What does a bad Christian leader look like? Unfortunately, some of us know too well because we’ve come face to face with them in the church or in Christian institutions and organizations. Sometimes they are pastors. So many people have been hurt by leaders in the church who are, to a great degree, supposed to be icons of Jesus. But some weasel their way into leadership-running people over to attain the status they seek. They abuse power.
So in an effort to recognize them and maybe try to figure out what to do, I am running a series of Friday Feature posts by Tiffany Brown-Erickson. Let’s have a conversation about it. I’d like to hear from you in the comment section.
You may not know who Tiffany Brown-Erickson is right now. But you will. I know her from a missions trip we took to India in 1994 as teenagers. Teenagers from all across the country converged in south Florida to go out into all the world. Our team was a film team. I’ll never forget it. And then, Tiffany and I reconnected through Facebook two decades later. Just recently I discovered she is an excellent writer. And through Facebook conversations, I realized she had experience with bad Christian leaders and a shared desire to see leaders in the church become who Christ has called them to be. We say that knowing we too need to become who Christ has called us to be. At the same time, we cannot remain silent about the wrongdoing we’ve witnessed. Tiffany has dubbed this as a sort of wolf supremacy with sheep in crisis.
By Tiffany Brown-Erickson
A few weeks ago, I came across this Facebook post by Marlena Graves:
“If in your bid for power you run over people, and when in power, you chew them up and spit them out, you’re a tyrant. Not a Christian leader.” I sat and stared at it for several moments, trying to define my immediate internal reaction, which correlated to physically jumping up and down and shouting, No, you have that wrong!
My reaction baffled me. Everything in my friend’s statement was, after all, absolutely correct, and I knew I did not disagree with her—I agreed! So why this resistance in me?
Why this… anger?
And then I realized… the anger I was experiencing was not directed at the true contents of the tweet. No, it was directed at the intended audience of the tweet. The admonition was, after all, clearly directed straight at the abusive culprits it described. It singled them out, the wolves among the sheep. The predators disguised as shepherds.
And this was the problem: I knew that no single one of those it rebuked would ever identify themselves as such.
Hence my anger.
I’ve known such tyrants. I have seen them ‘leading’. Seen them callously walking over God’s children who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, seen them chewing up and spitting out the faithful who inadvertently got in their way; and feeling ill, I’ve watched them systematically destroy any who dared to oppose them, to tell them to their face that they were harming those they lead by their pride and selfishness.
I’ve tried to comfort friends who have been pushed to a point of chronic depression and utter disheartenment over a period of years of trying their level best to serve God faithfully beneath the crushing and exhausting load of such a tyrant’s ‘christian leadership’. I’ve seen faith in God’s body on earth shaken, battered, and left bleeding in the dust in the wake of such leadership. I’ve watch healing take years, and years… and years.
Worst of all, I have helplessly been forced to stand by and witness one such leader in particular, a Shepherd by vocation, as he has slowly, inexorably, and ruthlessly destroyed the lives of a handful of people I love deeply. The process has been going on now for six years, and it is not over.
It is never over, with these tyrants, because there is no end to their determination to absolutely extinguish all threat to their power.
And I’m still watching.
But there’s nothing I can do. There is nothing I can say. I cannot confront, and hope for change. Such men and women do not suffer pangs of conscience. They do not read a warning like my friend’s tweet and feel an ounce of compunction.
Because they are not tyrants.
True tyrants don’t ever see the work they do as ‘running over’, or ‘chewing up and spitting out’. They do not classify their dark domain as oppression without bounds. They do not consider the crushing loads they place upon the helpless as unjust, nor do they see the punishment they inflict as persecution of God’s lambs.
They look at their work, and they define it as ‘necessary discipline of the wayward’ or ‘tough love’ or ‘purifying the flock’. They call their beatings Accountability, their abusive control tactics Protection, their manipulations Kindness, and their scourging without mercy the Love of God.
Indeed, these Christian Leaders like to cast themselves as bravely standing up for truth in the face of manipulative enemies, like Jesus. Their detractors are blind to the truth. Those who oppose are enemies of Christ, bent on destroying God’s work—which is always defined as whatever agenda the Christian Leader has in mind. Such people destroy lives in the name of ‘doing the right thing’; have a long list of reasons why it is the right thing, and Scripture to back it up. In their defense, they always have an adoring throng of admirers whose support they have carefully secured, and that throng is always there to tell them how brave they are, and how much the person bleeding in the mud at their feet brought it all on themselves.
Always, the abusive Christian Leader perceives all reality as a battle between light and darkness, with themselves leading the charge on the side of the light. Those who are trampled were opposing the light. Always.
And who would dare to resist such stalwart endeavor for the sake of righteousness?
Meanwhile their victims are quietly led to the slaughter, most of them never even heard or seen.
There are always a few, however, who attempt to make a desperate stand. Like a sheep in the face of a wolf, they are unquestionably outmatched. They have neither teeth nor claws, and their attacker has both in plenty. But this sheep has had a glimpse of the coarse fur beneath the disguising fleece… caught a flash of the yellow eyes and fanged jaws… and it realizes it faces a wolf. Instead of cowering, the sheep is moved by self-respect, or love of those other sheep that also are under attack, or by the love of the truth itself, to stand up.
And it is that sheep, upon whom the wolf unleashes the full force of its fury.
And like a ravenous wolf in sheep’s clothing, this tyrant-disguised as Christian Leader will never be given pause by the admonitions of the faithful.
It makes me aware of my helplessness… and my own helplessness makes me angry. I am only a sheep! And what can I do, if confronting accomplishes nothing? If calling them out produces no twinge of conscience? If their armor is impervious to truth and their heart senseless to pleas for mercy?
What does a sheep without teeth or claws do, when attacked by a wolf, save lay down and die?
*Tiffany is an obsessive-compulsive writer, avid medieval re-enactor and a mother of four highly energetic children living in the Idaho’s beautiful Treasure Valley. She and her best friend and co-author are currently with book and expecting the first volume of their baby, a fantasy epic, to be ready for publication within the coming year.
22 thoughts on “Friday Feature: When Wolves Wear Fleece or Cashmere”
Tiffany, this is so powerful. You wrote “There are always a few, however, who attempt to make a desperate stand. Like a sheep in the face of a wolf, they are unquestionably outmatched.” To that I say, “You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.” (1 John 4:4.)
Those tyrants are acting in a worldly fashion. Jesus is on the side of the oppressed. Greater is he than them. That’s cause for hope and celebration even in the middle of the troubles.
As I read this I am reminded of many from my past and the fact that I was a sheep that on occasion stood and was found in the midst of the attack. And reading this clarifies my husband’s pain and disillusion with the church. He, helpless to render any assistance to the love of his life as she was pummeled by so many wolves. His frustration at my seeming lack of emotion to said attacks, it was peace. I knew the One I served would propose the righteous vindication and was content knowing but never seeing it come about. This put a name to the years of pain suffered by my precious husband as his undaunted wife took blow after blow. I felt it was more of an enemy attack on me and I stood my ground for what I believed to be right – to point of the church requesting I do my ministry outside the church walls and not associate them in any way to my outreach ventures. I see now that in some ways I have allowed these to shape me. To cause me to cower. This has inspired me to go deep and stand firm once again in my convictions and to take the blows – for God has given me the inner strength to take them. God bless your ministry. And I would like to know…what does a sheep attacked by wolf with teeth and claw do? Surely they don’t just lay down and die.
Yuki, I feel for your both you and your husband. I have found that it is often far more difficult to forgive and be at peace while watching someone we love be attacked then it is when we ourselves are attacked. I do try to answer the question “what does a sheep do?” in the next two installments of this article.
Thank you, Tim. I do agree. However celebration is hard bought when the pain is ongoing with no end in site, over years. This is the focus of my articles… to consider how to respond and not lose heart completely in the face of apparently endless abuse.
True, Tiffany. Our celebration in Christ is not like a child’s birthday party. It’s resting in him while all the troubles slam us form one side and another and then yet another.
She does leave us hanging doesn’t she. Not for too long though. She’ll address this in her next two posts.
Wow. You write with a sharp scalpel. Based on our experiences as pastors, this is painfully accurate. Is this the subject of Tiffany’s book?
Marlena Grave’s book, Beautiful Disaster, which is coming out soon and seen above on this page, is her own and there is a chapter where I believe she addresses this topic and draws the same conclusions as I.
My book, which I and my dear friend are co-authoring, is a an epic in the style of Tolkien, taking place in a fantasy world. However, I do actually draw heavily on my experience with this issue, the issue of abusive leadership in the name of Righteousness, for a large segment of the story. A prominent character sees himself as a type of ‘savior for his flock’ but is, in reality, consumed with a deep need to control and manipulate those beneath his care, to the detriment and even abuse of his flock. It was a difficult character for me to write because putting myself in his mind, and thinking his thoughts and feeling his feelings, made me face the reality that these people are often self-deceived… and how easy it is to become so.
I hope that answers your question.
Thanks. I am sorry that you have had sufficient experiences to write on this topic but I appreciate that you articulate so well what my husband and I experienced this past year. And you are correct–the self-deception is key. The more I read about Narcissistic Personality Disorder and Autism, the more I think that many of these leaders are one of the 2 (or both) which contributes to their cluelessness.
I, for one, think Tiffany definitely ought to make this a book!
The recovery is very, very long in coming, but I think it primarily stalls out because there is no reconciliation in many cases (or even an acknowledgement from church leadership that what happened was dead wrong). Such lack of closure draws out the recovery time.
Lynn, this is an astute observation and so very true. My friend Michelle Van Loon and I are thinking about tackling this subject.
Do it, Marlena! The more people who speak about this the better! Nothing is more destructive to the life of the body, the faith of the sheep, or the credibility of Christ’s body on earth, than this.
Lynn, you are absolutely right. The refusal of the leadership (often the abusive leader themselves, and often the leadership surrounding them) to acknowledge the sin being committed, makes reconciliation or closure almost impossible. When such things take place in a small community, the consequences of one wolf’s slander, libel, and condemnation can follow a person even when they leave the flock, haunting them in their personal and professional life in terribly destructive ways.
I want to write a book about this. I feel in adequate, but I feel like it is the one tangible thing I can do to stand up. For now, I’ll blog about it.
I’ve been that sheep who tried to defend other sheep and was utterly shredded as a result. And I’ve been in those counseling sessions that lasted years and years…and years.
I’ve forgiven and forgiven. Since the initial confrontation some 15 years ago, and those confrontations that followed, I was definitely chewed up and left the situation after trying to find solutions for about 4 years. I didn’t leave because I wanted to, but because I was given an ultimatum by the wolf, although the wolf would never see it that way. That said, I wouldn’t trade leaving for the world. It was the best thing and most needed thing. I saw signs before even beginning the position that a wolf was present, but disregarded the smells and sights that were alerting my sheep senses. I shoulda run the other direction, but though I was being faithful by staying, submitting to scrutiny, and working harder. Nope. I lacked the necessary objectivity to recognize the abusive, manipulative personality. Unfortunately, I have it now.
In terms of this particular sheep’s response, as I mentioned, I forgave and forgave again, and continue to forgive when necessary. I did that initial confrontation and the series that caused the wolf to go into attack mode, trying to resolve it one on one. I eventually sought outside leaderships’ protection from the wolf and pursued accountability for the wolf, which had been sorely lacking, particularly since the wolf had some prior incidents about which I learned after I’d been there several years. And leadership responded, pretty well, actually. In the end, though, the problem was mine without more support from other sheep, and the ultimate solution was the lonesome valley I had to walk by myself: leaving. I’m grateful for the leadership’s response. They tried. The wolf, I believe, is very manipulative and deceptive, and self-deceived (the biggest problem of all). Unfortunately, it the systematic manipulative abuse happened again in another place. Not sure the outcome of that, but several sheep apparently sought help and protection together and were able to bring about a more formal series of confrontations.
Natalie, thank you for sharing your story. Your words capture the experience of family members of my own, with such exact accuracy, that it is almost amazing.
I didn’t leave because I wanted to, but because I was given an ultimatum by the wolf, although the wolf would never see it that way.
It is incredible how obvious a pattern appears when this issue is examined… but SO HARD TO SEE when you are living in it.
It sounds as though you are in a place of acceptance and peace. What a hard-won victory this has been for you. I grieve for people like you, everywhere, who have and are suffering. God give you grace.
thanks for such an interesting post. Judging by my experience you are right on the money with your thoughts. I look forward to reading more.
Tiffany, thank you very much for writing this and sharing with us here. What you write hear resonates very much with spiritual developments in my life lately. I want to be a faithful Christian, and love the church despite all of our shortcomings (my flaws included). But it grieves me to see fellow Christians hurt in this way by individuals occupying positions of power within the church. – Matt
In support of the notion that we should stand up and speak when celebrity status overtakes pastoral care, I posted this today on how mega-pastors might better handle having mistakes pointed out: http://timfall.wordpress.com/2013/12/11/plagiarism-apologies-and-pastoral-personalities/
I’ll read it!