“Churches, watch over your ministry staff!” Part 4: Ten Points for Churches on Dealing with the Mistreatment of Ministry Staff

In my previous posts I raised the very real problem of abuse of ministry workers by their employers in evangelical churches and organisations. If this happened once we should be concerned. If it has happened lots of times and at lots of churches (and it has), and possibly in your church (and it might have), then we must become wiser to the challenges and how we might engage them well.

Some might wish this was directed towards the leaders of churches and denominations. I have deliberately directed it toward ordinary Christians and congregations instead. These issues concern every member of God’s household, and every member must consider how we can engage them. Christians are best positioned to personally call their fellow believers to repentance at a local-church level. Good denominational practices are also very important, but that is not the focus here. Besides, the most important response to mistreatment of ministry staff is not more policies and procedures, but a stronger commitment to the Christian practices outlined previously.

What follows are ten considerations that Christians should bring to the challenge of dealing with the mistreatment of ministry staff in their church, if and when it occurs:

  1. Be alert and aware. One of the biggest problems is that churches are mostly unaware that mistreatment of ministry staff is a problem. Perhaps you’re reading this wondering: “what about when [X] happened…?” Good! The first step has been taken! If you smell a rat then it’s possible there is one. You mustn’t assume that slight evidence points to injustice, but it should cause you to seek further information. Ministry workers are too often mistreated by their bosses. If there is evidence that this is the case in your church then you should let it bother you into action. You mustn’t overlook it! Of course, the situation you are bothered about might have been handled in an exemplary fashion. Leaders are not guilty just because of bad vibes. The staff member might have been dismissed by a fair process and for good reasons. But ask if there are good reasons. Don’t be satisfied with less than good reasons, and certainly not with gossip and hearsay. If there are no satisfying reasons to be had, then ask why. You have a right to that information in your church. It is also worth considering the manner in which the staff member’s departure was handled. Strictly speaking it is possible that it was handled justly, but that the departing staff member was treated with a lack of love and compassion. For Christians, a failure of love is as great a failing as any and must be engaged with seriously.
  2. Don’t be fooled by ‘nice’. Don’t ever think “but [X] is such a nice guy – he’d never do that”. Some of the worst Christian leaders are seen by most people as wonderful. Bullies don’t have much success if they look like bullies. To be successful they have to seem nice. If you ever hear yourself or another person respond in the face of an accusation “but they’re such a nice person…” stop the conversation and identify what just happened. That is very dangerous language. It silences victims and prevents them sharing what happened to them. It allows bullies, domestic-abusers, and spiritually-abusive leaders to keep doing what they do unchallenged. Christians believe in a doctrine of sin which says that ‘nice’ people are sinners too. In fact, we know that people often use niceness to cover-over their shameful deeds, sometimes even self-deceptively hiding their sins from themselves. Such talk helps maintain a cloak of secrecy over sin. This is unacceptable in the church of God, especially for its leaders, and must never be tolerated. So look through the façade of likeability. Look at the facts, even if that gives you a new and unpleasant picture of some of the people involved.
  3. Be aware of who is most vulnerable. Abuse is about power disparity, and there is more than one type of power. Differences in age, maturity, experience and gender can all be exploited. We need to be aware and sensitive to the power disparities that exist in our particular church. For example, single women in ministry often have the least amount of power in their situation, and are therefore the most vulnerable to being treated unfairly and without recourse, support or help. We should consider this as we think through our own church situation. 
  4. Watch out for victim blaming. One of the most harmful lies that gets thrown around in reaction to relational breakdown is “I’m sure both parties are to blame”. To which we should respond: “Really? How do you know?” Assuming from the start that both parties are guilty can itself be a form of abuse. At best it is lazy and oppressive. It prejudges the situation without evidence or knowledge. It works against victims labeling the truth of their experience. Here’s the point: if both parties are to blame in the particular case in front of you, then the wrongdoing of both parties must be established rather than assumed from the outset. When it is assumed, it forces the victim to share the guilt of the perpetrator. Both are now seen as guilty. And if both people are guilty then (in practice, at least) no-one is. So (we conclude) “let’s get on with life now like nothing happened.” That is a tyranny to the innocent; they are lumped in with the perpetrator who has already wronged them and gotten away with it. This is not only profoundly hurtful and unjust, it’s also unbiblical. I can’t think of anywhere in the Bible where both parties to a dispute are told to “identify what they brought to the problem” as though they are both guilty by definition. All the cases in the Bible that I can think of involve a guilty party who has wronged someone, and who therefore needs to repent of their sin and make reparations (e.g. Matthew 5:23-26). Our churches need to rediscover this important biblical principle. Certainly in many cases both parties are guilty, but people can only be responsible for their own sinful actions that they personally committed. The dismissive “everyone is guilty” attitude bypasses the facts and allows sin to flourish.
  5. Keep an eye on how matters are handled and by whom. Watch out for answers that sound self-serving and for potential conflicts of interest. If the leadership asks for the church’s ‘trust’ in how they are dealing with matters in which they have a conflict of interest, then you should look at matters very closely indeed. It is unacceptable for anyone to be involved in managing sensitive matters to which they are a party. If they are a party to a conflict, or have a conflict of interest that bothers you, point it out. Assert that you believe that it is inappropriate for you to trust them in this circumstance given their involvement, and that it is very concerning to you that they expect you to. It is never acceptable for leaders to ‘quietly handle’ serious matters in which they are involved. Power corrupts in the darkness. The truth, as much as possible and appropriate, must be brought to light. Sin must be exposed (Ephesians 5:11). Leaders are sinners too. They need to be called to account for their sins just like the rest of us.
  6. Keep an eye on who controls the flow of information to the congregation. Who handles matters and who controls ‘the story’ are closely related issues. If a leader (in any way) seeks to “control the story” or the flow of information about “what really happened”, then this is worth challenging. At very least it is probably a conflict of interest, and they might be covering their own guilt. Be brave and ask whether the departing staff member was called to confidentiality or was asked to sign a confidentiality agreement of some sort. Ask whether the ex-staff member would likely perceive that they were mistreated, pushed out of their role, or might have misgivings about how matters were handled. It is entirely possible that threats and intimidation have been part of what has gone on behind closed doors. Of course, there are challenges to the whole topic of sharing information. The potential for gossip is enormous. Great care and wisdom is required in knowing what to say and how. There may also be things that cannot be announced for legal or personal reasons. But at least consider whether you think the message given and who is giving it seems appropriate given the situation. Observe the power dynamics in your church, both formal and informal, and whether certain parties have control that they shouldn’t. If a party to the incident is also controlling the story, point it out. Explain why you find it unacceptable. The same applies where factions who might ‘have it in’ for one of the parties involved have control.
  7. Question who “needs to know. The category of “need to know” should only be deployed very rarely in matters that concern a church as a whole. Where do we get this secrecy complex? Certainly not from Scripture! In the Bible there is enormous emphasis on sin being exposed. Brothers and sisters, you have a responsibility and a right to hold church leaders to account for their actions. Don’t be afraid to expect answers and information about events that have occurred in your church. You have a right and a natural interest of loving concern about what happens in your church family. But pray! Recognise that you need every ounce of godliness that God will grant you to engage this situation well and out of godly motives. Much of what I have said here can easily lead to unhealthy suspicion rather than godly discernment. Be on your guard against this (2 Peter 3:17). 
  8. Protect yourself. It is a very sad thing to need to include this point, but it is very important. The more insistent you are in seeking truth and justice, the more likely it is that you might find yourself being bullied too. In one sense this would be confirmation of what you suspected. But don’t underestimate how awful this might be, or the possibility that the perpetrator might succeed in turning others in your church against you too. (Your church is in real trouble if your leader stoops to this!). Don’t underestimate the skill of the person you are dealing with. You may be dealing with a highly-experienced leader who has practiced skills in manipulating others, redirecting and diverting negative attention from themselves, and maintaining the impression of their own holiness. There are more leaders like this in churches than we dare admit. Again, be on your guard against ungodly suspicion and assuming the worst without evidence. But be aware that this is a reality in some churches, and it’s possible yours might be one of them.
  9. Be willing to confront wrongdoers, first individually and then with others if it comes to that (Matthew 18:15-17). And, yes, this is something you can do. It isn’t for some group of ‘super-Christians’. This point is important regardless of the authority structure of your church. It is simply about obeying the Bible, especially where the church hierarchy and power structures appear to have failed in this regard. We must honor our church governance structures, but where these fail the tests of love, justice, and truth, we must defer to our greater priority of honoring God and his ways. The power structure of your church may not allow you to bring formal discipline against an unrepentant leader. But in any church a group of believers can get together and say to a leader: “we believe that what you did is wrong. We are here to call you to repentance and to urge you to confess your sin. If you will not, then we will be forced to expose your sin before the church community.” At very least you can say “we are deeply uncomfortable with the account of events that we have been given. To be honest, we fear… [X-scenario].” It makes no difference what model of church governance you have. If your church leadership fails to do its job, the church body should express their concerns. The church must do that. But it takes prayer, humility, grace, teamwork, and a lot of backbone. And if it ever becomes necessary in your church to confront a leader before the congregation, then pray that God would help your church, and would give you and everyone involved mountains of wisdom and grace by his Spirit. Make no mistake: it is necessary to remove the poison from your church or you will never be healthy. But you should expect it to be a long and painful process.
  10. Finally: please, please, please do not overlook your departed staff member. They are likely hurting right now in ways that you probably cannot comprehend, and they will probably be hurting for years after everyone else has forgotten. And they are doing it alone. From their perspective your feelings of concern are worth absolutely nothing without action. The Bible strongly criticises feelings of concern that don’t lead to loving action (1 John 3:17-18, James 2:15-17). As far as the departed staff member can see, they are “out of sight, out of mind” – instantly forgotten by the very people that they faithfully served. So reach out to them. Assure them that they have some friends and allies. Verbalise to them that you believe that they have been wronged. (Oh, how liberating it can be to have friends who believe you! What a restoration of sanity and stability!). Ask how you can serve them. Spend time with them. Be willing to be uncomfortable and get things wrong because you probably will. Helping hurting people can be very costly and challenging work. But getting things wrong is sometimes a necessary part of getting them right. And, whatever else you do, be there to be their friend for the long term. Their journey of recovery is most likely going to be long and painful. They will need friends to walk that path with them.

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