Why People Support Abusive Leaders in the Church

Posted: April 30, 2014 in Uncategorized, When Church Hurts
Tags: , , , , , , ,

In those crushing months after we left our first abusive church (read Part 2 of my story), one of the things I struggled with was, how could the people who knew that abusive behaviors and situations had happened to me as well as others not step up and speak out?  I didn’t ask myself that question after we were tossed out of our second abusive church.  Maybe I just knew that they wouldn’t.  After all, not only had I been through this before, but I have talked to many others and read widely on spiritual abuse, and I am well aware of the way that people rally around abusive church leaders.

But, the question of “why?” remains.  Why, for example, did the head lay-leader of my church tell me in a Facebook message that he couldn’t intervene because things would “get complicated”?

Why did a woman in my former church respond to a reply I made on her blog that she was “praying for the courage and opportunity to be scandalous” (in speaking out)?

I actually had the opportunity to ask another woman who shared with me that there was a period of time when she was aware of “pure evil” happening in the church.  “Why did you stay?” I queried.

“It didn’t affect me,” she responded without hesitation.

I had another woman text me a few hours after we were told to never return.  “I don’t know what I would do if I were in your shoes,” she wrote.  She didn’t respond to my subsequent texts and the next time I saw her, four months later, she wouldn’t even look at me, let alone speak.  But that’s another post.

And I have to admit, I saw and heard about many abusive situations in both churches over the years.  For example, I know of at least three other people who were approached by the same associate pastor and told what horrible, terrible, no good, very bad people they were.  One was specifically told that she could no longer participate in a ministry in the church that she had developed and led since it’s inception.  She was deeply hurt and left the church, taking her family with her.  To my knowledge, not one person spoke on her behalf or against the judgment and condemnation that she had received and the subsequent wounding that she experienced.

Here are some of the reasons I believe people don’t confront their pastors or leadership regarding situations in which spiritually abusive situations are or have occurred:

1) It didn’t affect me. (And if it ever does, I will regret not saying or doing something or leaving.)

2) The victim must have deserved it. (After all, there are consequences – for the abused but not for the leadership.)

3) This is the pastor we’re talking about.  (Surely he wouldn’t do anything to hurt anyone.)

4) Touch not the Lord’s anointed (so out of context!)

5) Aren’t we supposed to forgive and forget? (But only forgive the pastor.  Forget the abused.)

6) To maintain their own status in the church.  (Because to do otherwise “gets complicated.”  Translate: I don’t want to risk my own position.)

That’s my list so far.  I’m sure it’s not exhaustive so I’m asking for your help.  Tell me, what would you add to this list?

  1. Because the show must go on…

  2. Because pastors and leaders who are given to evil want to continue doing it, presumably it gives them pleasure, so they slander anyone whom they perceive as a threat to their intentions. People in the church automatically want to believe pastor, so they start from a position of advantage. When the leaders slander you, people tend to believe them, so they support the abuser. Others don’t want to think they’ve made a horrible mistake in bringing their family to a church that’s abusive, so confirmation bias leads them to see everything through a light most favorable to pastor and least favorable to anyone with the temerity to tell the truth about him.

    Those who know what’s going on, know how evil it is, but stick it out and support the system, in my experience with two abusive churches, tend to fall into one of four categories:

    1). They’re given to evil also and derive pleasure from the manner in which the system abuses those who stand up for Christ as much as pastor; they may not have a lust for power like pastor, but they’re glad to support him;

    2). Cowards who just don’t want it to happen to them so they lay low and are willing to do the bidding of a leader to punish the party who refuses to go along;

    3). The brainwashed who’ve been so warped by trying to make sense of that which makes no sense, perhaps growing up in an abusive church or family, they see good as evil and evil as good; and even normal people can do great evil under certain circumstances if the leader presents himself as a reliable authority (see, for example, the Milgram Experiments or the Asch Experiments);

    4). Those otherwise decent Christians who outsmart themselves and become willing to do anything to stay in the graces of a pastor and system to which they convince themselves God has called them, how can they “be a light in the darkness” and “do a great redemptive work” if they side with the abused over the abuser? That would prevent them from having access to their mission field within the abusive church.

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