Free Newsletters


« If Your Heart is Right, Ignore the Critics | Main | 3 Temptations of Leadership: Pride »

January 9, 2014

3 Temptations of Leadership: Abuse of Power

Often masked as something else, the sin of leaders can hide in plain sight


I remember sitting at the lunch table with one of my friends in college when he dropped a bomb on me: “I’d say that at least 50 percent of the Bible majors are addicted to porn.”

“What? You mean to tell me that half of those seeking to be pastors are addicted to porn?”

“Yes,” he said.

I was thoroughly upset and demoralized. “Well, they’d better not enter the ministry until they’ve detoxed from porn. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with a porn-addicted pastor,” I declared.

We get horribly upset and up in arms whenever we discover one of our church leaders has engaged in sexual sin. And rightly so. We want to trust that our pastors and other church leaders (whether men or women) are striving to follow Jesus in their hidden lives as well as their public lives. The discovery that a church leader has been engaging in sexual sin, whatever form it takes, is disillusioning and damaging to many. His or her sin leaves behind a trail of destruction.

Of all people, church leaders are the ones who should be modeling a pure and chaste life for the sake of Jesus and his church. If they cannot, they need to step away from their leadership positions. Of course, we cannot abandon or shun these leaders who step down because their lives aren’t right. Even in our hurt over their sin, we must prayerfully and lovingly offer them the help they need to get better. After all, they are our brothers and sisters. Their well-being, our well-being, and the church’s well-being are inextricably linked.

But are sexual sins, or other sins like embezzlement, the only sins for which a church leader should be held accountable and for which a leader should be disqualified from church leadership? I’ve spent lots of time with Christian leaders in seminary, on the pastoral staffs of two churches, and on staff at a Christian organization. My experiences have allowed me to meet the most beautiful and life-giving people. I owe much of the good in me to their devotion to Christ; I am who I am because of them. However, even in the best of Christian places, I’ve found that while most often we don’t turn a blind eye to sexual sin or sins like embezzlement, we often excuse or gloss over leaders’ abuse of power.

At a Christian organization I worked for, I watched two ambitious, power-hungry, agenda-driven leaders lie and manipulate information. They were intent on ridding the organization of those who weren’t like them. Those who were on board with their policies could stay. If one crossed them, one could expect to lose one’s job. Within a year they found stealthy ways to eliminate dozens of those who spoke up against what they were doing. The leaders’ scare tactics frightened many into silence. These people were in the upper echelons of leadership with little accountability; the ruling board was far removed from the everyday goings on and heard only these leaders’ version of the story. It was by far the most appalling and alarming thing I’ve witnessed firsthand.

Until this experience, I hadn’t thought much about stewardship of power. But now I think about it all the time. It’s not just corporate executives and government officials who abuse power. Church leaders do too. Why aren’t we talking more about it? I’ve had friends tell me of pastors and other church leaders who throw temper tantrums and walk out the door when they don’t get their way. Parishioners and members of Christian organizations have no way of knowing about what transpires unless they personally experience these behaviors or someone present tells on the offender. Maybe we give these leaders a pass because they are charismatic or good at what they do—successful fundraisers, dynamic preachers, savvy at PR, talented musicians, engaging youth leaders, or nurturing children’s ministers. Or perhaps it’s because we fear (for good reason) what’ll happen to our churches and organizations, and to us, if we dare to speak up.

The Temptation of Power and Prestige

Hoping to arouse greed for power in Jesus, and to trip Jesus up with what John Calvin identified as the root of all sin—idolatry—the devil offered Jesus the kingdoms of this world, replete with their splendor, if Jesus would but bow down and worship him (Matthew 4:8-9). If our Lord Jesus was tempted in these ways, we will be too. Consequently, it is essential that Christian leaders, those close to them, and those whom they lead be aware of the ways in which all of us are tempted to misuse power (our influence is part of our power). Abuse of power and influence can lead to untold disillusionment and damage in Christ’s body. Those who abuse their power leave a trail of destruction behind them.

How do we know if leaders are abusing their power? Here are a few questions we might ask: How do they treat those closest to them? Are they bullies? Are they secretive? Are they servants or self-serving? Is it their way or “the highway”? Do they present one face to the public and another in private? Are they humble?

In one of his most insightful books, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen observed, “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people.”

I think Nouwen gets it exactly right. It is easier to control people than to love people. Loving others requires that we die to ourselves. And not one of us likes that very much. We’d rather call the shots. But dying to ourselves is the Jesus way.

The people I admire most never try to usurp power or lord it over others (see Matthew 20:25-28). They are humble in their giftedness and others-centered. I believe these and others like them are the greatest leaders in the kingdom of God. Let us be vigilant to guard against misuse of power, to flee the temptation to abuse power—in our churches, organizations, and Christian institutions—that the kingdom of God might flourish and not be hindered.

Marlena Graves is a regular contributor to Gifted for Leadership and Her.meneutics. Her writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Relevant, the Clergy Journal, and other venues. Her book, A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness is forthcoming from Brazos Press.

Related Tags: humility, power, problem


Wow. This is so strong and honest and sad and heartbreaking. I so wish that you did not have this first-hand experience but I am grateful that you allowed God to move you through it and are now able to share this with others. I also love the Nouwen quote.

We're going thru this at my church of 25+ years ~ it is our HEAD PASTOR who is the bully. No matter what congregation leaders want it is "his way or the highway" ~ leaders who disagree with him are QUITE QUICK to lose their positions. If you choose to work on one of his pet projects, you are golden. If you suggest something new or something he does not like you are quickly shot down. We've lost several pastors under him and HUNDREDS of members over the years because of this, people who feel led to do something that he is "not interested in" become so discouraged they just leave. Hopefully they are finding better church homes, but many of the "new" Christians among them are so disillusioned by this bad behavior that they just walk away from Christianity entirely - so sad! Those of us that are still left are just hanging on waiting for him to retire (which he keeps putting off.) The ministries he is interested in he "forces down our throats" as one ex-member put it, and even the people interested in carrying out his chosen area of service (hunger) are micro-managed to death. I always thought that a Pastor's job was to EDUCATE & ENABLE his congregation to carry out the ministry that GOD CALLED THEM TO - our Pastor is only interested in carrying out HIS OWN agenda, as if no one else is capable of being called by God for anything else. He has no people skills and regularly hurts peoples' feelings. He also lies about how many persons we have in our congregation (x 4!) so that the church gets more "representatives" at our annual synod meetings because that means more "puppet" votes for him to manipulate. TRULY SHAMEFUL. The only recourse is to report his bad behavior to the synod, but he has many friends on the board there so I can't see that helping any. We are at a loss for what has happened to our church since this man took over from co-pastor to head pastor. All we can do now is pray for him to retire - praying for him to change his hard heart has not helped so far :(

Do you have any idea what the doctrine of the Nicolaitans is? Since Jesus states TWICE in the book of Revelations that He hates it- perhaps you should look it up. Corporate Churches are GUILTY of it- so that ought to be alarming to every Christian who attends one.

to Dorothy Greco,

I was in leadership in a situation like this. Our book of order stated that a certain amount of elders could call an emergency session meeting to bring that decision before everyone, presenting evidence of abuse, etc. Then it can be put to a vote to fire him. That's the leaderships job. There are rules in place in organized religion that are just for instances like this. The leadership needs to learn those rules and move accordingly. No word of man is above the word of God.

We are just walking out of a situation like this. I appreciate that you have written an article for people who may be in the midst of it. Everything you wrote about fit our pastor to a tee and it was really frustrating to work through it. People left our church because of his leadership, but there were also those who loved him. Those of us who were aware of his negative attributes were scared into silence and it took a long time to work through the situation. He was eventually let go, but there were many people in our church who were oblivious to what had happened and it still pains me and other staff members to have the topic of his departure come up as we are still expected to protect him and what happened. I am glad that it is past and I pray that people here can work through this. It was hard, and I could have left, but I felt that it was important to support each other as we worked through the situation to stop more people from getting hurt. Our church is still hurting and more people have left because they have no clue what happened and are upset by his departure, but I pray that God will strengthen us as we move forward and send a pastor who will be a blessing to everyone through his actions and words in public and in private.

Our leaders are people and are deserving of the same love and forgiveness that God gives us. There's no room for legalism. Yes, there are consequences to our actions. I have worked for two strong Christian women in ministry. Someone at church made the comment "Wow, you have worked for ___ & ___. What a charmed life." They thought I was being mentored and loved on like these leaders do in their "public" life. Not so, but I am called to love them anyway. I have boundaries, and I still work "with" them but not "for" them. We are all broken and wounded, worthy of love and restoration. Remember, whether they are a good leader or bad, we are called to honor them. God allows the authority in our lives for a reason. He will remove them in His timing. Blessings to each of you!

Annie and Marie and Suzanne,

Annie and Marie, I am so sorry. It is hard to witness destruction and to know when and how to speak up. I will pray for you and think of you.

Suzanne, you are gracious and long-suffering. I agree that we are all broken and wounded and must forgive. But I do think we need to speak up when people are being abused (I am not saying that's your case). When and how to speak up requires prayer and seeking wisdom in community. Recently I was reading the work of the late Lewis Smedes, a book on love. He said something to the effect of, "It's not loving to ignore the truth." I agree-especially when it comes to these situations. Such leaders bully others into silence and keep on with their destruction (even if they are not aware of just how damaging they've been. Some of them refuse to take the blame, and blame the victims. I think there's a difference between a leader that had a bad day once and someone who habitually tramples on others. Much destruction occurs in the church because we allow abuse of power to keep going. As Annie and Marie noted, people leave the church or the faith. These leaders hurt the church and should not be in leadership. My hope is that we will learn how to better address this issue. I cannot speak to your situation because I am not in it. And I can see what you are saying. But, I do think we must do what we can to keep leaders accountable-that too is an act of love.

Blessings to you, too. Thank you for commenting.

Post a comment:

Verification (needed to reduce spam):


see more