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Why are so many pastors abusing the trust of those God has placed in their care?
Few leaders in our society have more power over others than ministers--power to abuse or power to set free. However, people are more likely to have a healthy wariness of "quacks" in law, medicine and counseling than they do of "quacks" in religion.

Although most pastors are both gifted and godly, many Christians are naive enough to assume that any man or woman who is able to build a congregation is healthy. It is such naiveté that makes people vulnerable to unscrupulous pastors.

People don't realize the far-reaching effects their pastors will have on them and their families. Consequently, they exercise more care in finding competent physicians to care for their bodies than they do in choosing competent pastors to help them care for their souls.

How do abusive ministers get this kind of control over people? The roots of this awesome clerical power deserve some examination. They are biblical, social, institutional and personal:

Biblical. In his three pastoral epistles, Paul stresses the importance of confining this power to healthy pastors. Then, he instructs believers to give special honor to healthy pastors who preach and teach well (see 1 Tim. 5:17).

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But Paul also acknowledges that pastors may fall into sin or become abusive, so he gives specific directions for bringing accusations against elders (see 1 Tim. 5:19). However, abusive pastors sometimes counter any efforts to hold them accountable for their actions by misusing biblical passages such as, "'Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm'" (1 Chr. 16:22, NKJV).

Social. The Constitution of the United States guarantees religious freedom. This secures the pastor's right to preach and teach whatever he or she chooses. The government also empowers ministers to marry and bury people. In spite of the media attention to some ministers' scandalous sins, the pastor is still the most highly trusted person in the community.

Institutional. The institutional church enhances the power of the pastor through the credentialing process. Unfortunately, few religious credentialing bodies take any precautionary measures to protect the public from abusive personalities attempting to enter the ministry. Even those who do limit their screening to personal references and interviews.

The growing number of independent churches put even fewer checks in place when credentialing people. Since independent churches are accountable to no other body of authority, the risk of pastoral abuse tends to be higher among them.

Personal. Most people implicitly trust their pastors. They do not look at their pastors with the same discretion or suspicion that protects them from other harmful people in their communities. This enhances the pastor's power and gives them greater opportunity than any other civic leader to hurt or help people.


Abusive pastors have an uncanny ability to pick their victims. They usually choose people who are unsuspecting and somewhat naive--people who cannot find it in their hearts to question one who says he is "a man of God."

Abusive pastors also carefully select the leaders for their congregations. They choose men and women who are willing to give total and unquestioned allegiance to the pastor in return for positions of prominence and power in the church. These leaders become the abusive pastor's agents for controlling and manipulating the congregation.

The degrees of pastoral abuse may be viewed on a continuum ranging from financial abuse to sexual abuse with diminished personhood in between:

Financial abuse. Abusive pastors may manipulate wealthy contributors into making major donations or investing in schemes that will financially benefit themselves. Or, the pastors may borrow from parishioners and fail to repay them.

Perhaps the most devastating cases of financial abuse involve pastors who directly persuade people or allow their names to be used to encourage people to invest money in pyramid schemes or other highly questionable business ventures. Wise pastors know that if an investment scheme seems too good to be true, it probably is.

An even more despicable form of financial abuse is deceiving people to believe that a miraculous covenantal offering to the minister will bring to them an exponentially larger amount of money than they gave.

This kind of clergy quackery is often seen on late-night television in markets where there are viewers desperate enough for money to make this a profitable venture for religious hucksters. Those who engage in this kind of religious racketeering are a disgrace to the ministry.

Diminished personhood. In the last 35 years I have seen many victims of pastoral abuse who are left with little or no sense of personal worth, and suffer from depression and anxiety. They have lost faith in everything and everybody.

Simply establishing rapport with these people is a difficult therapeutic challenge. So, just getting them to feel safe enough to open up and tell their stories is our first goal. Verbally processing feelings that have been bottled up for months or years brings relief to them.

These stories often involve accounts of abusive pastors planting seeds of suspicion among members of the same family. A wife is told that her husband doesn't really care for her like the pastor does. And a husband is convinced that he can't trust his wife.

An abusive pastor is sinister enough to make each member of his church feel they have a unique relationship with him or her, and that other members are envious and jealous of that relationship. Eventually, each person feels closely linked to the pastor, but suspicious of the group. The only link they have with one another is through the pastor.

Coming out of such sick personality cults is a gigantic step for people because they have been taught that if they ever say anything critical about the pastor, God will severely judge them or something dreadful will happen to them or their children.

Sexual abuse. Typically, sexual abuse begins with the pastor's subtle calculated touch that obviously violates personal boundaries. In reflecting on what has happened, the person is confused about the intentionality of it. After all, this was their pastor who touched them. They do not want to feel it was intentional. In their mind, the pastor would never do anything like that.

Often, this violation occurs in the context of counseling or comforting a member in crisis. So, the person assumes that the pastor just got carried away in his efforts to help.

However, when no objection is raised, the abusive pastor seeks the next opportunity to cross a more intimate boundary. Once the sexual intent is obvious, the person feels compromised, but may feel that they were responsible for inviting the advance in some way.

The pastor then persuades the person that it is in everyone's interests to keep what has happened confidential. After all, what would happen to the church, to the person's family, and to the pastor and his family if this were to be revealed?

How do people get trapped into such abusive groups? Usually they stumble across the groups through the misguided sincerity of their own spiritual search. Or, they have been craftily recruited by members of the groups.


1. Create a loving, accepting environment where the person can learn to trust again. The longer the person has been deceived and the deeper they have been hurt, the more difficult it will be for them to trust you. So, help them trust again by giving them unconditional love and acceptance!

2. Let them tell their stories. When people are breaking free from an abusive leader, they are torn by powerful, conflicting emotions. They feel violated, betrayed and duped. They are angry and outraged, but may be too fearful or too guilty to get in touch with those feelings at first.

As they tell their stories, they discover that guilt is not an appropriate response to their abuse and the love of Christ helps them overcome their fears (see 1 John 4:18). Then they are ready to deal with their anger and outrage.

3. Set realistic expectations for recovery. Even through prayer and godly counseling, recovery usually requires from six to 18 months and will follow four predictable stages: First, shock--"This is like a nightmare; I can't believe it is true." (This stage lasts from a few hours to a few days.) Second, storm--intense emotional conflict and deep depression. (This stage lasts from several weeks to several months.) Third, search--"Where is God in all of this? How can I make sense of it?" (This stage lasts for several months.) Finally, sequel--peace and joy emerge again.

While accompanying a person through this painful process I try to help them learn to distinguish the difference between a healthy spiritual experience and an unhealthy one. A careful search of the New Testament reveals the characteristics of a church that encourages such spiritual health:

Is affirmed in fellowship. People need to beware of religious groups whose conformity to rigid legalistic practices and strange beliefs cut them off from other Christians.

Sees God as love. Abusive churches control people with guilt, fear, shame and a suspicion of other churches who have not found the "true way."

Teaches the believer that being unworthy does not mean that we are worthless. Our self-worth was established at Calvary (see 1 Pet. 1:18-19; 1 Cor. 6:19-20). We are not worthy of the price Christ paid for our redemption, but the fact that He paid it assures us that we are not worthless.

Helps one deal with reality--not deny it.
Is not rigid, but flexible enough to help one deal with the changes of the future.
Helps one deal with stress and anxiety.
Helps one manage anger constructively.
Balances work and play.
Helps one love and forgive others.


So, how do we as spiritual leaders identify traits in ourselves that may lead to spiritual abuse? Here is a list of indications that you may have abusive tendencies:

I have a grandiose sense of self-importance, and tend to exaggerate my talents and achievements.

I am preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success.

I see myself as someone "special" who can only be understood by other "special" or high-status people.

I require excessive admiration and feel entitled to special treatment.

Others are expected to automatically comply with my expectations.

I take advantage of others to achieve my own goals.

I lack compassion, and am unwilling to identify with the feelings and needs of others.

I am arrogant and haughty.

I am preoccupied with unjustified doubts about the loyalty or trustworthiness of friends and associates.

I fear confiding in people since they may maliciously use any information I give them to do me harm.

I read demeaning or threatening meanings into innocent remarks.

I bear grudges and am unforgiving of others I feel have harmed me.

I am quick to perceive attacks on my character or reputation that are not apparent to others and react angrily or counterattack.

I am deceitful and seduce others for my own profit or pleasure.

I am impulsive in my actions and fail to plan ahead.

I may be excessively devoted to work to the exclusion of leisure activities and friendships.

I am inflexible, stubborn and controlling, insisting that others submit exactly to my way of doing things.

I unreasonably criticize and scorn other ministers and people in positions of authority in the church.

I am uncomfortable in situations where I am not the center of attention.

I believe I am doing a much better job than others think I am doing.

Each of us needs to engage in the kind of conscientious ongoing self-examination that will keep us sensitive to the slightest indication of any characteristics of spiritual abuse in our own ministries. If you recognize a number of these traits in your ministry reach out for help.

The abuse of pastoral power is a treatable but not self-correcting problem. However, by humbling yourself and submitting to a godly counselor, these character traits can be conquered.

The pastoral power God has given you does not need to be abusive. It can be expressed in ways to set people free to be the people God has called them to be. Everyone in the ministry has an obligation to God and to the public to identify ministers who abuse their spiritual power, confront them and attempt to get them the help they obviously need.

This confrontation should be undertaken in a loving and biblical manner (see Matt. 18:15-17). My experience indicates that few abusive pastors respond positively to such attempts to help them address these issues in their lives, but they deserve the opportunity. Many of them are very gifted individuals whose ministries could bring great healing and freedom to God's people.

Richard D. Dobbins, Ph.D., is a Christian psychologist and minister. After 26 years of pastoral experience, Dobbins launched EMERGE Ministries, a Christian mental-health center in Akron, Ohio.

Diplomatic Immunity?

Spiritual authority does not exempt the pastor from biblical standards.

Controlling pastors believe they are to be obeyed simply because of the office they hold. They conveniently use scriptures such as Hebrews 13:17, which says, "Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls" (NKJV).

When insecure leaders are challenged regarding any type of dishonesty or hypocrisy, they often quote 1 Chronicles 16:22: "'Do not touch My anointed ones, and do My prophets no harm.'" Because of their interpretation of this verse, many pastors and leaders claim to have some form of "diplomatic immunity" from the biblical standards to which the rest of the body of Christ is held.

This spirit of control is not new to our generation. It has been operating in religious leaders for thousands of years. The prophet Ezekiel boldly declared the Lord's rebuke concerning the religious leaders of his day, saying:

"'The weak you have not strengthened, nor have you healed those who were sick, nor bound up the broken, nor brought back what was driven away, nor sought what was lost; but with force and cruelty you have ruled them'" (Ezek. 34:4).

God was accusing the spiritual leaders in Ezekiel's day of ignoring the needs of the people, and of using their positions of authority to beat down the people of God with their own set of rules and regulations.

God the Father describes the priests as shepherds who have selfishly neglected the needs of the sheep in order to satisfy their own needs.

The word "cruelty" in this verse can also be translated "harshness." In other words, according to the Lord, it was with a strong harshness that the religious leaders beat down and abused the people of Israel.

The book of Matthew records how Jesus viewed the people of His day. "But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered, like sheep having no shepherd" (Matt. 9:36).

The word "weary" is the Greek word skullo, and it literally means "to be harassed." Jesus saw the people as innocent sheep who were being harassed and abused by the Pharisees. Obviously what was happening in the time of Ezekiel was still going on in Jesus' day--and it is still happening today.

In Exposing Spiritual Abuse (Charisma House), from which this excerpt is taken, author and pastor Mike Fehlauer offers hope to victims of spiritual abuse and encourages pastors to examine themselves and their ministries for symptoms of this destructive disease. To order a copy, call 1-800-599-5750, or visit

Loosen Your Grip

9 characteristics of a 'control freak' pastor.
By Les Parrott

The most obvious and overarching characteristic of a controlling pastor is, of course, the desperate desire to be in control. But there's more to this desire than meets the eye. See if any of these traits make you a little nervous:

1. Obnoxious. Control freaks can be characterized as people who are offensive, injuring nearly every relationship they have with their controlling and pernicious ways.

2. Tenacious. It's part of the "Control Freak Code": "Don't ever, ever, ever, give in." The "control freak" pastor could easily spend several minutes correcting a story he is being told. No matter that the detail he's concerned about makes absolutely no difference to the story, he wants to be right.

3. Invasive. Some controlling pastors exhibit an invasive quality by poking around in their parishioners' private lives--in a "ministerial" sort of way. "Saintly" control freaks will cloak their invasiveness in religious garb. "Why has the Lord put you on my heart?" they may ask as a way of getting their gossip fix.

4. Obsessive. Control freaks obsess about anything and everything, from a person's offhanded remark to where people are seated around a conference table. Anything can become their obsession, causing them to lose perspective and neglect the big picture.

5. Perfectionistic. Listen carefully, and you will hear controlling ministers say under their breath, "I can't believe I did that, what a jerk." They will berate themselves for not having everything go exactly the way they wanted it to. We all get frustrated from time to time because something throws a chink in the works, but the typical control freak can't let it go.

6. Critical. Everyone knows control freaks can be some of the most painfully critical people you'll ever meet. It seems they can't keep their critical comments in check. They blurt out their critiques as easily as a professional reviewer gives a "thumbs down" to a movie.

7. Irritable. Cranky and contentious. Touchy and testy. Those who work closely with the control freak know to walk on eggshells if they don't want to set him or her off. The tiniest of things can ruin the control freak's day.

8. Demanding. This is a mainstay for control freaks. To get their way, they often resort to making demands. Like a kidnapper who is trying to secure a ransom, they order people around at their whim and fancy.

9. Rigid. In the hugely successful TV hit Seinfeld, one of the most popular episodes was based on a real-life situation and titled "The Soup Nazi." It centered around a feisty man running a small eatery where New Yorkers stood outside in long lines to enjoy takeout orders of this guy's delicious soup creations.

The catch? Customers had to put up with this control freak's rigid rules. Only one customer in the store at a time. Place your order immediately. Do not point. Don't ask questions. Pay and leave. If you wanted to feast on these tasty soups, you did as the man said. And if you didn't? "No soup for you," the Soup Nazi would snap. "Come back three months."

The episode struck a chord with viewers because we all know control freaks who live by rigid rules and expect us to do the same.

An ordained minister and co-founder (with his wife, Leslie) of the Center for Relationship Development at Seattle Pacific University (SPU), Les Parrott, Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at SPU. He is the author of the award-winning The Control Freak and the newly released Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda. For more information, visit

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Dr. Mark Rutland's

National Institute of Christian Leadership (NICL)

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