When the Congregation Abuses its Pastor

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Recently I heard the fifth story in as many months about a pastor being physically threatened, and his family verbally abused, by members of his congregation.

Recently I heard the fifth story in as many months about a pastor being physically threatened, and his family verbally abused, by members of his congregation.

Flickr/Jared Kelly

While we would like to think that these are isolated occurrences, the Clergy Health Initiative’s research suggests otherwise. The focus groups we conducted in 2008 surfaced this problem repeatedly, drawing out eloquent and heart-breaking stories from pastors. One pastor reflected, "In my old job, I could fire people who were obnoxious or insubordinate. Here in church, we never fire anyone for bad behavior." 

This practice takes a serious toll. Data from the survey we conducted in 2008, which measured the status of pastors’ mental health, suggests a link between critical parishioners and clergy depression.

How do you cope with this abuse? What toll does it take on your spouse and children? Does it manifest differently for female pastors? Does it impact your spiritual life?  How many of your seminary classmates have left ministry because they felt hounded out?  And do you get support from your denominational leaders when you face these issues?

Please comment.  Those of us not on the front lines of ministry have a lot to learn.

Yours in health,
Robin

Robin Swift, MPH
Health Programs Director
Clergy Health Initiative

Comments

My pastor was leading 2-3 minutes of prayer at the end of two hour long fun youth group events (sports, movies, hikes, etc). The congregation demanded that she stop the prayers or lose her job which I thought was abusive and unreasonable. She refused and was ousted. I coped by questioning the church council, questioning my religion, and walking away from Christianity twenty four years ago.

Robin,

Thanks for writing this article! I've experienced such abuse both as a single person and as a married with a family. At first, I tried developing thicker skin to become more seasoned instead of being hardened. However, after several clergy killer and clergy family abusers, it is no longer possible. If you have one good turn around experience in dealing with one of these problem churches, the conference sends you to other churches with clergy killers for they come to see you as the conference gunslinger.

If anyone at my dad's research and development group in Mack Truck behaved like a clergy killer, he would have fired them on the spot and most likely encouraged filing charges.

continued from above.

My wife and I once heard a member of an Administrative Board tell me that they would kill me and their church knew how to kill pastors as well as had killed two once before although the conference only knows about one of them. When I let the D.S. know, the Bishop got us out of there with a few days. Our children were made to feel like orphans in that place. The verbal abuse that my wife experienced pushed every button from her family of origin which sent her mental health to hell which carried much collateral damage to our family as a whole like basically making me a single parent though married and put her on full disability within four years.

While I did not die physically, I was used up after that experience and something did die inside of me.

It did not help that we were then sent to an appointment which was fresh out of a major power battle and split. However, those who remained were the most compassionate church members we met.

Then we arrived at another Star Wars type appointment which was definitely like "The Empire Strikes Back." That abusive experience totally destroyed my ability to ever trust another congregation again as well as sent me on incapacity leave with major depression, etc. after which I've been in therapy every week for the last seven years. The experience of going on incapacity leave is very traumatic but does not get the support of transition like the retired get.

My wife and I both have post-pastoral traumatic stress syndrome which means that sometimes we don't go to church for a while when our buttons get pushed. It also means that all we can really handle is going to worship and Sunday School when we do. Our boys have a very cynical view of the organized church.

While I could easily join the growing number of the de-churched, I directed that energy first to my doctoral work in church health; second to my church/clergy health website; advocating for persons with a mental illness; serving on the conference committee on disability concerns; writing articles; speaking at various events; and now serving on the Advisory Group for CHI.

I could add several stories about my friends on incapacity in terms of the collateral damage of PKs who no longer have anything to do with the church to spouses who can't stand the sight of a hymnal or the Bible as well as how the daughter of Jonathan Edwards responded to her dad being abused.

The Ministry To Ministers Foundation in Richmond, VA has a site with several articles related to this subject.

Why is There Such an Epidemic of Incivility Toward Ministers? http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_6_3/v6_3_05.htm

Spouses Are Casualties Too. http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_7_2/v_7_2_01.htm

The Impact in the Minister's Home http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_3_1/impact.htm

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Suffer the Children . . . A true and tragic story with a very realistic ending.! http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_7_3/v_7_3_01.htm

Why Do So Many Christians Remain Silent During Church Conflicts? http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_6_4/v_6_4_05.htm

Is There A Rulebook On Forced Termination?
http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_5_4/v5_4_06.htm

Is There A Rulebook On Forced Termination?
http://www.mtmfoundation.org/Servant/Vol_5_4/v5_4_06.htm

There are books like The Anatomy of Clergy Abuse, Clergy Killers, Crushed: The Perilous Journey Called Ministry

A few years ago, the staff parish committee fired a staff member. Because she had been at the church a number of years, she had a loyal following. The staff member stirred up her followers to the point of frenzy, so as a group they decided to ruin my spouse by allegations of clergy abuse. Needless to say, we went through hell. My spouse believed that the truth would prevail, but my spouse was right only because another staff member went to the bishop with evidence of the smear in hand. The staff person went on the plauge another church and we left the following year, because the church was toxic in many other ways as well.

Many thanks for posting this item, and for the comments that have followed with their useful links. This isn't just an American problem - we have it here in New Zealand as well. The extraordinary thing is why people in these congregations are so lacking in Christian discipleship/disciplines that they can't see how un-Christian their behaviour is. Perhaps it's an indication just how few of them are really Christians at heart.
Bullying within the church is something that is starting to come out of the woodwork more and more.

Oh yes, Mike's statement reminds me of

Bullied and Abused Lives In Ministry
An International and Inter-Denominational Christian Support Group for Damaged Ministers based in England.

Breaking the Silence about the
Bullying and Abuse of Christian Ministers

http://www.balmnet.co.uk/

Mike,

This unhealthy situation is reflected in the claim of Robert Moeller’s book, Love In Action, that

The well-publicized televangelist scandals of the late eighties did minimal harm to the reputation of the church in our culture—that is, in comparison to the true scandal of our time. The true scandal is the way Christians mistreat one another, fighting and conducting uncivil wars against one another in churches across our nation. (41)

The story of the book, The Anatomy of Clergy Abuse, is located in Canada, but it's story is sadly universal.

This is the real scandal of both church and clergy health which is too much like a dirty family secret.

I am really tired of hearing UM bishops say the problem with the Church is lack of clergy leadership. While a person can always grow in leadership, it is difficult to imagine how some churches can become more toxic. Stats show that about one out of every three churches is toxic. In our experience, that is about right.

The findings of a Lutheran Church study really raises the question about how many clergy have strong enough health both personal and marital to stand a reasonable chance in turning around these toxic churches which takes several years when it does take place.

"In addition, some denominational leaders indicate that “the most optimistic assessment is that 20 percent of our churches are functioning as living organisms and bearing substantial fruit. They estimate that between 35 to 50 percent are dysfunctional, bearing no fruit at all” (Anderson and Mylander 13).

Anderson, Neil, and Charles Mylander. Setting Your Church Free. Ventura, CA: Regal
Books, 1994.

I am a United Methodist minister who has served many congregations. Most of them were toxic. The District Superintendents and Bishops refuse to do anything because it all comes down to money. It is easier to blame the clergy. WHY? Because if you deal with the probelem, the source of money to run the denomination dwindles. Bishops like their $150,000 a year salaries for life. They won't bite the hand that feeds them. Look at some of their retirement homes in resort areas and you will see. The UMC is nothing more than a multi-national corporation and the Bishops are the Robber-Baron CEO's. They cannot AFFORD to stand up to clergy abuse because the entire SYSTEM will collapse. It is collapsing. I left parish ministry after it destroyed one marriage and nearly my second. My wife has post-traumatic stress from the abuse. She was vomiting before church on Sundays until the counselor told her she did not have to go and it was not her job. We survived. I will never attend another church that tolerates clergy abuse or engages in it - PERIOD. And if all the REAL Christians would stand up and do the same, something would change. All of it comes down to money. The UMC is getting ready to separate ordination from conference membership which will allow people to spend a fortune for a Master's degree and get ordained, but be denied a church if someone labels them as unfit or ineffective. Few clergy are ineffective if called by God. It is the toxic environment they are placed in that shackles them. I would leave my denomination if I could but am not sure it would be better anywhere else.

I was sent to a toxic church which after I left had a record of 5 pastors in 9 years. The bishop and the cabinet didn’t tell me the tenure record of that appointment which was 4 pastors in 8 years before I arrived. I went into that appointment after 3 good tenures spanning almost 20 years. Those churches grew and paid their apportionments. During 14 of those years spanning 2 appointments I received virtually perfect clergy evaluations from the pastor parish committees. At this toxic church I was told by the PPR that I would receive no vacation time in my first year. As a um pastor with 30 years service I have earned 4 weeks per year. I took my vacation and they did not like it. Mid yr in my first and last year there, the PPR chair told me they wanted me to move. I wanted to move too but I told the chair it was up to the cabinet. In March of that yr. 2 sheriff’s detectives came to my office. The sheriff was a member of the church and was in with the small group that wanted me to move. The detectives told me a 77 year old member of my church accused me of calling her at 2am the nite before I conducted her husband’s funeral. She said I told her “you just need to be cuddled and your feet to be rubbed.” The two Dicks told me if I confessed they wouldn’t have to walk me out in handcuffs and show me on the 6 o’clock news. They said it would take them 2 months to get my phone records to prove it. They told me that they knew I did it because of my body language. I said I didn’t do it and I would get my own phone records to prove it. They left without arresting me. Later the sheriff came to my home to tell me that his dicks thought I had done it. I said to him, ‘you know I’m moving. Nobody in the church knows yet but I am” at that point he said “preacher just take a vacation till July” I received no real support from the bishop or my DS. I asked my DS if I should get an attorney hoping the conference would help me with that. The DS told me that the bishop’s assistant said I didn’t need an attorney. I then called a friend who is a retired secret serviceman to get his advice and he said even though your not guilty of this you need an attorney. I got my own records got an attorney. The attorney called the sheriff to inform him about my phone records

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The sheriff told the attorney that I was making too much out of this! That was weird because even though it would be a concern if a pastor called a parishioner and said something like that, would that warrant detectives and the sheriff coming to someone’s house over that? In fact my secret servicemen friend and my attorney both reacted with laughter when I told them about the accusation. Turns out a 90 some year old man who is known for that kind of language most likely made the call. I moved and the conference sent a facilitator to the PPR after I left. But it was too little too late. Not only did my super. Not help me fact he called me about 4 weeks before I moved relaying to me that someone had complained that I had not visited them. My attorney had told me, “If you’re moving soon don’t go in to these people’s homes. . The DS advised me to get counseling and told me the district would help me with the co pays. I saw a counselor for 8 sessions. The district only paid my last $25 co pay. Believe me, bishops and superintendents know how to say the right thing about helping the pastors on the field but they are absolutely ineffective in doing so. I signed a release form so my Counselor and DS could confer on the matter. The DS told my Counselor, “I know that the church has some problems but I think David withdrew and brought this on himself.” My counselor who specializes in clergy counseling (with a PHD in psychology and a D. min.) was horrified at what my DS said. They threw me to a pack of wolves. A bishop or DS help me? I am their sacrificial lamb. After I get accused of that they say “go into their homes make the people happy.” The cabinet is oblivious. After I moved I told my new DS I wanted to meet with the bishop and talk to him about what had happened. The DS said he would get it set up and let me know. Never got back to me on it. He’s forgotten all about it I’m sure. I let it go. My leadership doesn’t want to hear about it. They don’t really care.

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