Types of Misused Authority in Churches – Part 1

22 months into my first assignment as a pastor and I was smacked in the head with a horrible story of pastoral sin. I had no idea what to do with it.

I had been hired as an assistant pastor of a 100 year old church in Canada. The senior pastor believed this old church could use some young blood as we moved out of the old downtown location to a brand new one on the edge of the suburbs. I had no idea I was to be cast as the new lead pastor within two years of coming on staff.

After he announced his resignation, one morning he came into my office and slapped down a two-inch thick folder on my desk. “You need to read this before agreeing to take on this job” he told me. He voiced it in such an ominous way, I was afraid to crack the cover.

After I had read the contents thoroughly three days later, I was very sorry I had done so.

This folder contained just a summary of the events scattered over three years. This had happened over 20 years previous, but the repercussions were still being felt by that congregation. Here is the summary.

The pastor of the church was an internationally-known speaker and writer. The church had over 1500 members, qualifying it as a mega-church in its day. One of the older ladies, a widow, had asked the pastor to help her with putting together the details of her will. About six months later, she passed away.

A friend of her family was also an elder of the church. Looking through some of her personal documents with her daughter, they looked into her bank account books (back before the Internet and computer accounting). It took them just a few minutes to realize the famous Pastor had stolen money regularly from her accounts in the six months since he began “helping” her with the will. They realized he had obtained her bank account numbers during that time and had her sign a letter granting him access to her accounts. No one has any idea why she went along with it.

This is where the file added much of its thickness. The elder who discovered the theft brought his carefully gathered evidence to the other church leaders. They investigated thoroughly and then presented their findings to the church’s governing board. The Board met with the Senior Pastor and asked both for his immediate resignation and a repayment of the money he had stolen. They had every intention of going to the police if he refused.

It would have been better if they had. It would have saved many hours of hand-wringing and tears.

The pastor assured them he would take care of it and would address the congregation to admit his sin. Five days later, he called a congregational meeting. About 600 people showed up for the meeting–this was the majority of the membership. The elders were surprised so many showed up on such short notice. They had no idea what was coming. They were unaware the Senior Pastor had spent those five days calling all his closest friends in the congregation asking them to show up.

He was the board chairman, so the Pastor stood up and asked for a point of order. Before the meeting could go further, there was an issue of sin which needed to be dealt with. Before anyone could object, he outlined a case where the elders were on a witch-hunt to discredit him. He told a carefully crafted story of how he had been accused and victimized by the leadership of the church. He accused them of conspiring to ruin the church and remove him.

It should have been easy for the elders to counter his arguments. They had all the facts on paper and could easily show he had stolen money from widow. But they never got a chance. Before they could defend themselves, he proposed a motion that all the church elders and governing board members be censured and put out of the meeting so it could be decided what to do about them. The vote was narrowly in favor of putting them and their spouses out of the meeting.

While they were in another room, the Pastor presented an even more complex and false rendition of what had happened. I remember reading the transcript and even all those years later, I was mesmerized by his ability to twist the facts to his own point of view. By the time he had read his rationalization to the congregation, I can see why they took the action they did.

On another narrow vote, all the Elders, the governing board members and their spouses were immediately removed from membership and barred from ever attending the church. They were never allowed to present their evidence of theft to the membership of the church. However, they did take some action. I just wish they had called the police like they should have in the first place. But in those days, churches believed that it was best to keep “outsiders” out of church affairs. In the past few decades, we have witnessed the lunacy of that approach.

Instead, the elders contacted the denominational leadership and asked them to intervene. The denominational leadership did indeed send a group of five leaders to investigate the evidence. It didn’t take them long to realize the Pastor had both broken the law and successfully covered it up within the church. They decided it was best not to go to the police (more bad decisions). But even the denominational leadership didn’t realize how crafty this man was.

In addition to being a famous speaker, he was also the son-in-law of one of the most famous evangelists in the world. He had several friends in national newspapers. Within two days of the denominational leaders meeting in that town, national newspapers spread the word that this “heavy-handed” church political machine was persecuting one of Christ’s best servants. Once the newspapers published this spin on the events, more and more magazines and newspapers called for the denomination to stay out of a “local problem”.

To their shame (our shame), they simply removed this pastor’s credentials and told him he couldn’t preach in that church any longer. They refused to reinstate the leaders back into membership. Many of the church members, hurt that the denomination had taken away their “beloved” pastor, blamed the people who had started this whole trouble. Their price for going along with the pastor’s removal? The other leaders must not be allowed to ever attend the church.

These leaders eventually formed their own church which became well-known years later for their good work in that city. At least they had some sense of moving forward. The church I was prepared to lead had shrunk in the intervening years from 1500 to about 150. Eventually, the man I was succeeding had gone to every one of those removed leaders and asked their forgiveness. Because of that, our church did experience a season of joy and healing.

The offending pastor found a non-denominational church that weighed his reputation as a speaker against the allegations made against him. His time with them was a disaster. He was never famous again and faded away into oblivion after a couple of unsuccessful pastorates.

I read all of these things and some other incidental details and I was overwhelmed. I didn’t want to stay in that church. I hardly wanted to be a pastor any longer. He acted with callousness and a total lack of integrity and compassion. He stole from a widow and her estate and was never called to account for it.

Over the past 40 years, I have witnessed hundreds of situations in churches where their leaders used their positions of authority to hurt others. In addition, I have counseled almost 400 victims of these leadership abuses. I have also been asked to consult on many more. Need I also add I have read about and been part of the general public witness of the most egregious examples of these abuses of authority. And no one seems willing to stop them or even impede them much.

However, in the past few years, victims are speaking out. Victim’s advocates are working tirelessly and without thanks by most to bring issues to the surface. Church leaders are running scared and they are acting out of desperation.

This article is the first of two. I am putting them on the blog together at the same time. They need to be read separately because though they are dealing with the same subject, they are different viewpoints of the issues.

This article is about that first abuse I witnessed. That first abuse brought out many principles I teach churches and Christian organizations. I want the reader to have these firmly in mind when moving on to the second article. The second article lists as many of the kinds of administrative abuse I have witnessed or heard of. But allow me first to mention the principles I always work at when addressing the hurts of church leaders.

1. No one gets a “pass”. Despite your credentials and accomplishments, you don’t earn the right to be above suspicion. If you have broken the law, violated ethical standards, hurt another person, or tried to cover up any of these things you should be treated the same as if the most humble member of the church did these things.

2. The concept of Grace does not cancel out consequences. If you are caught in a sin, you must be restored, not exonerated. In order to restore someone who has committed authoritarian sins, you must treat the issue and person severely. Why? In order for a person to hurt another, using their authority to gain trust, or their authority to cover up what they’ve done, they must cross several emotional boundaries. This is more than just “making a mistake”.

3. Those who sin publicly need to be rebuked publicly. The corollary of being given authority over the lives of others is if you abuse that authority your punishment and consequences must be done publicly so it becomes a lesson for others in authority. The message is this: “We are watching you.

4. To those who have been victimized, I always emphasize you must seek to be healed and restored within yourself regardless if you get justice or resolution. Keep seeking justice and keep seeking to get the truth out. But don’t wait until you get that justice. Begin the healing process as quickly as you can. Your heart does not need the abuser to be held accountable in order for you to have closure.

5. The role of the rest of us is to treat abusers severely and to comfort the victims. It is never appropriate to do it the other way around–ever!

6. If a person in authority has used that authority to physically, emotionally, or sexually abuse a person under their care of authority, the police must be called.

7. If the victim is a child, believe them quickly and act quickly. Most child abusers will abuse dozens of other children. The faster you can respond the better the chance you can protect others.

In the next article, I will be cataloging all the different types of administrative abuse. Please read that article as well, even if it means you have to deal with cynicism about church leaders. Make yourself look at all the angles of this issue so we can stop most of it from happening to anyone.

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