If you have been in ministry for any length of time, chances are you have worked for a bully pastor. To be honest, I have bullied people at times, so I can speak to both sides of the issue. My point is the problem is not unique to any particular church.
One definition of the word bully is “use superior strength or influence to intimidate (someone), typically to force him or her to do what one wants.”
The key words here are “intimidate” and “force.”
Ask yourself some questions:
- Do you feel intimidated by your pastor?
- Do you work in a threat environment?
- Are you afraid to ask questions?
If you answer “yes” to these questions, then it is one of two things. Either your pastor/supervisor is a bully, or you are a fearful person or possibly both.
Many times people that lack confidence will end up working for employers who use intimidation to control people. My point is both people may have issues that they need to work on. If you have trouble saying “no,” there is a good chance that you will end up working for someone who does not respect other people’s “no.”
I want to say upfront that while I believe all bullying is wrong behavior, that does not mean you should quit your job just because your pastor is a bully.
There are two types of bullies in ministry, and one is much more dangerous than the other.
This is my story. I will be very transparent without mentioning any names other than my own.
I do not wish to bring further pain to others including those that have wronged me. My goal is simply to create a straightforward discussion about a subject that is taboo in many circles.
My hope is to help people who find themselves in the challenging position of following an authoritarian style leader. I was 21 years old when I started in ministry. I graduated from Bible School and got my first job at a new church. I was promised gas for my car and food to eat. Everything else I would have to trust God for.
Even though I wasn’t paid very much, that didn’t matter. I was serving in the Kingdom of God and that was exciting. As time went on, there was significant emphasis put on serving the lead pastor. Preachers that I looked up to would come to our church and teach on “submission to authority” and “God’s armor bearer.”
The thinking goes something like this: God speaks directly to the lead pastor about the vision for the church. The other pastors are there to help the lead pastor accomplish his vision. We are simply to carry the pastor’s armor while he fights the enemy.
The pastor is essentially king and we are his servants. If you disagree with the lead pastor, you are to submit to his authority and keep your mouth shut. While there is some truth in the statements above, they are incomplete.
The scary thing is if you take this thinking to the nth degree, the pastor becomes like God. He is more spiritual than everyone else.
Many times these pastors will use their divine connection with the Almighty to bully, intimidate and control their staff. This kind of pastoral bullying is most dangerous because it breaks down your personal relationship with Christ.
If you have more confidence in your pastor’s relationship with Christ than your own relationship with Christ, you have made him to be like God. It is a form of idol worship.
I reached a point where my pastor controlled every area of my personal life. I was working 12-hour days 6 or 7 days a week. I wanted to take some night classes to continue my education, but he said no.
Twice he told me that the girl I was dating was not right for me, and he made me break up with her. You may be thinking how could you let that happen?
It’s really pretty simple. I was young and inexperienced. I loved God and wanted His will for my life. I came to the place where I believed that my pastor was closer to God than I was.
There was a very real fear that, if I disobeyed my pastor, I was disobeying God and I didn’t want to do that.
Here are the red flags to look for:
- Is there more emphasis placed on serving the pastor than reaching the lost?
- Do you find yourself regularly working 60-70 hours a week against your will?
- When people leave your church are they ex-communicated or labeled as a wolf?
- Is the pastor viewed as some kind of a super saint, where he is almost worshipped?
- Is there a way to privately ask a question if you disagree with something?
- Does your pastor control personal areas of your life? This type of bullying is very dangerous and destructive.
If you find yourself in a church like this, start working on your exit strategy. Do not try to talk to your pastor and get him to change. It’s not going to happen. People who gain this kind of power over you do not want to let go of that power.
There is another kind of bully pastor. These pastors are confident and passionate.
They love God and genuinely want to reach people for Christ. It seems that many pastors who have successful churches also have trouble controlling their temper. Why? It takes passion (emotion) to build a successful church, and passion can be used positively and negatively.
Eventually I resigned my position at my first church and found my way to a healthy church that was experiencing tremendous growth. The pastor was a strong leader, but he was willing to listen to different opinions before making decisions.
It was the first time that I worked for a pastor where I felt like he was not only interested in church growth, but he was also interested in my growth.
As the church grew over many years, the pastor eventually added another level of leadership. I was not directly accountable to the lead pastor but to an associate pastor who was over all of family ministry.
This was going along great until I got a new supervisor who didn’t seem to like me. My new supervisor would regularly lose his temper and humiliate me in front of my peers and the people I supervised.
As you can imagine, this made my job very difficult. I had been in ministry for decades, but I had never experienced a pastor that was just plain mean like this one. I dreaded participating in Tuesday staff meetings never knowing what verbal assaults were headed my way.
My assessment of the situation was that my new boss didn’t like me and was bullying me to get me to leave. I was determined to stand my ground, do my job well and not be pushed around.
Things came to a head one day when I lost my temper with an employee. Knowing that my supervisor would hear about it, I decided to be proactive and tell him what happened. I put on my imaginary bulletproof vest as I prepared for another verbal assault. His response was, “You need to have a healthy fear of me. I want you walking on eggshells every time you come into the office. If anything happens like this again, you are fired.”
To say the least, I was overwhelmed. I had given fifteen years of my life to the church. I had always had good reviews. Our church was known for an effective kids ministry program where we had people coming from across the nation to learn from what we were doing.
To make matters worse my new supervisor was the pastor’s son. If I appealed to the lead pastor, he’s not going to side with me against his son. I didn’t see a way out, so I began to prepare my resume. Then I heard a still small voice, “I don’t want you to quit.”
I began to argue with God, “Lord, this is not fair.”
“Do you have a problem with your temper?” He asked.
“Yes,” I replied, “but his temper is much worse than mine.”
“His temper is not your problem. You cannot control his temper. Your temper is your problem.”
Many times when we are being bullied, we want to change the bully, but we can’t. Nowhere in the Bible does it tell us to practice “other control,” but it does tell us to practice self-control.
I spent a year working on controlling my temper. It was not easy because I had developed some lifelong habits. I looked up all the scriptures on anger and memorized them. There were people I had to go back and apologize to.
One scripture that helped me a lot was, “A fool shows his annoyance at once but a prudent man overlooks an insult.”
We all experience anger. It is a normal human emotion. Anger alerts you when someone has crossed your boundaries, but that does not give you permission to cross their boundaries.
The truth is – anytime you use your anger to intimidate someone or to make him or her pay for what they did, you are being a bully.
Did my boss ever learn to control his temper? Not really. In some ways he got worse. I kept my job for four more years, but eventually resigned. It reached a point where his venting was affecting my own self-esteem and I moved on.
The bottom line is that the Lord used a bully to get the bully out of me.
I didn’t realize how harsh of a leader I had become. It wasn’t until I experienced the pain of angry words that I understood how my anger was hurting the people that I loved the most.
Sometimes that’s how it works. You may be working for a bully to learn how not to be a bully.
That’s what happened with David. He was working for the biggest bully of them all, King Saul. Saul was throwing spears at David, but David didn’t throw them back. Eventually David left but he left alone. He never tried to pull down Saul’s kingdom even though he knew that Saul was wrong. For David, it wasn’t about payback; it was about what was best for the kingdom.
If you are working for a bully pastor, should you leave? That depends on what the Lord says. If I were you, I would try to make it work. Most bully pastors just want to be the leader, so let them lead. The chances are pretty good that the next place you go there is going to be a bully in the organization somewhere, so you will not solve anything by running away.
In summary, this is a verse that helped me a lot in dealing with my supervisor.“Be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to wrath.”
Not only has Mark served in the local church as pastor, associate pastor, and family ministry pastor but he is also a certified coach with the John Maxwell Team.