How Do Leaders Become Abusers?



How Do Leaders Become Abusers?

Episode Three: How Does Leadership Become Abusive?

In today’s post, we continue our conversation on Christian leadership.

If you’d like to know more about each of us, you can find simple bios here.

KATE: Each of us has the potential to operate in healthy or unhealthy relational dynamics: in personal relationships and within groups, organisations, churches and governments and systems. The potential for abuse of power through position, role, gender, charisma, and money has existed for millennia. It is part of the negative aspects of the shadow side of our human nature. Current safeguarding procedures in schools, communities, and churches didn’t factor in much when I was at school. I’m not sure the ‘risk assessment’ aspect was a focus, which means good practices were not even on the radar; the UK Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) was only set up in 2002!  When I think back, all the signs and opportunities were in place for spiritual, psychological and sexual abuse to occur. However, the adults in the situation found it unbelievable when things unravelled because of the charismatic personality and the trust they placed in this individual and their position in the community and school without any questions asked or accountability procedures in place. 

CRAIG: At the heart of this question is the degree to which some people find themselves able to benefit from other people’s fears, desires, biases and prejudices. At the core, the process by which we trust and allow some people to have influence over us is probably morally neutral. By that I mean that I can think of church leaders I have known who, if they had been car salesmen (yes, they were all male), would soon have built, or been poached by, the largest car dealership in the area. Some people simply possess a balance of charisma, confidence and drive, which may have been developed at a private school or by nurturing parents. I think it is a certain assertive confidence that others find attractive.

All of us have given examples where, even after terrible truth has come to light, people are conflicted as to what really happened and why. Confidence bias makes humans susceptible to believing a confident lie over a truth that is uncomfortable to accept, and confirmation bias makes it very difficult to admit we were deceived.

SIMON: In some ways it is easier to understand why a certain kind of person rises to the top of an organisation, than why people follow them. We have words to describe personality disorders, but since I am not a psychologist and have no expertise in diagnosis I’m going to avoid using them. What I can say is that I’ve seen folk rise to leadership with similar characteristics: firstly, an extreme degree of (self)confidence, which in retrospect outstrips their actual abilities. Secondly, an ‘instrumental’ relationship with those around them, by which I mean that people are valued primarily by their usefulness to the leader and their project. Thirdly, no moral qualms about dispensing with people who criticise them or otherwise stand in their way. Obviously, a person is so much more complex and nuanced than these three characteristics, but I raise them because I think they help answer the more fundamental question: why are so many people attracted to these kinds of leaders, and why do they remain loyal when cracks in the facade begin to emerge?

Briefly, I think a charismatic leader provides food for a young and/or immature self. The confidence of the leader is bewitching; it speaks to a typical person of years of experience, and in a church setting of an amazing faith in God. The vision of the leader, and their declaration of our place in it, provides a shortcut to significance; we can be part of something amazing without having to work out who we are or what God is saying to us. But then, in something of a perversion of scripture, the leader judges between good and evil, casting into outer darkness those who stand in their way. The fear of expulsion keeps many quiet, because people learn quickly that they will lose everything if they are cut off from the group.

ROY: I’ve worked with some incredibly gifted people from whom I’ve learnt things, but who have also scarred me and others deeply as a result of their manipulation, control and misuse of power. If these people were questioned or challenged, or if everyone around them failed to support or obey everything they do, they quickly accused people of undermining them or their ministry. Friends and colleagues quickly become persona non grata or perceived as their enemies.

I’ve been manipulated, misrepresented and misunderstood at the hands of powerful leaders who were simply not accountable and refused to submit to others. Often they would see themselves as having a prophetic calling which made them special, anointed or unique and with that comes the inability for anyone to question such a person. 

I carry a sadness because most of these powerful leaders that I have known personally, some of whom I have worked alongside for periods, started out as good people, with good intentions. They had the ability to see things that others didn’t or chose not to see. Yet for all their ability to see and understand people, they were often lacking in their own self awareness or chose to lay that aside as they were captured by their need to control, to exercise power or manipulate in order to succeed. They were often broken and wounded people, several had addictive and compulsive tendencies and some carried the scars of their upbringing, bad experiences in later life or with an overwhelming need to prove themselves.

Most of them were also powerful characters, persuasive communicators, possessing a charisma that was magnetic which drew people into their realm of influence. They cast visions into which their audiences could enter and be part of, presenting simple answers that often led to a pathway to a promised land. They carried inflated egos and a grossly exaggerated portfolio of spectacular stories and ‘anointed’ ministry testimonies. They were nearly all men with autocratic traits whose domineering control was exercised overtly or subtly. They were often surrounded by loyal supporters, unquestioning adherents, minders who acted like their bodyguards. They usually had a cause, a ‘vision’ and  some kind of recruiting or affirmation campaign and could often ask for money.

I’ve met Jekyll & Hyde characters. Performers who you would see preaching and teaching on the stage at some of the popular and renowned Christian festivals and conferences. They wowed the crowds, triggered great responses and produced alleged miracles. However, I have sadly observed their behaviour, their attitudes, speech and actions offstage and they were not the people they purported to be before their adoring and affirming congregations of followers. 

In the next post we will be reflecting on what Jesus teaches us about leadership.

Picture of About the Author

About the Author

Craig Millward has been a Baptist minister for over 30 years and has extensive experience of the joys and challenges of church leadership.

More Posts by Craig Millward