Guest Interview with Dr. Margaret Jones on Leadership and Spiritual Abuse

Introducing Dr. Jones’ “Virtual Book Tour”

In March, I was invited to host Dr. Margaret Jones on her “Virtual Book Tour” for Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches, published by Pluck Press. She offered a number of options for this virtual stop … supplying book to review, or provide a guest post, or answer questions, etc.

As I considered the possibilities and what intersected with my interests, I felt like we’d benefit by hearing from her on issues related to promoting healthy leadership in our churches. Since much of my work the past 15 years has been in a seminary and other leadership training programs, I’ve become especially concerned about “systems design” for non-toxic ministry structures and leadership skills that are healthy, transferable, and sustainable.

Dr. Jones’ own status of a survivor of spiritual abuse in several church settings – plus her work as a psychologist, counselor, and life coach – give her a unique, pastoral care perspective on such topics. And so, I posed a series of five virtual interview “cluster questions” on topics related to spiritual abuse. (I used a cluster of questions to get to the core themes, and didn’t expect Dr. Jones to respond to every aspect of the cluster.) The main themes of my concern on systems and abuse are:

  • Training next generation leaders toward prevention of spiritually abusive leadership
  • Identifying abusive tendencies and repairing the underlying issues
  • Addressing church-based conflict due to leadership, and considering possibilities of restoration

These are some tough issues to consider – but necessary if we are to be and become the Church as God meant it to be – not perfect, but moving in the right direction of transformation to Christlikeness. I appreciate the themes Dr. Jones raises in response to my questions, and hope you’ll find helpful insights in her valuable perspective.

1. Training Curriculum on Preventing Spiritually Abusive Leaders

Suppose you were given freedom to establish the curriculum for a course on preventing spiritually abusive leaders, and that every seminary, leadership training program, and discipleship program required the course. What would you do? What topics and evaluation tools would you make mandatory, what resources would you require, what practical assignments, etc.?

DR. JONES: I would first develop a professional ethics course similar to one I had to take for psychology. Most of the ministers in my book misunderstood confidentiality. They mistakenly thought they were free to discuss my personal business so long as it was “for my benefit” and they also thought I was not free to share my conversations with them. They did not understand the basic concept that confidentiality is the right of the client or in the case of ministry, the parishioner, not theirs. The course would also discuss multiple role relationships and how to handle them. Real case studies would be included.

I would also include a course on group dynamics and bullying. I would share current research on bullying, scapegoating and its human cost. I would share what is currently known about how to prevent abuse from occurring. Perhaps this would call for a third course on leadership and how to handle gossip etc.

2. Exploring Our Abusive Tendencies

In a seminary or training program setting or church staff in-service trainings, how would you help participants explore whether they have abusive tendencies? Are there additional suggestions you have for supervisors to spot potential problems in those they oversee? What would you recommend as a course of action for training programs and churches in intercepting any students, interns, or staff who appear to be at risk for becoming bully-leaders?

DR. JONES: I think we all have abusive tendencies. At one time or other every one of us has been the bully, the victim and the bystander. Although mostly I have been the victim, there were instances in my childhood where I bullied my sister and I can remember, to my shame, standing silently watching while a classmate was cruelly teased and humiliated. I don’t recall ever standing up for him. Clergy need to be aware of their own motivations and desires just as therapists need to. They must learn to monitor their own behavior and make behavioral corrections when indicated.

If we see abuse as a character fault in an individual we make the person the problem. That may lead to scapegoating and expulsion. I don’t want to do to ministers what was done to me. The ministers and their superiors who mistreated me were misguided, misinformed and poorly trained. I think they truly believe what they were doing was right and proper.

A few decades ago psychology faced similar problems. In response psychology graduate programs and licensing boards began mandating ethics courses. It helped but of course did not eliminate the problem of individuals who knowingly violate ethics codes to benefit themselves. Unless these individuals have come to the attention of school officials and/or the legal system, they are hard to identify before hand. The use of personality tests is largely a waste of time and money. They lack validity and reliability.

3. Reparative Steps for Those with a History of Abusing

What reparative steps would you recommend for students or staff who have a history of manipulating or controlling others in relationships, and/or perpetrating legalism or other forms of spiritual abuse in church/ministry settings?

DR. JONES: All aspiring clergy need to serve a well supervised internship. When they have completed their internship and have accepted a calling to a church they still need supervision from an experienced pastor for a couple of years. The status of applicants for ministerial position should be made clear to search committees. In my story, it was not made clear to us that Rev. Patience had performed badly at her previous church and was on probation. She should never have been allowed by the denomination to accept a position where there would be no supervision. She should have been required to meet with a ministerial supervisor once per week. Medical professionals with known substance abuse problems are put on probation and have a whole set of procedures before they are allowed to practice independently again. Denominations need to set up similar procedures.

4. Resolution Guidelines for Churches in Conflict

For a church in conflict due to an apparently abusive leader, what guidelines would you suggest for discerning whether the situation is resolvable with the leader staying in place, or not?

DR. JONES: I think it depends on the nature of the offense. Predatory sexual behavior such as rape and child molestation should result in being permanently barred from any type of ministry. Other situations should be judged case by case. The major problem in my situation was that I couldn’t get the offending parties to sit down with me and a trained mediator. On the advice of the bishop’s office, they began a disciplinary process against me. The bishop’s assistant, I might add, never met with me to hear my side of the story. I was pre-judged before I ever sent in my letter of complaint. There was no mechanism where I could obtain mediation of the conflict. There was no due process, no justice. The problem wasn’t just one individual but the whole system.

5. Indicators of Potential Restoration to Leadership Roles

When someone has been removed from leadership for reasons of abusive behaviors, how can we know – from a counseling perspective – if/when he/she is capable of restoration to leadership roles? What might be indicators that he/she is not ready to resume a public leadership role, or not the same leadership role they had previously? Are there times when putting a former perpetrator of abuse back into the same role is too much of a temptation for him/her, and unsafe for those being led? What alternatives could you recommend in such situations?

DR. JONES: When I have someone who has been court ordered in therapy I look for signs that s/he understands the nature of her/his offense and why it was the wrong thing to do. If s/he is cooperating with therapy, we talk about alternative choices and how to choose more wisely. From week to week you monitor the behavior to see if it has changed. If they continue to deny responsibility for abusive behavior and are not willing to make restitution to the victim, they are definitely not ready to resume their leadership role.


Again, my thanks to Dr. Jones for taking the time to respond to my questions. Hope you’ve found practical points of insight in them, as I have … and I may be blogging some posts later as a result as I continue processing them. Meanwhile, feel free to comment and add your thoughts to the mix here.

Also, please take time to check out some of the other posts on her Virtual Book Tour. She has provided a number of guest posts, as well as shared her redemptive perspective on readers’ questions on a range of topics about recovery from spiritual abuse. And please consider purchasing her book, Not of My Making: Bullying, Scapegoating and Misconduct in Churches.

10 thoughts on “Guest Interview with Dr. Margaret Jones on Leadership and Spiritual Abuse

  1. Scapegoating is a particular concern of mine. Everytime I hear one of those Christian urban legends of witches casting spells on such and such church I wanna slap the gossips passing it along and say, “Wake Up!” When it comes from ministers I am even more saddened and disgusted. Can’t they see how abusive it is to spread unsubstantiated rumours about people, can’t they see it as fear-based scapegoating? Can’t they remember the Old Testament commandment about bearing false witness? Scapegoating should be considered unacceptable, no matter who the recipiant is.

  2. At times we all fall into scapegoating/blaming others on little or no evidence. It is something we must monitor in ourselves. It is wise not to jump to judgment and not to assume we have all the facts. Often people don’t think they are gossiping and haven’t made the connection with the 9th commandment.

  3. These are good questions and I really appreciate the answers. One of the things that strikes me is the incorrect idea of “confidentiality” that some pastors and church leaders have. I don’t think that is limited to leaders, either.

    I really hope that leaders will read this book and take a look at this issue.

    I would suggest, Margaret, that you write a little something up along the lines of what you have written here…something that could be handed out to leaders, to seminaries and to anyone who is involved in any way in leadership. This is an issue that sorely needs to be addressed in some groups.

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  5. Hi Brad and Margaret,

    Thanks so much for posting this info. It is obviously a sensitive and complex topic and needs to get out there and be recognized. I have forwarded the information on to some of my counseling pals.

    I am also interested in this topic as it was a large part of the doctoral dissertation which I completed last year. I tracked how people in the local church, who were devastated by church leadership’s behavior, recovered from it. This can be a help those who have experienced it as well as be a welcome aid for caring pastors, academics, denominational overseers, church consultants, and Christians in general to be part of the solution.

    I have made the point that these were dedicated and loyal church members and not just troublesome people that pastors are often faced with. My research builds on the work by Dr. Alan Jamieson who did PhD research in New Zealand over ten years ago. This church dilemma revolves around the church ministry paradigm for leadership and where it might be flawed. It beckons Christians to consider that this ongoing dysfunction is in the church and that it needs to be recognized and dealt with in serious ways.

    I am looking forward to getting my work into a book and making it available to a wider audience.

    I have made my dissertation available online at:

    I will continue to spread the word about your book and the info posted on this site.
    Thanks again!

    Bye for now, Dr. Barb

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  7. One reason for the predominance of spiritual abuse at the hands of clergy is the professionalisation of leadership roles in the church. The more “professional” the role of the leader becomes the more professional the counter measures/reponses will need to be. The end result though is an ever decreasing spiral into institutionalism and bureaucracy.

    While I’m sure more organic approaches to church and leadership will generate their own issues in this and other areas, I think the solution, in this instance, is unfortunately, also part of the problem.

    • This is an important insight, Andrew. From a systems perspective, every organizational form has some sorts of deficiencies which can be toxic, just as it has some points of health. How do we help develop healthy discipleaders within ALL organizational forms, while equipping them to address the systems issues that have or will stunt the growth of everyone in those systems? Professional systems want professional responses – how do we help leaders and trainers and everyday disciples within a professional organizational form of church to shift their paradigm, not just solve their problem?

      The situation is made more difficult since we live in the realities of a crossover/transition era. We have Christians gathering in a very diverse set of organizational forms from highly hierarchical to very flat to a mixed model; monocultural to multicultural to intercultural; personal to virtual; mechanic to organic paradigms; etc. We may get some help from a forthcoming book, due out October/November 2009: Church Turned Inside Out: A Guide for Designers, Refiners, and Re-Aligners. It’s written by two church planting strategist friends of mine, Linda Bergquist and Allan Karr, and it looks at some of these very problems from a design perspective – but in the realities of a global paradigm shift/transition period where multiple kinds of models will co-exist.

      I am convinced that some of the more hierarchical organizational types will not survive the transition. They do not have much longer to respond by letting organic and hybrid disciples lead the way into the future. Attempts on their part to mimic organic/decentralized simply will not work. And holding on to popular organizational forms of the past as The Only Biblical Way To Do Things may well eventually be labeled a form of spiritual abuse – which doesn’t mean that all organizational forms of the future will automatically be non-toxic. We had better get our systems design in order …

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