5 Signs of Leadership Abuse in the Church

Vivian Bricker

Contributing Writer
Updated Aug 25, 2022
5 Signs of Leadership Abuse in the Church

You are a child of God, and you don’t need to endure abuse from the church ever again.

Unfortunately, leadership abuse in the church is increasing. With recent events of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) scandal, it has been noticeably more common to talk about leadership abuse in the church. Sadly, many churches are suffering from poor, manipulative leadership right now. 

Here are five signs of leadership abuse in the church:

1. Gaslighting 

The first sign of leadership abuse in the church is gaslighting. Gaslighting is defined by Merriam-Webster as “psychological manipulation of a person usually over an extended period of time that causes the victim to question the validity of their own thoughts, perception of reality, or memories and typically leads to confusion, loss of confidence and self-esteem, uncertainty of one's emotional or mental stability, and a dependency on the perpetrator." Gaslighting is a horrible situation to undergo, and unfortunately, gaslighting is extremely common within church leadership. Gaslighting is harmful and can cause trauma and other psychological problems for the victim. 

You might wonder what gaslighting looks like in the church. Here is an example:

You have volunteered to work in the church nursery once a month, every second Sunday of the month. However, the nursery director says you volunteered for the second and third Sunday slots. You reply that you didn't volunteer for the third Sunday. The director reinforces the idea that you volunteered for two dates. Each third Saturday, right before Sunday morning, the director texts you to remind you that you are in charge of the nursery the following day.

The director repeats the lie so often that you assume you must have been mistaken and somehow did, indeed, sign up for the third Sunday. Thus, you take over both the second and third Sundays in the nursery, believing a lie.

If your pastor or another leader in your church has gaslit you or someone else in the church, it is not okay. You are not bound to stay at the church. You have the freedom to leave and seek out a church that glorifies God and one that doesn’t abuse the church. Church leadership is supposed to honor God, and our church leadership should be held by people who make us feel safe and comfortable under their shepherding. If your church leadership has gaslit you or is currently gaslighting you, you need to make other church leaders aware. If other leaders aren't concerned with gaslighting, perhaps it's time to consider seeking a healthier place to worship. 

2. Partiality 

Another sign of leadership abuse within the church is partiality. Have you ever noticed that the pastor or a leader within your church has favored particular church members but treats you badly? This is a sign that your church leadership is showing partiality within the congregation, which is a major flag of leadership abuse. Partiality can be hard to call out in some areas, yet if you recognize the church leadership abuse, it's time to speak up and let other trusted Christians know. 

Partiality was a problem I saw at many churches I attended with my family growing up. My family and I didn’t attend church often, yet when we did, the church leadership would look down on us and make us feel unwelcomed. My father’s cousin had his own experience with partiality when he was asked to leave a church because he was wearing the wrong socks to a church service. As one can see, partiality over a person's attendance, dress, or financial state should not affect how church leadership treats people as individuals.

Partiality is a sign of leadership abuse that cannot be overlooked. True spiritual leadership would have no partiality. Rather than showing partiality, a healthy leadership team at the church would extend Jesus’ love to everyone regardless of their appearance, clothes, or financial situation. The Lord welcomes all people and loves all without partiality (Acts 10:34-35). If you are involved with church leadership, ensure that you are extending Jesus’ love without partiality and not placing people on different levels of worth regarding how you treat them. 

3. Dictatorship

A third sign of leadership abuse in the church is dictatorship. If the church leaders within your church are controlling and act as dictators instead of servants of Christ, it is a sure sign there is leadership abuse in your congregation. Many of us think of Adolf Hitler when we think of dictatorship, yet dictatorship can sneak into church leadership in more cunning ways than straight-out manipulation. Dictatorship within church leadership controls and restricts a believer’s freedom and growth as a Christian.

Dictatorship within the church might look like the pastor requiring a financial donation before a couple can join the congregation—subtly manipulating funds. Or the worship leader might not allow the pianist or drummer to select any of the songs for Sunday morning praise because he alone creates the playlist. 

If you have found that your church leadership functions as a dictatorship, you need to leave the church and report the church abuse to a trusted organization and trusted Christians. You have no obligation to stay at the church. Staying at the church will only ensure more abuse happens to you and others. A dictatorship church is no church at all. Church leadership should follow the instructions of 1 Timothy 3. By following Paul’s guidelines, we can select church leaders who will not abuse the congregation. 

4. Guilt-Tripping

The fourth sign of leadership abuse in the church is guilt-tripping. Abusive church leadership will guilt trip you into feeling bad about yourself. Healthy church leadership should encourage you and build you up in the Lord (1 Thessalonians 5:11), not guilt trip you. If you have been open to a member or members in your church leadership about a specific struggle and they have given you a guilt trip, it’s time to leave the church. 

Guilt-tripping in the church often looks like:

a small group leader not allowing you to attend the retreat because you missed the past two small group meetings.

an event planner not allowing you to attend the ladies' Christmas dinner because you are pregnant outside of wedlock.

a pastor convincing you that you aren't saved unless you have not only repented of your sin and trusted Christ but also donated money to the church. 

I am sorry if someone has guilt-tripped you over something you have struggled with. Guilt-tripping is never right or permissible. Instead of guilt-tripping you or making you feel bad about something you question or fail to do, a true church leader should help you through your confusion, doubts, and tug-of-war against the flesh. Rather than showing judgment, church leaders should show compassion, mercy, and love. James 2:13b tells us, “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” 

5. Public Shame

Another sign of leadership abuse in the church is public shame. If a church leader has exposed you to public shame, it is a clear sign of spiritual abuse. Public shame can be shown in many ways, such as church leaders being rude or mean to church members if they don’t obey their teachings. It might look like the pastor using hateful tones and casting glances at individual members during his sermon. Church leaders have no right to expose you to public shame or downplay you in front of the congregation. If this has happened to you, speak up and let other trusted Christians know.

As with any sign of leadership abuse within the church, if you have been the victim of public shame, you do not have to remain at this church. There are many great churches that you can attend instead that will support you rather than expose you to public shame. Abusive church leaders will try to ridicule you and cause you to feel bad about yourself. They won't point you to Christ's freedom through forgiveness, repentance, and grace. 

Know that you can take your stand against the leadership abuse in your church by speaking up, telling other trusted Christians, and choosing to leave the church. If anyone pushes back against you, simply remind them of how Jesus treated the woman caught in adultery: 

"The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her'” (John 8:3-7).

Healthy Leadership

Healthy church leadership follows the example of 1 Timothy 3. To have godly leadership in the church, there needs to be spiritually mature Christians who follow Christ and seek to glorify Him above all else. Church leaders have an important job of shepherding the flock entrusted under their care. 1 Peter 5:1-4 tells us, “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.”

Therefore, if you have found that the church leaders in your church have abused you in any way, you do not need to stay silent. Stand up, speak up, and make your voice heard. You are not to “submit” to abusive church leadership. You are a child of God, and you don’t need to endure abuse from the church ever again. A new start is possible through Christ, and He can help you heal from spiritual abuse. 

Photo Credit: ©Getty Images/Josearba

Vivian BrickerVivian Bricker loves Jesus, studying the Word of God, and helping others in their walk with Christ. She has earned a Bachelor of Arts and Master's degree in Christian Ministry with a deep academic emphasis in theology. Her favorite things to do are spending time with her family and friends, reading, and spending time outside. When she is not writing, she is embarking on other adventures.

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