#WhyIStayed? – A Question for Followers of Toxic Leaders*

After the release of the hotel elevator video of NFL player Ray Rice striking and knocking out his then fiancee, the #WhyIStayed hashtag trended on Twitter for days. Evidence of physical abuse is often visible, but evidence of emotional, sexual and psychological abuse usually lacks video substantiation. Spiritual abuse falls in that category, but the recent video and online apologies by celebrity pastors for their spiritually abusive behavior broke the pattern.

In a marriage or ongoing adult relationship there are two parties involved, but spiritual abuse involves more. A pastor has congregants who follow and give to fund their salary; fellow leaders who serve alongside, and elders or denominational leaders who support their authority. After allegations of abuse have been made, all associated parties need to examine #WhyIStay.Staying Put

I’ve asked myself the question. Spiritual abuse came in the form of shunning and disciplinary action for a small group of six who read a book by an emerging church writer. Considered nearly heretical by the senior pastor and several outspoken elders, the remainder of the board concurred. The controversy languished for nine months; I stayed for six more after the shunning ended.

My friends, my church family, my involvement in ministry, my optimism that things would improve, and my hope for healing kept me at the church. Until details surfaced of the pastor’s use of anger to manipulate and the elder board’s acquiescence to these threats. Until other damaging conversations came to light. Until the trauma to my psyche and soul manifested in physical symptoms. Until I could name the behavior as sinful and regard my continued presence as complicity.

In the book debacle I was a victim of the abuse of spiritual authority and without culpability. When further situations came to light, I thought that support of this pastor through ongoing attendance, giving and ministry involvement removed that shield of innocence. Instead, I became an enabler in the harm he was doing to others.

Yes, the pastor did good things. He preached the gospel clearly, ministered to parents of prodigals, upheld high moral standards, visited the housebound, and administered the staff. Yes, we are all sinners and in need of God’s grace. Yes, the local church is the body of Christ and each part is necessary. Yes, the real head of the church is Christ and the pastor is imperfect. Yes, the sanctification process never ends and transformation is ongoing. Yes, people can grow and change. But aren’t those statements eerily similar to the reasons why women in situations of physical domestic violence stay? Isnt the rationality of this type of thinking routinely questioned?

The sincerity and depth of remorse of pastors Mark Driscoll and James MacDonald for their roles in spiritual abuse will be demonstrated in their future conduct and the status of attempted reconciliations. Those thrown under the bus, excommunicated by video or catapulted out of the church parking lot will be the ones to ask.  If the abuse begins again, if more allegations are made public, it’s time to leave. Abusers often change enough to remove the heat without a true heart change and without breaking the cycle of abuse.

Pastors who abuse are guilty; followers who choose to stay after the abuse is made public and unsatisfactorily resolved are complicit. Still buying the books, worshiping with them, and sitting under their teaching? Please ask #WhyIStay.

*The phrase “toxic leaders” was used by Forbes online contributor, Rob Asghar, in his piece, “How Toxic Followers Enable Toxic Leaders”, posted on September 16, 2014 which looks specifically at Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill churches. 

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