From Trust to Dust

What happens when leadership trust is fractured?
Why are so many Christians disillusioned because of church leaders?

Some Christians give their church leaders far too much power and don’t realize the inherent dangers in doing so. They also give such leaders implicit trust. When unprincipled Christian church leaders take advantage of the characteristic trust found in their loyal followers, then these followers are in for a shock. Their trust in them will be shattered. So, a good question would be:

Who do you give your trust to?


Church Leadership 

There are multitudes of good pastors out there. These sincere servants of Jesus minister faithfully in the strength that Christ gives by the power of the Holy Spirit. They have genuine care for God’s people and seek to nurture and to protect them from false teachings and harm.

In the task of working with people in any organization there will be differences of opinion as well as faults and offences made by nearly everyone. Even when efforts are made to try not to offend, they still happen since we live in a broken world. Healthy churches aim to work through conflicts.

On the other hand, there are church leaders who do not appear to be made of the same cloth. Over time, scores of people find out the hard way that their innate understanding of an ideal for pastoral leadership has been toppled. Their experience of spiritual abuse in their church has wounded them deeply and their understanding of caring church leadership has been shattered.

There are Christian clergy who reveal harmful leadership behaviors which amount to more than personal offenses, personality clashes, or differences of opinion. People in these types of groups do not recognize any irregularities or warning signals at first. The waters are calm and everything is flowing as it should. The appearance of the pastor and congregant relationship can be designated as: the Mr. Nice Guy syndrome.

The leader takes on a persona of benevolence and care, but over time this image begins to slip. Fast forward to a number of leadership issues that turn out to be relationship disasters, the growing number of wounding reports by congregants, and the inevitable spiritual devastation among a number of people and then one can see that something is wrong with the Mr. Nice Guy picture.


Problems in Eden

For the person willing to dig a little deeper in order to understand what is going on in their church, they begin to grasp that spiritual abuse is in the church, in their church. These people are now hungry to read books on the topic of spiritual abuse. There are countless websites and blogs available in order to track what individuals are saying about the issue of spiritual abuse from their experience. There are unfortunate accounts of spiritual abuse happening in various church groups or well-known Christian organizations. These facts capture the attention of those seeking for answers and they soon discover that they are not alone.

For these dedicated church members, their trust has now turned to dust. Their implicit desire to work alongside these esteemed spiritual leaders was their aim. Their trust has now been shattered. Now they are left to pick up the pieces of their lives as they reflect on their disheartening situation.

Many of those who have been wounded by spiritual abuse find that it is important for them to disclose their story of leadership disillusionment in some way. Since the opportunity to share among their former church fellowship is now very unlikely, their attention turns to the internet where they can post about their distressing church experience. They have learned from the experience of others on the net that this is often their only way to go. They pick up the skills needed and then begin their own personal blog.


Blogging about one’s story has a number of benefits: 

  1. It is a way to expose injustice.
  2. Blogging is therapeutic.
  3. Others respond to their dilemma with emotional support.
  4. Through recounting their journey, they are able to help others.
  5. They recognize that they are not alone.


Website and blog accounts are often shaped this way: 

  1. The roots and history of their organization.
  2. The atmosphere was happy and hopeful in the beginning.
  3. Then there is what I call ‘the catalyst’. Something came to their attention that caused them to question the leadership OR there is an issue that comes up initiated by the leader. The leader’s harsh words and harmful behavior mystify these congregants. By this time, emotions run high, trust in the leadership is shattered, and the feelings of devastation take their place.
  4. The goal for their website is to expose the injustice and to make people aware how spiritual abuse played out in their situation. As internet bloggers, their aim is to clearly and honestly document the facts and to inform and warn others. They want to provide support for others who have been wounded unfairly. They become a voice for the voiceless and raise awareness about spiritual abuse in the local church.
  5. Resources are provided. Bloggers plainly affirm that spiritual abuse is a much broader issue in the church today than they had originally thought. They thought that this situation was solely their resident community problem, but they soon find that they are not alone with this dilemma.
  6. Often what happens next is that these church leaders, who have been singled out, get word that there is a blog or website out there taking pot shots at them and their group. Those still attending this group are quickly put on alert by these leaders–not to read these provocative websites for fear of being shunned or expulsed. The former members are branded as rebels with carnal thinking and are to be avoided–they are to be formally shunned.
  7. Those who attend this group are at a loss as to why these former members are now apparently ‘slandering’ their pastor and the church board. These members do not know much about the behind-the-scenes issues. Since there is a no talk rule in many groups then facts are unattainable. These congregants do not understand what has been the catalyst–so their natural assumption is that it must be the individual, the couple, or a small group who are the problem. They can’t imagine that the problem might be resident with the leadership.
  8. Truth, for them, seems to be difficult to discern. Who is right? Those who have not experienced spiritual abuse and the shattering of trust are often oblivious to what these former members are speaking out about.
  9. Those who have their blog up and running soon find that many others come out of the shadows and identify with what has been said. The harmful leadership behavior that they have identified is accurate and that it has been experienced by them as well. There is also connection with people around the country and the globe who resonate with the experiences that they have described.
  10. That this type of leadership behavior is identifiable by so many is both comforting and disturbing for these novice bloggers.
  11. Though time seems to be the element that brings understanding to light regarding these issues, getting the word out and exposing this darkness still seems to be slow going. Recovery from spiritual abuse takes time.


Among the Christians

The problem with spiritual abuse in the church and among church leaders is that it can be found among those who are bona fide Christians. These leaders can point to their conversion experience and talk the talk. Church leaders can preach, teach, and lead. In fact, they are usually not invited into a church to preach or to teach without verified seminary or Bible College credentials.

People in church settings or parachurch groups are so often caught unawares regarding the insidious nature of spiritual abuse. It is like the old warming of the frog in the pot concept. No one is aware of the slow-heating factor, even though in hindsight there were clear indications that there were potential problems brewing. Questionable incidences are brushed aside in the beginning. Later, these incidences are seen for what they really were.


No One is Perfect

At first, when congregants begin to experience some negative behavior by their leader/s, they may make comments like: “Well, after all, no one is perfect.” “We’re all just human.” “After all, leaders have bad days too.” When these behaviors seem to escalate, then the writing is on the wall.

You don’t want to see church folk so on edge regarding their spiritual leaders that they are totally paranoid and make improper judgment about situations. On the other hand, it is important for church folk to have a reasonable knowledge about unhealthy leadership behaviors so that these behaviors can be recognized earlier on, rather than later.


When Exercising Discernment Makes You a Troublemaker

Discernment should be a spiritual discipline of the Christian life. There are many indications in the Scriptures that certain leadership behaviors should be ‘watched out for’ and not just left to run unchecked. The Gospels record many accounts of Jesus challenging the wrongful methods of the chief priests and elders. Jesus gave the exhortation: “by their fruits you will recognize them.” Since the context is “Watch out for false prophets” checking this kind of fruit is not factored in when thinking about Christian groups.

Since discernment should be an individual task, the reality is that no one should leave it for someone else to do for them. So, when people make an effort to examine the fruit in the lives of potentially abusive leaders, then they feel awkward. Furthermore, when interested people’s efforts are found out, they are branded as troublemakers! Leaders who manipulate and control the flock feel threatened and retaliate against anyone who raises any concerns about perceived deviant behavior.

The difficulty is that most Christians are averse to engaging in any form of discernment among their leaders. No one wants to be seen as someone who is trying to rock the boat. Such a pro-active attitude is deemed inappropriate when it comes to assessing Christian leaders, that is, those who have been trained in the Bible, homiletics, counselling, and church administration.

Congregants are reluctant to make a move in case they offend someone, especially the leader. The problem is not with a leader’s official credentials but in how they do ministryHow leaders speak and act in church business meetings, how clergy counsel someone in a private session, how leaders react to conflict, and especially how clergy treat the people of God under their care, are now concerns that rise to the surface.

When someone challenges suspicious behaviors as being unjust, unkind, and harmful, then the fun begins. At the first signs of registered concerns, the church board rallies around the leader–to protect them from these unseemly onslaughts. The individual or this couple are now labeled as troublemakers. Little concern is manifested towards those who have been wounded by this leader. Everyone is on alert and there seems to be no hope of resolve.

When one is confident in their own identity in Christ then there is more likelihood that they will take a risk and get on with the task of exposing any injustice. When Christians are unsure about their identity ‘in Christ’ then they are more susceptible to the intimidation of dubious leaders. People lack confidence in what their intuitive feelings are telling them. They often dismiss them in favor of a more submissive and accepting stance with their leadership.

After inevitable relational disasters come to light, then congregants recognize that there was a huge gap in their grasp of how to deal with church conflict in a suitable way. So often, even if people had known how best to deal with situations, this may not have worked, simply because toxic churches are unpredictable. Since there are incidences of spiritual abuse in the group already, then there is little that can be ‘done right’ and attempts to do the right thing in a godly way are usually doomed to failure. As this realization begins to dawn, then there is a season of intense examination of their lack of understanding regarding the potential for abusive behavior that was developing in their midst.



Finding others who have experienced the same type of emotional havoc and have recovered can offer insights and support to help people to process the feelings of distress. A number of Christians may require the help of professional counselors in order to work through their grief and loss after this devastating experience.

The process of recovery takes people back through their naivety regarding church leaders and this can be a difficult season for people to work through. Coming through this season will heighten their spiritual and emotional sensitivities and make them a welcome resource for others.

Their resolve now is to inform and caution in every way so that others can be forewarned. They work at linking arms and networking with a host of people who recognize this need in the church. Their intentional effort continues to grow. Their aim now is to:

Raise the Awareness about Spiritual Abuse in the Local Church.

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© 2012 Barb Orlowski, D.Min.