Dealing with Spiritual Abuse - Part 5


This is the fifth part in a series on spiritual abuse. In the previous posts, we’ve looked at what happens when senior Christians or church leaders abuse church or group members. In the last three parts we’re going to be looking at what happens when congregations attack or abuse pastors and leaders. I do recommend that you read the other posts before you read this one; you can read them here

Part 1     Part 2     Part 3     Part 4

In this post in our series on spiritual abuse we’re going to shift focus, and talk about another type of spiritual abuse – when congregations attack and abuse their pastors and/or the pastor’s family. Yes, this does happen, and it happens all too frequently. Too often at Pastors conferences I’ve attended, I’ve heard pastors laughingly refer to themselves as suffering from, or recovering from, ‘sheep bite’, covering up very real pain with a joke in order to try and deal with it. When this type of attack and abuse happens, it causes damage not only to pastors and their families, but also to the churches involved. The result can often be irreparable damage to a church, the pastor’s reputation, and their ability to pastor in other situations.

A pastor or leader does need to be held accountable for how they lead and treat God’s people. Their work should be open to regular review and we should expect evaluation, and correction if necessary. This is necessary for the protection of our congregations. But evaluation is different from attack and abuse. Your church should have an accountability structure in place, through which situations can be resolved. There should be a policy in place for dealing with questions, criticism and accountability issues. If your church doesn’t have a policy in place for this, then please make one – for your safety and that of your congregation.

When sheep bite

What does congregational abuse look like, and what causes it to happen?  There are many reasons why individuals or congregations may attack or abuse their leaders, so let’s look at some of the underlying things that lead to that. Obviously in a few blog posts I’m not going to be able to cover every single thing that could come under this category, but here are some to think about.

First up, we need to realise that asking questions of a leader isn’t the same as questioning their leadership. Sometimes people don’t understand why, as a leader, you do something, and they want to know your reasoning. This isn’t an attack, it’s about gaining understanding so they can cooperate (or not) from a place of understanding.

Distinguishing between Criticism and Abuse

I think it’s important to distinguish between healthy criticism and abuse. We can find out which is which by asking some questions.

  • Is this criticism or question an honest attempt to find out information or address a problem? Sometimes questions or criticism are simply an honest, albeit clumsy or maybe unwisely worded attempt to address something. The underlying motivation is the important thing, and asking this question will clarify whether it’s about information, a certain problem, or whether it’s something more.
  • Is the criticism focused on performance or on a specific person? There is a difference between criticizing someone's performance, which can at times be legitimate, and criticizing a person's integrity or motive, and the latter may become abusive. There may very well be a legitimate reason to question performance. If there is then we should be free to do so, especially when the welfare of others is involved.
  • Is this a plea for help, or an attack? Most criticism is usually hard to take, and we all too often feel it is an attack against us personally. If our self-worth is attached to our position or performance this will be doubly so. Often behind questioning and criticism is a plea for understanding or for help. Sometimes people just don’t know how to ask for it, and their attempts may be awkward and easily misunderstood if we don’t recognise it for what it is.
  • Is this thing really my responsibility, or fault, or is the person using blame and shame as a weapon of attack? As church leaders, the buck often stops with us. We understand that not everything will work properly all the time. We are often working with volunteers with other responsibilities, differing levels of expertise, and more, so we can’t always expect perfection. Heaven knows we certainly aren’t perfect, and we can’t do everything perfectly, but if the fault is ours we should accept any responsibility for errors.

Where does this type of abuse start?

Unrealistic expectations

Sometimes people can have unreasonable expectations of their pastor. They rightly think that the pastor is there to serve them, but also, they wrongly think exactly the same thing. Yes, the pastoral role is a serving one, and they are there to serve the church, but pastors are not there to pander to our whims, likes and dislikes and personal theological biases.

Here is a great statement regarding serving and servant leadership…“In the Kingdom of God, the fact that I am your servant does not make you my master.” The goal of a servant leader is not to jump to people’s every whim, but to do everything that they can to help people grow and go in the direction that God wants them to. This understanding can free the servant leader from the ungodly expectations of others.

People often make unreasonable demands on a leader’s time, spiritual gifts, and even their natural abilities. They often also have unrealistic relational expectations concerning how a pastor will relate to them and how much time a pastor should spend with them.

In this area of unrealistic expectation, people can wrongly subconsciously expect the pastor to be perfect, have no faults, and sometimes even to have no opinions of their own. When this expectation is shattered, as it must be, then what happens is a congregant is left feeling let down, or betrayed, and at that point they will often react unwisely, resorting to attack, and attributing wrong motives to the leader. But leaders are human and suffer from human frailties with personal motivations, opinions, and differences.

Many people have unrealistic expectations of a pastor’s spouse and children and, sadly, will sometimes attack them as a way of getting at the pastor. The pastor’s children are often held to a higher level of character and behaviour than is expected of other people’s children. The pastor’s spouse is often seen as part of the package, and getting ‘two for the price of one’ is often an unspoken expectation. When this doesn’t happen then people can think that the pastor’s spouse isn’t supportive and doesn’t care for the church.

“In the Kingdom of God, the fact that I am your servant does not make you my master.”


Many people look to their pastor or leader as a ‘parent’ replacement, especially if they didn’t have good parental models growing up. They will sometimes actually ask the pastor or leader to be their ‘spiritual Mum or Dad’, and while that may not necessarily be a bad thing in itself, if that request comes with the expectation that the pastor will then be responsible to meet all their emotional and spiritual needs then it is wrong. If a person has wrong expectations of access to the pastor, favour being shown etc., then that’s wrong. This places a pressure on the pastor that should never actually be there. Our pastors are there to help us grow but they are not there to take the place of our earthly parents or our heavenly Father. Our spiritual parenting should come from the Trinity, not our earthly leaders. The end result of transference will always be a person feeling let down, because no person can be all that we need; only God can be that. When a person feels let down they are ripe for the enemy to push them over into wrong responses, which may lead to attack and abuse if not identified and dealt with.

Deifying spiritual leaders

Some people put their leaders on pedestals, lifting them up above mere mortality, and in doing so expect perfection of them. Yet leaders are human and have faults and failings, and at some point, they will let you down; they are human after all. When a deified leader fails to deliver what is expected, then hurt and anger ensue, setting the stage for those hurt feelings to become attack, and for abusive actions to take place.

Viewing leaders through wounded eyes

We all come into the church with things that have shaped how we view things – childhood and adult wounds, worldview, schooling, theological biases, and more. These things shape how we view leaders and unless we recognise that, we will automatically view our church leaders with suspicion, through the eyes of our wounds. For many years I found it hard to trust leaders because, as a child, many of the people in my life who were authority figures treated me in ways that abused and damaged me.

“Much of the ‘transference’ (both negative and super-positive) that we receive from members of our congregational family is a direct result of the ‘baggage’ they failed to leave at home.” Edwin H. Friedman, in ‘Generation to Generation’.

In the next post, I’ll look at how abuse manifests against leaders. Thanks for staying with us this far; this is such an important issue and we need to understand it in order to be able to recognise and deal with it.

If this article or series has helped you then can I ask you to please share it by using the Facebook share button at the end of the post. There are so many who need the help to work through the abuse they’ve suffered, and if you and I can help them do so then it’s worth taking that small moment of time to click on the button.

Part 6