Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

By Stephen R. Clark

by Danielle Dolin

No one enters a relationship expecting to be abused. This is especially true when the other person holds a position inherently viewed as being trustworthy — such as a pastor.

No one enters a church expecting to be abused. But it happens.

Examples are legion: Mark Driscoll (Mars Hill), James MacDonald (Harvest Bible Church), Bruxy Cavey (The Meeting House), Bill Hybels (Willow Creek), Judy Dabler (Live at Peace Ministries and Creative Conciliation), and the list goes on.

It’s heartbreaking.

This is not a new phenomenon, but one of those dirty little secrets of Christendom that’s finally being exposed to the light. Beyond the big names, smaller churches and Christian organizations outside the limelight too often hartbor abusive pastors and leaders.

Several books have tackled the topic, such as Celebrities for Jesus by Katelyn Beaty, When Narcissism Comes to Church by Chuck DeGroat, and Redeeming Power by Diane Langberg. All highly recommended.

In his important new award-winning book, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church, Michael Kruger, digs deep into the topic, beginning by defining spiritual abuse carefully:

“Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader — such as a pastor, elder, or head of a Christian organization — wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as means of maintaining his own power and control, even if convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom related goals.”

Kruger explains that abusers don’t look like abusers at first. In fact, “They look like the good guy until we discover they’re the bad guy.” They have fruitful ministries and are generally successful. Yet, the abuse has a long tail often going on for years.

It’s not unusual for abusers to not be held accountable since they surround themselves with friendly advocates. “Narcissists,” says Kruger, “are remarkably good at forming alliances, building a network of supporters, and laying a groundwork for a future alienation of perceived enemies.”

Those who are victimized are typically labeled as troublemakers and maneuvered to the sidelines or forced out of the church or organization. This is a tactic called “flipping the script” by accusing the abused of being the bad actor. All of this is covered in a shroud of secrecy disguising any pattern of abusive behavior.

Also, “most elder boards quickly succumb to the pressures of an aggressive senior pastor.” Abuse is often excused by elders and parishioners by claiming of the pastor, “That’s just the way he is. After all, he’s only human!” As Kruger writes, “…churches inevitably begin to overlook a pastor’s character flaws because he’s so successful in other areas.” In short, competency overshadows character.

Kruger does a good job describing methods abusers use to inflict their abuse through fault-finding, subtle and overt cruelty, implied threats, lashing out defensively, and manipulating through gaslighting and flattery. They behave in a Jekyll and Hyde manner, “One side is warm and kind (which most people experience), and the other is cruel and dark (which only the victims see).” As a result, “most people can’t come to grips with the fact that the same person can be both.” Kruger explains, “bullies don’t bully everyone,” exercising a diabolical duplicitousness.

Tragically, the impact of abuse on victims engenders fear, anger, shame, depression, and even PTSD. They can suffer physically, emotionally, and spiritually, sometimes for years. Church becomes a nightmare instead of a blessing, a place of danger instead of respite, a source of trauma instead of healing. This is in part because “the spiritual abuser takes aspects of church life that are inherently good — preaching, Scripture reading, worship — and makes them a source of pain.”

Spiritual abuse is crazy-making. “Victims of abuse,” says Kruger, “repeatedly confess to wondering whether they are going crazy or losing their minds. In addition, victims also have renewed doubts about their own judgment. If they trusted someone they should not have, they may wonder whether they can even trust themselves.” They also worry if they can trust others who are supportive of the abusive leader.

The book strongly advocates for the abused by debunking misused tactics based on Matthew 18. The focus on following strict process often deflects from the deeper issues. Kruger cautions against forcing reconciliation or having the victim face their abusers who have not first been held accountable. It is the victim who is to be cared for, believed, and supported above the accused abuser.

The final section of the bookexamines some basic ways to counter abusive pastors. Kruger encourages churches to not hire them to begin with, which is easier said than done given the devious nature of narcissists. He recommends church leaders receive abuse training and when abuse is surfaced advises bringing in a third-party to investigate.

Ultimately, says Kruger, “a spiritually abusive person is disqualified from ministry.” But he admits removing them from ministry is, sadly, daunting.

This is an important book that should be read by every person involved in church leadership and ministry. Christianity Today has named it one of the best books of the year.

Buy it here- Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church

Stephen R. Clark is a writer who lives in Lansdale, PA with his wife, BethAnn, where they attend Immanuel Church. His website is www.StephenRayClark.com. He is a member of the Evangelical Press Association and managing editor of the Christian Freelance Writers Network blog. He is also a news writer for The Baptist Paper and his writing has appeared in several publications. A longer version of this review appeared in the Englewood Review of Books and is used with permission.

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