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.