We Need to Talk about Abusive Leadership in Ministries

Photo by Andrew Ly on Unsplash

The recent standing down of Steve Timmis as CEO of Acts 29 has shocked the evangelical world. For most of us, it was as unexpected as it was disturbing.

His exposure and sacking raise many questions, not just about Timmis and the organisations he’s worked for, but about Christian ministries more broadly. In particular, how are our own ministries and churches responding to the issue of abusive leadership?

Abusive leadership is not pleasant to think about, let alone discuss. But it’s a conversation we need to have.[1]

Abusive leadership is not pleasant to think about, let alone discuss. But it’s a conversation we need to have.

While the overwhelming majority of Christian leaders are hardworking and caring shepherds of their sheep, we would be naive to think abusive leadership doesn’t happen within our tribe of ministries. Indeed, the very nature of abusive leadership is that it can be hard to spot from the outside: abuse often comes with a cloak of fear that silences dissent. But for those caught under it, the effects can be devastating.

Here are some things to keep in mind as we look to further this conversation:

1. The Bible teaches us to expect that abusive leaders will appear. We need to be prepared should this ever happen in our church or ministry.

The worst thing ministries and churches can do is adopt a ‘it could never happen here’ attitude. Not only does abuse finds fertile opportunity among unaware people, but the biblical doctrine of total depravity leads us to expect such behaviour. Jesus and the New Testament writers warn us about the danger of ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing’ coming in to harm the sheep (e.g. Matt 7:15-20, Acts 20:28-30). It can happen in any ministry.

And so, we should be prepared for it.

In some ways, abusive leadership in churches is similar to the issue of DV in churches. Is it prevalent? I think the answer is ‘no’. Most pastors and ministry leaders are people of godly integrity. But does abusive leadership happen? Sadly, yes—and likewise the impact on victims can often be just as damaging.

Speaking on this issue, American pastor Todd Pruitt points out:

Ministry can and does attract certain people that aren’t good … ministry can provide a tremendous feeling of power, if we’re not careful.’[2]

So, if allegations of abuse arise, how should ministries respond?

2. We need a process of dealing with abusive leadership, that upholds a biblical view of justice. We must beware of ‘knee jerk’ reactions to allegations of abuse.

When allegations of abusive leadership arise, it is tempting for leaders to be defensive, and not give the allegations a fair hearing. We all have a tendency to disbelieve negative news about people we admire and respect.[3]

However, Scripture does provide a process for raising concerns against a brother in the church, and having those concerns heard fairly and impartially (Matthew 18:15-17). Leaders within church are not a law unto themselves, but are under the oversight of the Chief Shepherd Himself (1 Peter 5:1-4).

It is tempting for leaders to be defensive, and not give the allegations a fair hearing … An equally powerful impulse in Australian culture is to believe allegations without relying on due process.

On the other hand, an equally powerful impulse (especially in Australian culture) is to believe allegations about those who lead us, without relying on due process. The Bible, however, calls us to be ready and willing to submit to those over us in the Lord (Heb 13:17 ), and not quick to entertain accusations against an elder (1 Tim 5:19 ). 

Thus, there should be a procedure in place for dealing with accusations of wrongdoing against ministry leaders. This procedure needs to uphold justice: the accused needs to be considered innocent until proven guilty, and the allegations must gain a fair and impartial hearing.

Much more needs to be said.

Much more can and should be said about the vexing issue of abusive leadership in ministries. At the very least, like the issue of Domestic Violence, ministries need to be aware of this issue, and be prepared to deal with it in a Biblical way if and as required. Ignoring it, or hoping it doesn’t rear its head, is not a God-honouring option.

[1] I realise some denominations and ministries are already having this conversation. We can thank God for that.

[2] Carl Trueman and Todd Pruit, The Mortification of Spin podcast—29 Jan 2020.

[3] According to the recent Christianity Today article on Timmis’ removal, a key allegation against Timmis, his church’s leadership, and the Acts 29 board is that they didn’t take the concerns of alleged victims seriously.