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When Church Leaders Bully

Dear church leaders: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them…not lording it over those entrusted to you.” The Apostle Peter finished his first letter by reminding church leaders not to abuse their power.

Sadly, there are a number of recent examples of evangelical church leaders doing just that – using their power to squash rather than serve.

What happens when God’s leaders go from loving their flock to lording it over them?

(1) When church leaders bully…God’s people get hurt

There is a long history of bullying and pastoral abuse in God’s church. In Ezekiel’s day, God brought this charge against Israel’s leaders: “You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured…You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals” (Ezekiel 34:4-5).

All those years ago, what was the job description for God’s shepherd leaders? To strengthen the weak and bind up the injured. When a church leader starts acting harshly, they’re failing – at the most basic level – in their duties. It leads to God’s people getting hurt and can make them disillusioned with the very idea of participating in church life. Left with the choice of enduring abusive leadership or walking out the door, many will (understandably) head for the hills, even if that leaves them vulnerable to other dangers.

(2) When church leaders bully…Jesus’ reputation is tarnished

Church leaders are caretakers. The Chief Shepherd – Jesus – has entrusted his flock to their care (1 Peter 5:2-4).

Bullying begins when church leaders start acting like the flock is theirs, rather than Jesus’. This can lead to manipulation, pressure, tears and hurt. Who could blame a victim of that kind of pastoral abuse for wondering, “Did Jesus really know what he was doing by leaving a bully in charge of our church?”

(3) When church leaders bully…it undermines the mission Jesus has given all of us

Jesus has given us a terrifically important job to be getting on with: “Go and make disciples of all the nations” (Matthew 26:19).

It’s true that God is responsible for bringing people to new life and ushering them into his family. But our partnership in that work is made harder when there is a drip-drip-drip of news stories about church leaders guilty of bullying. It makes the statement by the late Christopher Hitchens – “religions poisons everything” – seem more and more accurate.

(4) When church leaders bully…it smacks of the most disgusting hypocrisy

In Mark 10, Jesus’ disciples started jostling for positions of power in Jesus’ kingdom. Jesus used it as an opportunity to give a 101 lesson in Christian leadership, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them…Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all.”

Jesus insists that leaders within his Church make a particular effort to serve, rather than dominate. There’s a terrible irony and tragedy here: at a time when the corporate world is beginning to recognise that the best leaders are servants (see Simon Sinek’s, Leaders Eat Last), leaders in the Church are being exposed as power hungry.

What are we doing at Emmanuel?

At Emmanuel, we kid ourselves if we think that bullying and abuse by our leadership is something we never need worry about. Sin will not allow us that luxury.

So, over the next 12 months, our leadership will be working hard to put in place systems and processes to prevent these sorts of behaviours taking root. Of course, systems and processes aren’t the whole answer. But they’re a start. We will keep you updated as things develop.

Will you pray for these efforts? And will you pray for the fruit of the Spirit in the lives of our leaders?

It’s hard to be a bully and to be full of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control” (Galatians 5:22-23).