have broken potentially gifted pastors by their attitudes and actions. Sadly the Christian church is littered with good people who have left the ministry because of the pain, the criticism, and the lack of support they’ve got from congregations. Some Christians assume they can behave in a church setting in a way they’ve never be allowed to in a work setting. Minister abuse is much more common than is talked about”.
I thought I would develop that idea because it might come as quite a shock to you that such a thing even exists. Before I go any further I am not saying that the reverse is not true, for there is such a thing as spiritually abusive church ministers, and there might be some situations where there needs to be intervention from the lay leadership within the congregation, but, and it is a a very big “but” –far more common is the broken minister or pastor. Sometimes they just move on to try and find another congregation that won’t hurt them so much, more often than not they leave the ministry entirely, they are too damaged and broken to continue and often with collateral damage to their wives (husbands) and children.
Rarely a month goes past with me either meeting with, or hearing the story about yet another unnecessary casualty in ministry. And the majority of these are not because of spiritual warfare, or persecution from non Christians, but the damage done by their brothers and sisters in the church, the very people they want to pastor and lead.
In recent weeks (I can’t be specific for pastoral confidentiality) I have heard about yet another minister who has resigned from their church because they can no longer take the pain of what the lay leadership are saying and doing to them, and the damage to their family. I talked to another ministry couple who had been let down by a church that offered them a position but did not fulfil their end of the obligation especially over the conditions they were expected to live in! They reneged, then lied about commitments. I’ve even had to recommend one minister to leave a church because the damage that certain members of the congregation would do in the long run to their health, and family.
Yes everybody has problems in the workplace, having to handle difficult people, difficult colleagues, but very few are having to do it with their brothers and sisters who should be loving them in Christ. Sadly many of the victimizers don’t even know they are doing it. They believe they are doing their duty in sorting out a problem minister, stopping “their” church from being damaged by the less than satisfactory minister. Some just have got used to feeling free to criticise, undermining, verbally abusing and sometimes even bullying the ministers, it’s how they have acted for years in that local church as a member or more likely deacon, elder or vestry member! They believe they have a right to gather other discontented people together.
And the problem is most denominations have a selection for ministry process that actually chooses people who are most vulnerable to this kind of pain, because of course everyone wants a ‘pastor’ who is compassionate, loving, and caring, and such people are normally too gentle and to kind to even recognise what is happening is wrong and never confront people. We think being a door mat is part of being a servant! And often denominational leadership allows this pattern to continue in a congregation over a number of ministries as it’s so hard to deal with without confronting the root issues and problem people head on.
It particularly happens in small churches where the minister is alone and so vulnerable, especially in churches where there is a lot of congregational power, either in the church business meetings, or in individuals who have held power and influence over many years.
It is most likely to erupt when the minister suggests any change at all. Even moving the piano 6 inches, or buying new carpets can create rebellion, let alone removing the pews, or changing the worship style. All change is perceived as bad and hurts our cherished values.
It also occurs when people feel their position of influences is being threatened by the minister or even new people are joining the church changing the dynamics. Often it is a battle for leadership and influence or personality clashes.
May I quickly say it’s not something I experience now in St Mungo’s, and haven’t to any great extent for many years. But I did when I first came 25 years ago, I used to be physically sick before the services because I couldn’t cope with barbed words of criticism spoken as people shook hands as they left, let alone the letters, often anonymous, of complaint and criticism. And over the years I have had people accuse me of awful things, being a spiritually abusive leader, damaging the church, quenching the Spirit on one hand or being deceived on the other!! I have been subject to open letters of criticism, ‘prophetic’ words of judgment and accusations to the Bishop!
Such treatment sadly has become normative in the ordained church life. Which is one of the reasons I personally will virtually never support anybody going into full-time ‘ordained’ parish ministry. They really do not know what they’re letting themselves, and more importantly their wives and husbands, and especially their children into. I just don’t want to be pastorally responsible for the ruined health and damaged families and the loss of faith that inevitably occurs. Is there any wonder why so many minister’s children become prodigals, when they see the damage that the church has done to their parents?
Yes I am aware that some will think I am overstating the problem, and perhaps my own emotional makeup means I feel this too deeply. But I am certainly not exaggerating how big the issue is in the lives of clergy and their family. I meet with dozens of clergy a year, because I believe one of my current callings is to support other church ministers, especially those in smaller situations, and almost without exception the ministry is damaging them, they are discouraged, overworked and they are hurting, and much of this is inflicted by the church they try to serve!
I’m personally very grateful that this is not my current experienced in Saint Mungo’s. I have battles, I have worries and I have leadership’s strain but not from this source – big churches just have big problems! But I am surrounded by a supportive staff team, and protected and enabled by a church board of lay leaders (vestry) who have my best interest at heart, and I have the privilege to serve a congregation of people who are really letting Jesus transform their lives including the treatment of others, including me, with grace and compassion.
Of course some ministers aren’t up to the job, and some ministers make big mistakes. Some really haven’t got the gifts of leadership or the relational skills needed. So what do you do if you do disagree with and can no longer support your minister? Let me be controversial for a moment. What if you really do believe your minister is wrong and damaging the church especially if you are in a position of leadership or oversight in the congregation? My personal view is I think you have the right to go and privately and confidentially share your perspective with them face to face – perhaps with a genuinely neutral facilitator with you.
But if your disagreement or worries continues I believe you should leave! Don’t gather supporters for a campaign. Don’t entrench for a cold war of attrition. You will damage the church and be damaged yourself and become hard and judgmental. I think you should quietly, without any fuss, without throwing any bombs, withdraw from the congregation and find a church where you can be fully supportive to the minister. I greatly respect people who choose this painful and costly course of action.
But if you’re reading this article and you’re not a member of St Mungo’s, what is actually happening to your church minister? Don’t assume that they are safe and secure. What can you do? If you can have any influence at all make sure they are paid well and are living in decent accommodation and are not overworking? That alone can save someone’s marriage and ministry. And if you can’t change their ‘package’ through the congregation, then you and some friends pay for them to go on holiday!! Offer to babysit for them so that a husband and wife can go out together. Again, if you are on any board or committee that runs the church, be there as a supporter, protector and advocate and guardian. Watch their backs for them and bless their families. And that includes speaking up in support in public and private. Too many are ‘silent’ supporters. Don’t let people have unfettered right to discourage or discredit the church minister no matter how “veiled” it is. Speak positively about your minister whenever you have an opportunity in committees and in the congregation. Challenge and confront the difficult and awkward people on committees or in groups, they do not have a right to get away with unloving acts or words in a Christian meeting. And express your love for your minister. They need huge amounts of encouragement. I think it takes 25 words and letters of encouragement to deal with the damage that one verbal criticism or painful e-mail can do to the average church minister.
Most of us pastors are incredibly vulnerable and easily hurt. Most of us are fragile and over sensitive. I know we shouldn’t be, but we are! Help us to help you!
The Message (MSG)17 Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?
NIV 17 Have confidence in your leaders and submit to their authority, because they keep watch over you as those who must give an account. Do this so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no benefit to you.