Why do clergy sometimes abuse their power?

Specific Object
This blog post appeared over three years ago and received quite a lot of comments. I think it has stood the test of time and is worth reprinting (with some minor alterations). Hopefully it will now be accessible to many of my newer readers who have not engaged with this question before. More probably they have not wanted to ask what is, after all, a fairly uncomfortable question.

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 most 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 with a sexual dimension happens in the church (and I will return to this topic in another post), more common is the simple use of power techniques to bolster up the flagging ego of a Christian leader. My studies have suggested that power is abused in a church setting 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 often they have damaged self-esteem. The use physical threats or dominating behaviour is a means to obtain a sense of being important. This being important temporarily relieves their inner sense of insignificance and not mattering to others. Clergy also play the power game in their congregations in rather more subtle ways than children in the playground. The fundamental reasons for doing it are the same. For whatever reason, clergy sometimes have 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 clergy-person 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 Cumbria. 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.

2 thoughts on “Why do clergy sometimes abuse their power?

  1. What I have found troubling about my experience with bullying clergy is the extent to which others in the church make excuses for them. Abuse is abuse, regardless of whether it is spiritual, emotional, sexual, relational, or any other category.

    Also troubling is the extent to which bullying clergy hide behind professions of faith, when it is clear that they view their job as just that — a job and little more.

    There’s also too little attention paid to wage theft by clergy. If your letter of agreement provides for six weeks’ annual leave and you take twelve, have you stolen? In my book the answer is yes. Or, in the words of a fellow blogger, “It’s 10 o’clock. Do you know where your pastor is?

  2. Oh my word, you are singing my song! The new incumbent in my former parish is never there! There are phone calls at 6 am to someone to ask can they take the 8 o’clock service because she’s not well, oh and you’d better do the 10 o’clock, too. There are “parish trips” which are mostly her friends, but that gets her another weeks’ holiday. “Retreats” that involve a few days in a B&B in a local beauty spot.

    No-one wants to know about bullying. They take no notice at all in my experience, even when they don’t know the character concerned because you’ve moved, the solidarity holds.

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