In my previous post on this humble corner of the interwebs’ blogiversary, I told a little of my story of experiencing the left foot of fellowship from a megachurch leadership team. That experience has informed some of the discussion on church leadership at kinnon.tv.
Hellerman is writing a book on “the use of power and authority in Christian leadership. The provisional title is When Pastors Were Servants: Recapturing Paul’s Cruciform Vision for Authentic Christian Leadership.”
The motivation to take on the project came from numbers of students at Talbot, and colleagues in pastoral ministry, who have found themselves on the receiving end of abusive, hurtful leaders. The book will contain, among other things, a series of narratives (well disguised, of course) detailing the various experiences that these men and women have had at the hands of narcissistic, dysfunctional leaders in their churches.
Here is perhaps the most counterintuitive reality I have encountered in the whole process of researching the topic: all but one of the dozen or so abusive local church leaders described in the book are still in their churches, fully in control of the church’s vision, ministry, and staffing.
I don’t find it counterintuitive at all. In fact, a scripture I will return to over the course of a number of posts, 1 Samuel 8 explains exactly what’s going on. The context is Samuel’s response to the people of Israel demanding a king. The Lord responds to Samuel (from The Message)
When Samuel heard their demand—"Give us a king to rule us!"—he was crushed. How awful! Samuel prayed to God.
God answered Samuel, "Go ahead and do what they're asking. They are not rejecting you. They've rejected me as their King. From the day I brought them out of Egypt until this very day they've been behaving like this, leaving me for other gods. And now they're doing it to you. So let them have their own way. But warn them of what they're in for. Tell them the way kings operate, just what they're likely to get from a king."
So Samuel told them, delivered God's warning to the people who were asking him to give them a king. He said, "This is the way the kind of king you're talking about operates. He'll take your sons and make soldiers of them—chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons. He'll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury. He'll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks. He'll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends. He'll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy. Your prize workers and best animals he'll take for his own use. He'll lay a tax on your flocks and you'll end up no better than slaves. The day will come when you will cry in desperation because of this king you so much want for yourselves. But don't expect God to answer."
But the people wouldn't listen to Samuel. "No!" they said. "We will have a king to rule us! Then we'll be just like all the other nations. Our king will rule us and lead us and fight our battles."
When I was removed from my leadership role at the megachurch (apparently for daring to think the senior leader would live up to promises made), the official position was that I was to be shunned. Staff were told specifically not to speak to me.
A few, in fear, chose to. A number of active volunteers spent time with us – commiserating with us, telling us their own stories of experiencing the autocratic nature of the senior leader. A person who had experienced something virtually identical a year before me made a point of telling me their story, in detail. Yet. To a person, they are all still at this church. Even though our experience has been repeated numerous times with others in the six years since we left. In spite of what these people know to be true about the leadership of this church – and in spite of their own pain experienced at the hands of this leadership, they are still there.
Hellerman says this,
We are apparently attracted to toxic leaders. Psychological dynamics that lead us to rally around such leaders include a subconscious longing for a parental figure later in adult life, the need for security and certainty in an unpredictable world, and a desire to feel chosen or special, as we join together in community with others to support the noble vision of a bigger-than-life leader. We tend to look the other way, where integrity is concerned, if we can find an inspiring, confident leader to satisfy these pressing psychological needs.
At a deeper level, people respond to powerful, charismatic leadership out of a profound longing for a god-like figure in their lives. In religious contexts this person can be a gifted, celebrity pastor who simultaneously serves as both God’s representative and spiritual father to a willing, compliant congregation. Jesus was apparently well aware of this dynamic: ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father, because you have one Father, who is in heaven’ (Matt 23:9). (Emphasis added)
And adds this later when speaking of a New York Times article on Rudy Giuliani’s leadership after 911 where one rabid fan calls him “God.”
Some of our gods turn out to be devils in disguise. This is true of public officials, and it is true of certain pastors in our churches. Yet we continue to tolerate and even encourage strong leaders who clearly misuse their power and authority.
Human leaders have clay feet. That’s why we need more than one of them at a time leading a local church. It is no accident that virtually every church in the New Testament was led by a plurality of elders-pastors. Maybe that’s how Jesus’ earliest followers interpreted his command ‘Do not call anyone on earth your father.’ (Emphasis added.)
I would suggest that we need to highlight the plurality of elders-pastors if we are to spare the church the damage done by the "kings" we've placed over us in far too many churches, of any shape, size or denomination.
I will come back to Hellerman in my future post on the Marlboro Man as a leadership model.