Has the glut of material dedicated to diagnosing and exposing bad pastors been recklessly unaccompanied and counterweighted by the far less interesting fact that most of us have good pastors? What is more, has the definition of bullying become so broad and subjective that nearly every pastor can be accused of bullying by doing no more than simply conforming to the Bible’s instructions for pastors and churches? Given today’s standards for what constitutes bullying and narcissism, I don’t know how the Apostle Paul can avoid either charge. After all, he called the church to publicly excommunicate those in the church who violated God’s standard for sexual chastity. At times he employed sarcasm to expose error.
It seems like everywhere you turn there are discussions being had about bad pastors. Indeed, multiplied books, podcasts, articles, and documentaries airing on such streaming services as Netflix and Hulu seem to pop up every week or so. And, of course, there are bad pastors, and they should be refused the responsibility of leadership among God’s beloved flock. But has the focus on bad pastors been overdone? Has the proliferation of what some people have dubbed “scandal porn,” produced a skewed vision of reality? Certainly, I expect the world to cast as negative a light as possible upon Christian pastors. But when that project is taken up with equal zeal by Christians, I believe we have reason to be troubled.
I have no desire to diminish the sad experiences of those who have found themselves in the unfortunate and at times tragic circumstance of having an abusive pastor. But the attention given to those who abuse God’s people suggests, whether intentionally or unintentionally, that abusive pastors are the norm. And I think we all know why. It is because the salacious stories of bad pastors get a lot more traffic than any unspectacular account of the many good pastors who, day after day, faithfully plod away at their calling. Truth be told, there is something in us that rather enjoys the sensational and scandalous. We like reading the stories of the fiends and the failures. But the facts on the ground are much more boring. Most of us have good pastors. Perfect pastors? Of course not. Pastors who have never disappointed us or successfully mortified all of their remaining sin? Nope. But measured against the Scripture’s expectations for leadership, most Bible believing evangelical churches are served by good pastors.
In 35 years of vocational ministry, I have known very few people who can honestly say that they were bullied or abused by their pastor. Again, their stories are real and heart-breaking. No instance of a bad pastor abusing a church member is tolerable. But given the massive number of churches, pastors, and church members, such cases are not nearly as common as the attention given to them suggests.
On the other hand, I have never spoken to a pastor who has not been mistreated, slandered, undermined, or run off by church members, an associate pastor, elders, deacons, or all of the above. And I have known more than a few who have been so cruelly treated that they have been left deeply scared along with their families. Sadly, many of these men leave the ministry altogether. They are left in the dust of disillusionment, seeing no way to continue on in the call that at one time had been a source of great joy. Many others take the beating, persevere, and, by God’s grace, carry on faithfully.
So, while no one denies that there are bad pastors, almost no one is discussing the fact that there are bad churches. Where are the documentaries and podcasts discussing pastor-destroying churches? There is precious little discussion about the fact that there is hardly a pastor out there who has not been wounded, slandered, bullied, or run off from a church by bad associate pastors and ungodly church members.
In their excellent book, Handbook for Battered Leaders, Wesley and Janis Balda throw a spotlight on the well-known but often ignored phenomena of “toxic followers” that are present in most organizations from large corporations to family businesses to churches. Their exploration of “mobbing” and “triangulation,” are especially important:
A classic follower response in certain situations is the palace coup. This is the point when the mutiny begins flexing destructive muscles and everyone but the leader realizes a corner has been turned. We all know of situations where a powerful and evil despot abused followers…We are less convinced that simply misguided, or even evil, followers can bring down an otherwise competent leader on their own. However, there should not always be a presumption of innocence when confronting followers who have an agenda, as they can eventually destroy leaders and organizations” (p. 59).
Yet another problem often faced by pastors is a culture of niceness which is typically ill-defined but nevertheless pervades the congregation, elders, deacons, and staff. While kindness is a virtue and should be pursued, a culture of “niceness” can and often does turn rancid. Again, the Baldas write:
“While it is entirely a good thing that courtesy and civility attend our day-to-day work, niceness can be used to apply unfair standards and gloss over vulnerabilities. Passive-aggressive organizations employ niceness to avoid healthy confrontation and positive conflict…The fear of being seen as a complainer or even whistleblower quashes many situations where a little righteous anger might be helpful. And God help the leader who allows followers a glimpse of actual frustration or negative emotion in nice organizations – gossip and mobbing may quickly ensue, and a ride out of town sometimes follows” (p. 112).
Imagine the complexity of being called to lead a congregation of volunteers who pay your salary; men and women who often times have competing expectations of you, who are themselves still sinners. Imagine being in a position of leadership where it is absolutely essential to be liked by those you are called to lead, teach, correct, and, at times, rebuke. Imagine maintaining emotional and spiritual health when every day you are aware that you are letting someone down, failing to live up to some of the myriad and, at times, conflicting expectations. Add to that the all too common experience that pastors have of being actively undermined by an associate pastor, slandered by someone who voted against his call, or unyielding criticism from an influential church member. If young men called by God knew how they were likely to be treated in at least one church, I’m quite sure there would be very few willing to serve.