the shape of leadership

Confronting Spiritual Abuse

Review of ‘Bully Pulpit’ by Michael J. Kruger

George P Wood on January 12, 2023


Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” observed Paul Batalden. He was talking about healthcare systems, but others have applied his observation to organizations generally. If he’s right, churches need to ask why their systems are producing abusive leaders.

Bully Pulpit by Michael J. Kruger is a good place to start. Kruger is president and Samuel C. Patterson Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina. An academic committed to training people for vocational ministry, he states the problem clearly:

“Some of the leaders we are producing — and, if we are honest, some of the leaders we are wanting — have characteristics that are either absent from or completely opposed to the list of leadership characteristics laid out in Scripture” (emphasis in original).

Specifically, the problem is spiritual abuse, which Kruger defines this way:

“Spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader … wields his position of spiritual authority in such a way that he manipulates, domineers, bullies, and intimidates those under him as a means of maintaining his own power and control, even if he is convinced he is seeking biblical and kingdom-related goals.”

(The use of masculine pronouns is intentional because “the overwhelming majority of abusive leaders in Christian spaces are male,” Kruger writes.)

Spiritual abuse is not new. Kruger surveys examples of it throughout Scripture. Key passages include Ezekiel 34’s prophecy against “the shepherds of Israel”; Jesus’ warning to His disciples not to “lord it over” others as Gentile rulers do (Mark 10:3544); Paul’s requirement that overseers be “not violent but gentle” (1 Timothy 3:3); and Peter’s description of pastors as “not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:23).

A church’s system is supposed to produce healthy sheep in Christ’s flock, not lambs sacrificed to a pastor’s ego.

John Calvin captured the gist of biblical teaching on spiritual leadership when he wrote, “Christ appoints pastors of His Church, not to rule, but to serve” (emphasis in original).

Even though spiritual abuse is not new, Kruger argues that contemporary trends in church leadership give it a unique twist. He identifies five factors that contribute to spiritual abuse: celebrity pastors, prioritization of gifts over character, lack of meaningful accountability, misunderstanding of the nature of authority, and a defensive posture when criticized.

These factors put pastors on such a high pedestal that to question them is tantamount to questioning the work of God himself.

And so, when someone — especially a victim — accuses a pastor of spiritual abuse, the church system swings into line to protect the pastor. “Spiritual abuse is allowed to continue because willing supporters protect and enable that pastor.”

Kruger calls this “flipping the script” on victims and turning them into wrongdoers. Based on case studies of spiritual abuse, he identifies five tactics abusive pastors and church leaders use. They …

  1. “insist proper process wasn’t followed,” especially Matthew 18:1517;
  2. “claim to be the victim of slander”;
  3. “attack the character of victims”;
  4. “tout [their] own character and accomplishments”; and
  5. “play the sympathy card,” especially about how accusations affect their family members.

These tactics are red herrings. They distract people from the truth of an accusation. After all, an accusation can be true even if proper process wasn’t followed. Claiming slander isn’t proof that it happened. A victim can be flawed and still tell the truth. Ministry accomplishments are not proof of moral innocence. And it’s perverse to ask for sympathy for one’s family while showing antipathy to one’s accuser, especially if that accuser is telling the truth.

For victims, the emotional, physical, relational, and spiritual consequences of the abuse, not to mention the abusiveness of the script-flipping tactics outlined above, are devastating. Kruger writes, “spiritual abuse is prone to create deep and serious mental scars that in turn can produce long-term physiological consequences.” That trauma is deepened and reinforced by “social ostracization” from the church. And for victims, it can lead to doubts about the church, Christianity, God, and even their personal identity.

So what is to be done?

Kruger concludes Bully Pulpit by outlining a threefold strategy of prevention, accountability, and protection. “The best way to stop abusive pastors is never to let them achieve positions of power in the first place,” he writes. When churches and ministries interview prospective leaders, they need to make clear that they value “character over competency,” “teamwork over hierarchy,” and “accountability over secrecy.” Those values tend to weed out abusive leaders.

Churches also need to institute boards that provide real accountability for pastors. Kruger recommends limiting the power of senior pastors, requiring annual 360-degree feedback (especially from women), valuing independent-minded board members, and practicing real transparency.

Finally, churches need to protect victims. It should not be difficult for victims to raise concerns about spiritual abusers. Case studies indicate, however, that churches default to making it hard. To do better, Kruger writes, “Churches must have a clear, well-organized plan for how to handle abuse claims and care for an protect the victims during the process.”

I recommend Bully Pulpit to pastors, pastoral staff, board members, and volunteer leaders in the local church. A church’s system is supposed to produce healthy sheep in Christ’s flock, not lambs sacrificed to a pastor’s ego. Reading this book may help us chart a path forward to a system that produces healthy sheep … and healthier pastors, too.


Book Reviewed

Michael J. Kruger, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Reflective, 2022).

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