Lessons On The Way 2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

A couple of weeks ago one article kept on popping up in my Facebook feed. It’s the sort of article which ordinarily I’d avoid, but the fact it kept on recurring, from people I know and respect, meant I eventually decided that resistance was futile and clicked the link. It’s a short article with an attention-grabbing idea: that certain professions attract a higher proportion of people with psychopathic tendencies, and the people who reach the top of these professions are reasonably likely to hold some of these tendencies. It’s not a long article, and you can read it by clicking here.

For the purposes of the research from which this article is taken, a psychopath isn’t necessarily a murderer (a relief to us all, I’m sure); rather that he or she is someone with an ‘anti-social’ personality, who exhibits three or more of the following tendencies: deceitfulness, impulsiveness, aggression, irritability, irresponsibility, a lack of remorse and a failure to respect lawful boundaries in the same way that others do. There’s an attraction to power as part of the equation too, a sense that power and success is given to these people, and they feel threatened by other people with power.

So what were those professions? Number 1 is a CEO, number 2 a lawyer, number 3 broadcast media … and number 8 a clergy person. Surely that can’t be right?

Of course it is. After 14 years working in churches and much of my life spent around them, I can recognise these things in myself and others all too easily. I can’t speak to the value or otherwise of this research; the article doesn’t really tell us much, to be honest. It’s more of a hook to reel you in to a website than anything else. However my experience doesn’t lead me to be too shocked that this is even a possibility. I’ve seen how my own heart and actions can all too easily go to darker places; I’ve seen first-hand church leaders bully and scare and abuse staff, church members and people from other agencies; we’ve all been aware of the child abuse scandals in some parts of the church; and many of us have our own horror stories to tell. I’m not a person who only wants to see negative in the church – I am, after all, working for the church and committed to it as an idea. I believe in church. I also believe in the damage it can do to those who are part of it, at all ‘levels’.

So on that basis, here’s an arbitrary, non-exhaustive, in no particular order, list of reasons why I think church leaders may exhibit these characteristics and/or some suggestions of things leaders and church members alike can do to prevent this from happening. This isn’t supposed to end a discussion, but maybe to start one; it is all based on my own experience as observed at first or second-hand … and no, I’m not going to tell tales.

1) The training of church leaders only goes so far

There’s a real variation of skills to church leadership, so training at a seminary and/or on the job tends towards either the spiritual ‘skills’ or practical ones. Whichever the training of a particular minister has tended towards it rarely, if ever, leaves any space for the clergy to work through their own emotional, spiritual and personal baggage. There’s simply too much to learn; and once you get on the job, there’s too much to do. So for many leaders, serious issues are left to bubble under the surface until they erupt at the wrong moment in the wrong way. Those who train clergy should be finding ways to enable us to be working through our stuff as well as learning; equally, church leaders should take responsibility for own growth and seek out counselling, support and spiritual direction.

2) The clergy life is a public one

Everyone tends to know what you’re paid, and the people you’re supposed to be leading have a significant say in various things like expenses, holiday and housing. When you bump into someone from church in the supermarket you don’t know if the encounter is, to the other person a pastoral, a social or a business one. You have to be willing to be ‘on’ all the time – and that can be wearing. If you’re not careful, this sense of living in a goldfish bowl can lead to over-defensiveness … which can look a lot like psychopathic behaviour to some. Allow clergy some private space.

3) Evangelical church culture celebrates ‘success’

Most of us want churches to grow in numbers, and they should do so. But there’s something dangerous in our evangelical sub-culture that elevates those who lead large churches. This can lead to an unhealthy self-regard in the leader of the larger church and a dangerous inadequacy and/or drive to grow at all costs in the leader of smaller churches. So the church can sub-consciously drift into a business mindset and the leader to a CEO role rather than pastor/teacher/priest.

4) Churches don’t do feedback well

My experience is that many church members are not so good at giving feedback to the leader. Most people aren’t able to really hear positive or negative feedback in the minutes after an event; if given in those first minutes it will either go in one ear and out the other, or meet an adrenalised and unhelpful response (read, psychopathic?). Most leaders would benefit from specific feedback in the days following. So, rather than “That was a good sermon”, say “Thanks for Sunday’s sermon. It really helped me think about this passage in a new way/hit the nail on the head with regard to an issue I have with my boss/comforted me because of this [named] situation in life”. Or if it’s negative, round it with positives, and then offer help. Example … “Thanks for all the work you put into Sunday’s services. They are worshipful and I do appreciate the preaching. But sometimes it can feel like it’s all about the services, and not about the people. Is there anything you think we could do as a church to boost the pastoral work of the church so that’s as good as the services are?” Rather than “You only care about Sundays. Please do something about the people in the church”. Don’t save all your positive or negative feedback for one occasion – that will destroy or puff-up a leader; tell her little bits over time. Then you’re saved that psychopathic blow-up or arrogance.

5) Leaders spend a lot of time working with volunteers

Leading volunteers can be really draining, and it’s very hard sometimes to shake the feeling that you are the only who’s really committed. So if you commit to a role, do it for a clearly defined period of time, and do what you’ve promised. That way your leader won’t be wanting to ‘drive’ people all the time, which is where many of us end up. Leaders, ensure people are fulfilling church roles on the basis of call, not drive. I once had a Sunday School leader tell me she had a big vision for how to take the kids work forward over the next year. She detailed to me what she was going to do; I was delighted. The next day she sent me an email to say she and her husband had been praying for some time and felt the time was right to leave and go to another church. If you commit to something, even as a volunteer, make it stick.

6) People often don’t stand up to church leaders

Because church members value church, they don’t want to rock the boat and tell a leader when she’s out-of-order. That’s admirable, but wrong. If a leader is doing something wrong or dangerous, tell them. If they don’t change, get help from the denominational structures. There’s no excuse for bullying in the church; if you see it happening, confront the bullying leader. You help no-one by not speaking up. I’ve seen bullying in churches first hand, and I know it happens often. It’s ugly, dangerous and abuse of authority and position.

7) Pray

Pray for your leader and pray for your church. Prayer does things, in you and in others.

8) Create space in job descriptions, appraisals and the like for the leader to take retreats and spiritual direction

Hold him accountable to this as part of the contract. It will deal with much of the stuff mentioned in point 1), and if you help your leader arrange cover for when he’s away that will ease the process.

9) Manage expectations

Do what you can to make sure the church members (you and your friends) have realistic expectations of a leader; and that she has realistic expectations of herself. If anyone wants to see your nice suburban church of 150 become a church of 1,000, mention that’s an admirable goal but maybe unobtainable in the short-term. To put it mildly.

10) Be kind to each other

Leaders and church members alike could always exhibit a little more intentional kindness to each other. Has a church member given quite a bit of time to the church recently? As a leader arrange for her to receive some flowers from the church to say thank you. As long as she likes flowers. Does your church leader like to eat out? If so, and if you can, take him out for dinner with no agenda other than to spend time together; or send him and his wife out for a nice meal on you. If it’s an Indian restaurant, do make sure they like curry first, though. Christians do sometimes seem to have this habit of giving gifts to people that they themselves would like or think the other person ‘needs’; find out what would be a real treat or injection of happiness and fun for the person and act on that.

So what do you think? What would you add to this? How can church leaders avoid becoming psychopaths? This list is no order and deliberately leaves things out to get you thinking. So get thinking!

Also in this series: Lessons On The Way 1: I don’t have to do it all

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10 thoughts on “Lessons On The Way 2: How to make sure your church leader doesn’t turn into a psychopath

  1. To quote Eugene Peterson-
    “Our faith, all faith, everyone’s faith, needs testing. And we cannot be trusted to test ourselves. We are too full of self-interest and self-deceit. We are too devious in devising ways of cooking the books to document the evidence that serves our illusions. When we look at the track record of priests and temples, pastors and churches, missionaries and missions, it is obvious that religion in all its forms, including most emphatically Christianity, is a perpetual breeding ground for violence, abuse, superstition, war, discrimination, tyranny, and pride. Religion and spirituality is a bottomless pit breeding illusion, deceit and oppression…”

    Helpful for all of us, but this from the ‘the pastor’s pastor’

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