The Man of God Myth

clergyman

It is hard to find grace when it is desperately needed, like when a pastor or other spiritual leader is discovered to have been abusive toward those who looked up to him and depended upon him. How can you possibly pull together an appropriate balance of accountability and restoration in such a difficult time?

This post is part of a synchroblog focused upon constructive responses to spiritual abuse.

Congregational Culpability

I was a pastor for over twenty years, and have been the church world for most of my life. In all of that time, seldom did I see congregational/pastoral relationships handled well in a time of crisis. Crises are the true revelers of character, and, unfortunately, there is usually a knee-jerk response when relationships and leadership structures get tested. A bad situation is usually met with a response that reveals equally poor judgment, making things even worse. Gossip prevails. Sides are chosen. Witness and reputation is trashed. People get hurt. Grace is lost.

Congregations usually have some culpability in a crisis of spiritual abuse perpetrated by their pastor. People in the church expect their pastor to be more of a “man or woman of God” than they are, or ever plan to be themselves. But people are people, no matter what their position. Everyone is capable of the same failures.

Too many congregants want a pastor they can look up to as the leader of their tribe. They want someone they brag about to their friends who attend other churches.

Along with the status church members bestow upon their pastors, come the expectations. Pastors feel they have to be a stellar CEO, top notch inspirational speaker, man of the people, miracle working therapist, and always available to preside at weddings and funerals producing moving expressions of celebration and sympathy, as the occasion warrants. This is way too much to expect from one man. He will crash and burn, or become neurotic, or an ego maniac.

Pastors are alone. Because of the super spiritual, super human expectations placed on a pastor, he simply can’t afford to be honest. It would destroy the façade and make him vulnerable, and that would disappoint the congregants, who will turn against him when he doesn’t live up to their expectations.

Leadership Responsibilities

There are some reasonable steps that church leaders need to take when there is spiritual abuse.

  • Establish the facts. Elders, denominational officials, or whoever is charged with this duty will probably make horrible investigators, and it weird to be in that position, but somebody has to do it. This provision should be clearly addressed in detail in the church’s governing documents.
  • Remove the pastor. When someone is investigated, he is customarily relieved of his regular responsibilities. It is a way to release some of the immediate tension of the situation and stop further abuse. The person should be treated with respect and kept informed, since he and his family will be under considerable stress.
  • Assist the pastor toward restoration. Anything the church can do to help the pastor toward restoring whatever is broken within him and causing the inappropriate behavior should be done, assuming he is found guilty of abuse and owns up to it.
  • Protect the congregants. Removing the pastor generally should take care of that.
  • Restore the offended people. Provide teaching and professional, personal counselling about what is appropriate leadership and what is abuse.
  • Keep the congregation well informed. It will be difficult to regain the trust of some people. Keeping them in the dark will only further suspicion. However, this doesn’t mean that every sordid detail needs to be announced in public.
  • Find trained resource people. Since all of this is so far removed from what most volunteer church leaders are equipped for, outside help is a good idea.
  • Rebuild the church. The crisis provides the opportunity to build a better church. Build it slow, steady, and on a solid foundation that avoids any congregational tendencies that allowed the crisis to develop.

Several years ago, I was part of a group of community pastors that regularly met with local pastor who committed adultery with his best friend’s wife. We paid for him and his wife to participate in a restoration retreat and provided ongoing accountability and encouragement, meeting with them weekly. We also provided some oversight for the church board as they worked to recover from the blow.

The pastor quit the pastorate, built a technical career, worked hard on his marriage, and eventually became a volunteer leader in another church. While this wasn’t exactly spiritual abuse as we normally think of it, it does show us that restoration is possible.

Some Reminders

Your pastor is not a “man of God.” He is a gifted, but fallible human being who is under lot of pressure, and has some pretty intense temptations. Respect him, if he is deserving of it. Lower your expectations to an appropriate level for a human being. Assume responsibility for your own spiritual expression. But don’t put up with abusive leadership. Nobody has the right to dominate another person.

Links to the other contributors on the topic:

 

About Glenn

Glenn Hager is the author of An Irreligious Faith and Free Range Faith. He encourages independent minded people of faith through his writing, speaking, consulting, and one-on-one relationships.
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