FAQs – What are strategies and tactics of leaders who are abusive?

January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness Month

January is Spiritual Abuse Awareness month, and I plan to post several articles on related topics. A full listing and links for my posts on this topic appears in this Index.

Summary. This post offers a list of specific actions by people who attempt to manipulate, control, or directly harm individuals and/or organizational systems. Because various kinds of abusers typically use very different approaches to getting their own way, many items on this list seem to contradict each other. But, these actions serve as indicators to warn us of both probable perpetrators of spiritual abuse and those who act as protectors of perpetrators.


Since a friend emailed me recently to ask how they could know if they were in a spiritual abusive church situation, I decided to finish compiling an initial list of strategies and tactics that I’ve experienced from various abusive ministry leaders I have known. (And just so you know, I could think of at least two or three particular instances for every single one of these points – these aren’t just theory to me, they’re part of my personal history! )

It’s ironic that some sets of tactics in the abuser’s toolkit are polar opposites (for instance, to maintain control by relying on church discipline or the threat thereof, versus refusing to use church discipline when it is truly called for). But I’d suggest that the reason for the apparent contradiction is that there are some very different types of leaders who demonstrate abusive attitudes, actions, and communications. Some “leaders” who are actually spiritual bleeders may be passive and NOT do things they should as supposed overseers of others, or aggressive and do things they SHOULD NOT DO. Some are warm and endearing, but still are self-centered and ultimately enjoy all the attention to themselves that their self-produced chaos brings. Others are cold and even cruel, showing absolutely no social conscience about how they harm others. Still others are rule-bound and power-hungry, abiding by no personal boundaries and dictating decisions for those in their “flock.”

Thus, some tactics simply work better for certain kinds of false leaders, and some simply work better to manipulate certain kinds of victims. So don’t use this checklist as an all-or-nothing kind of scorecard of abusiveness. Read, reflect, discern. What fits, fits. What doesn’t, doesn’t. The truth is usually horrific enough, with no need to manufacture something to fit a particular point …

Also, if you happen to resonate with specific points, or have experienced some of these but didn’t realize it until later, you might ask yourself, “What made me vulnerable to following that particular kind of leader? To being susceptible that kind of tactic?” You may not be able to confront or challenge an abusive leader, but you are free to consider how to change your own responses.

More on these insidious subjects later. Meanwhile, I hope this proves helpful for now.

My List of Strategies and Tactics of Leaders Who are Abusive

Leaders who are abusive …

Ignore the rules or demonstrate outright refusal to follow agreed-on procedures of the organization.

Make up new rules (and toss out old ones) whenever they want.

Refuse to set reasonable rules for important procedures – so you never can tell what the standards or requirements are, or when you can expect resolution.

Tell a partial truth that sounds perfectly reasonable and leads all you listeners to the conclusion that the leader wants.  But, the leader leaves out key pieces of information they have which, if you’d have known those details, they would have completely changed your understanding of the situation and your opinion of what action to take. Typically, this other direction is not what the leader wanted. This is one of many forms of “bait and switch,” where there is a façade to draw you into a manipulator’s sphere of influence.

Get offended and defensive when you ask questions. They make sure you know you shouldn’t do that, either by ignoring you, responding sarcastically, embarrassing you publicly, etc., depending on whatever is their usual modus operandi.

Play on your sense of justice and compassion, if you are mercy- and/or justice-oriented, by telling you personal stories where they were cast aside, ignored, hurt, etc. If you sympathize with them due to their stories of hurt, you can be more easily swayed by them.

Play on your desire for order and clarity – if you are “random,” non-linear, disorganized, then you are susceptible to their “leading” and teaching in ways that make decision-making easy-squeezy and black and white … just follow the lists and follow them as leaders.

Play on your need to rescue people, by constantly creating mini-melodramas and major catastrophes.

Take undue credit for work that other people produced, and refuse to take responsibility for this indiscretion if confronted about it.

Refuse any personal responsibility for conflicts, but blame or shame others as the responsible party. Or, they might talk humbly as if they accept responsibility for their actions – but they demonstrate no change over time and therefore no genuine repentance.

Assign jobs and perks and influence based on nepotism (giving preference to family members) and cronyism (giving preference to personal friends) instead of by any objective process that opens the way for service by candidates who demonstrate appropriate giftedness, skills, and personal character/spiritual maturity.

Put into or keep in roles of influence, responsibility, and/or authority people who are UNqualified (i.e., do not have the appropriate spiritual giftedness, skill level, or personal character/spiritual maturity to carry out a job).

Put into or keep in roles of influence, responsibility, and/or authority people who have proven themselves to be DISqualified from public ministry by reason of ongoing immorality, patterns of abusing other, etc.

Block or remove from holding roles of influence, responsibility, and/or authority people who are qualified by demonstrated spiritual giftedness, skill level, and personal character/spiritual maturity.

Talk about people behind their backs and/or label them in ways that demonstrate bitterness, superiority, etc., or are designed to instill a lack of trust in those people.

Embarrass people publicly, either as a way to keep them in line or to block them from developing influence.

Conduct “church discipline” in ways that are anti-biblical (for instance, do not follow the reconciliation process outlined in Matthew 18, but make a summary judgment and then oust the supposed offender).

Use “church discipline” or other forms of threat of expulsion from the community or censure as a way to instill fear of reprisal for going against church authorities.

Refuse to conduct church discipline with someone who has demonstrated significant, ongoing harm to the Body of Christ, either because of passivity or in order to protect this person who happens to be a friend or a protégé.

Show up unannounced or uninvited at times and places where their presence forces the attention to be put on them and their agendas.

Demonstrate driven by ambition, aggression, power-lust, adulation, etc. – anything but the Kingdom of Christ.

Misuse leadership structures to avoid personal involvement in conflicts or difficult relational/personnel issues by sending someone lower down in the “chain of authority” to deal with the situation. When questions arise about the issue, they can always refer those to the underlings.

Refuse to commit themselves to specific actions, even if they say they will try to do some general things, so there is always a “fudge factor” where they can claim they fulfilled their responsibilities or can claim they never committed to do this or that specific thing.

Do not follow through on fulfilling specific commitments. And yet, a promise left undone is, in effect, a lie. (So this is another form of “bait and switch.”) However, they do not take kindly to being called to account for what has been left undone and any consequences that ensued from their lack of action. They will usually find ways to put the blame on others, or explain it away (“Oh, I forgot!”), or stop talking to you if you challenge them on it.

Like to “upgrade.” You’ll be acceptable as a staff member or volunteer — just until someone at least slightly better comes along, and then you are out of favor, out of a job, out of the loop. The leader and his/her team will give all kinds of explanations (rationalizations, actually) for the most recent change, or give no reasons at all, or perhaps even “get rid of the evidence” by kicking you out. This high level of turnover shows a capricious commitment to the leader’s vision and programs instead of a gracious covenant to people and organizational viability.

Provide no job descriptions for staff and volunteers, or inaccurate descriptions. Either way, this lack of clarity and specificity creates a chaotic system. It makes it easier for the leader to adjust job duties according to whim, and use people in ways incompatible with their giftings and abilities which inevitably leads to stress and often leads to burn-out.

Do not have minutes taken at staff meetings or other kinds of leadership team or church council meetings. Thus, what seems to have been decided does not need to be followed through on, as it was not clearly recorded what was to be done, by when, and why. This causes a significant amount of time and effort to be negated, and abusive leaders do not take any responsibility for these losses and resulting frustrations.

Use body language, facial expressions, and tones of voice that indicate their superiority over others. They also use a room’s setting to put themselves in the physical position of power and control. For instance, sitting at the far end of a table with distance between themselves and everyone else, or sitting at the spot farthest from the door, or sitting behind a desk while everyone else sits in chairs, or sitting on a chair while others sit on the floor.

Split their public persona from the behind-the-scenes person who is very different. For instance, act in public as if a particular staff member is the greatest thing in the Kingdom of God but criticize that same person to other “insiders” when no one else is listening in. Add to this the fact that the leader can claim all internal staff dialogues are “confidential” and everyone must succumb to silence in order to not contradict the leader and in order to keep his or her job.

Some Other Lists Worth Checking Out

The following lists come from the book Toxic Faith by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton. This book, first published in 1991 and redone in 2001, is well worth reading. I talked with Stephen Arterburn at a 1996 conference we put together where I worked. He said that of all the books he’d written to date, he had gotten the most positive responses from people on Toxic Faith saying how it has helped change their lives. This team of authors also did a follow-up book on healthy church life. Yuh gotta love the title of that one: More Jesus, Less Religion. Anyway, here are some instructive lists extracted from Toxic Faith, with thanks to The Wartburg Watch blog:

Ten Rules of a Toxic Faith System

Ten Characteristics of a Toxic Faith System

Twenty-One Toxic Beliefs of a Toxic Faith