By Jennifer Michelle Greenberg
During my teen years, I tried to tell several pastors my dad was abusive. I tried to explain his violence and lust while skirting around my own embarrassment and a nagging sensation that I was betraying my family.
I told one pastor about how my dad had thrown an iron at my head. He recommended I “pray about” my dad’s “temper.”
I told another that my dad had bought me a bikini. I meant to imply my dad wanted his daughter to look sexy, but spelling that out, saying those words, made me feel dirty, like damaged goods.
As a victim, I found I used a different vocabulary than the rest of the world. What I called, “anger issues,” the rest of the world called assault and battery. What they called “anger issues,” to me looked like a mild bout of grumpiness.
When the world thinks of a parent losing their temper, they don’t envision a teenage girl being thrown downstairs, or a little boy being beaten black and blue. Sometimes, I suspect that the people who I thought I’d confided in didn’t understand what I meant at all.
But sometimes we really do clearly state we’re being abused, and the pastor we tell does nothing. Worse, they may actively try to sweep things under the rug, convince us to stay quiet, and recommend we stay with a dangerous abuser.
They don’t call the police. They neglect to involve a counselor or take us to a doctor. They tell us things like, “forgive and forget,” “repent of your depression,” and, “if you were living like a good Christian, God wouldn’t have let this happen to you.”
Why does this happen? How can pastors who have graduated seminary, studied the Bible, and counseled countless others give such terrible advice? Why do they bungle or cover up the way they do?
Understanding the motivations behind the mishandling of abuse is a first step in breaking the #ChurchToo cycle.
Firstly, it can help pastors and church leaders avoid common pitfalls. If you know where the temptations lie, you can hopefully avoid them or discern them if they’re present.
Secondly, it can help congregants understand what’s going on in the minds of shepherds who fail. Understanding where someone is coming from and why they reacted wrongly to a situation can help bring clarity and closure. It also equips us to respond to said pastor, confronting that person with their sin, and calling on them to repent and grow.
So, here are five pastor types and why they bungle abusive situations:
1. The Naïve Pastor
The Problem: This fellow is ignorant and immature. He’s bumbling when he needs to be decisive, and waffles when courage is needed. He’s not experienced in dysfunctional relationships, let alone criminal or dangerous situations.
Maybe he’s young. Maybe he’s lived his whole life in Mayberry. Who knows? Whatever the case, when he encounters abuse, his nativity shows.
He may come off as disbelieving. He may genuinely not comprehend the seriousness of the situation. He may unwisely try to handle abuse in-house, and offer unhelpful advice like, “Have you prayed about this?”
The Solution: The Naïve Pastor needs help. He needs to realize he’s in over his head. He isn’t a counselor, a therapist, or an attorney, and that’s OK. He’s a pastor and he can’t be everything to everyone.
There’s great wisdom in outsourcing problems that exceed your wheelhouse. Talking to other more seasoned pastors, involving law enforcement, and looping in a counselor, are just a few of the ways a Naïve Pastor can become a wise pastor.
“Without guidance, a people will fall, but with many counselors there is deliverance.” Proverbs 11:14
2. The Superficial Pastor
The Problem: When this pastor encounters abuse, his gut reaction is to fret about appearances. He may worry what his congregation will think if they ever find out, or what the media will report if it’s leaked to the public.
He’ll be reluctant to seek outside help or report because he fears a scandal will damage his brand, sully the name of Christ, or rake up confrontations he’s not mature enough to handle. He wants to smooth things over and pretend everything is fine.
The Solution: Jesus never excused evil, sugarcoated sin, or failed to call a sinner to repentance. He offered forgiveness, yes, but with repentance as the prerequisite.
By focusing on what the world will think, the Superficial Pastor has become less like Jesus, and more like the world. If he wants his church to stand out and truly honor Christ, he needs to prioritize ministry over brand.
“Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause.” Isaiah 1:17
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” John 13:35
3. The Fearful Pastor
The Problem: The Fearful Pastor instantly gets defensive upon learning of abuse in his church. If the abuser is on staff, he may immediately fear being sued by the victim.
He may also fear being sued by the abuser if he fires them or exercises church discipline. He fears his church will be financially devastated, that his name will be dragged through the press, and his career destroyed.
Because of his fear, he may be awkwardly hands-off and non-responsive toward victims. He may lawyer up, stop returning phone calls, and act more like a blackmailed celebrity than a loving shepherd.
The Solution: Like the Superficial Pastor, the Fearful Pastor has become too much like the world. His love of money and fear of liability outweigh his passion for mercy, love, and shepherding his flock.
He’s allowed worldly concerns to dictate his actions rather than modeling his actions after Christ’s. While it’s wise to take common-sense precautions, such as liability insurance, our primary goal is to be Good Samaritans to the oppressed and brokenhearted.
4. The Overwhelmed Pastor.
The Problem: This pastor has too much on his plate. Maybe he’s a poor manager who’s not good at delegating. Maybe he’s the celebrity pastor of a megachurch, and it’s logistically impossible for him to get involved in every crisis.
To victims in his congregation, he may come off as uncaring, neglectful, aloof, or even hypocritical, but he’s finding it impossible to shepherd his flock on a personal or responsible level.
The Solution: We must never allow our churches to become so bloated with activity that God’s own children are falling through the cracks. We must never become so overwhelmed that we’re juggling a million tasks and doing none of them well.
This pastor likely has a really good heart, but he needs to be wise and ask for help. He needs to delegate, and if he’s too busy to delegate, he needs to delegate the delegating.
Like the Naïve Pastor, he needs to learn we can’t be everything to everyone. Learning to outsource and share the load will not only serve his congregation better but hopefully relieve a great deal of his stress.
5. The Wolf.
The Problem: Some pastors are wolves in shepherd’s clothing. They may preach the gospel on Sunday, but neglect to exemplify it in their lives.
Perhaps they lack the love of Jesus and are apathetic toward sin and suffering. Perhaps the abuser is their friend and they’d rather sweep evil under the rug than risk getting their buddy into trouble. Perhaps they’re abusers themselves and would rather perpetuate abuse than do anything to stop it.
The Solution: This guy shouldn’t be a pastor. Whenever we encounter a Wolf, we must hold them accountable by involving other pastors, and sometimes law enforcement as well.
He’s likely the type of person who’ll use insults, lies, and false accusations, to frighten, shame, and humiliate victims into silence. If that’s the case, great care must be taken when confronting him. How he treats the weakest of his congregation is how he’s capable of treating you.
The pastors I’ve described above all have problems. Fallen and flawed, they range between foolish and downright corrupt. Discerning the difference can take a great deal of wisdom.
Sometimes you’ll encounter a pastor who fits more than one of these personifications. Or, you may meet someone who fits none, yet still, for whatever reason, lacks the courage, integrity, or wisdom to handle abuse responsibly.
Whatever the case, these five pastors—these dangerous counselors—are hopefully people we can avoid, and avoid becoming. If we discern, repent of, and prepare against such sins, we both protect God’s people and bring glory to Christ.
Then, when an abuse victim confides in us, they’ll be met with Jesus in our thoughts, words, and deeds.
JENNIFER MICHELLE GREENBERG (@JennMGreenberg) was abused by her church-going father, yet she’s still a Christian. In her book Not Forsaken, she reflects on how God brought life and hope in the darkest of situations. She offers biblical truths and gospel hope that can help survivors of abuse as well as those who walk alongside them.