Churches—With Troublesome People

Churches—With Troublesome People



This website is geared mainly for those who have experienced spiritual abuse in their home church.  This is a valid concern and there is a vast need to raise the awareness about this issue.

In talking to many pastors, often a very draining issue in pastoral ministry comes up.  A dilemma that many pastors face is:  dealing withtroublesome people in their churches.  These kinds of people can be recognized in most local congregations and it is the task of church leadership to evaluate, make recommendations, and take appropriate action.

These are the type of people who make a claim to a certain part of the church ministry turf, they object to interference or changes, and have temper tantrums when pastors or other church leaders try to work with them.  They are individuals who are difficult to reason with and draw community energies away from the presentation of the Gospel and Christian growth as a church family.

I thought that the email conversation with one pastor might be an insightful look into this distressing situation from a pastor’s perspective.

When it comes to pastors and other church leaders being the perpetrators of spiritual abuse and wounding so many of God’s people, I find myself working hard at explaining to caring pastors that the spiritually abused that have been harmed and that I have researched about are notthose who would be classed as ‘the troublesome’ type of people found in so many churches.

On the other hand, the fact that there are troublesome people in many churches needs to be brought forward as well.  Clarifying the distress that these kinds of people can cause in a church family is worth exploring.


Another Side of Church Abuse  

I have gotten acquainted with so many people through internet networking.  It has been a wonderful way to get to know individuals and their ministry interests.

I happened to be sharing with a pastor about a recent article I had written entitled:  “What Spiritual Abuse Is and Is Not.”  I asked this pastor for his feedback on my freshly written article, to which he agreed.

Out of that email conversation, this pastor gave an insight into his early ministry struggles when he arrived as the new pastor at his new church assignment.  There is room for pastors and congregants to adjust to each other, as they get to know one another.  For some pastor couples, this type of adjustment is not always easy.

What makes it difficult during this adjustment period is when certain people, especially those in leadership positions, are not willing to work with the new pastor but hold tightly to their own area of ministry and reject helpful input from him or her.

You are invited to consider the following account of one pastor couple’s journey through a difficult adjustment period at their new church.

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The Adjustment Period, One Pastor’s Journey

I came to this church around the time that the book, Churches That Abuse by Ronald M. Enroth, was published.

I had not read the book, but it made the rounds among several people who left our church over the next year or so.  When I came as the new pastor, this church was controlled by one man in particular and the music ministry was dominated by a very angry, bitter lady who was quite abusive.

Numbers of people seemed to have their own little kingdoms and looked at one another with suspicion if they perceived any threat to their domains.  When I came, they refused to work with me and the abuse began.  I have never seen a church so filled with self-serving people as this one was.

My wife and I spent a totally miserable year trying to work things out with them, but finally came to realize that we simply were not going to make it.  So I resolved that instead of coming up with some phony announcement like:  “The Lord has called us to a different church.” excuse, I would simply tell the entire church the truth.

I did so one Sunday morning and told them plainly that we were not going to make it here because of all of the infighting and selfish kingdom building that had been going on for a long, long time.  I called for the church to repent and humbly begin to follow Christ.

At the end of my message, the ring-leader who had put himself off as “the most godly man anyone had ever met” stormed up to the pulpit and denounced me, reminding everyone how he had “built this church” and that I had not given him his due credit.  He then stormed out of the church and later sent a message that he was resigning.

Over the next year, we had to sit down with the music leader after she threw a tantrum right before the service one Sunday because of a change we had made in the order of service.  She refused to meet with me and talk about it, so I was forced to address what happened at the next music committee meeting.

I told everyone that what had happened (all had seen it) was never going to happen again.  This woman stormed out of the meeting.  She garnered a few of her allies and they sympathized with her claims that she had been horribly treated.   She and they ultimately left the church, as did others who left simply because these pillars of the church had left.

Another couple, who had been leading the young marrieds Sunday School class, had to be dealt with after they showed up one Sunday morning having a spat over him being caught by her, the night before, watching porn.  She made him confess it to the whole class while she gloated and watched his pain.

The church board and I told them this was inappropriate and that they were not going to be leading the class anymore.  They left in a huff as well, and I believe they are the ones who then started passing this book around and accusing us of being one of the “churches that abuse.”

There were other such people who had to be talked to as well.  One man, for example, used to bring teens from the local youth prison camp to church every Sunday.  Turns out they were all sex offenders!  He did not even supervise them and we told him that we were going to make some changes.  He left a note on my desk the next Sunday morning saying that we “could just find someone else for that ministry as he was leaving this church.”

All of these kinds of people and more had gathered together over the years before I came and had been allowed to pretty much do what they wanted, bringing much shame to Christ by their ungodly lives in the community.  Yet at church, they put on a convincing, “Christian” facade.

Because we dealt with these issues, we were labeled as an abusive church.  Most of this was nearly twenty years ago and numbers of those same people, who have long since gone on to establish themselves in other churches, still tell others how terribly we treated them. 


My Email Comments Back

My email comments back to him were:

Thank you for taking the time to share about the types of people you inherited and their disheartening behaviors.

Yes, being a pastor of difficult people would be enough to make you think that you needed to move on and find a ‘nice church’ with kind and caring people!

In the book, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Johnson and Van Vonderen state that it is not always easy to determine who holds the power in a dysfunctional system.  Therefore, not all power is resident with pastors in those kinds of churches.  Some churches have families with influence and power; the long term members, i.e., financial givers can hold that kind of clout over some pastors.  Some churches have cliques and/or other hard to break through problems.

(*The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff VanVonderen.)

However things are ‘worked out’, there is opposition to the Spirit of Christ as the flesh seems to be in full blown control. Though the group is called “church” it does not operate by the principles found in the New Testament.

This unhealthy dynamic in that local church needed to be challenged for the sake of Christ and the witness of the Gospel in your city.  It is interesting that you got the vote to be their pastor.

It is inevitable that such people move on if the new pastor has the fortitude to tough it out and stay.  Wondering what kind of disturbance they may have caused elsewhere.  Did they mend their ways or were they not able to do much at their new church since they were the new people and didn’t have the history that they had at this church?

This is a very disheartening story to hear, yet it intriguing as well.  That the church culture in this location had allowed these kinds of behaviors to develop and to continue is something that needs to be understood much better.


Just Not the Same People

These were not the types of people who responded to my research study.  As you can imagine, I have since read or heard countless other stories about spiritual abuse.  From the encounters described above, there can be misunderstandings in some pastor’s minds about what really is spiritual abuse in the local church.

I guess that is one of the reasons that I felt motivated to get going on an article to compare and contrast spiritual abuse was so that there was a ‘voice’ from the other vantage point. Throwing the abuse word around needs to be investigated for the actual ‘story beneath’ it.  It is important to correct any misconceptions so that the word used is accurate and is not mistakenly used to describe the wrong thing.

Something about ‘tough nuts’ in certain churches and the damage that they can cause might be a good topic for an article.

There is a point to hear the voices of those who have been suppressed by spiritual abuse.  There is also a need to hear other accounts so that people are informed and not remain naïve about other abusive situations in churches and who is behind them.

So to borrow from the Ghostbusters theme, maybe there’s a need for more Naïve Busting to happen.  Whatever!

OK, let’s keep chatting.



So, Who is Diotrephes?

This pastor continued his observations:

Diotrephes was the name given to an individual in Third John who had taken much control in the church there.  [Diotrephes was described as:  being ambitious, proud, disrespectful of apostolic authority, rebellious, and inhospitable.]

These are the very kinds of people who have abused me for my thirty years as a pastor and they are the reason I have come to understand the abusive mentality, tactics, and the plight of abuse victims.  These kinds of people operate in very much the same way as domestic violence abusers and numbers of them are just outright sociopaths with no conscience.

I believe that what led to the creation of the monstrosity that I came to, that claimed to be a church, included these factors:

1.  An easy-believism Gospel that did not include the preaching of genuine repentance and expectation of holiness and obedience to Christ.

2.  Failure to exercise biblical church discipline.

One dairy farmer who was a church member, for example, was known in the community for his foul language and hot temper.  He was never confronted and I had to deal with him.

3.  The previous pastors allowing of abusive, controlling people to dominate and dictate.

4.  Tolerance of an unloving, power-seeking atmosphere in which various individuals and parties vied for power and control.

This was particularly evident at church business meetings.  The “head honcho,” shortly after I came, presided at a business meeting and when someone asked when the new building was going to get carpeting, his reply was “when I am dead and gone.”  When I confronted him about this at the next board meeting, he stormed out of the meeting in anger.

So really, as you noted, it was not a church. 


My Big Question to Him

So here’s my big question:  Why did people even bother to come to that church?  They could have stayed home in bed and slept in or done something else!

I guess there is an innate need for community, add to that, some could find places of prestige and control in the church and then you have a crowd gathering.  Call it church, because that’s the American way and there you have it.


His Concluding Answer 

They came, at least the abusive ones, for power and control and self-glory.  Most of them were completely unsuccessful in real life.  The “head honcho” that stormed down to the pulpit had never succeeded at his farming and so he volunteered for anything and everything, labeling it “service for Christ.”

Another failed farmer, the son of the terrorist choir leader, came and put on a very pious, “godly” facade so he could introduce the services and also sing solos, thus getting his recognition.  He also told me that the previous pastor always came out to his farm each week so they could make church decisions together.  I didn’t give in to that and he hates me to this day, twenty years later.

The choir leader had two failed marriages and hated men.  She was a gifted pianist, so she came to perform and be praised.

As I like to say, there are many reasons for coming to church.  Some of those reasons are right and good, but many are not.  In the same way there are many reasons to be a pastor, but only one is valid, the call of God.  If people are allowed to be personally glorified, those who are false Christians will often jump at the chance.



When it comes to problems in the church, there are enough to go around and people are usually looking for someone to blame.  There is a need to do some serious detective work in order to get at the real roots of problems.

Being aware of troublesome types of people is also something for church leaders and congregants to be aware of and to take action.

The place of the Lordship of Christ is what is in question in the lives of certain individuals, in the lives of certain church leaders, and the main reason for any church to be in a community.  Everything works out from that fundamental perspective.


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For Further Reflection

Here is a passage from the Epistle of Third John that mentions a troublesome member in this early church.  There is something to be learned from this passage about difficult people.  It is something to be aware of and to watch out for.

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us.  So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us.  Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers.  He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church.”

                                                                                                    3 John 9-10


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Your Thoughts

Your thoughts on the above article, further insights, along with questions, or other points of view, would be most welcome.

Just email Dr. Barb at:  [email protected] and you will get an email back as soon as possible.

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© 2012   Barb Orlowski, D.Min.