Why Does the Abuse of Power by Leaders in Our Churches Seem to Be More Common?

Why does the abuse of power by leaders in our churches and parachurch organizations seem to be more common than it used to be, and how can we best address this problem?

It is true that our churches are plagued, like the rest of society, by the scourge of leadership abuse on occasion. The difference is that for too long in the past, this evil perpetrated against the vulnerable among us was tolerated, ignored, or swept under the rug. Thankfully this is no longer seen as acceptable.

Abuse of power does not happen in a vacuum. Leaders who are able to exercise enormous power because of their charisma might do much good, but may also give in to the temptation to “lord it over someone” just because they can, or because “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Christian leaders are not exempt from temptations to sin any more than non-Christian leaders are.

When the abuse of power is sexualized, a leader feels an attraction to relationship-less sex (pornography) in combination with a desire to wield illegitimate power (lord it over). Such a leader is concerned with using his or her influence for self-gratification above the common good.

As Christians, we know from Scripture that we must abhor the wielding of self-serving power and not accept “junk sex” as okay. We often assume that Christian leaders are tempted less than non-Christians to wield power illegitimately. This is a fallacy. Statistics have proven that incidents of abuse—physical, emotional, and/or sexual—occur at approximately the same rate in all institutions of society, including the instituted church and parachurch groups.

It is better to be drowned with a weight tied around one’s neck, says Scripture, than to hurt one of these little ones for self-gratification. Leadership in Christian circles requires soul searching, self-sacrifice, and humility, not pride and narcissism. 

About the Author

Judy Cook is a family therapist and a member of Meadowlands Fellowship CRC in Ancaster, Ontario.

See comments (3)


Thanks, Judy, for your take on leadership abuse, especially in regard to sex.  There has been much ado on this subject in our culture (the Me Too movement) and with the Safe Church movement in our denomination.  Our denominational Safe Church agency doesn’t seem to think that our form of church government, in which the elders of a church assume the responsibility of supervising the life and doctrine of the minister, is enough to ensure the integrity of our ministers.  I fear that the overwhelming emphasis of our denominational Safe Church agency on sexual sins is creating an atmosphere of suspicion in our churches.  Pastors and elders live with a fear that a comment, or even a compliment made, may be taken wrong as a sexually suggestive act of aggression.  An atmosphere of unease around the opposite sex is being created by this agency’s overbearing push to form committees and to assign individuals to be on the watch for sexual misbehavior in its leaders. 
     It used to be said that a minister (or even an elder) was to be respected for the sake of his/her office.  You may not like his/her personality, but he/she is God’s ordained and called out leader.  But I am now hearing (from the influence of our Safe Church agency) that leaders in the church, especially pastors are not to be trusted because it is that very power (ordained by God) that will make them more suspect of sexual abuse.  Keep close watch on your leaders.  It’s an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. 
    It seems, to the casual reader, that the Safe Church Agency of our denomination is making its influence a (or the) dominant influence in our churches.  Everywhere we turn more articles keep popping up.   This article is an example of misinformation that contributes to mistrust.  And this atmosphere of suspicion and distrust keeps growing.

Abuse of power is not a new issue. And it extends far, far beyond sexual misconduct. It is however a key leadership dynamic. Jesus is our example, so let’s look at how he used his power. All power in heaven and on earth belonged to him, yet he didn’t use his power for selfish gain. He came down from heaven to earth, to a become a helpless baby. And he went even lower than that, to suffer a criminal’s death on a cross. He walked in humility, in self-sacrifice, in obedience to God, loving and serving others. And now, He shares his power with us, through his Holy Spirit.

Philippians 2 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” We are called, as followers of Jesus, to have this same attitude of mind. That means using power in love, in service to others, humbly sharing power for the sake of the common good, so that it’s creative goodness is multiplied. And the test, if we’re using power rightly, is that it leads to flourishing. People and communities thrive when power is used the way Jesus used it. To the extent we do this, we reflect our Lord and we live out the Gospel of Jesus. We need to constantly remember our example, and the source of our power.

One way to address the issue of misuse of power is education and awareness, which means we need to talk about it. Safe Church does not work to build distrust - rather we work equip congregations to build communities where the value of each person is honored; where people are free to worship and grow free from abuse; and where abuse has occurred, the response is compassion and justice that foster healing. 

Here's a good presentation about power dynamics and how power can be misused, even in the church.  

Thanks, Bonnie, for your response.  I’m not sure if you were responding to the article by Judy Cook or to my comment.  Most of your comment was a matter of giving a standard of leadership, using the example of Jesus.  Of course what you suggest is the same standard that the church and our churches have used for Christian leadership in all phases of its ministry.  Jesus’ leadership is the example that the ministers, elders, and deacons (in our denomination) see as the ideal that they strive for in the government of the church and the supervision of its leaders.  Your comment may be a good reminder, but nothing new.  And, yes, such leaders need to be reminded and informed of the ways that such leadership can be and is, at times, abused.
But it would seem that the Safe Church agency of our denomination would like to add another layer of supervision overs its ministers and leaders, as though what is in place is not sufficient or reliable.  And even though careful scrutiny is given as to who may serve in the capacity of leadership, by the council and congregation, it would seem as though this is not enough for the safe church agency.  A careful screening process by the council, as well as an election by the congregation is used before a member is admitted to the office of minister, elder, or deacon.  Are they perfect?  By no means, but the standard and goal is high, the very example of Jesus.
In wanting another layer of supervision of the church’s leaders, the safe church agency would form Classis committees and solicit for volunteer church members to join these committees.  Is there a close scrutiny of these volunteer members and committees?  Do they have to pass the scrutiny of the church council or are they voted upon by the congregation as with church office bearers?  Are there qualifications for these members other than interest or concern?   Such a committee of self appointed members makes the work of Safe Church ministry seem to cast suspicion upon the present leadership of the church.  The feeling is that these volunteer members and the Safe Church agency do not trust the work of our ministers and elders.  Of course they offer help and information to the leadership of the church, but that can be done through a central agency of the denomination.  As I suggested in my previous comment, the work and task of the Safe Church agency of our denomination does much to cast suspicion upon the leaders of our churches, creating an atmosphere of distrust.