My abbreviated story of abusive church leadership
People hurt people. That’s just the way life is. It doesn’t matter if you’re an atheist, Christian, Buddhist, or rocket engineer, you are going to hurt someone and someone is going to hurt you.
For 20 years, my wife and I and our kids spent a lot of time in a very hurtful environment. We were part of a church that hurt a lot of people because we, the leaders, allowed a narcissist to run the show.
I won’t tell you what others went through but I can share a little about my own experience.
It started out really good, like so many things often do. But eventually, a powerful culture of strong control and manipulation was created. The narcissistic leader divided people and created mistrust among everyone. It was so bad that at one point, one of the leaders who I thought I could confide in, yelled at me for causing division because I tried to point things out to them.
Narcissistic leaders will always try to make everyone but themselves look like the bad guy. That’s what the leader of this church did. He set us against each other so that no one really trusted anyone else but him.
In 2001, I believe I heard God tell me that this man would not fulfill the mission he had been given but we stayed for another 16 years, all the way up to the end of that church.
People ask, “Richard, why did you stay?”
That’s a valid question.
We actually left in 2003 for a year and a half because of the personal attacks against me from the senior leader. He would ask me to do things and then tell others that I was becoming an Absalom, even though I was following his direction.
In case you don’t know what an Absalom is, it’s a reference to King David’s son, Absalom, who stole the throne from his father.
Anyway, we left for about 18 months. At some point, we realized we needed to go back. There wasn’t anything there for me spiritually but I knew one day the leader would really hurt the congregation and I wanted to be there as part of the support system when that happened.
From the time we got back up until roughly October 28th, 2017, I never had a good relationship with the senior leader of that church. Even though he made me a deacon there was always tension and division between us.
Someone once asked him, “If you don’t like Richard so much, why do you allow him to be in leadership?”
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” was his response.
For whatever reason, the senior leader told everyone to watch out for me because one day I was going to try and take over the church. When I first heard that, I was completely floored. It was never my desire to lead that congregation. What I really wanted was to be sent out from that church as a missionary or church planter.
Knowing that’s what he told people, that I was going to try to take over one day made absolutely no sense.
But here’s the thing. When there is a narcissistic leader in place, everyone learns to NOT ask questions. People will often quote verses like 1 Samuel 26:9 which says, “But David said to Abishai, “Do not destroy him; for who can stretch out his hand against the LORD’s anointed, and be guiltless?”
Many people in religious, controlling circles have translated that verse to mean, Do not touch the Lord‘s anointed. Isn’t it funny how we can take a verse and completely twist its meaning?
David spoke to the commander of his army about not attacking King Saul even though they had the perfect opportunity to take him out. Whether David was right or not in sparing Sauls’s life, he felt like he wasn’t supposed to come against God‘s anointed king. That same verse is not meant to keep people under the submission of narcissistic leaders in controlling churches.
Keep in mind that David was not under the leadership of Saul when he spoke those words in 1 Samuel 26:9. He had left the house of Saul and was constantly on the run because Saul wanted to kill him. I could probably write quite a bit more about the connection between David, Saul, and spiritual abuse but I won’t at this time.
Anyway, the narcissistic leader became very controlling and manipulative. No one ever spoke about the things we saw that were wrong and if we did we tried to cover it up in as much “mercy-talk” as we possibly could, so as not to look like we were complaining or criticizing. Things were said like, “We need to give him grace because he has to put up with us” but, really, that kind of talk did more harm than good by protecting him so much.
There was one leadership meeting where the primary leaders of the church were gathered in a room, mostly to talk about me. That’s when the one leader I confided in stood up and yelled at me. He said I was divisive and rebellious. The senior leader said, “Anyone that can get him stirred up like that must be wrong and have a problem. So tell me, Richard, what is your problem?”
I was sitting immediately to his right. I turned so I could look him square in the eyes. I pointed my finger at him and said, “I don’t trust you!”
He immediately shut down the meeting and dispersed all the leaders because he didn’t want anyone to ask me why I didn’t trust him. And no one ever did. That was the culture we lived in.
Another thing that narcissistic leaders try to do is to get everyone to come to them for their counsel. That’s exactly what this guy did. He expected everyone to come to him for almost every reason under the sun.
Singles looking to date.
Practical ideas for ministry.
And on and on and on.
No one person should ever have that much control or input over people’s lives. Especially when that individual is still living out their own trauma every day. And he was.
My wife and I went to him one time for marriage counseling. The things he said to us were so inappropriate and out of line that we never went back. I shared these things with another leader in the church but nothing ever came of it. I can’t speak to what he said to others but I know as a matter of fact that he said many inappropriate things to many people.
As far as I know, he never sexually abused anyone, at least not physically. However, I can’t speak to that because that’s not part of my story.
What I know is that he did so much emotional damage to so many people that it might be years before some of them ever really encounter healthy relationship with God again.
I’m thankful for the mature believers that I now have in my life. They have given me wisdom and healthy counsel. The true healing that I’ve experienced came simply as a result of continuously pressing into Jesus and into relationships with healthy leaders in the body of Christ.
Because of these healthy leaders and drawing near to God, I’ve been able to completely forgive the narcissist. I have zero unforgiveness towards him and I have no bitterness about the things that happened. The lessons I learned because of that experience are so valuable, especially in the time and season our world is living in. There are so many who have been hurt through their church experience that we need mature men and women who’ve gone through the fire and don’t smell like smoke to bring healing to those people.
I’m thankful for the lessons I learned over the 20 years we were a part of that church. I don’t have a lot of happy memories but I have a lot of really good experience and I hope God will use it all to help others.
Now, instead of living from the place that hurt people hurt people, my hope is that I get to be among the many who experience “healed people healing people.”