When Pastors Abuse from the Pulpit
I imagine any Bible Belt dweller or current or former evangelical, can list the bonkers, darkly hilarious, or painful moments when a preacher crossed the boundaries of their role and vocation into proclaiming cruelty and bigotry, particularly during the preaching moment (some of these were featured on my Instagram this week). Preachers and teachers occupy a powerful role in the life of the community. For one, they offer a public discourse that is almost never publicly challenged. The nature of preaching is that the preacher says their piece then everyone goes home. More than this, preachers are offering their interpretation of a Scripture passage then offering their perspective of what the congregation should do with it. Even in traditions or personal convictions that do not regard the Bible as inerrant or infallible, most Christians at the very least view the Bible as holy. A certain reverence is given to the person who publicly lay hands upon it, gives voice to it.
Whether overtly or covertly, a pastor’s abuses are often on display when they are on their most public platform. Assuming they represent God or perhaps simply assuming their pastor has good, holy intentions, it is not easy for a congregant to notice patterns of verbal and emotional abuse, much less resist it.
While I have all the hallmark experiences of a former evangelical/Southern Baptist Christian – the rants about modesty, teen pregnancy, premarital sex, original sin and total depravity, PG13 movies, abortion, rebel wives, deadbeat dads, and Pokémon cards – I believe the most abusive, harmful behavior I witnessed in the pulpit is far more subversive than red-faced, spewing blusters.
When I was a teenager, our pastor traveled oversees to speak at a conference. Upon his return, he claimed to be leaning on the grace of God while regaling the congregation with the tale of his trip. He detailed his sermons, the praise, the big names he met and preached alongside, how the Spirit was powerfully present. He added what an honor the invitation was, how he was most certainly going to be a yearly guest. He segued into praise for the church itself – how we were represented through him, how spiritually sturdy we must be to so undemanding as our pastor was on-demand at conferences throughout the world, how our name was spreading through the world via his own.
While it would be a stretch to name this incident as abusive on its own, it was not an isolated tangent. It was one moment in a larger self-portrait project. I’m special, he might as well have said, everyone who matters thinks so! And all of you are special because of your association with me, he could have added. Over time, anecdotes like this instilled a trust in his superior talent and gifting that overlooked, excused many other outright verbally and emotionally abusive moments that should have disqualified him ministry.
Even beyond curating portrait of himself, he was tying the church’s own identity and worth into his name and talent. When the whole church community comes to see its identity as intrinsically connected to the pastor’s identity then it also becomes motivated to protect the pastor. In this way, the protecting the pastor is tantamount to protecting the community. Now those who expose the pastor’s wrongdoing will be viewed as attacking the community itself. They will be vilified in the name of preserving the community by preserving the pastor.
In sum, the pulpit is often the pastor’s tool to connect the community’s identity to their own as well as instill a sense of reverence for the pastor’s gifting and connection. This duality protects the pastor from accountability. This subtle manipulation is the root that networks into countless other abuses of power.
Manipulations like these are consistent from a congregation of 25 members to 25,000.
After several recommendations, I recently got around to listening to the Rise and Fall of Mars Hill podcast, a limited series podcast on, per the title, the rise of Mark Driscoll’s mega-church then its demise. I quickly noticed a distinctive pattern in Mark’s sermonizing, one that was more explicitly highlighted in a later episode. Mark too was creating a persona, a mythology of Mark Driscoll. He frequently told the story of Mars Hill’s formative years with the story gradually dropping the names of other founding leaders and members until it was a story of Mark alone building the church. Mark effectively created a story of origin for Mars Hill in which he alone had the vision of what this congregation could be; he alone built the church; he alone could carry them to the next great thing. Driscoll also often implied unique insights and spiritual powers, and in later years began to offer anecdotes of his disturbingly detailed spiritual visions. Again, the implication is that the Spirit of God has delivered a special portion to Mark. He is special; the whole church is special because of him.
Francis Chan is another mega-star in evangelical circles. His hallmark moment came after he had left congregational ministry in favor of international mission work. While preaching at the Moody Bible Institute, Chan claimed that he had healed an entire isolated, undisclosed village in Myanmar. While miracles are not beyond the realm of my faith, unverified miracles performed by a western evangelical in an unidentified village with no English-speaking occupants in an isolated area of foreign country most definitely are. Already famous in the religious realm, Chan’s influence extended far beyond a single congregation. Fortunately, Chan was not speaking to a congregation inherently invested in his integrity. Subject to trial by social media, Chan largely ended up with egg on his face for this one. Even so, he is yet another religious leader attempting distinguishing themselves by their own uniqueness and, far worse, their particular portion of spiritual power granted only to them.
Perhaps you can already see where I am going across these three stories – not only does this pattern weave the pastor/preacher’s identity into the identity of the congregation, but it also makes challenging the preacher’s account of events tantamount to contradicting the Holy Spirit. So often preachers will create a narrative in which challenging them is equivalent to challenging God’s own power and work.
While I have offered several anecdotes to demonstrate a certain pattern of abuse, I know that you didn’t need to be told that many pastors harm and that they use their power in the pulpit to do so.
The truth is that manipulative religious leaders create an environment in which to simply see, much less challenge, their words and actions will most certainly cost your faith community. Perhaps even your faith altogether. You are motivated to trust them, to believe in who they say they are rather than who their words and actions testify they are.
What I want you to know is that this person intends to create devastating consequences for those who remain true to their integrity. These abusive pastors create two opposing options - look away or pay the cost. You are meant to lose everything if you break the spell, make a stand, or even simply leave. The truth is that every place of beauty has the inverse capacity to be a place of harm. When pastors harm, they do it in God’s name with God’s power.
Yet, most often, they continue to climb higher, higher, higher on the brokenness of those they have trampled.
New to My Bookshelf
While there are some poetry books I devour in a sitting (Maggie Smith, Mary Rueffle, Leila Chatti) I savored God of Nothingness by Mark Wunderlich. Beautiful and haunting, I spent several days sitting with this one.
I’ve already shared the first installment of Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series, but I’m going to talk about it again! The Last Graduate is a dark, menacing adventure from start to finish. The most fun!
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