The Lord Jesus Christ provides his church with the tools necessary to expose abusive ministers and protect young ministers. For example, he provides a roadmap for godly confrontation in Matthew 18. Most importantly, as the Good Shepherd, he models what it is to effectively shepherd the flock of God (John 10). Instead of preying upon the sheep as many of the Old Testament shepherds did, he laid down his life for the sheep.
Tom was a young pastor on a large pastoral staff. There were decisions being made by the senior pastor that he found concerning. When he spoke up, he was maligned. Ruling elders would harangue him. He was occasionally pulled from preaching duties even though his name was in the bulletin. He sought out help from other ministers in his Presbytery but was left to fend on his own.
Darrell, another young pastor, made the mistake of crossing swords with his senior pastor. He had slight theological differences with the pastor—still within the bounds of Scripture and the confessions—and this led to endless critique and disparagement. The pastor would even critique Darrell after he preached in front of the whole congregation and would openly attack him from the pulpit.
Mike arrived at a new church, ready to partner with the senior pastor and session in a fruitful and vibrant life of ministry. Soon after arriving, however, he realized that the pastor and elders were more likely to talk about him than to him and would often leave him out of the decision-making process. Without his realizing it, Mike’s position was being undermined from the beginning. By the time he was able to engage these elders in the light of day, he had already become a caricature and was subject to an ongoing stream of abuse.
All of these young pastors were driven from the churches where they served—dispirited, despondent, and wounded. No seminary class prepared them for dysfunctional and toxic ministerial relationships. The mechanisms for outside intervention were either undermined or thwarted. All of them were sustained by friends and mentors outside of the church who regularly prayed for them and encouraged them with precious truths from God’s Word.
Over the past several years, a good deal of attention has been paid to ministry killers like burnout and moral failure, but there is a silent killer that has ended many a fledgling ministry: A lack of care and often—proactive harm—of young ministers by dysfunctional ministry cultures. This problem is far more pervasive than we’d like to believe, but by God’s grace, there are many tools at our disposal to address this problem.
The Vulnerability of Young Ministers
Young ministers are exceptionally vulnerable when they first enter the pastoral ministry. They often think they know far more than they do and can be particularly strident and polemical in tone. Many have not yet been chastened by suffering and the pains and pleasures of the ministry. As with marriage and parenting, patience and gentleness develop through ongoing sanctification.
They also don’t know what they don’t know. Churches are reflective of the culture around them, and there are often decades of accumulated wisdom and customs that are outside the reach of a young minister. He doesn’t know that the flower arrangement in front of the sanctuary was picked out in honor of a beloved member who passed away and that suggesting something new might prompt conflict that could’ve otherwise been avoided.
Finally, young ministers come into the church with baggage like everyone else. They have their own unique sin struggles that could undermine their ministry to others. They also may have suffered at the hands of those in authority—whether at home or in the church—in childhood. As a result, a young minister might be particularly sensitive to the critiques of those in authority or need affirmation.
These are just some of the factors that make young ministers particularly vulnerable. Thus, they can be easy prey for others—particularly those in leadership roles—if they are not careful or have reliable guides to help them. This problem grows exponentially if they unwittingly enter a dysfunctional ministry culture.
Dysfunctional Ministry Cultures
As a young minister, how do you recognize the warning signs of a dysfunctional ministry—especially when a church, like the minister, is trying to put their best foot forward? Paul David Tripp describes pastoral ministry as a “dangerous calling” because it is so easy for a minister to find his identity in ministry rather than in Christ. This false identity then corrupts all the fruits of an otherwise faithful ministry. Most perniciously, it can lead pastors and elders to feed upon the flock rather than feeding them.
As Michael Kruger explains in his book, Bully Pulpit, a culture develops around an abusive shepherd that both defends and perpetuates the abuse. Such shepherds resist accountability and are often defended on the pragmatic grounds of a visibly fruitful ministry.