The New Testament is not unaware of the problem of pastors who are overly critical and harsh with their sheep. In the long list of qualifications, Paul is keen to mention it: “Therefore an overseer must be . . . not violent but gentle” (1 Tim 3:3; cf. Titus 1:7)…Paul believes gentleness matters very much. No doubt part of the reason for this qualification is that the great Shepherd, Jesus himself, was marked by this quality. Jesus describes himself as “gentle and lowly” and declares “My yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt 11:29-30).
I’m continuing my blog series on spiritual abuse in the church which I am calling “Bully Pulpit”. You can see the prior installments here , here, and here. Since spiritual abuse is not as easy to spot as other forms of abuse, I am working my way through a number of key signs that churches should be on the watch for.
We come now to a third sign of a spiritually abusive pastor, namely that they are known for being overly critical and harsh with those under them. As Chuck DeGroat observes in his book, When Narcissism Comes to Church, abusive pastors are known for their “hypercriticism” of others (121).
Let’s unpack this a little further.
Leading Through Fault-Finding
Spiritually abusive pastors typically lead through fault-finding. They are quick to point out deficiencies in the job performance of those under them, eagerly call attention to a person’s character flaws, and often do so without gentleness or patience. In fact, victims often indicate that the feel “watched” by the pastor as if he is always looking for some mistake that he can grab a hold of and exploit.
Of course, the rich irony here is that this very pastor who is unable to take criticism (see earlier post) is highly critical of everyone else. That is not a healthy combination—and, DeGroat has argued, is the classic mark of a narcissist.
Narcissists can’t admit that others may be smarter or more talented than them, which is why they always critique others. Nor can they admit that they might be inferior or mistaken, which is why they won’t allow critiques of themselves or the ministries they lead.
But there’s another (and bigger) reason that abusive pastors lead through fault-finding. Demoralized employees (or members) are more insecure, quicker to submit to commands, and eager to make amends for their perceived shortcomings.
In other words, this behavior is a form of control. And bully pastors do it for one simple reason: it works.
In addition to always being on the hunt for flaws in others, abusive pastors often resort to cruelty in the way they speak to employees or members.
This can be done by cutting off a person in a meeting, publicly embarrassing them over some mistake, making fun of them in front of others, or speaking to them in demeaning ways.
Of course, some cases of cruelty are extreme. Some pastors are known to scream at their staff, call people “morons” or “idiots,” and even swear at them. Media reports indicated that Mark Driscoll was known for blasting his staff with harsh language and cussing. Similar charges were made against James MacDonald.