When Leadership Harms



When Leadership Harms

Episode Two: When Leadership Harms

In today’s post, we begin sharing the ongoing conversation that the four of us have been having in the wake of numerous Church leadership falls. If you’d like to know more about each of us, you can find simple bios here.

What experience do you have of abusive or manipulative leadership?

SIMON: I have encountered ‘powerful’ leaders at different times. I was on the fringes of The Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield and helped in the founding of the Soul Survivor festival. I worked in the senior management of Oasis Trust, where I got to see how Steve Chalke led alongside others (spoiler – I’m naming him because I will be saying nice things about him later). More recently, I’ve been confronted by people with very different ideas to me about how to ‘get things done’. This has not all been in the church realm, so it’s been a good reminder that these issues are not unique to religious institutions. However, it’s been my observation that adding God into the mix can make things really, really bad (sadly).

CRAIG: One event immediately springs to mind as an illustration of the various dimensions of this question. It begins with someone I knew from a distance at bible college moving into our area, and eventually joining the church I was pastoring. This individual managed to ingratiate himself with the leaders of a large family run church in our nearest city, leading to him securing two tickets to attend a stadium performance by a leading American evangelist/healer. And, yes, I was curious enough to take the second ticket. 

But what I did not know was that we had seats on the platform and were able to see the spectacle he was orchestrating before our eyes. From the moment we walked into the pre-performance drinks reception I could feel that something was deeply wrong. Leaders of megachurches in the room either assumed I was a disabled victim waiting to be healed, or walked away mid-conversation when it was clear I did not lead an ‘international ministry’. Once on stage we were treated to a full display of manipulation and utter cruelty. The evangelist had all local pastors come to the front of the stadium and promise to meet him in central London the following morning at the cost of £150 each. Once there, they would be treated to an exclusive rendering of a ‘secret’ message the evangelist had received from God. Many signed up there and then.

From my exalted position on the stage, I saw the evangelist’s minions try to drag people from their wheelchairs. It was quite clear that disabled people were being prevented from joining the queue to come onstage, and that those who were allowed to make it to the stage were being pushed over, or were already in a highly suggestible state where they would answer ‘yes’ into the microphone in answer to every question. The evangelist also had a weird routine where he would point to a section of stadium seating and make a loud noise, at which point dozens of the crowd he was pointing at fell screaming to the floor. As we left the stadium I watched as crowds of people still in wheelchairs were being loaded back on to coaches and I felt deeply sick.

But it was the journey home that fascinated me most. My friend was buzzing. He had observed several of the charlatan’s ‘techniques’ and wanted to begin using them when praying for people in our church. My refusal was the beginning of a rift between us that never healed.

KATE: I have been on the receiving end of negative and positive experiences with influential leaders in the public sector (where I worked for over 20 years) with peers, public servants, and politicians, as well as in the church. The positive encounters in faith settings are the many unsung heroes who are leaders, pastoral workers and chaplains who minister and lead with integrity, compassion and sacrificial service in their roles and communities. They maintain appropriate boundaries and do not abuse their power of influence. 

My early experience of a negative influence by a charismatic leader was at school. It came to light that a chaplain sexually assaulted some peers. His personality was a bit like Marmite and not someone I felt influenced by. He was addressed with the title ‘Father’ before his name, which is interesting and problematic. In hindsight, I probably avoided any involvement as I think my 13-year-old self had good enough male figures, a protective father and an older brother at the same school who looked out for me; this may have made a difference. I remember the chaplain as being charming, persuasive, manipulative and guilt-provoking when I chose not to attend any of the faith gatherings he organised. 

CRAIG: Thanks Kate for reminding us of a very important fact it is easy to forget when our focus is on abuse of power or trust. For every horror story there are numerous ‘unsung heroes’ who do their very best to care within appropriate boundaries, and will never make news headlines for the wrong reasons.

ROY: I’ve worked with a few and observed many more, ‘powerful’ leaders. In the early days of coming to faith, I was part of a youth fellowship in Harrogate. From a handful we grew to a large group of people, mostly from unchurched backgrounds who came to faith and were baptised. I led the group with someone I had previously been at school with who went on to lead The Nine O’Clock Service in Sheffield. At the time of leading the youth fellowship in Harrogate, we were in our late teens. As a group we did some incredibly creative, innovative and radical things that engaged people, helped in the disciplining of one another and which were hugely attractive to other young people asking questions about life and faith. With ease we were able to combine our newfound faith with the creative arts, evangelism and social justice. Conversions and baptisms were a regular part of the church’s life. 

Looking back on those days, I’m amazed by the grace and generosity extended to us from the older, traditional Baptist congregation. They were clearly very happy to see young people coming to faith and becoming part of the church community but some of the things that we did must’ve triggered questions if not doubts and concerns. 

Why were we allowed to do the things that we did? The answer is simple; we were accountable. Directly accountable to the minister. He met with us leaders of the youth group on a weekly basis. He nurtured, discipled and kept a watching eye on us. He didn’t rubber stamp everything that we proposed and there were things that he did not give approval and therefore we didn’t do them. There was an openness and transparency. We felt supported. Accountability, far from being something that was repressive, was actually very protective of both of us and the wider church. 

Under his leadership and with his encouragement, I responded to a call to ministry and went off with my wife to Bible college and university and later into pioneering as a Baptist minister. The other leader and I grew apart, not because of any fallout but simply because our lives headed in different directions. I look back on that period and our working together as formative, creative, thinking outside the box, being prepared to ask questions, respectful of tradition but not being confined by it. It was a bit of a surprise to me that he ended up in the Anglican church in Sheffield but from a distance I was hearing good things about the early days of the Nine O’clock Service and was encouraged that he had a good vicar who he was initially responsible and accountable to. I don’t know any of the details as to what happened in the ensuing years and I’m horrified to hear the allegations of what occurred. He was a genius, incredibly gifted, prophetic and radical but with a shadow side that, unguarded and unchecked, could be ruinous.


If you’re concerned about a person or situation in a church context and need information or support, the leading experts on church abuse are https://thirtyoneeight.org/.

Whatever your concern – recent or non-recent, if it relates to safeguarding or even if you’re not sure –  Mon you can call Thirtyone Eight – Fri, 9am – 5pm, on 0303 003 1111.

In an emergency, especially if someone is in immediate danger of harm, you should always call 999 straight away and ask for the police.

Image Credit: Dall-E

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About the Author

Simon loves helping individuals, churches and organisations through times of change and re-envisioning, and bringing together the people and resources needed to turn dreams into reality. He is also a gifted teacher and preacher and a member of the British and Irish Association for Practical Theology.

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