January 25, 2021

Stetzer on Surviving Unhealthy Christian Organizations

Dusk Sky, by David Cornwell

Saturday, I read this excellent article by Ed Stetzer: “Considering (and Surviving) Unhealthy Christian Organizations.” It is part one of a series, and I look forward to reading further.

Stetzer describes the “quandry” of the unhealthy Christian organization like this: “It often does good things on the outside while destroying the soul of those on the inside.”

Here, according to Ed Stetzer, are some signs that one’s church, mission, or Christian group is dysfunctional:

  • The church or organizational culture does not value those serving, just those leading and the function of the organization.
  • The leader is the only one who is allowed to think.
  • The organization or church thinks everyone else is wrong and only they are right.
  • People rationalize that the good they are experiencing is worth the abuse they are receiving.
  • People often know of the glaring character problems of the leader, but no one can speak truth to power.
  • Many times, the leader gets a pass for the fruit of his/her leadership because of some overwhelming characteristic: preaching ability, intelligence, ability to woo others, or more.

• • •

These are characteristics that many call “cult-like” when they are describing Christian or religious organizations. The overarching sin in these groups is ABUSE OF POWER. The longer I live, the more I see of this, and the more befuddled I become.

How, of all people, can Christians be blind to the one sin that Jesus counteracted by the example of his life and ministry more than all others?

If the three “biggies” on the sin list are: (1) Money, (2) Sex, and (3) Power, then the nature of power and authority, particularly religious authority, is clearly the one he addressed more than any other. The entire point of his coming was to bring a Kingdom unlike the kingdoms of this world, a Kingdom of the Cross, which triumphs through humility and suffering, not ruling over others.

And yet evangelicals rarely talk about it, are slow to recognize it, are not eager to talk about it even when they do recognize it, and keep getting sucked into groups where abuse of power happens over and over again.

Thus it has ever been, and continues to this day — clear testimony to the fact that Jesus’ church regularly leaves out Jesus.


  1. I’m sure this post will invite additions to your fine list; here’s one:

    1) an inordinate amount of time spent on the authority invested in the special position(s) held by leadership, and a failure to grasp the “servant leader” status of all leaders in the Kingdom. Even when “servant leadership” is brought up, it will be linked with that ‘special ability’ mentioned on your last bullet point. As in: I am serving the body by my excellent teaching….. or I am serving the body by starting more churches, networks……

    Rarely, i f ever, will it equate to “I am serving the body by helping an elder hang sheetrock (9 ft. lengths, and on the CEILING, oh, my…) or visiting an elderly (non-tithing) relative of a member.

    Without coming off as the shrill, Ecclesioligy police, the church at large needs to help people navigate thru, and when needed, out of, these toxic environments. Similar to helping people make better dating/courting relational choices, IMO.

    • Hanging sheetrock is our culture’s equivalent of washing a dsciples’ feet.
      Hanging sheetrock on a 9 foot ceiling is the equivalent of washing all 12 disciples’ feet.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Years ago, as part of a Habitat for Humanity build, I hung drywall (as we call it in CA). After that, I understand why drywallers are at the bottom of the totem pole in the construction trades. I was blowing gypsum dust out of my nose for a week afterwards.

        But still, I remember the professional drywallers on the build crew, sinking the drywall nails in a single stroke without even leaving a dent from the hammer. I was definitely NOT a pro.

        • I hear ya HUG: and then the rock-hangers buddy comes in right behind him on STILTS to start the mud job, which takes him\her about 1\10th the time it would take me to do the seams….. it helps to have the right tools and experience: in church or at the construction site.

  2. I really think a lot of it has to do that in Evangelical churches (especially those that are more Pentecostal or Charismatic leaning) there is a huge emphasis on pastors and leaders being called and gifted. So if people believe a pastor has a special, or really supernatural, ability to preach, lead, cast vision (cough… I hate that term), then they are willing to overlook a lot of crap. They may hear rumors of bad behavior, but they see those as attacks on the “man-a-god”. Eventually, though, these things come crashing down. It’s not too much different than what happens with professional athletes. Although, usually, the destruction that a professional athlete leaves in his wake is nowhere near as large in scope. Unfortunately a lot of us like putting people up on pedestals.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Man-a-God” or “Man AS God”?

      When the celebrity ego factor kicks in, it’s hard to tell the difference.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      And funny you should use Professional Athletes as a type example. To many “normal” people, Sports IS a religion and the Celebrity Athletes and Teams are its gods.

      Cults (TM) don’t necessarily have to be based around a religion per se.

  3. Randy Thompson says

    It may well be that people are so used to being small cogs in big machines that it doesn’t surprise them when they experience the same in church. It feels normal.

    I’m also struck, very negatively, by the obsessive interest in “leadership” in evangelical circles. Check out how many books, conferences, workshops and seminars there are on “leadership.” I see this as rather odd. We’re called to be disciples, which means we’re supposed to be followers, not leaders. Yet, I don’t think you’ll find too many books, conferences, workshops and seminars on “following.” Someone who is trying to be a follower, who is trying to follow Jesus and be like him, is worth following, especially since he or she would probably be flabbergasted to find someone following them! My point is, the emphasis on leadership leads to a sense of superior-inferior, the leaders and the led. The by-product is abuse.


    In the evangelical world, it too often seems like the qualities that matter are being a high impact person, an influence on others, or a good people-organizer. These are the qualities that matter. If you are not a high impact person, if you’re not an influential person, or if you’re not able or interested in organizing others for some task, then where do you fit in an environment where leadership skills matter most? Leadership boils down to getting people to do what you want them to do. In an environment where leadership is what’s most valued, then the (always unwritten) rules of the “game” are skewed in that direction. In such an environment, you can talk about “servant leadership” all you want, but everyone will only hear the word “leadership” and not hear the word “servant.” If they do hear the word “servant,” they have no clear definition of what it means. “Servant” ends up being the weak modifier of a very strong noun. And, you end up having as much a stake in things as did medieval serfs in their lords’ military campaigns.

    By the way, if the issue of abuse of power in church settings is an important one for you, get hold of Ronald Enroth’s book, “Churches that Abuse.” It may not still be in print, as it was written 20 or 25 years ago. It is quite good. Enroth was a professor of sociology at Westmont College and wrote some good sociology on Christian-related topics.

    • In such an environment, you can talk about “servant leadership” all you want, but everyone will only hear the word “leadership” and not hear the word “servant.” If they do hear the word “servant,” they have no clear definition of what it means. “Servant” ends up being the weak modifier of a very strong noun.

      Yes, THIS. When you bang the leadership drum that loudly, we get the message. And this is different from the massive jockeying for position at MegaCorp in what way, really, ??

      We simply do NOT trust the ethics and methodology of the Kingdom.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        In such an environment, you can talk about “servant leadership” all you want, but everyone will only hear the word “leadership” and not hear the word “servant.”

        So (dancing around Godwin’s Law) when you say “servant leadership”, they hear “Fuehrerprinzip”?

    • “We’re called to be disciples, which means we’re supposed to be followers, not leaders.”

      The single most potent answer I’ve discovered yet to the leadership craze.

      You will have, often, a claim to prioritize “discipleship” in a program/church, but it helps to think of this in exactly the same way you’ve framed “servant-leadership.” The degree to which leadership, leaders, and leading positions (regardless of modifiers) are held up as some sort of sought-after prize is in exact correlation with the degree to which “discipleship” has, as its endgame, not the exaltation of Jesus as King, but the fashioning of more “big, awesome dudes” who are entitled to assume that their personal vision-quest is de facto God’s will, as long as they can decorate their plans/goals with a smattering of Bible-talk here and there.

      There are plenty of great public figures/leaders in the church out there that I admire…It’s just that they’re precisely NOT talking about “how I got to be a big awesome leader, and how you can be too.” They’re simply exercising a clear calling, it’s drawing the people around them to see, know, swear allegiance to, and conspire with Jesus Christ ever more deeply.

      I share Chaplain Mike’s befuddled-ness.

    • Yes. Yes. A Thousand times “Yes” on the comments on leadership vs. Discipleship.

      I swear I hear 100 comments on “bulidng leaders” a month from evangelical groups, and maybe 6-10 on being a disciple. Yes, a fair amount of the “leadership” talk is about being a servant and humble. That is good. But the focus is still off, and the rest seems to be setting up people to fall. At worst (i.e. IHOP, who calls the people who pay money to be a part of their group “Forerunners”) they’re setting people up for a fall into cynicism and pain for long, long time after their chance for leadership passes them by.

      Christianity Today’s Mark Galli has an article about The Leadership Cult, and you can Google it. It’s quite the strong piece — and it was written 3-4 years ago.

  4. Clay Crouch says

    Let’s call a spade a spade. These are not descriptors of “unhealthy Christian organizations”, but of personality cults, plain and simple. And it’s high time for the so-called evangelical leaders (read Dever, Mohler, Piper et al) to stop pussyfooting around and call out their coreligionists on this despicable behavior. Their silence is at best, tacit approval and does much harm to the Church.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Maybe because the “so-called Evangelical leaders” are either running personality cults themselves or hoping to do so?

      Because that sort of “I tell you One and One make Three” Personality Cult seems to be THE characteristic of Megachurch Celebrity Status.

      • This also dovetails nicely with the whole “new church” process…does EVERYONE have to become the pastor of their very own church so it can be done “right”?? Or is it the only way to become a super-star, starting with your little church of 16 people and working hard to turn it into Thomas Road Baptist or Mars Hill??

        I just do not get it, or think that it is healthy…..too much talk, not enough service.

        People who follow Christ closely tend NOT to have easy, pretty, pain-free lives, and often wind up suffering and dying themselves (Peter, Paul, and an endless parade of Saints, canonized as well as some souls whose suffering and sacrifice is known to God alone).

        Mother Theresa or Jerry Falwell……which of these dearly departed leaps to your mind as a SERVANT leader? Which one can you picture washing St. Peter’s dirty, calloused, old-man feet like Christ did??

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          …does EVERYONE have to become the pastor of their very own church so it can be done “right”??

          Remember the theoretical end state of Protestantism: MILLIONS of One True Churches, each with only one member, each denouncing all the others as Heretics and Apostates. Kind of hard to scale that up to a One True Megachurch without a LOT of sheep-rustling.

          Or is it the only way to become a super-star, starting with your little church of 16 people and working hard to turn it into Thomas Road Baptist or Mars Hill??

          And there are only so many sheep to rustle (or goats to convert; or fire insurance to sell). Remember the dot-com boom? How you’d have a hundred start-up IPOs crowding into a market that could support maybe two or three of any size? How they all killed each other off?

          Mother Theresa or Jerry Falwell……which of these dearly departed leaps to your mind as a SERVANT leader? Which one can you picture washing St. Peter’s dirty, calloused, old-man feet like Christ did??

          But Mother Teresa was ROMISH, remember? Mystery Babylon Apostasy and all that?

          Still, I can see Falwell doing it before I can a LOT of today’s Megachurch Celebrity Anointed…

  5. Andy Darnell says


    This is, at least partially, about Mohler.

    Stetzer used to teach there and it sure sounds like he is describing the culture there.


    • Clay Crouch says

      Andy and HUG,

      I think this stink is all over the SBC’s shoes. How many of these Unhealthy Christian Organizations (TM) are just repackaged SBC churches? Don’t even get me started on the SBC seminaries. But speaking as an evil Episcopalian, it does break my heart to see the Church dragged through the mud by those who claim the loudest to love it the most.

      • I have an interesting situation on my hands… I’ve been discussing faith and God with a number of people. Some from IM, some from the Washington, D.C. area. One guy that I have dinner with and hang with is very invovled in a Sovereign Grace Church. He’s invited me to chruch in the past and I said no. I did committ to one service which I attend yesterday.

        But my friend likes Mark Driscoll, defends SGM – even with all the power and corruption issues related to CJ Mahaeny blackmailing and extorting Larry Tomczak, and he likes John Piper…with all that Piper has done. When talking about these “personalty cults” he is evasive at times, says, “it’s just opinion” etc… I am befuddled and I shake my head in disgust that many Christians excuse and enable others narcissism. I have my demons, and they have brought me to my knees in total dispair if you only knew.. Every guy deals with lust in some way… But the blindness that my friend has toward these reformed and neo-reformed folks troubles me. It troubles me that no one steps back and thinks how the “gospel” is muddied, trampled, defamed, and destroyed. Why? Becuase Christinaity has created a personality cult following that is gladly filled by narcisstic folks who greatly damage Christianity.

        They were talking about this last week over at Sovereign Grace Survivors and how this had created problems for the faith. Here’s the quote from the post:

        If anyone would find it difficult in good conscience to invite an unbelieving neighbor to attend your local SGM congregation with you because you might have to eventually try and explain this mess, it might be time to make your departure. Talk with the Good Shepherd about it. Maybe He will have you stay. Would He want to attend with you? When God comes to church, there is no mistake He is there.

        So in closing I don’t get it. I really don’t… This is one of the things that I do like about Catholicism…pastors and priests do not have this rockstar status. When was the last time you saw a priest autogragh a Bible in a way that a Calvinista does? They don’t… This is one of the bright, shining stars of Catholcism. And the evangelical church really needs to wake up and listen.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          Wait a minute — AUTOGRAPH A BIBLE?

          Where I come from, Autographs are done by the AUTHOR.

          Hmmmm…. Maybe that indicates something….

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        How many of these Unhealthy Christian Organizations (TM) are just repackaged SBC churches?

        Joke I heard on a well-done Christian radio talk show in the Eighties:

        “I was Non-denominational. You know, Southern Baptist with the labels painted over?”

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says

    As someone who was messed up by an “unhealthy Christian organization” in the Seventies, I completely agree. Though the one that messed up my head had no discernible all-powerful leader (except maybe an absentee Hal Lindsay); more like a general collective consensus like what was later called “groupthink”, tunnel-visioned on their own Pure Christianity, Separation from the World, Wretched Urgency, and Ye Ende Is Nighye.

    If the three “biggies” on the sin list are: (1) Money, (2) Sex, and (3) Power, then the nature of power and authority, particularly religious authority, is clearly the one he addressed more than any other.

    My old Dungeonmaster used to say “the reason most cults get started is so the cult leader can (1) get rich, (2) get laid, or (3) both.”

    And yet evangelicals rarely talk about it, are slow to recognize it, are not eager to talk about it even when they do recognize it, and keep getting sucked into groups where abuse of power happens over and over again.

    Possibly because they have been conditioned or catechized to expect the abusive trappings as Holiness and True Christianity. Or the abusers are good at using pre-existing tropes of the same.

    Historically, hasn’t the Devil been characterized more by Deception and “Appearing as an Angel of Light” than outright violent opposition? “Anti-Christ” in the sense of “Imitation of Christ” instead of in the sense of “Enemy of Christ”?

  7. “How, of all people, can Christians be blind to the one sin that Jesus counteracted by the example of his life and ministry more than all others?”

    Some of the reason may come from abusive interpretations of Romans 13 (submission to the governing authorities) and Ephesians 5 and 6 (submission of wives/children/slaves).

    Even the atheist Soviet empire used Romans 13 to scare people into submission. And the Ephesians passages are often abused with no mention of Paul’s admonition to husbands/parents/masters toward accountability and love.

    A man in love with power will use anything, not just the bible, as a tool toward that end—and then try to make it look like he’s right, and that others should repent of their wrong.

    • Don’t forget the grand daddy of them all… Hebrews 13:17. That also enables the system.

      • But even in Hebrews there’s to be an accountability on the part of those in authority, same as in Romans 13 or Eph 5&6. In all there is a reminder to be accountable to God or to Christ. That’s the part that gets left out.

        You are right though, about enabling the system. But it comes from abuse and from misinterpretation.

  8. sarahmorgan says

    This issue strikes very close to my heart. I doubt I’ll be able to write much about it, because the emotions I still struggle with in regard to my own experience as a ministry leader in a dysfunctional/toxic evangelical church can still overwhelm me and ruin my day.

    One thing I’ll say, I still remember one ministry leader, in all seriousness and attempted helpfulness, try to relate my pain and hurt from the cruel treatment I received from the other ministry members, elders and pastor of the church with Christ’s tortuous pain on the cross. I’m sure he meant well, but all it did was convince me that there was no hope for me to ever become a valuable, functioning member of a Christian community because, well, they wanted me dead or at least gone . Even years later, the thought of going to any church depresses me. I actually attended an Easter service last week at a mainline church — I do love God and wanted to express thanks for Christ’s Resurrection — but all I could focus on during the rather self-congratulatory service was the church’s odd architecture — above the altar, where one’s eyes are usually drawn in worship, was nothing but a huge, blank stone wall…no cross, no window, just a giant barrier between earth and Heaven.

    I think one of the biggest reasons that toxic leaders get a pass from so many people is because of the strong belief in evangelical churches that anyone who’s a pastor is there precisely because God put him there — after all, everyone hears them say “God called me to this position!”. Criticizing the pastor is equated to criticizing God’s own decisions, and Heaven forbid you do that, that puts you in the devil’s camp right away. It’s the same with toxic churches getting a pass from other churches — every time I tried to talk about the issues I dealt with, I got shocked reactions and serious condemnation for daring to criticize “Christ’s Bride”. But if I had a friend whose spouse was insecure, arrogant, God-delusional, smiled to my face yet gossipped and lied about me behind my back, sabotaged all my social relationships, one who kept trying to insert herself in my business for the purpose of “fixing” me, cut me down all the time to make sure everyone else knew how much better she was than me, and insisted that everything in my life had to be done her way (and have a tantrum if I refused), I would pull my friend aside and explain in sad & serious terms exactly why I had to terminate all contact, and encourage him to get some help for his spouse. And if he angrily said, “Love me, love my spouse!”, well, then, I’d be out of there fast.

    After my bad church experience, I had a lot of trouble with my faith — I couldn’t understand why God would allow “fake churches” to use His name for their own gain, deceiving believers. I’m still left with the question: if an organization claims to be a Christian church with Jesus in the name and on the signs, meets for a sermon and some hymns/songs every Sunday, goes through all the motions of being a legit church, etc., but doesn’t clearly and outwardly demonstrate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…is it really a Christian church? If it’s not a Christian church, why don’t other Christians warn people about them?

    • It’s not Christian; it’s fake Christian. I do try to warn people about them, and I’m not alone, but it does feel sometimes that there are very few of us. Most of us seem to be distracted by the architecture.

    • “Criticizing the pastor is equated to criticizing God’s own decisions”

      I think you nailed it right there.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        …the strong belief in evangelical churches that anyone who’s a pastor is there precisely because God put him there — after all, everyone hears them say “God called me to this position!”.

        Criticizing the pastor is equated to criticizing God’s own decisions…

        Sarah, CJ, everybody:

        How does that differ from “Divine Right of Kings”, the Christian workaround of “The King/Leader/Whoever’s-in-Power Is A GOD”?

        In Jewish tradition, remember the Book of Daniel and the Great Golden Statue of Nebuchadnezzar? “Divine Right to Rule” was a way to sneak that shtick into Christendom. Substitute “Pastor/Preacher/Prophet/Apostle” for “King” and you have what Sarah described —

    • Hey Sarah, thanks for sharing! I hear your heart and respect your story. Please know that even Jesus said that not all those who use the name of the Lord are godly. I have much baggage myself and understand some of your fears!

    • Sarah this was part of the reason I walked. I drank the reformed and Third Wave kool-aide. Was taught about God’s will. Combine that with John Piper, of which I thought my life would be a total waste if I didn’t do something “grand” for God. So I moved from Milwaukee to Washignton, D.C. and took a job I would not have otherwise taken. I’m paying for it today. And it was a terrible way to learn a lesson.

      Combine that with my sin conffesion being used to hammer me. Seeing people who were dishonest to fit and survive the system; and you know why I am so angry. It’s ebbing…it takes time.

      I sitll have moments of rage. And I am trying to figure myself out.

      One thing that has helped me is reading Philip Yancey. He has been a lifeboat in a raging hurricane. You might wan to look into his book “Soul Survivor” He wrote that to discuss why he still believes in God after a racist expereince in fundementalism. His brother left Christianity and has not returned. I also like “Disappointment With God” That is also good.

      But I am with you. And I live with some of this today,

      • I like Philip Yancey too. His books have been so helpful to me.

      • sarahmorgan says

        Thanks, Eagle — I’m already a fan of Philip Yancey’s books, and have read quite a few of them; they are indeed really helpful. Even so, like you, I’m not sure if the rage will ever completely go away. Most of the time I’m just sad, because after decades of (positive) church participation and service, I now feel like I’ve been kicked out of the club/community, and to be honest, I’m not totally sure it’s a bad thing because the levels of dishonesty I encountered revolted me and I find myself realizing that I don’t want to be part of that club anymore. Amazing how in some evangelical churches everyone acts like God doesn’t exist (i.e., nobody fears Him, He has no effect on their lives, everyone just does what they want, etc) but they pretend that they’re good Christians — the truth is the opposite: God exists, and no one is a “good Christian”.
        BTW, another great little book that I read when I’m feeling really spiritually down is Mike Yaconelli’s “Messy Spirituality” — there is a lot of grace in that book.

      • Eagle
        Soul Survivor was an incredible help to me. Started reading it as I was coming out of my agnosticism.
        Made me see how warped my past was, but even better, it gave me some good models of people to look up to.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Combine that with John Piper, of which I thought my life would be a total waste if I didn’t do something “grand” for God.

        I’d like to see someone try to tell that to St Therese of Lisieux. “The Little Flower”s entire case for canonization came from her “Little Way” of holiness and sanctity and God’s presence in everyday routine.

  9. I’ve been a member of two different unhealthy churches. Didn’t know any better; most Christians don’t.

    The first had a democratically-elected deacon board, who hired the pastor. (No term limits; not that it would have made any difference.) All the power was concentrated in the board, and it hobbled the pastor’s ability to lead. He couldn’t preach on certain subjects, or express certain beliefs, because the board would not approve. Supposedly this was in the defense of orthodoxy, but at the expense of every other fruit of the Spirit.

    The second had an “anointed” pastor, who selected whatever board members were faithful to his vision. Which, again, was allowed because the pastor was supposedly God’s choice to run the church… into the ground.

    We didn’t know any better because we (and most Christians) assume that there’s only one way to run a church: The way we’re used to. Democratic, autocratic, episcopal; supposedly our way is God’s way. And once that way is put into place, nobody really questions the character of the people put into leadership. We assume the structure will correct any problems, as if churches have checks and balances like the U.S. Constitution. (Not that those checks and balances always work, but that’s another rant.)

    But power, even power in the church, corrupts. We pick leaders for their charisma, not their fruit, and then we’re surprised that they bear bad fruit.

    In visiting a church I don’t know that you can always immediately detect whether the leaders bear good fruit. What I think we can look for is some kind of voluntary oversight. Not mandatory; you can’t tell good fruit by when people are made to obey, but by when they choose to submit to one another, as to Christ. When our leaders willingly admit they’re not perfect, that we all answer to Jesus, and that they’re gonna lead by example in humility, that’s a very good sign. Sadly, a very lacking sign.

  10. CM, why is it that the more liturgical churches do not have this cult of personality? Is it because the whole service isn’t based around the new sermon series? I just don’t get it. I know fairly well known Lutherans or Reformed in liturgical churches who are clear in their presentation of the gospel yet, when I hear them speaking I don’t get the same feeling that they are a cult of personality. What is the deal? I think that the liturgy protects the people from the cult of personality and protects people from the spiritual abuse. Would you agree?

    • Yes I agree. There is a much different ecclesiology at play in liturgical traditions. That’s not to say they are free from the abuses of power, but they don’t tend to manifest with such cult-like symptoms.

    • Randy Thompson says

      Even more than liturgy, which is important in and of itself, a sense of history and tradition is crucial. Churches with no memory can become whatever they want to be, and leaders with no memory are even worse. To see yourself as a leader in the Great Tradition is to have many, many role models. That is also a humbling experience. When your memory only consists of your experience of Pastor Bubba’s ministry, you’re in trouble, and the people you’re trying to lead are in even worse trouble.

      • Randy Thompson says

        Role models you typically don’t find in evangelical churches:

        Ignatius (martyr) Augustine Ignatius Loyola George Mueller
        Polycarp (martyr) Basil the Great William Carey Francis of Assisi
        Justin Martyr Gregory of Nyssa Therese of Lisieux
        Irenaeus (martyr) Gregory the Great John of the Cross
        John Chrysostom Martin Luther Therera of Avila
        Athanasius John Calvin John Wesley

        This list could go on and on. I could be wrong, but I don’t think any of these folks obsessed on leadership. They followed Christ and obeyed God, and were lights which attracted people not to themselves to be led, but to Christ, the only light.

        It’s better to be a saint than a leader. Saints do have followers, but do so only because their attention is on something other than leadership.

        The point is, a Christian leader is one where people see Christ, not a leader.

        When someone like Paul tells us to follow him as he follows Christ, you follow because you see Christ and someone heading the direction you want to go, who’s just a bit ahead of you.

        • a Christian leader is one where people see Christ, not a leader.

          I have my quote for the day already !! thanks , Randy T.

    • Tokah Fang says

      There’s another difference that helps liturgical churches – many of them are organised geographically. You don’t group up with like minded people and then call a pastor, you worship with the people you live near lead by the pastor you happen to have. This brings a lot of diversity to the congregation, and means the congregation survives leadership changes. You lose the “iron sharpening iron” process when you self sort into a large buffet of churches, one out there for any taste.

      Of course, this isn’t some foolproof perfection either, and it has it’s flaws that creep up. They just aren’t the ones listed in this article.

      • Another, and IMO vital, sageguard is a very clear and explicit hierarchy ABOVE pastors Bob and Bobbi; there is someone with authority higher than the local pastor. This, of course, is anathema to the pioneering american, revivalist spirit: don’t you dare fence me in, (insert RC slur HERE).

        Many of the elder boards and deacon boards that allegedly take care of this need just plain do NOT. Don’t get me started on well known examples. I’m not of the view that the hierarchy MUST look like Rome or Cantebury, but if it isn’t REAL and on the job in a personal manner, “accountability” is just buzz and fluff.

    • I think there are abuses of power in all church traditions, but the personality cult (at least of the sort we are discussing here) is endemic to evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity. If you look at the history of both movements, you will see over and over again a pattern of strong personalities shaping the movement and attracting fascination/allegiance.

      If I had to take a stab as to why, I think these are factors:

      -Evangelicals and Pentecostals generally de-emphasize sacraments and have a low eccelsiology. So the ceremonial/symbolic role of pastors/priests is not present, nor is the idea of the Church there to dwarf the individual.

      -Evangelicals and Pentecostals emphathize the Word and Preaching the Word with such singularity and gusto that the pastor’s role as interpreter/teacher is greatly emphasized. Unlike the priest’s functional role in transforming the elements, which is more about what he is than who he is, the evangelist or pastor’s teaching role is one related directly to his own study, charisma, etc.

      -Evangelicals and Pentecostals have become adept at marketing themselves in a the religious “marketplace” and/or are used to functioning as the offbeat alternatives to more established or ingrained traditions. Personality, inventiveness, and a good, hard sell are all assets for such movements.

      -Evangelicals and Pentecostals embrace a gospel of personal transformation that makes the individual’s testimony vital and its telling a key ritual. Likewise, they depend on the idea that good believers have before/after narratives, followed by some version of the “spirit-filled” or “triumphant life”, and so again, personal stories and personalities become very important. I could be wrong, but the only historical examples I can think of in, say, Catholicism that are kind of similar to this are when saints manage to become superstars in their lifetime–for something like the same reason: their lives are thought to embody holiness itself, complete perhaps with signs and wonders.

      -Both evangelicals and Pentecostals are participants in movements with a decentralized structure that are held together by influential colleges/Bible institutes, well-known pastors and their networks, and parachurch ministries. Without an ecclesiastical structure to hold them together, leaders perform this task. What’s more, they rely on personality and image to accomplish this goal: in a highly individualistic movement where 95 percent of everyone may reject your authority outright and attach to another pastor/church, you have to have a hook.

      -The whole theology of calling and spiritual gifts in both movements creates justification for exercizing/claiming authority.

      These are just open ended thoughts. I’d be interested to know if others have similar observations.

  11. If you think about this in terms of “use of violence” rather than “abuse of power,” I think all of us, not just the leaders, are often guilty. Violence includes emotional manipulation, suppression of free thought, shaming people, and other things that leaders do. But it also includes, in my opinion, things like:

    -“worship” that plays on the emotions through sensationalism rather than content.

    -apologetics, in the “demolish every argument that’s contrary to mine” sense.

    -withholding love or inclusion in the group from certain people.

    -trying to “fix” people instead of entrusting them into God’s hands.

    -preaching that uses vulnerability in sharing your own life as a tool for provoking an emotional response in others.

    -thinking we can use politics to create a Christian country.

    -self-hatred, excessive guilt, or doing “penance” mentally to earn God’s forgiveness.

    -twisting Scripture to fit our understanding rather than letting Scripture shape us.

    -viewing the world in an us-vs.-them, culture war mindset.

    If you think about it, nearly everything we do as evangelicals is violent. Nearly everything we do is based on a belief that with enough force of will or effort we can change ourselves, and that with the right words or the right feelings we can change others, and that it’s our job to use worldly tools to change the world into God’s kingdom. Violence is _the_ cardinal sin of evangelicalism. So of course it shows up in our leaders. And of course we don’t want to name it in them, because the truth is we’re as guilty as they are.

  12. Highwayman says

    What a widespread problem this is. It is reassuring in one way (we know we’re not alone) but upsetting in another to see the number of times it crops up on this and other websites.

    The quandary is no easier to deal with when one is sure that the leader concerned is not intentionally a control freak and is sincerely trying to build up the church to the glory of God.

    As Phil M says above, “…if people believe a pastor has a special, or really supernatural, ability to preach, lead, cast vision…, then they are willing to overlook a lot of crap. They may hear rumors of bad behavior, but they see those as attacks on the ‘man-a-god’.”

    People may see the problems clearly enough, but anyone actually questioning the pastor’s decisions is then seen as destructive and a hindrance to the Lord’s work, even if his decisions may actually be rooted in a deep-seated fear of failure and put a huge amount of stress on others in the church.

    It’s so sad.

  13. Wow- this is spot on. I went to an ultra-conservative fundamentalist college (which i’ll leave nameless) but the part about justifying the problems because of the “good” that is being done- so true. And also the part about only the leader being allowed to think.

    I know for me what stopped me from seeing the bad for so long was my own doubts and fears in regards to spirituality. I struggled so much to even believe I was saved in that environment so I didn’t feel right criticizing the leadership. Thankfully, by God’s grace, I know better now.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      …but the part about justifying the problems because of the “good” that is being done- so true.

      You could say the same thing about the French Revolution, the First Russian Revolution, and their other imitators around the world from Beijing to Havana to Phnom Penh to Pyongyang. All in the name of the Greater/Collective Good, with their goal of the Perfect Utopian Society always on the other side of the “regrettable but necessary” Reign of Terror bringing it about.

  14. The alternative to spiritual abuse is to encourage servant leadership. I once heard someone define it this way:
    “The people who are practical ‘Elders’ in my life are the ones who, after I’ve spent time with them, I find it easier to trust God in the areas that I struggle the most.”

    When I first heard that defintion, I immediately recognized both the instances of spiritual abuse in my own life, and to whom I could turn for a spiritually mature, abuse-free perspective.

  15. Crooked Bird says

    What an excellent point that out of the three big temptations–money, sex, and power–Jesus addressed power the most. Having done a whole lot of study on Jesus & money I can say with confidence that money was right up there under power on Jesus’ list–he talked about it a LOT.

    Though the quotes he gave us on the subject are probably the most well-known, the issue he spoke about least was sex. Probably because his religious culture was busy addressing it to the hilt.

    Somehow our churches have managed to mimic that religious culture, rather than Jesus.

    • The sad part is think of all the guys who were hammered for lust or confessing their shortcoming in evangelicalsim, especially with all this abuse. All who can identify with this raise your hand! (Eagle raises hand…)

      • Crooked Bird says

        I wasn’t sure I understood just what you meant by this, but then I read your comment on the pornography post. I’m very sorry for your experience. What you said about the honest people being the ones to get punished made a whole lot of sense and is really sad.

        It’s really true that the whole “sexual sin is the really bad kind of sin” attitude hurts a lot of people very badly.

        I actually sometimes wonder if evangelicals overemphasize sex *because* their theology dismisses Jesus’ other hard teachings as too hard/just meant to show we can’t save ourselves by the law/not in our dispensation, and yet there’s this wish to really *do something* for God… and all that’s left is being sexually pure and witnessing.

        My husband feels that not beating yourself up with guilt is a really important part of resisting mental sexual temptations. That if you push them away gently, as a natural thing but not to be pursued, rather than evidence of your hopeless perversity, they go away more easily.

  16. It is incredibly difficult when one day you awaken to the fact you have been duped . . . yet, you are in a sea of the “faithful.” When you question the superstar leader’s intentions and the only world you’ve known (as a Christian) starts to hate you for your questions. It is truly a witness of incredible mercy that any of us made it out of those abusive situations unsaved and still in one piece.

  17. Funny you should write about this

    Just the other day I was remarking to someone that it seems Christians are often willing to look the other way when there are glaring problems. I wonder if this is because people want to have a tendency to believe the best, perhaps to an unhealthy degree.

    For years I have had a hard time when I see a Christian who writes books or does videos and I see their face plastered all over it. Sometimes it seems to be more about them than anything, and I do not see much humility. I also recognize that some of the best never put the picture anywhere on their work.

    Am I the only one who notices this and is my attitude wrong?

    • I have an aversion to ministries that have the name of the founder or leader as their name. Seems a particularly peculiar thing to do if you’re a Christian – eg ‘Joe Smith Ministries’. Er – no! I think it’s the ministry of God that, by His grace, He is doing through and with you!
      That said, some of them are doing good work – it’s just something that really makes me cringe!

  18. Crooked Bird says

    Hey, I have a question for you all. Please, please, if any of you can think of something useful on this, help me out?

    I became aware last fall that a certain ministry/retreat program is abusive/manipulative, in a somewhat odd and limited way but a very real one. I guess I should explain. I’ll try to make this short.

    The program I’m referring to isn’t centralized & is not abusive in the same way as these “celebrity” ministries, but it is abusive. It’s considered more of a movement. It’s the retreat program that’s called Cursillo in the Catholic Church and has other names (such as Walk to Emmaus or Tres Dias) in many Protestant denominations, mostly mainline. Although the names are different the program changes so little from one denomination to another that it’s probably the only place you’ll ever get to see Protestants fast before communion and make an “altar visit” to an altar with a crucifix hanging over it. (It originated in the Catholic Church.) This is NOT what I think is the problem, just an illustration of how little it changes. There is not a central manipulative leader; the program itself is designed in a way that is profoundly psychologically manipulative.

    I can’t go into tons of details, but basically it is full of cult techniques. There is a packed schedule to which complete conformity is expected and participants are not told what will be happening even an hour ahead of time; watches and phones are taken away. The ratio of volunteer staff to participants is generally about 3:1. Not 1:3, I mean 3 staff to 1 participant. But some of the staff are “undercover”, acting as if they were first-time participants, though they do reveal themselves at some point in the weekend. There are regression techniques–making posters with markers and construction paper, having to sing silly songs, being given a lot of candy, not being allowed to do anything for yourself but always having to ask a staff “servant” to do it for you. There’s love-bombing, verbally and with constant small gifts. There’s also sleep deprivation, which (a leader admitted to me) is intentionally part of the program, though even most of the staff don’t know it, supposing the late nights & early waking to be a byproduct of the packed schedule. The thing that concerned me most, though, is the absolute conformity that is demanded. It seems a participant leaving the group to go to bed at 10:30 when the program is not over is a source of genuine shock and concern in the weird “mini-culture” this program creates.

    Now, beyond the weekend itself, they don’t do anything more to you, except invite you to come and participate in further weekends as part of the large volunteer staff. They don’t take your money, etc, etc, so it’s not really a cult. BUT they swear you to secrecy about the weekend so that you will not tell potential participants “because it doesn’t work if you know ahead of time.” Apparently the weekend is supposed to give you a big spiritual experience; one writer who analyzed it thinks it gives most people a psychologically manipulated catharsis experience. Which I can believe, given the techniques. It was designed in the 50’s in Spain as a way of getting Catholics more excited about and involved in their Church.

    So, kind of innocent… in a way. And kind of not. To me it’s the kind of thing that gives Christianity a bad name as a religion of conformity. To me the fact that spiritual abuse is confined to a single weekend of your life doesn’t make it any less spiritual abuse, it just makes it a lot shorter.

    The problem is, there’s *nothing on the internet about this* but one single site: http://www.questioningcursillo.org. (If you go there, click on “share your story”, there’s a personal story there that is worth reading.) I have been looking for a way to publicize the details & dangers of this thing, and it’s led me to discover a whole lot of watchdog sites & materials about spiritual abuse–but it’s all about conservative-evangelical types. I’ve never found anything mainline. (Or anything Catholic that would really fit the bill. But then I’m not sure Catholics would listen to me, I’m not Catholic.) Anywhere.

    It’s like people think spiritual abuse doesn’t happen in mainline churches. Wake up and smell the coffee, people.

    Does anyone know of ANY watchdog site that would be even remotely interested in posting something about a fishy retreat program in Catholic or mainline churches?

    I’d be very grateful.

    • Crooked Bird says

      Sorry, correction to the link, its http://www.questioningcursillo.com.

    • Crooked bird
      I can only recommend one thing. Go to a Cursillo yourself.

      I looked over the link you provided and the feeling I got was that it was written by one of the ministries or people that specialize in pointing out where everyone has gone wrong. There are tons of these types of websites around, and they are often produced by strong fundamentalists who have a very narrow view of scripture and the Christian life.

      The thing to look for is where are they coming from? Where did they get their biblical training (if any). When we write critical reviews we always come from some viewpoint, I looked and did not see the authors stating what they believe.

      To deal with some of your specifics: I go to contemplative retreats and most of them prefer that you ditch cell phones. I can understand why some might say watches. The point of a retreat is to create space where you can dial down from the frenetic society around us and intentionally listen for the voice of God.

      I can also understand why they ask people not to talk about it to others. Because a person is going to give their view, what if they came away with the wrong idea and totally missed the point? I don’t see anything that you have said that indicate it is wrong, taken in the right context! I have made posters with markers (publically) at a time when God was doing a work in my life, it was an expression of how I felt at the moment. Maybe the expressions of love are to attempt to show people that a loving Christian community exists.

      My understanding is that the purpose of Cursillo is to introduce people to Christ. A friend of mine (protestant) has been involved in the catholic cursillo for years. He took an alcoholic lawyer friend of his to it and the man met Christ. I have another friend who was involved with cursillo for years and talks about the people that came to Christ through it.
      But you and I talking about it does not answer the question. When you do your research don’t just focus on the websites that are critical, but look at any sources you may find that are positive and then weigh them carefully against each other. Because life seems to be such that both good and bad things are criticized and we have to sort out the difference.

      • Crooked Bird says

        I’m sorry. I was trying to be a little bit anonymous here, but never mind that. I went to one.

        Have you been to one?

        • Crooked Bird says

          Sorry, this here is just an accidental double post, my real post is below. I took out the question of whether you’d been to one b/c I realized it was clear in your post you hadn’t.

      • Crooked Bird says

        I’m sorry. I was trying to be a little bit anonymous here, but I see that was a mistake when trying to explain this type of thing. I went to one. The story on the website I gave, under “share your story,” is my story.

        Here’s the link: http://www.questioningcursillo.com/10.html

        Brian Janssen, whose website it is, is not at all a fundamentalist. He’s very moderate and he approaches the question from a psychological point of view. (There are a few fundamentalists out there who object to Cursillo on doctrinal grounds, yes. I didn’t have any problem with the doctrine there myself.)

        None of the specifics I gave was meant to be damning in and of itself. Of course there’s nothing wrong with making posters with markers, etc. I’m afraid I may not have expressed myself well, for fear of making my post too long, because what I am really talking about is the accumulation of all these little things, and the way they are put together. For instance the watches and cell phones. This is one thing I was told ahead of time, and I, like you, thought that sounded wonderful and contemplative. The one other thing I was told ahead of time was that people serve you and do everything for you. I assumed from this that it was indeed meant to be contemplative, a sort of Sabbath experience with God, which I actually needed profoundly at the time.

        It turned out that the bulk of the schedule consisted of people giving talks on basics (really 101 stuff) of the Christian life–taking notes required, in fact we were told exactly what to write down–followed by about five minutes of discussion with your group, then ten minutes to make a poster, then rinse and repeat, over and over–that, plus meals and a little worship singing & preaching, was the schedule, with no free time or alone time except five-minute bathroom breaks, from six-thirty in the morning to (once) midnight. Yeah, that’s not so terrible in itself either. But it sure made me feel like I wished someone had warned me ahead of time (I went because I *needed* rest) and it also makes no sense for them to forbid watches and cell phones in a context like that. (Unless an adult is not qualified to decide for him or herself when it’s important enough to walk out of a 101 Christian Living class to take a call.) It also made me feel simply terrible. I was in dreadful need of unhurried spiritual contact with God, and not being allowed to slow down or stop and be alone was a form of suffering, in the spiritual state I was in at the time. But the program was more important than my need, and I was told I would see, it would give me something great in the end. No, I didn’t wait till the end. I left. It was *unbelievably* difficult to do so. I had no access to a phone, nor a car–as per the program, everyone but a few leaders had left their cars miles away–and everyone I asked for help, or who accidentally discovered my intentions, considered it their spiritual duty to get me to stay. I was already vulnerable. Three or four of those “conversations” and I was an emotional wreck. I know that doesn’t make any sense. *It adds up.*

        If you do research about cult techniques you will find that they do use things like the little things I described, like childish crafts, candy and children’s songs to bring people back to childhood and a receptive, obedient frame of mind. (That one’s used specifically by the Moonies. I had no idea about all this until beginning to research this stuff, after my experience.) That doesn’t make the specific things themselves evil, they’re quite harmless depending on how they’re used, but the sheer number of these “little things” in the program is, to me, a clue to something. But I didn’t start there, I started with experiencing it.

        Also, I will say, God can use anything. He can also use the types of ministries the original post is about. Just about everyone I met in the Protestant Cursillo-based program I went to had the best intentions in the world–they didn’t come up with the program, they were just following it because they honestly felt it had blessed them. Far be it from me to claim none of them ever met Jesus at the weekend they went to. But would they have met him if someone had been allowed to tell them how packed the schedule was ahead of time? I certainly hope so, if not, I guess Jesus is really different from how I thought he was.

        Well, I dunno. Anything I say is quite open to being refuted. And any committed Cursillo person would definitely say I completely missed the point. The point is Jesus–I just don’t understand why the trappings are so hugely necessary to get us to him, and I especially don’t understand why my freedom to go where I needed to go and sleep when I needed to sleep had to be taken away by other human beings, without my prior agreement, in order for me to meet him. It’s really hard to explain this. If you really want to know, read my story.

  19. Everything here is true, and stated this way it seems so obvious, and yet it isn’t obvious at all. If it was this obvious, then these churches wouldn’t be able to flourish (or at least they wouldn’t seem to be flourishing.)
    I wonder how much of people turning away from the institutional church is related to people getting burned out at these abusive churches and never returning to God? If your image of God is based on what you’ve seen at these authoritarian and legalistic churches, then you are living a faith that is simply not sustainable.

    I have spoken to people at less authoritarian churches and it scares me when I hear them lament about their church structure. They are frustrated because people are not involved enough. There doesn’t appear to be enough accountability among the membership. Here comes the seduction. . .

    It calls with a gentle voice. It reminds you of the people in the Bible who were invested with Godly authority. It tells you that the gospel is about suffering. It causes you to distrust yourself, because who are you after all?!! You’re just a sinner, who needs guidance, a Godly leader’s guidance. It will selectively take verses out of context and you will be called to the narrow road. You will be called to carry your cross. You will be called to leave everything, including family and friends, for the cause of the gospel, which is represented by your church.

    It’s hard to leave this kind of church, because to leave it, seems like leaving Jesus. You need to have people (like those here) who can remind you how much God loves you, and that His yoke is truly easy.

  20. humanslug says

    How do you reach out and communicate with a friend or family member who is thoroughly submerged in an extremely toxic (bordering on outright dangerous) church environment?
    To suggest that’s there’s anything less than perfect about their church or their exalted preacher is not only perceived as a personal attack against them but blasphemy against God Himself — plus, you run the risk of permanently damaging or destroying your relationship with this person.
    In my case, I’m talking about my older brother. He and his family have been in this toxic situation for nearly 20 years, and for the past two decades I have stood on the sidelines and watched them become more and more isolated from the world and rest of the family. I’ve watched my relationship with my big brother — who I once could talk to about pretty much anything — dwindle down to almost nothing. I’ve watched my niece go through two failed “pastor-arranged” marriages before the age of 25. And I have watched my brother go from a reflective, introspective human being to an amening zombie to whatever Pastor Almighty has to say from the pulpit.
    Many times I’ve thought about just going to my brother and telling him exactly what I think and how I feel — but I’m afraid that would sever our relationship forever.
    Apart from praying, I’m really at a loss.

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