When Sheep Attack:
Dealing with Pastoral Abuse in the Smaller Church
By Glenn Daman
Pastors often enter ministry with a mental picture of lush, gentle hills surrounded by placid sheep grazing on pastures as a caring shepherd watches over them. Pastors also picture the smaller church as a tranquil place where people gather while a well-equipped and loving shepherd feeds them spiritually. In truth, this is often the case. Many smaller churches love their pastor and appreciate his ministry. At times, however, docile sheep can turn into malicious beasts, viciously snapping with sharpened fangs at the heels of a fleeing shepherd. As a result, pastors leave the ministry feeling hurt, abandoned, and abused. They may question their call to ministry, the meaning of Christian fellowship, and even doubt the love and compassion of God.
Identifying the Attack Sheep
While a church can abuse and damage the emotional and spiritual well-being of a pastor in numerous ways, specific issues are common in the smaller church.
The smaller church can abuse pastors through financial neglect
Many people have this attitude: The pastor should not be paid more than I am. After all, if I can live on this income, so can he. When the board proposes the annual budget and suggests raising the pastor’s salary, people who earn less object. This is especially true in the smaller church because people have a strong sense of ownership. Consequently, they feel free to express their opinions regarding the pastor’s salary. A factor that further compounds this problem is the fact many small churches have limited financial resources. The result is two-fold. First, pastors in smaller churches often live financial stress. Second, this results in short-term pastors in the smaller church. The pastor soon leaves to find a church that will pay him enough to provide for his family.
The smaller church can abuse pastors through petty criticism
The adage, familiarity breeds contempt, can be true in the smaller church because people develop a personal relationship with their pastor. This has both positive and negative effects. Close relationships are positive because they create a basis for effective ministry. When the pastor knows his people, this knowledge opens the door for specialized ministry. The pastor can minister specifically and individually to each person in the congregation.
The negative effect of familiarity is that people, because they know their pastor’s weaknesses and shortcomings, can become critical of him. For example, in one smaller church during a congregational meeting, two women criticized the pastor’s wife because they thought she was using too much electricity in the parsonage. Such petty criticism undermines the morale of the pastor and his family and may eventually drive them from ministry.
The smaller church can abuse the pastor through the manipulative use of power
Powerbrokers in smaller churches often exert influence over the church. In most cases, these are godly people who have a passion for Christ and for the church, and they are assets to the ministry. In some cases, however, they become controlling and manipulative. Powerbrokers, rather than supporting and encouraging the pastor, often see him as a threat to their control. Thus they criticize and thwart any decision they do not support. As a result, they cause division as they undermine the ministry of the pastor and others. When they do, they undermine his influence in the church and in the community.
One pastor described it this way, “After they had stifled growth in the church for 9 years, I took steps to confront this couple’s bitterness and division. After they left, they spread rumors throughout the community.” Not only do they attack the pastor when he tries to circumvent their control, but they also drive away others in the church who threaten their dominance.
The smaller church can abuse the pastor through unrealistic expectations
In smaller churches people can develop a mindset that the pastor is supposed to do everything. A pastor in a small community described his first experience in the church: “On arriving I was invited to my first board meeting, even before we got the truck unloaded. During that first meeting, I was tossed a set of keys, and basically told, ‘Here it is; it’s all yours.’ This set the tone for everything that has followed over the past 4 years. I have filled the roles of preacher, youth pastor, worship leader, evangelist, janitor, and construction worker.”
Tragically, this often occurs in smaller churches. People expect the pastor to do everything. This is not only unrealistic, but it also leads to discouragement and burnout.
Smaller churches can also have unrealistic expectations of the pastor’s family. Such expectations result in unfair criticism that hurts many families. People expect the family to be perfect. When the pastor’s child misbehaves, people criticize him saying, “You shouldn’t do that; you’re the pastor’s kid.” They expect the pastor’s children to be spiritual leaders and positive role models for all the children. The result is the church damages the emotional well-being of the family.
The smaller church can abuse the pastor through isolation and rejection
Especially in rural areas, the smaller church can treat the pastor and his family as outsiders. While the people love the pastor and his family and even appreciate their ministry, the pastor and his family remain on the outside because they are from another community and background. People do not fully accept them. They love him as a pastor, but not as a person. They treat the family with respect and appreciation, but do not care for them as people who have pressures and struggles. As a result, the church sees them as objects for their use, rather than people to care for.
For example, in one church, the board expected the pastor to use his vacation when he attended a conference or took the teens on a day or overnight activity. Instead of caring for the pastor’s emotional and spiritual needs by making sure he was taking vacation, they hastened him toward burnout.
The smaller church can abuse the pastor through the lack of support he receives from leaders of the denomination
Pastors in small churches often feel overlooked by denominational leaders. Denominational leaders often have risen within the organization because they pastored larger urban churches that were more visible. As a result, they may have little experience with the smaller church and the issues and struggles the small-church pastor faces. The programs the denomination designs and promotes may focus on issues relevant only to urban churches. Therefore, the pastor feels a sense of isolation and rejection by his own denominational leadership. This is especially true when the church criticizes and attacks the pastor while the denomination sides with the church because they fear they will lose the church.
Dealing With Attack Sheep
It is easy for a pastor to identify abuse, but it is far more difficult to protect himself from it. It is one thing to feel abuse, but it is difficult to continue to minister in spite of it. As a result, pastors are leaving the ministry in droves because they are hurt, burned out, and bitter toward the church, the denomination, and even God.
Rather than develop a victim’s mindset and blame others for these problems, pastors need to take responsibility for their own spiritual and emotional well-being. One person said, “You must learn to take care of yourself because no one in the church will.”
Dealing with attack sheep begins with a right perspective of God
Pastors must remember who is in control. David felt the pain when people attacked him. In the Psalms of Lament, we continually find David crying out to God in despair because of the opposition that stood against him. Psalm 13 is one such Psalm. Yet even as he cried out, what renewed his perspective was his overwhelming confidence in the nature of God (verses 5,6).
When a pastor is wounded and abused, he must remember the grace, compassion, providence, and sovereignty of God. A pastor must remember that no one, no matter how abusive he may be, can thwart the purpose and will of God. God is in control of one’s life and ministry.
Dealing with attack sheep involves a firm grip on our calling
The apostle Paul suffered not only at the hands of those outside the church, but also from those within the church. He experienced criticism from a disgruntled faction in the church at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 9, his response contains three critical principles. First, he reaffirmed his call to ministry (verses 1,2). Paul’s awareness and conviction that God called him to be an apostle kept him from becoming discouraged. Second, he set aside his personal rights for the sake of the gospel (verses 3–14). Even though he had the right to receive their support and respect, he did not demand it. He was more concerned with ministering to the needs of others than with their treatment of him. Third, he remained focused on the proclamation of the gospel (verses 15–27). Paul was more concerned with the proclamation of the gospel than he was with his own personal comfort.
Ultimately, what keeps pastors in ministry is not the treatment they receive from people, but the firm conviction that God has called them to preach the gospel and “woe to [them] if [they] do not preach” (verse 16). Because a pastor focuses on his call rather than his treatment from others, he does not allow detractors to distract him. At times, pastors must graciously smile when people criticize them over petty issues, nod their heads to show they are listening to these complainers, and then walk away and ignore them.
Dealing with attack sheep involves recognizing that the call to ministry is a call to pain
When God called Isaiah to preach His word to the people, He made it clear that the ministry would not be easy (Isaiah 6). When He commissioned Ezekiel to become a prophet, he forewarned that the very people he sought to save would reject him (Ezekiel 2,3). When Jeremiah complained to God that the people were not responsive to his ministry, God answered by challenging Jeremiah, “If you have raced with men on foot and they have worn you out, how can you compete with horses? If you stumble in safe country, how will you manage in the thickets by the Jordan?” (Jeremiah 12:5).
Pastors must remember that God did not call them to lives of ease and comfort. Ministry is costly. The mark of true shepherds is that they are willing to sacrifice their own lives for the sake of the sheep, even when the sheep mistreat the shepherds (John 10:11–13).
Dealing with attack sheep involves grace and forgiveness
Moses knew the pain of personal attacks from the people God called him to lead. Not only did these people grumble and complain against Moses, but his own brother and sister also challenged his leadership. When God became angry with these people and with Moses’ family, Moses prayed for God’s forgiveness and mercy on them (Numbers 12).
People who remain in ministry do not respond in bitterness and anger when others wrong them. Instead, they recognize the grace of God in their own lives and, as a result, are gracious and forgiving toward others (Matthew 18:21–35).
Dealing with attack sheep involves recognizing that the power to influence people is in the proclamation of Scripture rather than in organizational structures
A pastor can easily become entangled in power struggles that affect his church. He may feel threatened and even cheated when people do not follow his recommendations for the direction he feels the church should go.
When a pastor is serving the church, he must continually remember that the greatest influence in the church does not come from his decisions for the church’s organizational structure or programs. It comes through preaching the Word of God. A pastor will impact people when he faithfully proclaims the gospel.
Dealing with attack sheep involves training leaders
One reason the board often neglects to deal with issues that result in abuse is they have never received training in their role and responsibility as leaders. Traditionally, smaller church boards have dealt only with the organizational aspects of the church (budget, facilities, and programs). When issues arise that require spiritual leadership, they are unsure how to handle them. Consequently, they often do nothing. Pastors and district leaders need to train church boards concerning their spiritual and biblical responsibilities. They need to know that they are accountable to God for how they lead.
While a pastor cannot stop all the abuse that happens in the church, he can control his response to it. Rather than allowing abuse to drive him away from ministry, he must allow it to drive him to God for strength and encouragement. Ultimately, a pastor’s relationship with God rather than his relationship with the church, the board, or even the denomination, will sustain him and bring healing when he has suffered from the attacks of vicious sheep.
After Paul wrote of his struggles in ministry, he concluded with this statement, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:18). This perspective, with a life riveted on the ministry and plan of Christ, will keep a pastor going even in the most difficult circumstances.