9 Why do some Clergy/Ministers abuse their power

This blog is concerned with many examples of abuse that happen and have happened in churches up and down the land (not to mention across the world).  I am concerned not only by the fact that it happens but also to offer some reflections as to why it happens.

The word abuse is one that is often associated with sex and indeed sexual exploitation with members of the congregation or pastoral clients is unhappily fairly common in the church.  I leave the abuse of children to one side because although it does happen, its occurrence is dwarfed by the incidence of so called ‘affairs’ in the church.  Estimating from guesswork and some American research I would maintain that while one clergyman or minister in forty may have sexually abused a child, up to one in eight may have behaved inappropriately with an adult member under their pastoral care.  A perusal on the Web will produce some confirmation of whether my figures are more or less accurate.

While abuse of power in a sexual way happens in the church (and I will return to this topic in another blog) , more common is the simple use of power games to bolster up a flagging ego within a Christian leader.  In summary power is abused for one of three reasons.  These are sex, money or the desire to make the abuser feel important.  When we talk about power abuse in church, we are normally talking about the third one of these.  It is a phenomenon which is similar to bullying by children.  Why do children bully?  The short answer is that they themselves have little esteem and if they can put someone else down using physical threats or dominating behaviour they get a sense of being important.  That sense of being important temporarily relieves their inner sense of insignificance and not mattering to others.  Clergy play the power game in rather more subtle ways than children in the playground but it would seem that the fundamental reasons are the same.  For whatever reason, clergy sometimes suffer a crisis of confidence and experience threats to their well-being.  The reason for this may be located in the individual’s remote past or it may be a consequence  of demoralising conditions of their work in the present.

The abuse of power by the clergy can take many forms and readers of this blog will have their own stories to tell.  The abuse of power is often accompanied by a constant reminding by the clergyperson of their ‘superior’ status or education.  The clergy who have extra titles may insist of having these used on every occasion.  Often clergy will only want to associate with the socially significant among their congregation and ignore others of less importance.  This need constantly to be in a superior place to the people ‘below’ them can be seen on examination to be an expression of inadequacy verging on paranoia.  If it were not hurtful to those affected by it, it could be almost seem as comic.  But being subtly put down by a ‘superior’ person is never funny and congregations where this happens are unlikely to flourish.  But just as the abuser may be a victim in some way of the past or present and finds it difficult to change, so the abused find it difficult to walk away because they do not know how to reclaim their power.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

17 thoughts on “9 Why do some Clergy/Ministers abuse their power

  1. Oh I recognise the clergy who are snobby. Yes, bullies are weak, so are snobs. But for their victims, even those not officially classed as vulnerable, they are the feudal overlord. It’s not that the victim does not recognise their own power. In a feudal society like the church they have none. Your abuser is worth more than you. And yes, you don’t have to look any further for the reason for falling rolls.

  2. The notion that clergy are often snobs is not one I have seen discussed anywhere. But it raises the intriguing but difficult issue about the social status of clergy and whether that is an issue in some of them seeking ordination. Anyone who enters a potentially ‘high-status’ job is going to have the perks of that class or status. If status is important to them because of their past experienced insignificance, that is going to be a recipe for all kinds of mayhem! One would hope that most (or some) clergy managed to negotiate themselves out of class distinctions and status but I fear they probably do not always succeed.

    1. Oh, I’ve found that clergy are very suspicious of anyone who they think might be trying to overreach them. Potential ordinands, Readers. Especially if the other person is in a low status position. Stay at home wife and mother for example. So although this fear does affect men too, it affects women more. A man is very much more likely to be in a high status well paid job that he is proposing to give up for God! Lots of brownie points for that. A woman who waits until her kids are up a bit, hardly a revolutionary or peculiar thing to do, is just suffering from empty nest syndrome. At best she doesn’t start with the extra points the man has. At worst she is never seriously considered at all. You may very well not think like that. But it doesn’t follow that your peers don’t!

      1. Dear English Athena
        I am interested in your comment that women suffer more than men in respect of these power plays – something you have experience of?

        1. Yes, but it isn’t as simple as women get it worse. They get it in the way I described above, but men get it, too. Sometimes it comes down to whether or not the man in charge, and of course in the church it’s usually a man, fancies you or not. That disadvantages a plain woman, but also a man (assuming a straight superior!) Then there’s the women who don’t like other women on their territory. Then there’s the men who get it in the neck because they didn’t fancy the woman in charge! There are always going to be human relationships, of course, but Christians of all people really should be able to rise above it.

  3. My experience is that clergy are often subtly abusive. It may be as simple as “quips” about parishioners that the priest wants to disempower, to pointed silence, to ensuring that those who would hold him accountable don’t get onto a board or vestry. Everything is sunshine and Chardonnay when clergy of this sort have their way, but it’s World War III the instant they don’t.

    1. Yes. Well put. When not having the screaming ab-dabs, some will shun and ostracise. Kisses for those who fit the agenda; sins of omission for the rest of us. Does the Anglican Church recognise sins of omission ?

  4. Welcome Mr Episcopal. You sound as if you have been around the church for some time. I have just been writing something about the leaders of churches having fragile egos. Perhaps this is at the heart of abuse there is this need to protect, sometimes aggressively, the sense of self by putting others down and keeping control on structures and institutions. They are however not all like that, I hope. I hope that there are some clergy whose sense of self is not disturbed by challenges to their power. Come and join us on more recent conversations!

  5. Oh, I couldn’t agree more with, “While abuse of power in a sexual way happens in the church…more common is the simple use of power games to bolster up a flagging ego within a Christian leader. In summary power is abused for one of three reasons. These are sex, money or the desire to make the abuser feel important.” The psychodynamics of this are described well on these pages, yet there are other ‘motivational factors’ that, while including the ‘make the abuser feel important’, come at it from a different angle. This is reverse snobbery. The vicar treats some parts of the congregation like weakened institutionalised children, while professionals who can offer giftings for use in the church get short shrift. To disagree with an academic point is tantamount to ‘judgement against the person of the vicar’ and an attack. While I am writing this I am in the process of trying to heal this dysfunctional relationship, yet I am in despair. Thus, this ‘what on earth can we do?’ feeble ventilation of the problem.

  6. I have experienced abuse and been witness to character defamation by clergy who joined an existing parish committee a long time after it was originally established in order to show everyone who was the new boss and how things were going to be run. It appeared to be a act for clergy self confidence boosting at the expense of committee persons who were volunteering their time and following parish rules that were initially set.
    So clergy abuse comes in many forms often simply just to give them the satisfaction of being the boss and flaunting authority rather than employing a more communicative and caring means.
    The problem is that because good people honor and protect clergy and believe that clergy never lie or would knowingly defame someone I believe there are many true instances of clergy abuse to their flock that never surface or are believed when they do.

  7. Do you have a link please – for those of us in the Antipodes. It would be interesting to know what their take is.

  8. Thanks EnglishAthena, yes that’s right.

    A linked article says: “”[The inquiry] has had far too many setbacks, far too many people sniping at it,” he told Today. “There are people out there listening to this programme who most definitely want this inquiry to fail.” It might explain the serial failures. Some people don’t want it to succeed. Who is meant by “people out there”?

    Abuse inquiry: How we got here
    7 July 2014 – government announces independent inquiry into the way public bodies investigated and handled child sex abuse claims. Baroness Butler-Sloss chosen as head
    9 July – Baroness Butler-Sloss faces calls to quit because her late brother, Sir Michael Havers, was attorney general in the 1980s
    14 July – she stands down, saying she is “not the right person” for the job
    5 September – Lord Mayor of London Fiona Woolf named the new head of the inquiry
    11 October – Mrs Woolf discloses she had five dinners with Lord Brittan from 2008-12
    22 October – abuse victim launches legal challenge against Mrs Woolf leading the inquiry, amid growing calls for her resignation
    31 October – victims’ groups tell government officials they are “unanimous” Mrs Woolf should quit. She steps down later that day
    4 February 2015 – Justice Lowell Goddard, a serving judge of the High Court of New Zealand, announced as the new head of the inquiry
    13 July – Dame Lowell’s pay is revealed as more than £480,000 a year
    November – inquiry begins hearing directly from victims and survivors
    4 August 2016 – Dame Lowell writes to Home Secretary Amber Rudd to resign from her post
    14 October The Times reports accusations of racist remarks being made by Dame Lowell when in the job. She denies the claims.”
    http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-37653003

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