Pastor Persecutors

A challenging perspective describing the characteristics and effects of contentious church members and some remedial suggestions for dealing with them.

G. Lloyd Rediger is a pastoral counselor, author, speaker, and consultant specializing in clergy leadership issues. He lives in Roseville, Minnesota.

I am angry with people in the church who destroy pastors. This magazine is typically read by clergy, and I am aware that I am "preaching to the choir." But I must say some things anyway, for they may add a bit of courage or clarity to the lives of troubled pastors, or at least assure them that they are not alone.

I am thinking of the cruel pastime in which a pastor is targeted for destruction, and the congregation is seriously damaged by the fallout. The perpetrators go free, of course, often to hurt again, and often convinced that they are doing the right thing.

When I encounter such people, I am re minded of biblical passages in which religious people destroy or terrorize spiritual leaders. Even Jesus was not exempt. In one sense we should not be surprised, therefore, when we as clergy are terrorized, for it took them only three years to get Jesus. What hurts the most, of course, is that these people purport to be Christians. And often they are persons in whom we have invested significant amounts of professional and personal time and energy.

My purpose in writing on this subject is to clarify for pastors and denominational executives the fact of, the methods used by, and the remedy for pastor persecutors in the church.

The reality of pastor persecutors

Nearly any experienced pastor and denominational executive has encountered these persecutors. We tend to deny, excuse, or pamper them in the church. But they are very real and very toxic. I have encountered them in every denomination, and in many congregations over the years. But because we believe such persons should not exist in the church, and that we should be kind and forgiving to everyone, we fail to admit or understand the tactics, the motivation, the devastating toll they take on the energy and resources of the church.

Pastor persecutors (PPs) typically have intimidating power because they are willing to violate the rules of decorum. This is powerful at a subconscious level, for we sense that such persons are willing to escalate the fight and use tactics we forbid ourselves to use. In fact, most of us clergy do not even know how to defend ourselves, much less do we have the necessary resources and networks for the kind of showdowns persecution tends to bring.

PPs are masters of disguise. They can present themselves as pious, active church members who are "only doing this for the good of the church." Naive and gentle ("peace at all costs") parishioners may be deceived by such camouflage. And they typically advocate for the PPs by urging the pastor and church board to be patient, make allowances, or not to misjudge such folks. PPs can convince many that they are raising legitimate issues. For those who might do battle with them, PPs use bluster, threats, and terrorism to appear as unstoppable giants. PPs even have allies of opportunity, i.e., parishioners who do not advocate the cause PPs are espousing, but who wish to punish the pastor for their own hidden reasons.

PPs are evil. There, I said it! There are clinical names, of course, but in our theological categories, they are evil. This means they are not just sinners, in the normal inadvertent or mistaken sense. They do evil intentionally, and willingly pursue its destructive means and ends. Even repentance and restraint on their part are suspect, for it is typically a tactic only. Being around and having to associate with such persons tempt healthy spiritual leaders to pronounce curses ("Woe unto you, scribes and pharisees"), as Someone we all know did more than once while on this earth.

Identifying PPs and their effects

From a clinical perspective, PPs are likely to have personality disorders (paranoid, antisocial, borderline, histrionic, narcissistic, and even passive-aggressive behaviors). Or they may be previous or present victims of abuse. They may have volatile or addictive personalities. They may have inadequate socialization, arrested adolescence, and violent role models in their history. And they may have developed a perverse, voyeuristic, and vindictive taste for the suffering of their targeted victims.

In more ordinary terminology, PPs have learned the power of throwing "giantrums" to get their way. They know how to be bullies. They know how to distract, confuse, and seduce. And they have little sensitivity to the suffering of those outside their circle of cohorts.

It took me some time to realize the dimensions and variations of PPs' tactics. In general terms, they can either wound or kill by direct attacks, by getting others to do their work for them, or by inducing their victims to self-destruct. The first two are self-explanatory. But it is this third generic form of victimization that may go undetected.

The tactic of inducing a victim to self-destruct is not uncommon. It is not uncommon in business, politics, and other professions to harass a person in subtle and obvious ways until their stress produces irrational and destructive behavior. They may wound or destroy themselves. They may destroy a scapegoat. Or they may do something bizarre, unethical, or criminal so that legal authorities must punish them. And it is not uncommon for the victim of a pastor persecutor to develop behavior and attitudes that lead to alienation of family and friends, divorce, and loss of clergy credentials.

I could cite many examples of PPs in action. One that raises my ire every time I hear or remember his name is a former pastor who was once a shining star in his denomination. He seemed to have every thing going for him, until he became pas tor of a medium-sized, thriving, and progressive church. In the congregation were several university professors and a seminary professor who resented this pastor's charisma and success. They combined to sabotage his leadership. Then when his confidence began to falter, and his pastoral competence waned under their attacks, they began to accuse him of mental disorders. His wife divorced him. He finally left the ministry, and has since been unable to hold anything but menial jobs. He now subsists in an inner city, hardly able to cope or even to recognize old friends, and the PPs continue in that church.

Cardiovascular disorders, cancer, arthritis, gastrointestinal disorders, and respiratory problems used to be rather rare among clergy. And clergy used to generate the best mental health and longevity statistics of any profession. Not anymore. I hear of and work with highly stressed, paranoid, cynical, and dysfunctional clergy all the time now, with growing numbers. Many of these maladies are traceable to PPs and their work. The costs to the church are enormous, in lost clergy, health costs, divided congregations, loss of ministry resources, and in debilitated pas tors unable to function at much more than a survival level. Can anyone stop these PPs?

The extended damage

One of the causes of the downturn in mainline Protestant denominations is the wounded pastor syndrome. When a pastor is bleeding and desperately trying to survive, it is apparent that he or she will have little energy available for the creative pastoring that church growth requires. But since the pastor is still visible and the traditional services continue, most people will not realize what is occurring. This condition resembles a pet dog with worms. It still looks like a dog, so no one thinks to question the loss of energy and the debilitation of mission. And hardly anyone goes to the pastor with the kind of understanding, strength, and support she or he needs.

I had lunch with a number of pastors recently at a conference I was leading on another topic. It was notable that they talked almost continually of church situations in which the pastor was under attack. Their comments ranged from "There but for the grace of God go I" to "Poor guy, I wish I could help him!"

More than one denominational executive has told me lately that as they travel across their district or the nation, they find attacks on clergy to be endemic. They indicate a helplessness to do much about it. For even in strong executive denominations, top leaders have little authority to disarm PPs. They fear offending powerful lay leaders, no matter how destructive they are. Being part of a quasi-political system, they realize that their power is derivative. And most denominational executives do not have an inclination toward the power tactics needed to eliminate PPs from a congregation. The cur rent prevalence of lawsuits is certainly no encouragement for any denominational leader to risk offending hostile-aggressive persons.


It would be helpful if seminaries could prepare pastors for the real jungle of the lo cal church. Academe is not always notable for realism, however. It is becoming increasingly obvious that pastors need survival training. They certainly should be trained in conflict management. Lip service to this need is not adequate.


Recently I consulted with an organization that is establishing a leadership training process outside of seminaries. This organization purports "to train pastors in evangelism, church growth, and community-based pastoring." When I asked the director what kind of training pastors were offered in building their own support base, and in survival tactics, he looked at me, as if he was completely baffled. He said, "If a pastor is a dynamic leader, there will be no such problems." If he hadn't been so sure of his institute's success, I could have told him of a desperate pastor I had talked with the previous week who had graduated from his program, and of at least two other graduates whom I had heard were under attack by PPs.

The context

The etiology of the pastoral persecutor phenomenon is not mysterious, for we have always had a few evil people in the church. But contemporary society is especially compatible for pastoral persecutors. There is a general distrust of authority figures of any kind. There is biblical and theological illiteracy in the pews. This means parishioners do not understand God's purposes, and the dynamics of spiritual leadership. There is a general sense of entitlement growing in the church, in which church members feel entitled to comfort, power, and privilege. If a pastor does not please them, they feel free to criticize and punish. There is a growing business mentality in the church that says that if the CEO (pas tor) does not produce, he or she should simply be fired. And there is mobility among parishioners, which means they feel little loyalty to the "peace and unity" of the church. For they will soon move on, with out having to deal with the consequences of their irresponsible behavior. As has been mentioned, we are not training pastors to handle conflict, nor support themselves in survival situations.

All churches and pastors are not suffering, of course. And all critics of pastoral leadership are not PPs. Some pastors are incompetent, and some "shoot themselves in the foot," but none deserves the torturing tactics of the classic PPs.

It is not only the victimized pastor who suffers, of course. We have noted the subtle but significant damage to congregations and denominations. We should certainly note the damage to clergy spouses, families, and intimate friends when PPs attack. Such victims may have even fewer survival resources unless they have their own careers and support networks.

Identifying a problem is useful. But offering possible solutions and prevention techniques is also necessary. Even though persecuting the pastor is such a distasteful, denied subject, some healing insights will be useful—at least to clergy who know the reality of this treacherous role vulnerability.

A generic case model

The first overt sign of the persecuting process began at a church board meeting. A member said, "A lot of people are complaining to me about the pastor. They're saying he doesn't call enough; he can't be reached when they want to talk to him; he's not friendly enough."

The board asked who the people were, but the complainant declined to say. They asked for specific examples. He would not be specific. The board said they couldn't take action unless they knew the specific com plaints. The complainant replied that they had to take action because these were important members who might leave the church.

Before the next board meeting a letter filled with innuendoes against the pastor was mailed to the congregation. At the meeting the board and the pastor were in a near panic. The complainant said he had talked to the conference president, who said these were serious charges that needed to be investigated.

A new investigative team reported that there seemed to be a lot of people unhappy with the pastor. The board voted to have a delegation meet with him.

At the next meeting the pastor was ab sent. After six months of this harassment, he was in the hospital. The board voted to send a delegation to the president. At the following meeting, the delegation recommended removal of the pastor.

The pastor currently is scheduled for heart bypass surgery. Rumor says his wife is seeking personal counseling.

The remedies

The first remedial insight is the one to which this article is dedicated, namely, the recognition of the existence of PPs. Such people exist and continue their devastation in that shadowy dimension of institutional religion, behind the prominence of pulpit and pew. As I consult with victimized clergy, and even savvy denominational executives, it is hard for them to admit the presence and damage of these people. It is much easier to blame pastors, for an unwritten pastoral expectation is that successful pastors should not have unhappy parishioners. There are incompetent pastors, of course, but there are PPs also.

The second insight is that the motivations and tactics of PPs are of a different order or magnitude than ordinary critics or nagging detractors. They are much more sinister. And this is what make them difficult to deal with. For though religion and clergy are not strangers to evil, we have forgotten that sometimes there is a need to excise such depravity. The problem is that PPs do not stop with winning a single victory over a pastor. It is only a matter of time before an other attack is fomented. PPs do not stop when thwarted. They camouflage their methods and goals through denial, piousness, distractions, seduction, and unlikely alliances. Theirs is a lifelong goal. When they get rid of one pastor, they will as certainly wait for an opportunity to persecute the next one, even if they had a part in bringing him or her to the pulpit.

The third insight about PPs is how difficult and rare it is to find successful ways of thwarting or eliminating them on a permanent basis. As I've already mentioned, the denial process in the church is so strong that neither traditional theology nor policies offer effective relief. But there are several strategies that offer some possibility of success:

1. Have patience. If one learns survival tactics, outliving PPs maybe possible. Forty years in the wilderness eliminates some of them.

2. Raise consciousness. Educating laity and clergy to the pastor persecutor phenomenon is valuable for both the short term and long term. This is sophisticated education, however; denial and pastor persecutor vengeance will try to sabotage it.

3. Teach survival. Clergy and their intimates must be provided with self-preservation skills. Few lay leaders, colleagues, or denominational executives will come to their aid, ready to stay the course with tenacious PPs.

4. Give theology and policy some teeth, in order that when PPs are identified, they may be eliminated.

5. Engage knowledgeable consultants to bring in outside skills needed in this struggle for which the church is poorly prepared. Such professionals can advise and devise the necessary interventions. I have been encouraging experienced pastoral counsels (AAPC certified) to bring their special skills to the church for such ministries.

6. "Go by the book." Follow your denomination's policy and protocols as closely as possible. This not only lessens legal liability, but also sets precedence and gives all involved parties clearly defined perimeters to operate within.

7. All of the above!

This is a negative column, in that it deals with an unwanted subject and with admit ted anger. I pray, however, that its effect will be positive, on behalf of embattled clergy who serve God's church.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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G. Lloyd Rediger is a pastoral counselor, author, speaker, and consultant specializing in clergy leadership issues. He lives in Roseville, Minnesota.

August 1997

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