// you’re reading...


The Abuse Of Clergy – Metaphor Or Scandal

by G. Lloyd Rediger copyright 1994

The church has not begun to see and understand the anger of its clergy. For there is no category in America’s social consciousness for an angry pastor, except during the preaching of a now quaint “Hell & Damnation” sermon.

But they are here – in the village churches, and under the tall steeples. Deeply angry, with the slow, cumulative sense of hurt and violation amassed in many small and large acts of abuse.

Clergy are angry because they are being abused by unhappy and mean-spirited parishioners. They also feel angry because they are often not supported by denominational officials; are not being trained in seminaries to manage the real world of the parish; are being accused and sued, sometimes unjustly, for moral malfeasance; and are expected to run the church as a small business. Furthermore, they feel the loss of respect and authority which once accompanied the pastoring role. And they resent the double standard which allows laity to have the rewards of success, while pastors are typically not rewarded for faithful pastoring. Accompanying these angers is a despairing belief that such conditions are not likely to change, for the church is not listening to its pastors anymore.

It seems inconceivable that clergy will become violent, or even aggressive in their own interest. Not inconceivable, however, if we recognize that clergy are human, and are being socialized in a new morality – a new ethics, as is everyone else. With the loss of role mystique, authority and privilege, clergy are becoming normal – like everyone else. This means personal feelings now matter; entitlement seems important; consequences outweigh beliefs.

The transition to this condition is composed of many changes which seemed like good or acceptable ideas at the time they occurred. Updating religion seems sophisticated, but often precipitates divisiveness. “Reinventing” the church seems clever, but what we often get is confusion. We wanted to stop “indoctrinating” people, and we got biblically illiterate, conduct-impaired children. We wanted an “empowered” laity, and we got a few irascible parishioners tyrannizing the congregation. We wanted “authentic” pastors. What we got is clergy who think that what is okay for parishioners is okay for the pastor as well.

This is not a drill! These are early warnings of change beyond change. No matter that the church scene still looks familiar and dependable. Like the hurricane brewing at sea, while people play on shore; like the volcano seething underground, while campers hike among its quiet crags, so the church lives in the virtual reality of its patronizing prophecy: “All will be well, for God is in charge.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps. For all clergy are not angry, or at least, aware of their anger. And many are only beginning to understand the implications in the increasing abuse of colleagues in ministry. But for those who observe the signs, and read the pendulum swings of history, an atrophied church, and an angry clergy are no longer figments of the imagination.


Massive clergy resentment and anger is a remarkable phenomenon, whether conspicuous or latent. Logically, there must be causes for such deviance from the archetypal role of sacrificial, patient, peaceful pastor.

The immediate precipitant is the escalation of conflict in the church. This is seen by clergy as their professional failure to maintain the peace and unity of the congregation. It becomes personalized when clergy become scapegoats for the dissension, even though they have been trying mightily to resolve the conflicts.

There is an even more personal variety of church conflict that intentionally targets the pastor for pain and destruction. In a growing number of congregations there are one or two persons who are intent on eliminating their pastor. They may be called “Clergy Killers,” for this designation names their agenda.

In early 1993 I wrote a column for The Clergy Journal (published in the August issue) entitled “Clergy Killers.” In it I described the escalating phenomenon of parishioners who target their pastor for destruction. A massive response from clergy, in this country and abroad, confirmed this description. Shortly thereafter I began offering seminars on this subject. It is now the most requested of any I do.

Yet another form of this personalized abuse is the scandalizing lawsuits being brought against clergy, charging a variety of moral misconduct. It is the ultimate terror for a pastor to be hauled into court and accused of a felony. Whether guilty or innocent, this threat is so traumatizing that clergy can become depressed or angry just reading about such litigation against other clergy.

The fire of clergy anger results from the smoldering of many embers. The conflict ember is an ancient one, for there has always been dissonance in the church (Acts 15; contesting popes; the Reformation; Canberra, 1992; the Re-Imagining Conference of 1993). Contemporary church conflict, however, is marked by vindictiveness, biblical and theological illiteracy, and by the need for a scapegoat. Congregational conflict is almost certain to engulf a pastor. This is not a shock for most clergy. It is vicious, unrelenting personal attacks which abuse clergy, and trigger the normal human reactions we know as shock and anger.

Another of the smoldering embers is the MEGApastor expectation in the church. The mystique of the pastoral role has long included a larger than life model of holiness. This is an acceptable burden for many pastors. The contemporary role of pastor, however, resembles that of CEO in a small business, rather than saintly guide. Seminaries do not train clergy for the role of keeping customers/stockholders happy. The stress of this unwanted role has been growing with its prevalence. And stress is a notorious cause of anger.

Another smoldering ember is the perceived lack of support pastors experience when dealing with conflict, abuse or unrealistic expectations. Most pastors are willing to work hard, minister to unpleasant people, and even sacrifice some of their personal expectations on behalf of church politics. But when abuse proliferates and no one seems to care, their anger is a normal human reaction.

Abused pastors tend to perceive the denominational office as having a “fire the coach” strategy. They tend to perceive their seminary professors as privileged philosophers rather than helpful mentors. And they tend to see their own congregations as unwilling to accept responsibility either to share the load of ministry, or defend them when there is abuse.

Yet another generic smoldering ember is the perceived loss of authority and respect once accorded to the office of pastor. Clergy can read between the lines of national polls which still purport to show clergy at or near the top of the list of respected persons in society. Pastors notice that they are less sought out for moral advice. They notice that mental health professionals, doctors and lawyers are presumed to be the authorities in morality and ethics now. They notice that parishioners feel freer to challenge their theological teachings, with only their own opinion and bias as warrant. And they continue to notice that it is unacceptable for clergy to seek the usual rewards of success.

Perhaps all of these smoldering embers would only be smoke and glow were it not for the perceived hopelessness in much of clergy abuse. With declining membership, diminishing resources, the academic model blinding seminaries, and denominational politics, many pastors feel a lessening hope for positive change. Therefore, depression is becoming a pastoral vulnerability.

Since this affective type of depression (different than biochemical and genetic types) is essentially anger turned inward, some pastors implode. That is, they become self-destructive. In the twenty five years I have specialized in the counseling and care of pastors, I have noted a pattern of increase and specificity in clergy breakdowns. In past generations clergy typically generated exemplary health and behavior statistics. Now we resemble the general population. Moreover, the breakdowns occur around coping responses to specific role stresses. Intimacy deprivation typically leads to moral misconduct. Continual stress encourages addictive compulsions. And continual abuse precipitates negativity and depression. Any of these can contribute to a bad public image for a pastor. And this often incites criticism, loss of confidence, and even abuse. Without intervention, such a pastor becomes dysfunctional.

Explosion is the antipode of implosion, of course. We already have the aforementioned buildup of implosive pressure among clergy. But explosive pressure creates a different scenario. For instead of clergy suffering in silence, and internalizing all the negative consequences of conflict and change, some are tending towards finding something to blame, and then reacting passionately. Some pastors are shouting “Enough!” and looking for options. And some are taking their wrath out on their abusers and the church. For those of us who observe and care, it is like watching an explosion in slow motion.


The abuse of clergy, like any victimization process, is a focusing of energy in a particular way. Abuse is dynamic, therefore it generates responses.

It is informative to note the patterns of both abuse and the responses. One of the patterns lies in generational, gender, and ethnic responses. The patterns of abuses already noted do not provoke homogeneous responses. The older generation of clergy tries to absorb abuse and rationalize it. The younger generation of clergy are less tolerant, and more likely to think in terms of self-fulfillment. Typically, they are angry earlier, and more likely to strike back or organize a resistance movement.

Women and ethnic (shorthand for non-Caucasian) clergy bring traditional gender responses and cultural adaptations to their anger. The majority of clergy who are women have found some success in fighting abuse through organizing around feminist themes, or networking with colleagues for support. Ethnic clergy can fight back with charges of racism, and with the newness of their insights. If angry white male pastors, angry women pastors, and angry ethnic pastors make common cause, institutionalized religion cannot remain unmindful.

The emotional-rational stages of response to abuse are becoming part of public consciousness. Though there are variations, as already noted, there tends to be a generic pattern. The first stage of victimization is a confused response to the pain. The conscious or unconscious questions are: “What is going on?” “Why is this happening to me?”

Second stage reaction tends to be an acceptance of at least part of the blame for whatever is painful, followed by trying harder to end or avoid the pain.

The third stage begins to separate the imploders from the exploders. The depressive pastor begins to think like a victim. The resistant pastor begins to defend and fight back. From there on, each type becomes idiosyncratic, responding in terms of the situation, resources, and habit patterns.

Under attack by CK’s (“Clergy Killers”), a pastor will tend to confuse the attack with the more normal conflicts resulting from diversity, differing opinions, and personality clashes. When traditional efforts at negotiation and peacemaking fail, as they almost inevitably do with CK’s, the pastor becomes bewildered. Unless there is active and supportive intervention, this pastor will redouble the same efforts or begin to self-destruct. And without positive support and guidance, the third stage develops.

Legal abuse produces its own specific responses. Besides the generic ones already noted, there is the response of fighting fire with fire, by the resistant pastor. And some are organizing to sue for their perceived entitlements, or to force changes in the system. The courts which stunned and threatened them now are seen as legitimate resources for proaction.

It would be naive to imagine that laity will not react to these reactions. After all, the clergy are reacting to abuse from laity, denominational officials, and seminaries. Now, reaction to reaction, to reaction. . . . Is everyone a victim? Is hope for proaction, even reinventing church and clergy unrealistic?


Are there panaceas? Not likely. What is usually achieved as positive remedy in massive social problems is proximate justice, tentative change, and consciousness-raising. The problems already contain the seeds of resolution. And with a rich history of healing and growth, as well as failure, the church may yet open itself to the human-spiritual needs of its clergy. It may even find a teaching metaphor in the suffering and response of its spiritual leaders.

In recognition that nostrums may distract, and perfection is unlikely, it can be helpful to simply open our eyes to the reality of clergy anger. The foregoing discussion can be a useful resource. Without illusions of comfort, we can note some ways to ease clergy pain.

The most effective proaction comes from those most intimately concerned. Clergy then, are a logical source for suggestions. But these same clergy have often been “co-dependents” in the church. They benefit from a system which requires certain behavior. Engaging the system (institutionalized religion) includes a heavy load of inertia. Therefore the clergyperson’s own behavior and attitude are easier goals for alteration. Some wise pastors will understand this.

Changing behavior and attitude is no facile goal either. For there is both individual and group change to inaugurate. The key insights will be for clergy, individually and as a group, to see that their interests are inextricably intertwined with organized religion; to open themselves to the prayer and reflection which open the human spirit to God’s gift of discernment; and to recognize the value of disciplined proaction. Suing the church, punishing abusers, and manipulating the system may have short-term benefits. Long term solutions to clergy abuse require prophetic modeling and risking. This clergy abuse may be not only a metaphor for society and the church, its resolution by prophetic clergy leadership may be metaphoric as well.

If clergy were to give themselves to “speak the truth,” they could be more open and honest about human pain and abuse – their own and that of others. There has been an illusion that if pastors talk of their own pain, this disqualifies them from ministering to the pain of others. Countless examples repudiate this, especially the example of Jesus. When clergy now are moved by anger to speak of their pain, they do so positively as well as negatively. Both modes have consequences.

Beyond speaking the truth, clergy may act on their own behalf. And again, if such action is informed by spiritual discernment as well as pain, the actions may benefit more than themselves.

One thing is certain. Clergy must either be proactive, or be acted upon. Clergy do not own the clergy role. And certainly, laity have insights regarding spiritual leadership. But no one is more intimately affected by clergy abuse and clergy role change than clergy themselves. Assuming God’s call to this vocation includes special gifts and insights, it makes sense for clergy to speak out on clergy abuse, and clergy role change.

Besides the general metaphoric leadership, and proactive role change, clergy are recognizing the wisdom of building their personal support systems. A clergy support system, individual and corporate, need not be selfish nor manipulative. For when a pastor includes a consciousness of her or his personal needs, and finds healthy ways to meet them, everyone benefits.

If there is an expectation that clergy be proactive in their own defense and health, their requests should be addressed. In two statewide surveys of clergy (Wisconsin and Minnesota), and several hundred seminars, I find them having the following requests.

For assistance with stress management, they request:

1. Provide more consistent time off – free days, sabbaticals, plus dependable backup persons for such times.

2. Provide more administrative support – clergy feel forced to spend much time and energy doing secretarial tasks.

3. Offer mentoring and counseling services – clergy need confidential supporters and counselors for high stress times.

4. Provide continuing education opportunities to give uptodate guidance in stress management.

5. Provide more adequate financial support.

For assistance with abuse they suffer, clergy request:

1. Provide continuing education opportunities in realistic conflict management.

2. Provide clarification and guidance (instructional materials and workshops) in identifying the abuse factors in clergy life, the early warning signals/prevention of abuse, realistic guidance for self-defense (“street smarts”), and intervention to end abuse.

3. Provide denominational support, clear and dependable, when pastors are under attack unjustly, and compassionate guidance when it is just.

4. Develop denominational strategies to train lay leaders in taking responsibility for healthy church functioning, rather than expecting pastors to solve their problems and then being blamed for changes they don’t like.

5. Give denominational support for clergy peer networks, and the building of personal support systems. 6. Develop more discipline for laity, much like the new ethical standards for clergy. Clergy feel it is hypocritical to have double standards in the church.

7. Develop a realistic rating system for congregations, corresponding to the information clergy are required to give about their personal and professional backgrounds. There are strong feelings among clergy that they are often not told the truth about a congregation’s history with its pastors, nor supported adequately if they agree to lead a troubled congregation.

8. Develop denominationwide encouragement for, and training in how to build healthy congregations, and healthy pastoring styles.

Some of these requests may seem extraordinary in traditional churches. But they are a function of clergy who are trying to address, realistically, the spiritual leadership problems in the church at large. These requests are underscored by the wounds and anger of many pastors who have been expected to solve the church’s problems, and to suffer in silence.

We have not yet heard the full moans of pastors in pain, nor the roar or those who refuse to be victims. How loud depends upon the ear of the church. How creative depends upon the discernment of clergy.

Copyright 1994, G. Lloyd Rediger. All rights reserved.


Comments are disallowed for this post.

  1. Thank you for a great article. I am an angry ex-pastor, wondering what to do and where to go next. God called me into vocational ministry . . . or did He? Church People . . .

    Posted by Hymnsinger | February 20, 2012, 11:18 pm