6 Signs of an Authoritarian Church Leader

au-thor-i-tar-i-an
/əˌTHôrəˈterēən/

  • adjective: favoring or enforcing strict obedience to authority, especially that of the government at the expense of personal freedom
  • showing a lack of concern for the wishes or opinions of others; domineering; dictatorial.
  • noun: an authoritarian person

Nothing is more unattractive to me than a church who has leaders and a pastor who behave in an authoritarian fashion. I loathe that more than hypocrisy, or gossip, or many other things.

It’s abusive. It’s dangerous. It’s spiritually ugly. And unfortunately its something I have observed as a big problem for many. Even I, myself, have fallen in to this trap a time or two over the years, and I hated myself for it.

WHAT JESUS HAD TO SAY ABOUT AUTHORITARIANISM

To some this may come as no surprise, but Jesus actually had something to say about authoritarianism and church leaders. Not only did he have something to say about it, he had a command concerning it.

In Matthew 20:25-28 (ESV) we read:

But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It SHALL NOT BE SO among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

What Jesus is describing is authoritarianism. They knew what this looked like through experience. They were under the occupation and rule of the Roman Empire, after all. In typical Jesus fashion, he took this as a teachable moment, and to issue a command to the disciples (the early Church leaders) about how they ought to conduct themselves with regards to leading the Church.

Jesus is no dummy. He knew the dangers of leadership. He knew the draw to lord over people your position. But in the Kingdom of God, leadership is a VERY different animal. Jesus said that anyone who desires to be a leader in the Church must be a servant. Anyone who desires to be first must be a slave. That they should not exist to be served, but to serve, and yes…to even go so far as to give their life.

But too often in churches, this is not what leadership looks like.

OBSERVING AUTHORITARIANISM

Over the last 16 years I have served as a church leader in many churches, denominations, and cities across two states. The predominant areas I served in leadership was as a worship leader and as a youth pastor. But I’ve also served, for a time, as a campus pastor and an associate pastor.

I have loved and tried to be as loyal as possible to every single pastor I served with. Unfortunately, as I look back over the years, I can only spot a small handful of men who I served with that didn’t exhibit some form of authoritarianism. Some of them were more extreme than others.

Sadly, and regretfully, as I examine my own ministry I see areas where I too behaved like an authoritarian at times. It pains me to admit that. As I already mentioned, I hate this type of behavior more than anything, and the fact that I too have done it frustrates me to no end.

An authoritarian, much like myself in those instances, not only believes they are owed or deserve the unchallenged obedience of those they consider to be “under them” but they expect it!

As I examine my own motives for why I exhibited this behavior at times, I can absolutely say I did so with this expectation. After all, I AM THE LEADER, I AM THE WISE ONE who was placed in this position over others. Who are they to question the professional? The expert? I have a degree in ministry by golly!

How wrong and evil I was in those times. Yes…evil.

And how wrong and evil it is when any pastor or church leader does the same.

SIGNS OF AN AUTHORITARIAN

Authoritarians are fairly easy to spot.

  1. An authoritarian demands things be their way or the highway, and if you challenge them on a decision it means that you are a rebel, incapable of being corrected, divisive, and perhaps ought to reconsider your employment with them.
  2. An authoritarian rarely if ever extends grace to others. They will put on a facade and act as if they do, but behind the scenes they are cold and indifferent.
  3. An authoritarian also shows very little compassion. They will act compassionate for a time when it suits them and their purposes, but the moment they determine that you should have moved on from whatever may be ailing you compassion goes out the window.
  4. An authoritarian is always right. They may solicit feedback, but they will never consider it. This is merely an attempt to make others feel “included” while still maintaining their complete control over the situation.
  5. An authoritarian cannot delegate responsibility. When they do delegate, they aren’t really releasing the responsibility as they will keep their hands in the middle of it at all times, micromanaging the entire thing.
  6. An authoritarian is untouchable. They will use terms such as “God’s anointed” to remind the people who placed them in their position, and will frequently cite the story of David and Saul as an example of why you shouldn’t challenge their authority at any point. They will publicly state that they are open to being challenged or corrected, but when that moment of correction or challenge occurs there are usually repercussions for the one who issued the challenge or correction.

FINAL OBSERVATIONS

There is a fine line between exercising spiritual authority in your church and becoming an authoritarian. Obviously there is a need for someone to take point and to lead the charge. Obviously there needs to be someone where final decisions land on their desk.

Or is there?

Does it really need to be just one person?

Or, should it be a plurality of leadership that do not act as authoritarians, but rather as overseers and shepherds of a body of people, who work together to lead and teach and correct through service, compassion, and by example in their own lives? Should it be a plurality of leaders who are also held accountable by others in their local body and even those outside their local body so that authoritarianism can remain in check?

I used to think there was nothing wrong with a one man show.

I used to jump on the “God’s anointed” bandwagon and champion unchallenged devotion and loyalty to one man.

But I’m not so sure I was right by doing so. I may have actually done some harm in the process to myself and to others.

This much I do know though:

Authoritarianism is unhealthy, it is evil, and it is sinful for any pastor or church leader to engage in. A leader worth their salt will do everything they can to find accountability and hold themselves to the command Jesus gave in Matthew 20 to not let authoritarianism be among the leaders of the church.


UPDATE: ADDITIONAL NOTE FOR CONSIDERATION

I did not put this at the top, but I did run across a study (HERE) that pointed out something disturbing within the Church. Here is the quote from the article:

“Narcissistic Personality Disorder has found its way into the institutional church. The actual levels and places where it manifests itself have been surprizing. Within the clergy of the PCC, there appears to be much higher levels of the most destructive expressions of narcissism than in the general population; while this was anticipated, the actual levels were greater than expected. In its covert form narcissism appears to arrive later in the practice of ministry, which was not anticipated. NPD appears to decline steadily through time in ministry; however, its continued presence is noted in some individuals well into retirement. Pastors with Narcissistic Personality Disorder are to be found in all areas of the country at rates 400%–500% higher than are found in the general population (1%-6%). Narcissists can be found in every age and experience range, and in both sexes.”

This is significant! And perhaps a little disturbing.

I realize that this article comes from the Church of England, but my observation of the American Church tells me that this isn’t just a Church of England issue.

Either way, the point of updating this article with the study above was simply to point out that this isn’t a made up issue, and it’s not just something I’m seeing.

We need to find a way to combat this in ourselves.

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