Workplace abuse of staff in the church & how to avoid it
Convinced he’d been called to ministry, Brian* and his wife sold their home and business. They moved into a small apartment to reduce expenses so they could afford the seminary tuition. Upon graduation, Brian was offered a church staff position. They were elated—until his first official meeting with the senior pastor. He handed Brian a contract and expected him to sign it. The document gave the senior pastor complete authority over the scope of Brian’s duties. In addition, he’d be required to cut the church grass on his only day off.
Eager to affirm his willingness to serve, Brian ignored his misgivings and accepted the terms. Unfortunately, this event foreshadowed an ongoing process of humiliation and exploitation that grew worse over time.
Instead of allowing Brian to minister to others, the senior pastor assigned menial tasks such as filling the soda machine. He judged and maligned Brian’s entire family, making them feel incompetent and inadequate. Months of mistreatment added layers of pain as Brian and his family began to doubt themselves and one another. Eventually he could no longer pray or think clearly about the situation. Desperate, he began polling former seminary classmates about their experiences. Through networking, he discovered that serious wounding by senior pastors was not uncommon.
John Setser learned that lesson as a young associate pastor. The work was fun; the people were friendly and appreciative. His senior pastor became a trusted mentor until one day, out of the blue, he accused Setser of trying to steal the church.
Stunned, Setser insisted he’d never do such a thing, but the senior pastor refused to listen. Instead, he questioned Setser’s character and calling. Though Setser continued doing his best to please his employer, nothing helped. Heartbroken and devastated, Setser finally resigned, wondering what he could have done differently.
That experience along with the testimonies of others fueled Setser’s doctoral research, which became the basis for his book, Broken Hearts, Shattered Trust: Workplace Abuse of Staff in the Church. It also led to the founding of Barnabas Group, a nonprofit committed to church staff advocacy. (For more information, see ShatteredTrust.org.)
To be clear, workplace abuse is not limited to senior pastors. It can occur in any situation when someone in church leadership abuses his or her power over staff or volunteers. In this interview, we explore with Setser the dynamics of abuse in the workplace and how to prevent it.
The word abuse can signify different things to different people. For the sake of clarity, how do you define it as related to clergy?
Setser: Pastor abuse is not about a leader having a bad day and taking it out on a staff member. It’s not being strict, demanding, opinionated, or picky. Abuse occurs when pastors or other ministers in positions of authority use power or influence to control, manipulate, or otherwise demean and exploit staff associates. It can happen over time or with one catastrophic event.
What effects does this type of mistreatment have on victims?
Setser: Wounded staff associates are left feeling shocked and traumatized. Mystified at how such treatment could occur in their church home, they feel abandoned by their Christian family, left alone to speculate about what went wrong and whom they can trust. Staff abuse can even lead to post-traumatic stress or dissociative identity disorders.
Those who are wrongfully terminated (or forced out as I was) suffer tremendous loss. They no longer have a paycheck or precious relationships with workplace associates and church members (due to shunning). Their professional identity is gone. They experience the death of a dream. Feeling spiritually useless, some are so broken they leave the ministry and stop attending church.
For example, a young friend of mine entered a church leadership program that offered senior pastor mentoring, Bible study, and a closer walk with Jesus. But after taking the position, things weren’t as promised. Instead of being loved, respected, and taught, he became like an indentured servant to a corporate-minded leader intent on developing a growth-oriented organization. Feeling betrayed and used, he ended his internship and quit going to church. It took years for him to recover from the experience.
What do you mean by a corporate-minded leader?
Setser: Most people want to be successful, and pastors are no exception. With ministerial success difficult to gauge, effectiveness can easily start being evaluated according to measurable results. The size of the church budget, membership numbers, and new buildings become success indicators.
Yet when expectations aren’t met, a pastor tends to blame himself. And, however unintentional it may be, a church board or officials can add to the stress. Such pressure makes it no wonder some church leaders start doing whatever it takes to achieve the world’s view of success.
These factors can subtly start shifting a pastor’s focus until he begins to employ a corporate model as the most efficient pathway to achieve results. Some Christian role models reinforce this message by advising that to move forward, certain individuals might need to be sacrificed, especially if they don’t get on board with the program.
Protecting the church and making sure its needs are met become the highest priority. Methods become more important than miracles and doing becomes more important than being.
As a senior pastor, did you struggle with these issues?
Setser: Yes. In a position of authority, it didn’t take long for me to start compromising. During my first pastorate, I became determined to win God’s and my supervisor’s approval. Each month while filling out a progress report detailing my ministry’s accomplishments, I presented the facts in the best light possible.
I didn’t lie exactly, but stretched the truth to the breaking point. Good things were happening, but I was afraid the progress might not be enough. Many of my divisional colleagues experienced the same pressure.
Compromise didn’t stop there. Instead, it triggered a pattern that made my need to appear successful more important than loving God and serving people. Consequently, my spiritual paradigm started being replaced by a corporate mindset that included my own agenda. By God’s grace, I became convicted of the problems and repented.
My friend Tom didn’t. He pioneered his church espousing such ideals as unconditional love and acceptance. The church’s vision statement emphasized joy, community, and commitment to Christ. They stayed on mission until the church became prosperous enough to purchase a building. Then Tom became obsessed. Money, remodeling, and filling seats were all he could think about. Subtly, over time, ministry packaging and a promotional agenda replaced other priorities.
Consequently, stress and pressure to grow his church turned Tom into a brutal boss. Staff were expendable, and he frequently blamed them for his failures. His ability to abuse staff eventually became legendary in the community.
Another senior pastor friend also succumbed to the pressure. Andy wanted his small church to buy an empty school and turn it into a regional Bible college. His staff objected due to the prohibitive cost. Instead of listening and respecting their advice, Andy bullied them. In the name of his vision, he publicly rebuked his staff for their lack of faith and mandated they follow him as he followed God.
Blind ambition turned Andy’s passion for Jesus into a drive to achieve ministerial success regardless of who got hurt. Stories like these have convinced me that any leader who is called, competent, and qualified is capable of turning into a wounding agent.
What safeguards might be put in place to prevent that from happening?
Setser: Several specific steps can certainly help prevent the denial and compromise that lead to abuse. Trustworthy Christian leaders:
1. Stay close to Jesus. Keeping a soft heart before the Lord will keep it tender and sensitive with workplace associates.
2. Model the way for others by loving their staff and caring for them like family. A pastor who loves his staff shows his congregation how to love one another.
3. Cultivate teamwork by trusting the Holy Spirit to work in and through each staff member. Good leaders don’t micromanage.
4. Listen to their staff. If the only voice a leader hears is his own, he’s well on his way toward becoming a wounding agent.
5. Find safe people to share and pray with. This not only increases effectiveness but also provides accountability.
6. Take time for recreation and laugh often. It’s crucial not to let ministry become your life. If it does, it can eat a senior pastor alive as well as cause him to devour his staff.
7. Remember that ministry is a spiritual enterprise. Church personnel are not like watches that need to be fixed, but rather like trees that need the right conditions to grow and bear fruit (Psalm 1:2–3).
Ministers who make an honest relationship with the Lord their highest priority will cultivate the fruit of the Spirit. Rather than spiral out of control until they become wounding agents, these pastors and their staff will demonstrate the fruits that produce healthy, vibrant congregations.
PATTI TOWNLEY-COVERT is a freelance writer living in Ontario, California.
*Names and insignificant details have been changed to protect privacy.