Danger Ahead

Five road signs of abusive leadership

The rise of abusive leadership in Christian circles has not only led to more examples of failed leadership, but also overall shame on the body of Christ. Though identifying abuses of power within the church seems easy to do, stopping the injustice of abusing others isn't as simple. Yet for church leaders willing to deal with abuses of power—even their own—this could be the most important task they ever tackle.

My personal experience and theoretical inferences have revealed five indicators of those who abuse power. Think of it in terms of road warning signs. The more often we ignore the warning, the closer danger approaches. Here are five relational road signs to keep you on track.

Blind Curve Ahead—Lack of accountability: When church leaders compromise and ignore accountability, they tend to withdraw from partners, making solo decisions without counsel. Surrounding yourself with supporters unwilling to confront or challenge you is a great setup for failure. If not brought back on track, you'll continue to engage in compromising behavior that eventually leads to isolation and disaster.

Danger Zone—The rules no longer apply to you: Leaders who repeatedly compromise have decided their own rules of accountability no longer apply to them. They hold a higher standard for others than for themselves. And when others fail, they rarely show compassion and want those failing to "pay the price." In contrast, if the leader's actions are questioned, those questioning may be portrayed as disloyal or accusatory.

One Way—My way or the highway: The next step on the downward spiral is a pious mentality and overpowering leadership. When leaders and followers are in disagreement, the failing leader is tempted to embrace a "bully" mentality, placing intense pressure on the follower to conform or walk the plank. In some cases, the abusing leader sets a tone of "my way or the highway," severing the relationship with followers and colleagues.

Road Closed—Compulsive control of information: Information is power, and those controlling the process and distribution of information control the environment. It is common for abusive leaders to hold information as bargaining chips to manipulate or oppress followers. In some cases, they will dangle baited conversations to test others' loyalty, intending to sabotage them.

Dead End—Paranoia: This is a crippling syndrome, often robbing leaders of potential and opportunity. With a constant fear of the resurrection of dead bodies known as unconfessed failures, paranoid leaders spend good energy looking over their shoulders hoping not to be caught in their sins. The results of covered sin include loss of sensitivity, poor judgment and hypocritical living, as seen in David's failure with Bathsheba.

Christian leaders often display the psalmist David as a poster child of good leadership, highlighting his freedom in worship, valor in battle, influence in leadership and notoriety as "a man after God's own heart." Yet we know of his failures and often recite his prayers of confession and repentance. Those hoping to espouse David's repentant heart and overcome their failures, should apply these five truths: (1) submit to godly counsel; (2) abide by godly rules; (3) deny your flesh for godly desire; (4) share godly insight within community; and (5) allow God's grace to restore your brokenness.

Although victorious, shame also marked David's life. Which will mark yours?

WILLIAM LAMB is the director of field experiences at Lee University's Leonard Center in Cleveland, Tenn.


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