When the Church Bully Happens to Be the Pastor

Shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion but voluntarily, according to the will of God; not for sordid gain, but with eagerness;  nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.” (I Peter 5:2-3).

A friend wrote me about his pastor.

His pastor demands his way in everything, tolerates no dissent, and ousts anyone not obeying him.  He intimidates church members and dominates the other ministers.  His opinion is the only one that counts.

We could wish this were a rare phenomenon.  It isn’t.

The definitive bully in Scripture is Diotrephes.  I wrote something to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves the preeminence (“loves to be first among them” (NASB), does not accept what we say…. unjustly accusing us with wicked words; and not satisfied with this, neither does he himself receive the brethren, and he forbids those who desire to do so, and puts them out of the church (III John)

That’s the bully:  loving preeminence, rejecting outside interference, bringing accusation against the opposition, and putting people out of the church when they oppose him.

Invariably, when confronted, such a bully blames it on God.  “He put me in charge.”  “I’m the undershepherd of the church, answerable only to Jesus.”  “If you don’t like it, there are plenty of other churches where you would be welcome.”

We can give thanks the New Testament churches had these problems.

There’s a certain degree of comfort in knowing that the problems our churches experience today are not new, not signs the church is going to the devil or evidence we’re being swamped by the world.  The problems of division and strife (see I Corinthians), heresies (see Galatians), and petty egotism (III John) have been with us from the beginning.

This forever prevents us from piously withdrawing from today’s churches while claiming that they no longer do God’s will.  There are more churches at this moment in time doing great work for the Savior than at any time in history.  And likewise, more experiencing the cancers of worldliness, division, jealousies, and egotism.

There is nothing new about this.

It’s not even new or unheard of that pastors would be the bullies.  After all, there must have been a reason why Peter wrote what he did in I Peter 5.  For him to have cautioned pastors not to lead in such a way indicates he had seen it happen.

In a similar fashion, we have seen husbands lord it over their wives.  “God made me the head of the home,” the bully says, “so that means you are to take orders from me.”  It means no such thing, of course.  In fact, Scripture says the husband is to love the wife as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5).  So, there’s a dichotomy here:  The husband is the head, but he is to sacrifice himself for his wife and family.  A faithful husband does just that.

Wrong ways to lead the Lord’s church

The great apostle spoke to “the elders among you as your fellow elder” (I Peter 5:1).  These are pastors. Peter considers himself a pastor/shepherd also.

As “a witness of the sufferings of Christ and a partaker of the glory that is to be revealed,” Peter’s credentials are impeccable.  He was with the Lord when He walked on earth and is in line to share His heavenly glories in the future.

Elders/pastors are to exercise oversight of the Lord’s church (5:2).  The word episcopos (root of episcopountes, the word used here) refers to the overseeing assignment of the pastors (see Acts 20:28).  A shepherd watches over the sheep, leads them to green pastures, is ever alert for dangers and threats, and has the welfare of the flock uppermost in mind at all times.

Do not lead the flock in the wrong way or for impure motives, Peter advises…

Not under compulsion but voluntarily.  The KJV says “by constraint,” meaning the pastor is doing this “because he must.”  There’s no joy but total drudgery, no inspiration but a harshness.  Instead, the faithful overseer is glad to be preaching the word and tending the flock.  He loves the people, loves the Lord, and loves his calling.

Do you have such a pastor?  Give thanks for him and encourage him.

Not for sordid gain, but with eagerness.  He doesn’t do this for the pay.  This is not just a job, not a vocation, and not a work he entered because it paid well.  He is serving the Lord Jesus Christ and is thrilled at the privilege.   Asked what he missed most about the pastoral ministry, a man said, “I miss the trumpets in the morning.”  Ask any God-called and Heaven-anointed pastor.  He knows what that means.

Does your pastor see his work as a privilege?  Pray for him.

Not lording it over the flock, but being an example.  And here we have the key passage for our subject today.  The pastor is not to “lord it over” the flock.  Jesus is the Lord and he isn’t.

Is your pastor a servant of others?  He’s pure gold.

Pastors are not allowed to lord it over the Lord’s church. 

Jesus said, “I will build MY church” (Matthew 16:18.  It’s His church, His body, His bride.  No one in his right mind would dare insert himself between the Lord and His bride!

While it is true that Hebrews 13:17 calls on God’s people to “obey your leaders and submit to them,” that same passage says pastors “keep watch over” (overseeing!) “your souls’ and will “give account.”  Pastors will stand before the Lord and account for their stewardship and care for each sheep.  A scary thought if there ever was one.

So it’s a two-sided coin: We honor the pastors as God-appointed but pastors see themselves as humble workers for the Savior.

A pastor lords it over the church when he…

–makes decisions unilaterally.  He considers no one else’s counsel, believes God speaks only through him, and rules like a potentate.

–micromanages his co-workers and colleagues.  He alone knows what is best and allows them no room for individual expression.

–feels threatened when someone disagrees with him.  He reacts angrily and with harshness.

–forces those taking contrary positions out of office.  “My way or the highway” is his mantra.

You get the picture.

Question: What if you are a member of the bully’s staff (as a worship leader, student minister, etc)?  What are you to do?

I’m tempted to ask how you ended up on a church staff with someone so difficult to work with.  Of course, the answer is often, “I was here first.”  The bully pastor came later, and might even be new.  The church leadership–knowingly or cluelessly–brought in a pastor who would rule the church with a heavy hand. And you are left to deal with it.

So, what should you do?

–Pray, pray, pray.  Ask the Father all the questions bugging you.  How to respond to the pastor today, what to do when the pastor asks you to do something you cannot or would rather not do, how to make your thoughts known to the preacher, and so forth.

–Get two or three or four friends in other areas to pray for you constantly.  These could be members of previous churches or classmates from school.  They should be able to keep a confidence.

–Don’t get territorial–as in “I was here first, and God called me to be minister of music and this is my job.”  That attitude will get you a quick exit and a bad recommendation for the next church.  Keep your eyes on the Lord and look to Him.

–Ask the Father about making this situation known to a key church leader, someone of great integrity and trust.  If you do this in the flesh or if it’s handled wrongly, it could be interpreted by the pastor as you making an end-run around him and thus disloyalty.  A pastor who is a bully would see this as grounds for dismissal.

–If things are really bad–to the point that you are considering leaving, but would rather not–then try something bold.  Go into the pastor’s office and tell him kindly, gently, forcibly, assertively what he is doing and how it feels to you, and why it is wrong.  You do this only when you have come to the point that “if worse comes to worse, all he can do is fire me.”  I’d rehearse again and again, with my wife but mostly with the Lord, what I wanted to say to him.  Then, go for it.

–If nothing changes and the bully continues to tyrannize the church staff, get your resume’ up to date and share with your most trusted friends.  Ask the Father who called you into this work in the first place to open up the next assignment for you.

–If nothing else opens up or if you do not feel led to leave, then ask the Father to show you how to do your job well under these most difficult circumstances.  It can be done.  If you make the decision to try to stay, then consider walking into the pastor’s office and saying, “Tell me what you’d like me to do.  You are my pastor and my boss and I want to do everything I can to bless this church and honor your leadership.  Tell me how.”

God bless you, friend.  The good news about having a tyrant for a boss is the next place you serve will feel like heaven.