Spiritual abuse is a scary subject that we have to talk about.
Over the last year, I’ve read a number of books about incredible, powerful, visionary people who achieved incredible things, only to have everything fall apart due to their own self-destruction.
I’ve also witnessed the profoundly destructive power of bad pastors and spiritual abuse first hand.
What struck me as I read these books was that in both the “secular” world and the church, destructive leadership tends to look the same. In other words, the same things that caused Jimmy Bakker to implode also led to the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes and her company “Theranos” (once valued at $1 billion).
And Tiger Woods, though not necessarily a “leader” in the same sense as a pastor or CEO, imploded for many of the same reasons.
More and more, it’s critically important to be able to identify spiritually abusive, dangerous, destructive pastors BEFORE everything falls apart.
Few things cause Christians to become disillusioned more than being ripped to pieces by spiritual abuse in the church. Few things do more to sully the name of Jesus more than abusive spiritual leaders.
Dave Harvey puts it this way:
There are few things more dangerous to a church than a pastor who is extraordinarily endowed on the gifting side and extraordinarily deficient on the character side. That guy is a decaying tie rod waiting to break. The progress can be impressive until character collapses.
Here are six bright red warning signs of spiritual abuse.
- He surrounds himself with “yes” people
- Critics are isolated
- Loyalty is prized over diversity
- Refusing accountability
- Leading by force of personality
- Refusing to believe anything is wrong
What Is Spiritual Abuse?
First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page regarding spiritual abuse. What exactly is spiritual abuse?
Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader, such as a pastor, uses their power and influence to manipulate and control people. A spiritual abuser is not concerned with promoting the well-being of those he serves. Rather, he’s only interested in how people can further his plans and agenda.
What does this look like in real life?
Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #1: A Bad Pastor Surrounds Himself With “Yes” People
Godly spiritual leadership is about helping people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. It’s a wonderful thing when a leader desires to see people going full-throttle for God.
As Richard Blackaby puts it in his book Spiritual Leadership:
Unfortunately, what often happens is that pastors and spiritual leaders conflate God’s plans with their own plans. What often starts as good and godly ambitions can curdle into spoiled, selfish ambitions, which then leads to spiritual abuse.
They say they want to gather thousands of people and create massive movements and do giant things “for God”. In reality, it’s more about creating something that will shine the white-hot spotlight on them instead of God (even though they might not recognize it as such).
The problem with this (apart from the obvious pride and glory stealing), is that creating massive movements requires massive amounts of momentum. To generate momentum, everyone has to be on board, eager to make the pastor’s vision a reality.
Those who challenge the pastor and the vision only slow things down, making it really difficult to pick up speed and achieve the “big things”.
And so spiritually abusive leaders and pastors surround themselves with people who always say, “Yes.” Those guilty of spiritual abuse are quick to speak and slow to listen, and they need people who will always back them up. The inner circle – those closest – will support every decision the pastor makes, no matter how destructive or ludicrous.
Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #2: Critics Are Isolated
This is closely tied to the previous point. Not only are critics cut out of the spiritual abuser’s inner circle, they are also isolated. After all, the leader can’t afford to have critics talking behind his back.
And so they do everything they can to isolate and discredit critics, smearing their character, accusing them of lacking faith, saying their understanding of the Bible is wrong, and even spreading lies about them. The pastor guilty of spiritual abuse wants his followers to have nothing to do with critics and seeks to discredit them as ungodly sinners who are holding back God’s plans.
The sad reality is that those labeled “critics” often start as close confidants of the pastor, but once they begin to push back, they are cut off. Instead of being able to provide guardrails for the roaring ambition of the bad pastor, they are sidelined and slandered.
Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #3: Loyalty Is Prized Over Diversity
In order for a church or spiritual movement to be healthy, a diversity of opinions is required. In Christ, we are all priests to God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and given unique gifts to build up the church.
But this doesn’t work for the spiritually abusive pastor or spiritual leader. Diversity leads to dissent, which slows momentum and keeps him from achieving his grandiose plans. He doesn’t want a variety of opinions, he wants loyalty. You’re either in or out, for or against.
And if you’re not all in, you’re accused of being disloyal. Of not being a team player. Of being a naysayer and downer. Of not believing in the mission.
Those who are loyal are promoted to positions of honor, while those who criticize are ostracized. Spiritual abuse often deploys shame and fear and bullying against those who aren’t loyal.
A sure sign that things are going downhill is when everyone in leadership thinks, acts, and even speaks alike. Additionally, if the leadership team gets smaller and smaller, it’s a sign that the pastor is hoarding power and promoting only the most loyal followers.
Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #4: Refusing Accountability
A spiritually abusive pastor or leader doesn’t like to be held accountable for his decisions. Because of this, he’ll take actions specifically designed to minimize accountability. Often times, this involves creating odd leadership structures where those who are supposed to hold the pastor accountable are unable to do it.
They (the accountability) may be misled or kept in the dark about the leader’s actions. Or, when push comes to shove, they may lack the formal power to hold the pastor accountable.
The result is that it may look like he’s being held accountable when in reality he can do whatever he wants. When spiritual abuse is present in the church, accountability is almost always lacking.
Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #5: The Pastor Leads By Force Of Personality
This one is a little trickier to evaluate and should be examined in conjunction with the previous signs. Spiritual abuse can be a subtle thing. Most bad pastors don’t seem like bad pastors. They’re often charming, dynamic, and even visionary. They are forces of nature, charismatic, able to inspire people to do hard things.
But the personality is often a facade, whitewash splashed over a tomb. On the surface, they appear to be prophets with a direct connection to God. In reality, they’re deceivers who don’t fear the Lord.
It’s the dynamic personality that often causes people to allow destructive spiritual abuse to go on for far too long. They can’t reconcile the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the bad pastor, and so they endure spiritual abuse and hope things will get better.
Spiritual Abuse Warning Sign #6: They Refuse To Believe Anything Is Wrong
Sadly, most bad pastors refuse to believe that anything is wrong with their leadership style or the way things are headed. They remain convinced that everything is great, up until the point that everything falls apart.
And even if they do harbor doubts, they certainly don’t share them with others. That would be an admission of wrong, of fallibility, of weakness, of insecurity. It would be an acknowledgment that maybe, just maybe, God isn’t on their side. And so they are always full of bluster and bravado, making grand claims about how swimmingly things are going.
The result is that things go from bad to worse to total implosion. Many people get hurt, the Lord’s name is dragged through the mud, and the movement usually falls apart. Even if it doesn’t, it’s only a shell of it’s former “glory”.
Don’t Tolerate Spiritual Abuse
If you suspect that your pastor is a spiritual abuser, don’t hope that things will get better. That rarely, if ever happens.
Instead, talk to someone outside your normal circle of friends and ask their opinion. Share specifics with them, including all the red flags. Getting an outside perspective is helpful because it can be hard to make sense of everything when you’re in the middle of it. Additionally, bad pastors are often manipulators, able to explain away every action, no matter how egregious.
Whatever you do, don’t tolerate spiritual abuse. It will leave you hurt, disillusioned, and feeling betrayed.
God has better things for you. Joy will come in the morning.
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