Most pastors work hard, love their churches, and would sacrifice their lives for the people they lead. If you are reading this article for ways to get back at your pastor, then it’s likely you’re the problem, not your pastor. But there are some bad pastors out there. Why do people stay with them?
There is a romance of leadership. Most studies in leadership focus on the top roles. Many leader-centric approaches assume followers are mere recipients of leader-driven change. To romanticize leadership is to exaggerate its importance relative to followers. Leadership is extremely important, but it exists only because followers collectively interpret someone (or a group) in such a role. Romancing leadership leaves out half the relationship. Followers are just as important. Obsessing over leaders at the expense of followers leaves a gaping hole in understanding how leadership really works.
If followers have power and influence, then why might they fall prey to bad leaders? How can the leader-follower relationship break down? What makes followers susceptible to toxic leadership? Sometimes this problem results in a congregation dwindling due to an apathetic pastor. Other times the result is more tragic, in which bullying—even abuse—occurs. There are three main ways this breakdown happens. What follows is descriptive, not prescriptive. Additionally, the scope of this brief article is broader and more general than the cases of abuse. Some leaders are bad because they are lazy and selfish. Most importantly, no one should endure bullying and abuse, and any instance should be reported immediately.
Safety. Most people are not locked into a leader. You can leave a church. You can transition out of a job. You can transfer schools. People can vote out politicians and strike against companies. Most followers in our culture have the freedom to walk away. But with every increase in freedom comes a corresponding decrease in safety. If you walk away from your job, then the paycheck is no longer guaranteed. If you vote out a politician, then you risk voting in one who is worse. In short, followers stick with bad leaders because they are not willing to risk safety in order to be more free. Leaving a church can be complex, especially when you have children who find a sense of safety in the congregation.
Belonging. Ditching a bad leader may mean leaving an important community. For instance, many followers remain loyal to a professional sports team despite an unscrupulous owner or ineffective coach. Loyalty is a powerful force within a community. Belonging in a human community will often supersede leaving a group leader. It’s why some churchgoers tolerate a fruitless pastor. It’s why cult followers do not denounce the cult after the leader falters catastrophically. Unfollowing a toxic leader is often more painful (and less important) than the sense of belonging that comes from the community over which the leader presides.
Comfort. Challenging bad leaders is uncomfortable (at best) and deadly (at worst), but many followers forget they have the power to challenge leaders. In fact, dual accountability is one of the keys to a successful leader-follower relationship. In order to challenge leaders, however, followers must let go of comfortable silence. If you are the only one to speak out, and no one joins you, then you’re left alone in a vulnerable position. Many followers are not willing to risk comfort to challenge bad leaders.
A healthy leader-follower relationship is less about an exaggerated leader romance and more about dual accountability. Accountability is what prevents pastors from becoming dictators and tyrants. Congregants need shepherds to help guide them to better places. Pastors need church members to fulfill God’s purpose for the church. The proper glue sticking followers with leaders (or congregants and pastors) is dual accountability—not safety, belonging, and comfort.
Posted on June 30, 2021
As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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“If you are the only one to speak out, and no one joins you, then you’re left alone in a vulnerable position.”
And what does one do from this position? There was an area in my Church where members were asked to give feedback. I was one of the few members who did respond with both verbal and written feedback. But, the Pastor rebuked and interrogated me for doing so – both in public during the feedback session and afterwards by approaching me with a couple other prominent men in the church. I got accused of “attacking” the elders, of “charging” them without witnesses (even though I hadn’t accused them of any sin, and there was a room full of people who had read the document under discussion,) and, perhaps worst, for being a *woman* speaking up and giving feedback rather than staying silent and only asking my husband questions at home. (Nothing in the church-wide announcement opening the matter up for feedback had requested input from men only, just church members.) And even though there were three other men present during this rebuke session, none of them spoke up to say that the charges were inappropriate and blatantly sexist. One even joined in and insulted my character and motives.
Yet, I can’t really speak to others in my own church, not even close friends, about this without it being gossip. I can’t ask the witnesses present to help me approach the Pastor, since if they didn’t stop it while it happened or step in to help, it’s unlikely they will help later if they even viewed it as inappropriate to begin with. And there are no female witnesses I can call on. My husband was not present during this as he is not an official member of the church, so wasn’t supposed to come, and watched the kids instead.
Yes, my family could just leave the church. My husband would back me if I did so. But that wouldn’t necessarily be the healthiest move, nor would it actually address any problem in the church. We both feel it might unintentionally create more problems than it would solve. The church is like a body – you don’t abandon the body when it’s infected, you do what you can to aid it.
I have often wondered this.. I am no pastor, however I also found that the answer is plainly written as to why people stay with toxic leadership and pastors… 1 & 2 Timothy all the way through Jude tells us why… I have been in many churches that have died, or are headed that way… the biggest issue I see is that God is removed from the Doctrine. His name is used ONLY as a label and for “looks”. A church also may LOOK alive and thriving and have thousands of members, even many volunteers, but a church is dead or dying because the Members and Leaders have removed God from the services. They preach “Jesus is love” but remove “Jesus is Holy and Righteous” (I am speaking of the LGTBQ+ groups that have become “ordained”) for God does not abide with sin… and those churches are on the rise… you mentioned COMFORT being a cause—this is the biggest issue!
In Timothys letters from Paul, Paul speaks about how the ears of many will not wish for the truth and elect leaders who will only say what they want to hear… this is what is happening… and though the church is “looking” alive it is spiritually “dead” or dying…
Toxic leaders aren’t the issue, it’s the members who allow the toxicity to remain… too.
Wow, Sam. What a fascinating article, coming from someone who is uniquely qualified to address issues of toxic leadership and “followers” who stay in a church with a toxic pastor. Confront an abusive pastor and risk becoming vulnerable in case no one joins you? That’s called integrity. Standing up to an abusive pastor and having him retaliate by starting despicable rumors about you in order to turn the “followers” against you so you will ultimately be removed from the church with no cause, no warning, and in violation of church bylaws and policies? Sound familiar? That pastor is guilty of bullying and abuse and narcissism and so much more.
There are three kinds of “followers” who stay with a pastor like this. There are the Sunday morning folks who come for the ear-tickling, pretty-word sermons who never get involved and don’t have the insight or discernment to know that what they are being taught is vacuous and empty. There are those who have been around long enough to see many major staff/pastoral changes in a short amount of time and who suspect that there is something wrong but look the other way because they don’t want to know. And when they are forced to acknowledge that people’s lives and families and careers and finances have been destroyed by their abusive pastor, they tell themselves, and everyone else, that they will leave the church as soon as (fill in the blank), but after a time their consciences go back to sleep, and they just never do. And the enabling continues. And there are those who are a part of the abuse, who are enjoying their own status as church “leaders”, who know all about what’s going on behind the scenes, but they’re part of the “in” group and aren’t about to rock the boat and confront the abuser. It’s so much easier (and powerful) to go along with the abuse, and to feel big and important. The fourth kind of people, the true Christ-followers (and not pastor-followers), just don’t stick around, no matter what safety or belonging or comfort they forego. They can do no less.
Dual accountability? Sounds good, but no. A pastor who is determined to be a dictator and a tyrant allows for no accountability. And if the rest of the church leadership refuses to demand accountability, the entire integrity of that church is lost.
The fact that you use the term “follower” for your congregants really speaks volumes. The key is that they are not Christ-followers, because those are the ones that stand up to the toxicity and speak truth, no matter what the cost (and the cost has been great!), and the church is purged of those pesky trouble-makers. Your followers are just that – YOUR followers. Your choice of terms conjures up blind people shuffling haplessly in whatever direction they’re told to go by their leader, but their guide is not the Holy Spirit, and their leader is not Spirit-filled. Their leader is a sham and a fraud. A lie is still a lie, no matter how many people believe it. And the truth is still the truth, even if no one believes it. But make no mistake. God knows.
Sam, it has been my experience that some remain because of an unsureness of how to deal with the wrong of those in authority over them. They have been taught to respect and honor their pastor. But then they see wrongs or abuses, and they are not sure how to respond biblically. No one has taught them! And who would…the pastor who is the problem?!
And as you mentioned, there often is a very heavy price to pray for those who do seek to confront the pastor who is living in the flesh. I’ve seen that “bully” pastor who makes anyone who confronts him or questions him pay! It’s much like a wife caught in an abusive relationship. My heart hurts when I see this…and I’ve seen it too often.
But why, oh why would anyone choose to remain in a church like that? If they are not sure how to respond Biblically, or are unwilling to confront such a pastor, or have tried to and failed for whatever reason, why in the world is staying at that church even an option? This is the issue that boggles my mind. What am I missing? If a pastor is living in the flesh, or is a bully or a tyrant and the congregants see the wrongs or abuses, how could they possibly justify, much less desire, continuing to sit under the instruction of such a false teacher?
I’d like to try to answer that. In some way I hope by staying I am responding to His will. Real Christians are needed all the more where confusion abounds. But it’s a fruitless endeavor, believe me. Sensible people who discover the truth that this isn’t a real ministry just leave. Fortunately for them!
Perhaps it is fear of the consequences of leaving without references. However, being held by fear does nothing for one’s spiritual growth. It only causes great anger and resentment.
I used to ask long-term staff why they stay and the only answer I ever got was, “Because God wants me to.” And it was always delivered with an obvious sadness. By staying we have sacrificed our retirements while watching a very corrupt “pastor” run off with the money and destroy others through fraud and manipulation. We stay desperately trying to run a legitimate church. We live with the hope of a better after-life.
Another reason involves discernment. Some congregants are simply unaware that leaders are teaching false doctrine or inserting personal interpretation into scriptural exposition.
I have been much blessed by the teachings, God bless you.
Your analysis is right at the bullseye. Those with the ability to cause change won’t because of the fear of upsetting the status quo, (belonging is greater than mission) or really don’t care if the descent isn’t noticeable. Newcomers pick up on the toxic structure and don’t come back. Often the situation isn’t managed until the doors are about to close and the classic excuses are given: resistant neighborhood, newcomers who don’t understand, can’t find leaders who stay, etc… Many times the main reason for the decline is a toxic pastor who failed the Gospel call and substituted personal comfort or something worse.
As usual, this is a great well thought out article. Thank you for your investment in the well being of churches. You will never know the extent of growth from your seeds planted (Heb. 6:10). Blessing.
Insightful analysis, Sam. On the abusive side of the continuum, I would also add guilt. Though I never experienced it, I have known people who stayed with a church because the pastor refused to “release” them. In fact, I knew a guy who worked for a church as their Christian school administrator. The pastor ended up firing him but told him that he had to stay at the church. Incredibly, he stayed at that church for several more years, incurring deep damage to his soul. That’s an extreme case, but in some faith traditions, that much power is conferred upon pastors. It amazes me that people tolerate it.
Excellent point, Bob. Thanks for adding your thoughts.
Bob, I have seen it also. It is as if there is a “control switch” the pastor or leadership has over the person(s).
Agreed. This is one of the reasons, I think, the Anglican Church in England has received a petition to remove the honorific “Reverend” from a clergyperson’s name. Their argument is the title infers a hierarchy and throws back to a deferential system from hundreds of years ago and reinforces the misguided belief in clericalism (the clergy must fill the key positions in a church).
Even in the United States there is still an unspoken deference to clergy and I can still remember when “the priest was someone who had everything put together.” Now 10 years into ordained ministry I can assure you clergy are humans with the same potential for sin and bad behavior.