“Churches, watch over your ministry staff!” Part 1: Identifying a Problem that nobody wants to talk about

Human beings tend to avoid difficult and unpleasant subjects. This holds true in Christian churches as much as it does outside them. We want to focus on the positive and the easy. Life is hard enough without raising problems that aren’t already filling our field of vision. But Christians must not be satisfied with this short-sighted way of living. Jesus teaches us love, compassion, and a concern for justice and right relationships. Whenever Christians take these principles seriously we are shaken out of our narrow focus on the immediate and the easy. We find ourselves pushed to engage situations that are very difficult and which might even have been invisible to us before; situations where love, compassion and justice have not prevailed and people are suffering as a result.

Over the last two years I have heard the personal stories of many ex-pastors and vocational ministry workers in Australian Christian churches of various denominations and in Christian organisations. [1] Almost all of these have been in some kind of employed assistant or specialist-ministry role rather than being the leader. They are assistant ministers, children’s and youth ministers, women’s workers, evangelists, and pastoral-care workers. Their stories are not pleasant; in fact, many are harrowing. What has surprised me is not just how many people have had horrible experiences in ministry, but just how many of these stories are similar. They follow the same basic narrative thread, feature the same problems of bullying, manipulation, and spiritual abuse, and end with the same brokenness and profound hurt that takes years to work through; if indeed it ever finally is worked through. Worse, much of this pain could have been reduced or even prevented.

To put it in generic and understated form, this ‘common ministry story’ goes like this. A well-trained person is employed in ministry and works really hard. They believe things are going well and that they are doing valuable work. But there is tension with the boss (lead-pastor, senior minister, rector, etc) and this relationship becomes extremely unpleasant. Often the employee doesn’t know what to label this for years afterwards, so the reality of what is happening too-often gets buried under neutral-sounding euphemisms like ‘relational-tension’ or ‘personality-clash’.  But often that isn’t the reality. What we are talking about is an abuse of power by the employer, of varying degrees of severity. Bullying [2], psychological abuse [3], and spiritual abuse [4] are all at their most lethal where they involve the long-term, insidious domineering of someone in a subordinate position. They typically feature a history of power-plays, manipulation, ambushes, gossip, and ‘gas-lighting’ [5], leading to a severe erosion of the victim’s self-esteem, confidence in their own abilities, and even confidence in their own perception of reality. These forms of abuse routinely produce a downtrodden shell of a person, whilst the perpetrator continues to look like a fine human being. That’s the underlying reality of this all-too-common ministry story. And it’s far more common than you think.

Allow me to pause to make a distinction. This story is not about ‘burnout’. That is a serious and important topic, but an entirely different one.[6] Ministry burnout is about being severely depleted in ministry through factors such as stress and overwork. It is important to recognise that burnout has a victim but not necessarily a perpetrator, whereas abuse always has both a victim and a perpetrator. In abuse a victim suffers as the result of the actions of another person who has power over them in some way. Wrongly diagnosing cases of abuse as ‘burnout’ will lead us to mishandle these situations and cause more harm than good.

Back to our story. Where it ends up is when the employee is abruptly told something like: “You aren’t working hard enough”, “your results aren’t sufficient”, “your style of ministry isn’t [my personal preference]”. Issues of skills, gifting, or calling are brought into question, often out of nowhere and contrary to previous impressions given. This is usually communicated in a passive-aggressive way that is unclear and to which the employee has little or no opportunity to improve, much less discuss the real issues. Very often the worker only has this feedback dumped on them when they suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves in an exit-meeting situation. The staff member is let go of, suddenly, quietly, and often by methods that could constitute unfair dismissal. At very least the situation is clearly unjust. This should be enough to bother any Christian. But all of this occurs out of sight of the congregation who are mostly oblivious to any difficulties until they hear that “[X] is leaving us…”. The formal reasons given to the congregation are half-truths at best, and are often deeply dissatisfying to them. But church congregations in this situation often feel that they have few options. This is especially the case when the leader calls on them for their trust and help in moving forward amidst “this challenging time”.

“But why don’t the victims of this kind of mistreatment speak out?”

Well, lots of reasons. Here are some of the most significant.

First, they are hurt, broken, and probably suffering great shock and even trauma. Victims of abuse cannot be expected to work out the best way to handle their situation, especially not immediately. It will often take some considerable time before they are even able to speak about what has happened to them. Christian ministry is not a job, and losing a ministry job isn’t really about losing a job. Sure, it pays the bills, but it’s all of life. So yes, these workers lose their job and career. But they also lose their church. It can be easy to overlook this in the case of paid staff, but they love their church just like other church members do. Their church is their friends, their family, the people they love serving. It has probably determined where they live, who their local community is, where their kids go to school, who their kids’ friends are… the list is endless. Christian ministry isn’t about going to a job. Done properly it’s about putting down all-of-life roots of relationships and stability. It is not entered into lightly, nor can it be left lightly. So we must recognise that when a ministry worker’s job is taken away from them, the job is the least valuable thing that they lose. They lose their entire life. When this happens unjustly, and as the result of prolonged bullying, manipulation, and the slow, subversive rot of spiritual abuse, the loss is utterly devastating. Loss of job, church, friends, home, reputation, self-esteem, sense of purpose and identity, support network, and even one’s own sense of sanity all occur at once. It’s the kind of severe loss that can probably only be properly understood by those who have suffered it themselves.

Second, there is power disparity. Abuse can only occur where there is a difference in power between the two parties, and involves mistreatment of the weaker party by the person with more power. The situations I describe here are specifically about abuse of power by church leaders over their subordinate employees (though I recognise that it occurs toward volunteers also). Part of the problem is that the victim feels disempowered and unable to address their situation. They usually remain unable to address their situation after departing since their abuser continues to hold their position of authority and determines the story told to the congregation.

Third, victims feel a great deal of opposition against speaking out. The same messages pressure them both from within and without: “Don’t make a fuss”, “don’t cause division”, “everyone makes mistakes”, “there are good gospel things happening there… surely you don’t want to disrupt that”, “people might walk away from Christ”. Whatever the reasons, church and ministry circles tend to have a strong culture of secrecy about these kinds of issues.

Fourth, church workplace dispute policies generally seem to favour maintaining the status quo regardless of who is at fault. Many church leaders have tenure (or close to it), and subordinate ministry positions are treated as far more disposable in comparison. Thus the foregone conclusion in most disputes between staff is that the subordinate employee will leave regardless of fault. This makes a mockery of dispute resolution as a meaningful exercise since, for all practical purposes, it presupposes the outcome in favour of the leader. The process does not take account of the power disparity that exists between parties, and can itself be deployed as another form of abuse by leaders. Workplace dispute procedures like this are prone to inflict more harm on victims rather than help them.

Fifth, passages like 1 Corinthians 6 mean that victims often don’t even consider legal options, much less pursue them. This is true even where laws have been broken such as in cases of wrongful dismissal. Sadly, the victims’ refusal to explore legal options usually stands in stark contrast to the response of the organisations in which they were mistreated. Church denominational structures, almost by nature of what they are, seek to defend and preserve the organisation from litigation and bad publicity. They have law-savvy ways of handling negative events in order to minimise damage to the organisation. This is not entirely bad. Our churches are organisations under law, and not just gatherings of Christians. They need to engage with civil laws responsibly. However the outcome has too often been that victims have found their cries for help met with the cold, unfeeling face of an organisation that doesn’t see them as people who claim to have been grievously wronged, but as potential litigants in a lawsuit. Victims therefore receive distanced, formal communication from a self-protective organisation in damage-control mode. This strategy is entirely devoid of compassion, further alienates the victim from their former church, implicitly supports the perpetrator, and constitutes another major obstacle to justice. The sad irony of 1 Corinthians 6 being a factor here is that the same passage asserts that the church is ‘competent to judge’ such matters (6:2). The experience of many is that churches have been derelict of that responsibility, whether by lack of concern or by lack of formal accountability structures that make competent engagement with these issues possible. Regardless of the reasons, a very common feature of the ministry experiences that I describe here is that denominational leadership structures were a significant part of the problem and were rarely agents of compassion and justice for victims.

Handling these matters is clearly not straightforward. The challenges are considerable. Regardless of how we should chart a proper course through them, the end result has been that many gospel-workers have been unfairly pushed out of their jobs along with all that goes with a ministry job. That is simply unacceptable, whatever the challenges. Very often congregations aren’t even aware of what really happened, and just take away confusion as their conclusion to the whole affair. They certainly aren’t aware of the trauma suffered by their former servant and friend, who (for a long time at least) is probably psychologically unable to adequately express or even label what has happened to them, even if they believe that they should say something. Now they are cut off from their church community and forced to face their situation alone.

That is, unless we are willing to identify this as a problem and engage with it.

[1] The stories I have had the privilege of listened to occurred in a variety of ministry settings, including Anglican, Baptist, Presbyterian, and independent evangelical churches, and various para-church ministry organisations. I have heard several dozen stories at this stage. I encourage the reader not to attempt to trace back my account to specific people or events that they suspect I am speaking about. What I recount here is not one or two stories but many stories generalised into a narrative that is basically recognisable by all the people I have spoken to. If you think someone you know has experienced this kind of thing then I encourage you to ask them about it and to engage their particular story on its own terms.

[2] Here bullying refers to a misuse of power by a person in authority where their actions intimidate, distress, or seek to control a weaker party. This might be motivated (for example) by wanting to change the victim’s beliefs or actions, or might be a way to deal with one’s own insecurities or to express frustration. For a short, thoughtful description of workplace bullying, see: https://www.theguardian.com/careers/2017/mar/28/the-psychology-of-a-workplace-bully/ 

[3] Psychological (or emotionalabuse involves actions that damage the self-esteem, confidence, and emotional well-being of another person. Among other things it typically causes anxiety, stress, and depression. See further:   https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/emotional-psychological-abuse/emotional-abuse-definitions-signs-symptoms-examples/

[4] Spiritual abuse is about misusing spiritual authority (such as a pastoral position) to control or mistreat another person with explicit or implicit religious justification. This may itself involve bullying or psychological/emotional abuse. 

[5] Gas Lighting is a psychological-abuse tactic that involves manipulating someone else into questioning the sanity of their own behaviour, opinions, and perception of events. See further: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/11-signs-gaslighting-in-relationship

[6] Helpful books on burn-out in ministry include: Peter Brain, Going the Distance: how to stay fit for a lifetime of ministry. (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2004) and Christopher Ash, Zeal without Burnout: Seven Keys to a Lifelong Ministry of sustainable sacrifice. (New Malden: The Good Book Company, 2016).

If you have experienced difficulties in ministry then consider contacting Gospel Workers Advocacy for support and advice

Series: “Churches, watch over your ministry staff!”
Part 1: Identifying a Problem that Nobody wants to Talk About
Part 2: The Goodness of Church Leadership and some ‘Professional’ Challenges
Part 3: Christian Practices that are Too Rarely Practiced
Part 4: Ten Points for Churches on Dealing with the Mistreatment of Ministry Staff