Review: Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church by Michael J. Kruger

Michael Kruger has written a gem of a book, addressing one of the most prominent issues troubling the church today. Increasingly, we are faced with stories about pastors who misuse their position of authority to achieve their own selfish ends to the detriment of the people in their care. This issue is not small and appears continually in our news feed as more and more high-profile ministries collapse under revelations that pastors have inflicted various sorts of abuse upon their people. It is unlikely that this problem will disappear anytime soon, so we need serious but careful thought about how to address it and improve as the church. This essay reviews Kruger’s excellent volume by stating its primary strength, naming one potential weakness, then reflecting more generally upon the issue and the problems facing the church to help people recognize and respond to abusive behavior among pastors.

One of Kruger’s major strengths in this book is avoiding the pitfall of extremes. With the surge of accusations of spiritual abuse, especially in our ever intensifying woke culture, people can become almost eager to uncover such behaviors. Kruger helpfully limits the parameters of spiritual abuse so that stones are not needlessly and uncharitably thrown over issues that are not truly abusive (p. 35–39). First, spiritual abuse is not when a pastor makes a mistake, failing to relate well or make a wise decision in a standalone instance—obviously presuming this failure is not a heinous violation of God’s moral law. No one is perfect and missteps in ministry do not count as a willful and disqualifying mistreatment of the sheep. Second, spiritual abuse is not when a pastor legitimately applies God’s Word to forbid sin. Although gentleness must still be used in correction, the act of rebuking someone for sin or condemning a sinful practice in a sermon is not abuse. The right use of pastoral authority does not mean coddling ungodliness. In sum, Kruger does not fall prey to a hyper-sensitive over assertion of spiritual abuse so as to neuter legitimate pastoral authority. He focuses on real issues of spiritual abuse.

One potential weakness in this book is in its suggested correctives. Admittedly, I am honing in on almost a side point, so the weakness should not be overblown. Kruger stated that his corrections are provisional and summary. Much of his case on this point is helpful, especially when outlining things to consider when interviewing a potential pastor so as to avoid ending up with an abuser. His principles to increase accountability and transparency are spot on. Still, one hesitation that I have is that the weight of the practical correctives seems to lie in bureaucratic processes. There is a recurring theme of implementing annual reviews, having more oversight on the senior pastor, and having more checks on his authority. Without questioning the spirit of these suggestions, which is headed the right direction, the sort of highly analytical inspection of someone’s performance with a high degree of likelihood for criticism is exactly the sort of thing that Kruger identified as marking an abusive pastor. We cannot rightly reign in pastoral abuse by knocking around the senior pastor or other pastors by keeping them under a crushing fear of threatening reviews and bureaucratic processes. The most talented manipulators will still find a way to hide within the stream of paperwork and rig the system. Moreover, they will easily be able to turn such processes against others.

We need ways to heighten genuine transparency with open lines of communication. An annual review turns into an opportunity for criticism in hindsight. Continual feedback that focuses on suggestions for improvement rather than simply listing out shortcomings prevents issues from building up over a year and blindsiding the non-abusive pastor who had no idea that anything was amiss. Although I recognize the valid aspects of Kruger’s concern to have some sort of anonymity in the feedback loop, the bigger issue here is whether a pastor is approachable. If people are truly interested in giving constructive feedback rather than blasting the pastor for what they do not like, then good pastors ought to be ready to hear concrete ideas for how they might improve. Obviously, the issues of true moral failures and abuses are on a different wavelength and potentially require a higher degree of anonymity. My point is that we run the risk of simply redirecting abusive mindsets and structures if we implement overly litigious policies that can be used to batter anyone, member or pastor, in the congregation. Abusive cultures need to be undermined altogether, to the best of our ability.

One particular instance jumped out at me. Concerning the process of interviewing candidates for a pastoral position, although I think the point easily transposes to existing pastors, Kruger highlighted that good interview processes “should give the search committee a more sober and realistic sense that whomever they hire will have weaknesses that need to be carefully addressed.” (p. 115) Sober realism about a pastor’s limitations is good and needed. Still, the idea of identifying someone’s weakness to weed them all out as the one with a higher perspective is exactly part of the mindset that abusers use. Churches need to know that their pastors will have weaknesses, but rather than always setting out to address all those weaknesses carefully, we should likely learn that the church is not meant to make anyone perfect, including the pastor. He will have strengths and shortcomings, and as long as those are normal and not morally disqualifying, the church may just have to help him and have people come alongside him to prop up his weak spots rather than seek to batter the man into the mold they hope the ideal pastor will be. This approach is simply what we hope the church does for everyone. We bear one another’s burdens but ought not to carefully address everything we find deficient in others.

Leaving behind what I hope was a constructive note of reservation about some of this book’s applications, the rest of this essay reflects more generally upon the issues it raises. Readers of The Heidelblog may know that some of my writings have focused on the issue of the pastoral remit, including issues of abuse (here, here, and here). [Ed. note: see the resources below for more on this topic.] Kruger’s book crystalizes some of the concerns I have had in some pointed ways, first by noting a principal issue behind spiritual abuse. Notably, Kruger noted how spiritual abusers often aim to achieve more control over people. Sexual abuse, although not mutually exclusive, is of another category. Spiritual abuse may not involve an increased salary or misused funds. Since it is a distortion of the pastoral remit, it may have no other outcome than lording authority over the sheep. This problem, however, manifests itself in several fruits, which I want to hash out with practical identifying markers.

As I think about Kruger’s marks of a domineering or abusive pastor, it strikes me that all the signs point to someone with a serious inferiority complex who uses their ministry to prop up their own sense of self. The abusive pastor is often hypercritical (p. 28–29). If a pastor seems not to approve of anyone except himself and perhaps his closest lackies, having criticisms of everyone else, it probably indicates someone who is so insecure that they are too afraid to acknowledge anyone else’s strengths out of fear about their own value. Conscious or not, his tactics of tearing down others manipulates those who hear his criticisms into thinking more of the pastor. He builds up a wall of appreciation for himself by demeaning everyone else—even if he speaks well of those whom he once criticized when they can help him get ahead. The abusive pastor is often cruel and threatening (p. 30–31), which is another way of manipulating others to increase his own authority. When people fear him, they are leery of challenging his decisions. If a pastor has a habit of ruining reputations or repeatedly speaks ill of those around him, watch out.

Abusive pastors are also notoriously defensive (p. 31–33). Telltale warning signs are if your pastor cannot see (more likely admit) his own flaws. If his first reaction is to defend himself rather than look to repent or give care, especially if he states that or instructs his colleagues and fellow leaders that “My first reaction is to defend,” then he is likely looking to put an impenetrable wall between himself and criticism because he is a coward less interested in God’s people than his own narcissism. As Kruger highlighted, defensive pastors also love to spotlight their own authority. If your pastor frequently reminds you, in person or from the pulpit, that he is “your minister” or especially “your senior minister,” then he likely has an agenda for asserting his position to control things. An obsession with titles and authority is a bad sign.

One issue that Kruger did not raise, but which I think is helpful to add, is the trait of a pastor being hyper vigilant about what others are doing but using vagueness to hide his own practices. If your pastor logs onto Twitter, maybe not even having his own account, just to see what his church members are doing in case he needs to rebuke them, then he has a control problem. If he demands to know the exact date and possible location of his ministry colleagues’ vacations but is never clear about when he comes and goes, then he is controlling others and hiding his behavior. If he demands time sheets from his colleagues, announces that he works infinite hours, but never gives any concrete details about his efforts and hours, then he is likely playing up his contributions to stroke that same inferiority complex. If he has some ethereal need to train the other pastors around him, even at his church, without ever being able to provide concrete help, he is weaponizing vagueness to manipulate again. All these uses of confusion and demands manifest the same controlling tendencies flagged above but are too easily written off as miscommunication. If there is a pattern of bad communication that always benefits the pastor and allows him to control others, there is a more fundamental problem.

The final issue worthy of reflection, which Kruger notes in several places, is gaslighting. Abusive pastors frequently “flip the script” to turn their victims into the wrongdoers. As Kruger notes, this applies not only to the abusive pastor himself but also to anyone whom he convinces to come alongside to protect him and batter his victims. Abusers usually “build a coalition of defenders” (p. 79–80). When someone goes to another leader in the church for help after feeling mistreated by the pastor, but the response is “you just might need counseling,” the abusive pastor’s ally could be working to ruin the victim’s reputation, perhaps even in the victim’s own self-perception, in order to cover up the real problem. Sometimes even people with the kindest demeanor are the best henchmen for abusers because they can add credibility to the gaslighting effort, as Kruger noted, “bullies don’t bully everyone.” (p. 66) It is another way of controlling the narrative (p. 62–63).

Although, as Kruger affirmed, no polity run by sinners can fix this problem. The Reformed use of a plurality of elders rightly applied is, therefore, one solution upon which we need to insist vigorously. Notably, one way—not mentioned in the book—to implement the elders for the congregation’s protection is to have the pastor give regular reports about ongoing pastoral issues to the elders. Although confidentiality is an immediate concern, the elders are all appointed for the spiritual care of God’s people, so all should be trusted with our spiritual and moral issues. Further, insisting that the pastor update the elders about pastoral issues prevents him from locking those problems into his own version of the narrative. He cannot weaponize or manipulate the story as easily if the other elders are also involved in knowing and caring for pastoral problems. A pastor who refuses or is even hesitant to share pastoral matters with the elders is a control freak and likely intent upon manipulating situations to control his church members. Spreading pastoral authority into the plurality of elders, which includes the pastor, prevents power from being concentrated in one person who can use it against others. Pastors in all matters of life, including pastoral care, should be eager to be transparent and accountable to others, especially their fellow elders.

Michael Kruger’s Bully Pulpit is a short but meaty first jab at addressing spiritual abuse. It is a thought-provoking, foundational work for helping us make progress toward stopping and preventing the mistreatment of God’s people by those who are called to care for them.

© Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.


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