abusive pastors & the crazy $(&*@#%! they get away with

too much harm keeps being done in gods name to ignore it

i know some really amazing pastors in this world–dedicated and humble men and women who love people so well and truly care about their congregations and groups. some have the official title “pastor”and some don’t. i wholeheartedly believe there are lots of ways to pastor that are not properly valued and so many people pastor and shepherd others without titles, money, or power.

but there’s almost nothing worse to me than “pastors” who have created power structures that serve them and who take advantage of people’s good hearts for Jesus underneath them. i hear all kinds of stories about church pain but once in a while certain stories point more clearly toward unchecked power, our addiction to inspiration, and desire to be lead by a strong “king.” sometimes i think that maybe narcissism and pastors have become synonyms. of course, if we’re honest, most of us are narcissists to some extent; i know i am. but what i’m talking about here isn’t average run-of-the-mill human narcissism.

i’m talking about leader-narcissism-abuse-unchecked power that harms people over and over again.  

here are some characteristics of narcissists. they:

  • believe they’re better than others
  • fantasize about power, success and attractiveness
  • exaggerate achievements or talents
  • expect constant praise and admiration
  • fail to recognize other people’s emotions and feelings
  • expect others to go along with their ideas and plans
  • take advantage of others
  • express disdain for those they feel are inferior
  • have trouble keeping healthy relationships
  • set unrealistic goals
  • have a fragile self-esteem

when considering the parallels between narcissism and church leadership, i am reminded of ezekiel 34:2-3 –  “this is what the sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of israel who only take care of yourselves! should not shepherds take care of the flock? you eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.”

after watching yet another church in denver crumble when the top of the empire goes awry  i felt compelled to talk openly about the reality of our flawed systems yet again.i know i sound mad and sad and passionate about it. i am. too much harm keeps being done in God’s name to just ignore it.

this article in one of our local newspapers is a hard one to read for all kinds of reasons; it hits close to home because i know many people personally affected by it. i have laid low on it because i haven’t want to feed the monster; however, it’s points to a bigger problem far beyond this situation. over and over, from big cities and small towns, i hear stories that have similar threads and all point to something so important:

charisma causes us to lose our heads and turn a blind eye to abuse, control, and manipulation. 

we let abusers–especially christian leader ones–charm their way out of the truth. in some weird twisted way, we get sprinkled with fairy dust and it blinds us.  after this article ran, the same church continued without a hitch that sunday and these women were deemed as crazy, grabbing for attention, and trying to tear down God’s work.  the show went on as usual, without missing a step.

this happens all the time–in little churches, in big churches, in thriving successful ministries and in small striving fledgling ones, behind closed doors in families, sometimes right in the open–and people still don’t do anything about it. denial is strong, and fear of rocking the boat even if we know something’s not quite right is even stronger.

meanwhile, there’s always a whole new crop of church casualties on the side of the road, more people with faith wounds to deal with, and more people completely disillusioned with God.

it’s easy to say “well, that’s just an unhealthy system and people need to find a healthier one”.  unfortunately, it appears that so few exist. power has trumped humility, growth has trumped transformation, and Jesus’ upside-down ways have been trumped by the world’s. we have bred a whole system that pays narcissists a lot of money to make people feel good (or bad in the case of some shame-based pastors who seem to grow churches, too).

i understand all humans are flawed. i sure am.

i understand we are all in need of grace. i need heaps of it by 9 am every day.

i understand that God uses broken people.  i am personally so thankful for this.

but these realities don’t make it okay for pastors to harm people. to use vulnerable women (and men) for personal gain.  to verbally and emotionally abuse their congregants. to use God’s name and authority to control and manipulate sincere and faithful men and women for their own purposes.  to make a disproportionate amount of money. to hire and fire at will. to hoard power. to twist the gospel. 

i know charisma is intoxicating. i’ve for sure been charmed by it many a time over the years, but no more.

the church’s best hope for the future is to develop an immunity to it.  to become braver and more willing to call a spade a spade.  to quit exalting leaders to an unhealthy place.  to quit feeding systems that perpetuate sexism, narcissism, and elitism.  to stop feeding the performance church monster. to refuse to be charmed.

meanwhile, for those of you out there–men and women alike–who have been harmed by abusive pastors, please know my heart aches for you. what happened to you is wrong.  what others stood by and let happen to you is wrong.  what others refused to acknowledge is wrong. what others covered up to keep the wheels of the church turning is wrong.  what others couldn’t let themselves believe is wrong.  what happened to you or your church as a result of unchecked power, abuse cloaked in God language, and narcissism-at-its-worst is oh so wrong.

may peace come from despair.  may hope rise in the end.  may our good and true shepherd gather you up in his arms and carry you close to his heart as you heal.  may you know you’re not alone, you’re not crazy.

but the system that keeps these kinds of pastors in business sure is.

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar co-pastors at The Refuge, a Christian community and mission center in North Denver and is the author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.

35 Comments

  • “Refuse to be charmed” that is a huge key and a wonderful signal that I might be being drawn in to something that is more than meets the eye. And it’s not just about them but about places in me that are still longing for something I need to look at. That was what made me open to manipulation and abuse. Took a long time to learn. Well said Kathy, well said.

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    • thanks dear lori, yeah, there is something about that signal that we can begin to listen to. it’s hard to develop when everyone around us is sucked in!

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      • Boy, isn’t that right! So hard to be the only one to stand up and say, this isn’t right when people I respect and think are stronger than I didn’t. Amazing how scary it is to say the emperor has no clothes here.still haven’t figured it out well, but working on developing a beloved relationship with God and myself is starting to make a difference.

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  • I hear what you say Kathy and again I cherish what you confessed to on a previous occasion about being prt of a leadership culture that did things that was “not OK” where there was a feeling of superiority and people being left “wounded and worn out by church eletism”.

    Never having been a leader in a church, I only know one side of what you are talkign bout with the pain, loss of community, etc that happens once I have got to the poitn of not being ale to take ny more and either leaing or speaking out against such, the pastro not liking it and being asked to leave.

    Yet I refuse to tak on victim status. Part of the reason why such people had power over me was becsus of my doing. If i had spoken out earlier, if I have kept my heart more guraded, if I have not wanted the leader’s approval to the point of compromising myself, the I woudn’t have expereinced pain and enabled pain for others to be expereinced. Someone once shred with me that as a leader who had been abusive, they truly were unaware of doing so, and thiat it took them being abused to realise there had ever been a problem with what they were doing, that it take a miracle for a leader in asuch a situation to have self awareness.

    Perhaps as much as adressing the leaders conduct we need equally to addre why any of us are supportive of leaders that do abuse. As the saying goes a lot of evil happens in the world because good men (and women) stand by and don onthing about it. False prophets and false teachers get to be popular for a reason, they say what is pleasing to the ears and the senses and people who want to hear such things support them!

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    • OH PS Kathy – thak you so much for all the stuff you said that was wrong that has happened. I needed that affirmation!

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      • thanks for taking time to share and glad that somehow those affirmations start. i do believe that we need to open our eyes to the realities of power and guard our hearts against it but i also believe that there is trust that is implied that makes it easy for people to be preyed upon. as we refuse to be charmed, we are strengthened. peace to you!

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        • Hi it’s me again. I seem to have appeared as “guest”. Yes important recognise whats going on with power and be guarded. And then have self awareness about this, the refusal being a strength. And ultimately, it’s about refusing the dark forces, the temptation that looks so juicy, nourishing and desirable but leads to pain, fear powerstuggles, ultimately to death. And then maybe coming out with a few forces of our own to push back in God’s power? Peace to you too 🙂

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  • This is an important and timely topic. I was sexually harassed by my associate pastor after counseling with him. When my husband and I went to the senior pastor, we were told that we “didn’t want a church scandal.” When the AP continued to pursue me (after my husband met with him and told him to stay away, and he agreed), we went to the bishop of our denomination with hard evidence. It took five meetings to get the man suspended (not fired) after he owned up to harassing me. FIVE MEETINGS. The “good ole boys” network is alive and well – circling the wagons and all of that. It was a horrible, onerous, draining process. We left that church and that denomination, and we’ve had a difficult time trusting any pastor since.

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    • I bet you do. These are such damaging situations, very hard to recover. So, so sorry.

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    • Be comforted that what you did took courage to face up to and do something about. Because of what you have done, others will have been spared the kind of expereince you have had. It takes someone who is heroic to do such things. Though maybe you dont’ feel heroic?

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    • oh i am so sorry i am just now responding here but i so appreciate your honesty. i can feel the reality of those meetings, five of them, and how ugly and gross it is that in the end, it’s a circling of wagons, scapegoating, and another good person on the side of the road bleeding. love from colorado.

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  • “Refuse to be charmed” thank you so much for these words. As a pastor of a church, it is so easy to choose charm and charisma over authenticity and truth. But your comments about building a healthy Church are right on the mark. The church of 50 can be just as healthy as a church of 5000. Thank you for the reminder, and the charge, to keep it real.

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    • thanks so much for the reminder that big or small, the same realities exist for many churches and it’s not only in big ones. peace to you as you lead from an authentic place.

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  • So good! Keep speaking out the truth, as it cah-leer-lee strikes a cord with so many. It is neat to watch you so clearly articulate what so many don’t have words for, but are like, argghh, I dislike the &^%^%$# system!
    As you continue to blaze trails upon trails, glad to be here cheering you on, and will always have your back. Always. xo

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  • Following Jesus is a relationship, a relationship with Jesus and with others. The church you describe and so many, many, many others are about religion, not relationship, a religion that consists of thinking the right things, control, power, authority and always $,$,$. While I believe that others may feed from that trough if they choose, I fail to see why anyone does.

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    • money, money, money. mon-ey. and underneath money is power. it really is a crazy thing we’ve created. glad to not be part of it it at all anymore, amen!

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  • Hi Kathy thanks for that blog. I am sad to say one of the fall outs from an abusive church, everything you said was spot on. I was in leadership 2 years ago, and everything you described happened. I left as my way of taking a stand however the church continues to thrive as they continue to hurt other leaders. It becomes a twisted version of God, and too many people are frightened to stand up. Even when you try to tell a new pastor your story, no one wants to know, you become like a ‘ rebel’ Christian and all you want is support and to be heard, the pain. For me as a person who has loved God for more than half my life, who had a dramatic conversion has the last 2 years really struggled in my faith where is God in this? So thank you for your blog, I feel a little bit like it is ok to feel how I do.

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    • thank you so much for taking time to share. i know that feeling of leaving and looking back and seeing something keep growing and thriving despite and it’s so bizarre. peace and hope to you from afar. the healing on this takes a long time but you are definitely not alone.

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  • We used to know a pastor who could fit those narcissist bullets to a T.

    It was damaging to members’ spiritual and personal lives.

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  • concise and to the point. i agree and thank you for your eloquent manner in getting your point across.

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  • Hi Kathy,

    Thank you for sharing and a reminder about leaders yourself included are human and the danger of “fiary dust”. It helps me to feel like I am not alone in positions where I have leadership responsibility. And it is a reminder to me or where I have expereinced good and bad leadership.

    And the point you make there about using vulnerable people. It was great to see the video you posted about the Refuge with Barb saying that when she thought she couldn’t be loved there was a place there where people are loving towards her.

    It’s a challenge and a difficulty isn’t it? Whatever Brene Brown says about vulnerability not being a weakness, there are times when people can take advantage of vulnerability at which such times whoever is being vulnerable is in a weak position and being controlled. Yet we also know that with no vulnerablity neither do we expereince the good stuff – the belonging, connection, love with others.

    I don’t think i would ever want to be without charisma or aviod being around people with charisma – its a fun thing. And let’s not forger that systems are ther in place to provide security, safety etc. So no system is perfect and no person (with charisma or without) is perfect either. So we work with what we have.

    What I have learnt is that with perfect love I don’t have to fear and with God’s armour – salvation, truth, Spirit, readiness to announce the good news of the Gospel, righteousness I can wrestle with thrive and take on the battles knowing God is going out before me and has my back. And I know I’m going to be OK if I keep in mind to be meek, hunger for righteousness, peace, and face all kinds of difficulties for Christ’s sake. And to stay humble for I am not without sin just like you and everyone else and I know that just as I can point out things in others that things can be pointed out in me.

    If we all had the humility to keep checks and balances on ourselves as with others, taking the risk to love and be loved, knowing that we will be vulnerable in doing so and will cause others pain and expereince pain from others, forgiving and being forgiven when that happens. And equipped with God’s armour, keeping our hearts guarded when battles arise, then how does / would that look? It seems to me that if we all did that, we wouldn’t need to worry about any abuse. By the power of God it would be wiped out!

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    • thanks, adam. we are flawed human beings that’s for sure and will always make tons of mistakes, but as we get healthier and more secure over time it helps reduce the likelihood of quite so much damage…that’s why ongoing transformation and community and seeking God’s healing is so important.

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      • My plesure. For sure what you say is true. The healing process never stops does it? I think the bible calls it “salvation” *wink*.

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