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Help!, My Pastor Grooms Power with Fear

toxic church culture

A young Christian entering into ministry once told me that his principal Christian mentor informed him that he (the mentor) had the “gift of intimidation.” Gulp. Power leaders with the so-called gift of intimidation, which is not a gift but a strategy for aggrandizing power through fear, make up the world of politics and business. And, at times, the church. Especially one with a toxic church culture.

Add to this strategy the make-up of a narcissist and you have a toxic church culture that may well appear to everyone as successful, strategic, innovative, observably Christian and biblical, and worthy of emulation. Once the curtains are pulled back, and one might have to say IF the curtains are pulled back, what was observably Christian and biblical becomes ugly, unChristian, unbiblical, and contrary to the gospel.

Pastors who are power-through-fear leaders groom people into their power and fear culture. Here are some of the noticeable features of that grooming. Power, and Laura and I develop this more in our book (A Church called Tov), has the capacity to diminish a person’s ability to empathize and care and make persons reckless and care-less (other than for their own power).

Eight elements of a power-through-fear culture:

  1. Power becomes invested, knowingly or not, intentionally or not, in a single person, the pastor.
  2. The pastor’s approval becomes the only meaningful approval in the leadership and staff. Remember, that for some people the pastor’s approval is God’s approval.
  3. Those approved by the pastor (and his inner circle of approvers) experience status enhancement. “If the pastor approves me, I must be somebody.” In power through fear cultures an inner circle of the approved is formed and those inside know they are special. They are special because they are approved. Hear this: a message of unconditional love by God is thwarted by a pastor who approves of others conditionally. This is nothing less than grooming for the pastor’s power. We don’t need inner circles in churches who are inner because they’ve been groomed to be insiders.
  4. Power pastors have a blade that cuts on both sides: it provides status enhancement on one side and status diminishment on the other.
  5. The power of the pastor and his or her inner circle has become fear-based. Staff and other leaders are now intimidated. This is grooming.
  6. Judgments and decisions are made behind closed doors. Insiders know, outsiders don’t know, but the ruling reputation remains: our pastor is great, our church is great, let’s keep it up.
  7. Behind that wall of secrecy lurks a culture that fears status degradation by shaming, humiliating, and re-assigning. This culture is formed through private reporting to the power pastor about what so-and-so said or did. Now everyone is wondering about everyone.
  8. The end of the power culture is removal from the toxic culture of power-through-fear, leading very often to guilt (before God, mind you) and humiliation and depression and the impacts of gaslighting.

As Ronald Enroth, an expert on power-based church leaders, describes it, an abusive, fear-based church culture emerges with power-mongering leaders:

Ruler is the right term to describe the kind of people in authoritarian leadership roles. . . . They are spiritual tyrants who take unholy pleasure in requiring obedience and subordination of their followers. It is important to recognize that leadership depends on followership, and from a truly Christian perspective, that means cooperation with the leader rather than domination and control by the leader. The source of legitimate Christian leadership therefore lies in entrusted authority.

The spiritual autocrat, the religious dictator, attempts to compel subordination; the true Christian leader can legitimately only elicit followership.

Everything about this kind of power-through-fear culture is wrong, it is anti-gospel, it is anti-pastor, it is anti-Jesus, and it is anti-biblical and subChristian. But it is the way of the Kosmos and Flesh and so it creeps into church cultures seeking to remake us in its grip.

In the coming weeks I will develop posts about what Laura and I call the “Circle of Tov,” or the circle of goodness that forms into a goodness culture. But we have to know what we are up against so we can resist toxicity, and the two major problems facing a tov culture are narcissistic pastors and their power-through-fear culture formation.

This article originally appeared here.
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Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.