How Do Churches End Up With Domineering Bullies for Pastors?

"There is obviously much to be learned from both successful CEOs and also great generals, but both models can quickly become toxic. When either becomes the primary model for Christian leadership, is it any wonder that domineering pastors result?" - Christian Leaders

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mmartin's picture

Perhaps this is an extreme case, but Mark Driscoll had a group of elders around him and look how that turned out.

Even with a plurality of elders, you can just as well have an elder who is the self-designated first among equals.

We need to be careful in questioning if a pastor doesn't believe in a plurality of believers system based on his study of the Bible that also may suggest he doesn't understand the Bible, is clueless, or is self-centered.

mmartin's picture

I will add that all my life I've been in churches who used a pastor & deacons model.  I've yet to attend on an on-going basis a church who used the elder model.

Clearly there are domineering & bully single pastors out there.  Obviously!

But in attending multiple pastor/deacon churches in multiple states, I've yet to experience a domineering/bully pastor personally.

This article seems to suggest that most single pastors will deteriorate into intolerable dictators sooner or later, which is simply not true.

T Howard's picture

Driscoll and McDonald had elders, but their elders didn't really function as elders. They exercised little oversight of the ministry or of these men. In fact, these men (if I understand correctly) appointed their own oversight board, which functioned outside of the official elder team. Not good.

One of the complexities of church leadership is knowing when a pastor / elder is domineering or a bully versus when he is just a strong leader. Some church members complain that a pastor is domineering or a bully because he is a type 'A' personality (ie. competitive, ambitious, impatient, aggressive, fast talking).

These same members will turn around and complain about type 'B' pastors (ie. relaxed, non-competitive) as being lazy or uninspiring.

The article provides the definition of domineering as: "To domineer is to bring something into compliance by force. In the context of pastoral ministry, it happens when the flock assents to things by compulsion rather than by the work of the Spirit in their hearts. It involves the use of intimidation, threats or bullying."

What if a pastor wants to make a change to elements of the worship service that a few in the congregation may not like? Is he a bully if he makes these changes over the objections of a handful of congregants? He's not intimidating, threatening, or bullying them. He's just making the change over their objections. Should he wait till these few individual give him permission to do so?

Bert Perry's picture

Worth noting is that Driscoll's buddy, James MacDonald, had plural elders as well and fell into a similar trap.  I like the notion of plural elders, but it's no panacea.  I think at a certain point it has a lot to do with our culture's great respect for the "big leader" (general, President, CEO, etc..) and the notion that life goes better when one "brilliant" man makes a lot of the big decisions.  Unfortunately, that's not the Biblical picture.

Another thing that occurred to me recently--while reading a book on leadership that I am growing to detest--is that a great portion of the time, we really don't understand motivation, whether that motivation is to reach the lost, help disciple young (or old) believers, or whatever.  As such, we default to being "cowboys", driving the herd to Dodge City, instead of shepherds, leading the herd by understanding their motivations.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

David R. Brumbelow's picture

VI. The Church

A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ, governed by His laws, exercising the gifts, rights, and privileges invested in them by His Word, and seeking to extend the gospel to the ends of the earth. Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

The New Testament speaks also of the church as the Body of Christ which includes all of the redeemed of all the ages, believers from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation.

Matthew 16:15-19; 18:15-20; Acts 2:41-42,47; 5:11-14; 6:3-6; 13:1-3; 14:23,27; 15:1-30; 16:5; 20:28; Romans 1:7; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 3:16; 5:4-5; 7:17; 9:13-14; 12; Ephesians 1:22-23; 2:19-22; 3:8-11,21; 5:22-32; Philippians 1:1; Colossians 1:18; 1 Timothy 2:9-14; 3:1-15; 4:14; Hebrews 11:39-40; 1 Peter 5:1-4; Revelation 2-3; 21:2-3.

-Baptist Faith & Message 2000, SBC doctrinal statement.

It helps to have wise deacons and members.  Of course, the devil is in the details. 

David R. Brumbelow

Bert Perry's picture

Tom's comments about strong leadership remind me of the old proverb that a man who isn't being followed isn't a leader; he's just going for a walk.  In the specific cases Tom describes, we can allow for the reality that in any church with any style of leadership, there are going to be some people who don't agree with a given decision, strong leadership or not.  

For me, the rub comes when it is deemed unthinkable for a congregant, or especially for a deacon or elder, to discuss the matter with a pastor, and where decisions are being made over the heads of the deacon and elder boards, or without required congregational votes.  That's the kind of thing that separated MacDonald from responsible governance--when things didn't go his way, he tended to modify the system so he'd get his way.  The Elephant's Debt had a number of men saying, for example, that his vote on the elder board was 50%, and he recommended that for other churches in the Harvest denomination/association.  In other words, nothing happened there without his approval.  

Again, if you want to see a leader, look behind him to see if anyone's following.  A strong leader is not just someone who gets his way; it's someone who persuades others that it's in their best interest to follow.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

T Howard's picture

True Story:

New senior pastor comes to church. Several elders / members in the church complain to him about the existing youth leader and his poor leadership and oversight of the youth ministry. The new Senior pastor meets with the youth leader to discuss these concerns and makes suggestions on how he could improve his leadership and the youth ministry. The youth leader is resistant to make changes, so the senior pastor becomes more directive with the youth leader. The youth leader quits and accuses the senior pastor of being domineering and a bully. The same people who complained about the youth leader and told the senior pastor that he needed to address leadership flaws and to make changes in the youth ministry now complain because the senior pastor was too directive with the youth leader, and accuse him of being domineering.

Jay's picture

There are two ways a pastor can domineer over his flock, in my view.  The first is the traditional 'ram it down their throats, I'm the pastor' kind, which is very visible and, I think, is probably rare.  Driscoll and MacDonald seem to be this kind.

The other kind, I think, is simply to surround themselves with elders/deacons (whatever) who do not have the desire or backbone to stand up to a pastor.  Whether for the love of the church or the pastor - or simply from a refusal to acknowledge that they could be wrong or that something in the church may need to change - the pastor is allowed to rule the church as some sort of quasi-monarch.  The pastor also, probably, keeps final say over who makes it to the Elders/Deacons, if they aren't the only person who can nominate/approve them.  After all - he's the pastor, he will know.  So over time, more and more and more responsibility lands on their shoulders even if everyone involved would say "that doesn't happen in our church".  In this case, the voice of the leadership gradually become more muted and weak as the pastor accumulates an aura of authority and untouchability.  

There's probably a lot more of that in our churches than the former kind.  Both kinds are wrong, though

"Our task today is to tell people — who no longer know what sin longer see themselves as sinners, and no longer have room for these categories — that Christ died for sins of which they do not think they’re guilty." - David Wells

Aaron Blumer's picture


The article posits that it's viewing pastors as CEOs or generals that creates these pastor-bully scenarios. I think it's as often/more often "pastors as prophets" that sets this up. In other words, bad theology. The OT prophet spoke for God, had a direct link, could utter "thus says the Lord" and then deliver information nobody else but the prophet possessed. In many churches there's a tradition of tending to view pastors this way... and pastors to view themselves this way, and to be trained at schools where the office of pastor is viewed this way, etc. 

In these groups the pastor is "called," and "anointed," and has an inside track to the mind of God. If he prays for you, it matters more than if anyone else prays for you. If he approves of you, it's like God's approval and if he doesn't, God is likely to punish you.

This is a dozen different kinds of wrong all at once. But it's no wonder bullies rise to power in these places.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

T Howard's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
In these groups the pastor is "called," and "anointed," and has an inside track to the mind of God. If he prays for you, it matters more than if anyone else prays for you. If he approves of you, it's like God's approval and if he doesn't, God is likely to punish you.

Ah, the old "God told me" trump card. It's usually not as blatant in non-charismatic churches, but still comes across as "God called me to be the pastor; therefore, whatever I think we should do has God's imprimatur." Who's going to argue with God?

Bert Perry's picture

Tom's comment about the pastor who evidently couldn't win for losing is sticking with me, and part of me almost wants to ask "how did you approach the topic with those who complained?"  OK, guilty; I'm perilously close to making an accusation against the poor pastor but at the same time, a case like that he describes ought to be addressed with questions like that.  What particular weakness was it?  (my cynical guess: numbers)  What particular Scriptural examples were brought to bear on the subject with both groups of detractors, etc. ?

Put differently, I'm not as interested in the "strength" of a leader as I am in the principles he brings to bear.  Or, doesn't. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.