It happens almost every week. Over the last year, with recurring and uncanny regularity, a pastor or Christian leader reaches out to me to share their journey of leaving abusive churches or organizations. In each case, they know I’m no longer serving as pastor of a local church, that I have written about church bullying, and they reach out for support or encouragement.
Some have written to ask, “How did you get out?” Others ask, “How are you dealing with the depression and a loss of identity?” Yet others just want to share their pain and need a virtual shoulder of support.
Trust has been broken in many instances, between the church and its leaders. When promises are continually made and then broken, optimism and hope for fruitful ministry gradually erode. When it happens repeatedly it’s little more than an abusive relationship. Many walk away from faith-based institutions and careers in ministry because of this cycle.
Young ministers are brought on by search committees with the promise of congregational support for reaching young families, only to meet resistance at every turn in implementing ministry strategies that might actually attract such families.
Brilliant professors are hired at Christian universities that claim to value liberal arts education and critical thinking, only to find that academic freedom and intellectual inquiry are under attack.
Pastors are encouraged to preach the Bible, but when they confront racism and poverty in their communities, they’re run out of town on a rail by the same people who claim to be “the most loving place in town.”
People in the pews promise they want to hear truth from the pulpit, then when the pastor encourages congregants not to embrace lies and wild conspiracies regarding an election and a global health pandemic, the pastor is seen as being “too political” and families leave the church.
Young women are told (in moderate and progressive circles at least), “God has called you to pastoral ministry!” — only to meet committee after committee that says, “We just don’t think our church is ready yet.” This is perhaps even more pronounced for LGBTQ pastors, who experience rejection at even greater percentages, even within supposedly supportive networks.
Women too are told “egalitarianism and feminism are embraced here!” — yet often deal with rampant sexism and misogyny, even in moderate and progressive circles. Again, the same can be said of LGBTQ inclusivity in any number of ways.
I could go on for days. Many are walking away from vocational ministry and faith-based institutions because they are done with this cycle of promises and broken trust. They are done with the abusive vocational relationships that often seem one sided.
Some of the markers of abusive domestic relationships include telling a partner they never do anything right, showing unhealthy jealousy for someone’s time, and controlling the finances of another.
“I know one pastor who once was critiqued in a condescending way for speaking too often of the hope of Christ. (No, I’m not joking.)”
Many pastors hear nearly daily that they never get it right. I know one pastor who once was critiqued in a condescending way for speaking too often of the hope of Christ. (No, I’m not joking.)
Many pastors are discouraged from attending clergy or denominational gatherings because laity in the church believe it “takes away from time the pastor should be working for us.” I know multiple pastors who have members that drive by the office to see if the pastor’s car is in the parking lot, and if not, they assume the pastor is lazy and not working. The same members are probably the ones that complain the pastor doesn’t visit members enough.
These obsessive members lead to annual review meetings where a pastor is told in the same meeting (confoundingly) that “people are saying” they would like to see you more in the office, and also “people are saying” they would like you to visit more. This unhealthy jealously on the part of obsessive churches and their members only exacerbates clergy isolation and frustration — especially in rural contexts.
Many churches still believe that the call to ministry is a call to poverty, and that a church should “keep the pastor poor to keep the pastor humble.” Oh, nobody will come right out and say it like that, but finance committees and other leaders often resist things like basic cost-of-living increases or paying a living wage because of the church’s anxiety around money.
“Many churches still believe that the call to ministry is a call to poverty.”
I know many pastors whose families are on food stamps and Medicaid, while ironically serving in congregations where people constantly disparage such benefits as “socialist,” as evil or only for the lazy. Can you imagine all the ways that may make a hard-working pastor feel?
Churches in this situation many times assure a pastor upon hiring that they will care for the minister and their family. I know at least one pastor who was outright lied to regarding the church’s compensation package, only to learn after the move that the search committee had mis-represented what the church had voted on regarding clergy compensation.
These are not the markers of healthy employment relationships, but abusive ones. One might fairly say, “Well the call to ministry is not a bed of roses,” and that is correct. Pastors know full well they are to model “taking up one’s cross and following Jesus.”
What pains me is when the suffering pastors endure is not because of the gospel, but because of the abusive dishonesty and manipulation of the churches that call them. Of course, no church is perfect, and even healthy churches have dysfunction, but the number of churches that treat their clergy so poorly is alarming.
If you are a pastor in an abusive congregation, remember:
- You are not the cause of your church’s abuse.
- You are not to blame for your church’s abuse.
- You and your family deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
- You are not alone. There are people and organizations waiting to help, including ex-pastors.
Many pastors in these heart-breaking situations are deciding it’s time to get out and move on — and who can blame them?
If you are thinking about stepping away from an abusive church, please know that it doesn’t minimize or forsake your call from God, and know that you are not alone. You are seen, and you are loved. You are very dear to the heart of this former pastor and to the heart of God.
This is part one of a two-part series focusing on the impact of abusive churches on clergy and their families. If you are a clergy person struggling in an abusive church, one online resource available to you is the Ministering to Ministers Foundation.
Jonathan Davis is cofounder of the Healthy Churches Institute and founder of the Small-Town Churches Network, helping rural churches thrive in the midst of 21st century change. He provides coaching for individuals and organizations around leadership and vision issues and helps organizations dream about what it means to flourish in the new cultural paradigm.
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