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How Abusive Ministries Defend Themselves
   THE OFFICIAL SITE                                                                                                                                                                          

by Philip Rosenthal
When one hears news of unethical behavior in some ministries, one may wonder how the leader managed to avoid being held accountable.  Many such ministries have developed sophisticated mechanisms to defend themselves from accountability.  Often these methods have become part of the senior leadership culture, but no one else knows about them.  Thus they can catch people by surprise.  

Unsuspecting enthusiastic young Christians involve themselves under the authority of a dynamic and successful ministry leadership – not realizing that the leader and his organizational hierarchy is itself not subject to proper authority checks and balances.  We all like to think that the ministry to which we belong is spiritual and in the will of God, but multiple scandals have to force us to sober up and consider what we can do to protect our own ministry against falling into such behavior.
One of the most effective methods is the "Kangaroo Court," otherwise known as the "gang up" or "abusive interrogation."  The person raising an objection is invited to a meeting to discuss his concerns.  He is not allowed to bring any witnesses, as the meeting is supposedly a "friendly one."  He is also asked not to take notes at the meeting, since it is "friendly."  On arrival he finds four to six senior leaders in the ministry waiting for him.  Nevertheless, the issues he has come to discuss will not be discussed.  The meeting has one purpose only: to neutralize the person trying to hold the ministry accountable, by any means possible.

The abusive leader has usually developed something of a "personality cult following."  Some loyal yes-men may participate in such behavior with the best intentions, believing they are protecting the ministry from a "troublemaker" or "division."

Sometimes the leaders will be introduced in a grandiose manner, in an effort to intimidate the objector - using big titles and bloated achievements.  Then the accusations begin.  The leaders attack the objector with any type of accusation they can think of.  The objector may try to defend himself, but this will not be allowed.  If he tries to do so, another leader will accuse him of disrespect.  At this point it becomes evident that the meeting is an ambush and is not a friendly discussion about concerns with the ministry.  There is no logical or fair discussion.  The leaders know that if they were to allow this, they may lose, so they don't allow it.  They just attack.  The abusive leaders take turns to attack and may interrupt each other to add to the abusive accusations.
How do the leaders find the accusations?  Anything in the objectors favor is reversed in these attacks.  For example, if he has raised the same concerns with other leaders, then he is accused of "slander."  If some of the other leaders agree with him, then he is accused of "divisiveness."  An objection to the ministry raised at the meeting becomes evidence of "disrespect."  

If he wanted to bring a witness or wants confirmation of records, then he is accused of "not trusting the leaders."  If he doesn't bring a witness, then he can be accused of "acting alone."  Raising problems in the ministry is "troublemaking."  If the objector is part of the ministry leadership, he can be accused of "unsubmissiveness."  If he is not part of the leadership, then he can be accused of "lack of accountability" or "not being a leader" and thus having no right to raise objections.  

A general accusation that can be leveled at anyone raising objections to a ministries behavior is "a bad attitude," since this is un-provable.  If he is disagreeing with the ministry tradition, then this must be evidence of "pride."  An objection to a policy of the ministry is "hurtful" to the leaders of the ministry.  All of the above require "repentance."

The leaders may try to attack the status of the objector.  A technique is to make them wait a long time outside.  Then they can be attacked for any reason. e.g. - marital status; lack of ordination or leadership status within the ministry; spiritual maturity; sanity etc.

Most of all, however, the leaders aim to attack the character of the person raising the objections to the ministry.

Another source of items to attack is issues totally unrelated and irrelevant to the current issues in question.  Take trivial past incidents and blow them up into big issues trying to prove guilt.  This practice is known as "manufacturing offence" and is related to bearing false witness against ones neighbor – a violation of the 9th commandment, with the intention of undermining or destroying his reputation.

If the abusive leader doesn't know anything against the objector, then he can at least in some instances use his "spiritual gift of discernment." (Pretend that the Holy Spirit has shown him all kinds of problems in the life and background of the victim/objector)

Efforts are made to get the objector to "confess his sin."  If he does so, this can be used against him and he may feel legitimately guilty.  Trying to get the objector to do this is a clever manipulative trick because:

-If he does not, he can be accused of lying or covering up because everyone sins so often (1 John 1:8; James 3:2).  The objector may then be accused further of "obstinacy."

-If he does confess, then the abusive leaders can distract the focus of the meeting from the serious sin of the organization or leader to whatever has been confessed.  The confidence of the objector may also be weakened.

During the discussion, the abusive leaders may try to legitimize their authority through dubious theology.  Any attempt to debate this or other ethical issues related to the objection will not be tolerated.  The objective of the meeting again is not to find truth, but to silence the objector.

Another tactic is for the interrogators to provoke the objector to anger with false accusations and then accuse them of being angry.  If the objector shows signs of frustration, he may be accused of "bitterness."

By attacking the objector personally, mistreating and slandering him, rather than discussing his concerns, the abusive leaders lay the groundwork for more potential further accusations.  The objector must now show even more restraint in raising his objections, lest he be accused of "taking revenge" for personal reasons, rather than those of the public good.  The leaders move attention off themselves and onto the person making the objections.  Hence the saying "the best defense is a good offence."
At the end of the meeting, which may last several hours, the objector will be given threats and an ultimatum to shut up or leave the ministry.  The ultimatum may include methods to control the objector, which will have been agreed by the leaders beforehand.  The abusive ministry leaders want the objector to come under their control.  They can do this for example by setting up a structure which they invite the objector to join or alternatively demanding that he "be discipled" or "counseled."  Obviously, the point of such a "structure" or "discipling" or "counseling" is to change his mind or alternatively intimidate him into shutting up. 

If the objector at a later time tries to clear his name either by explaining or apologizing for whatever accusations have been made, this will be fruitless.  

The issue is that the ministry leaders are not interested in the truth. They just want to silence the objector. 

The abusive leaders may be too busy to meet again.  Alternatively, the objector must waste his time trying to meet with each of them individually.  The point is that the ministry doesn't want to know the truth, because that might be painful and cause them to have to change their behavior.  The only thing they want is for the objector to withdraw his objections and shut up. 

By this time, the objectors mind will be focused on defending themselves rather than the original purpose of the meeting, which was to discuss his objection.  He is now in a vulnerable position to agree to shut up. 

Now most people have no idea that the leaders they respect and look up to can be manipulative and abusive.  But these things happen in ministries, as with some families and also romantic relationships.  So, unprepared the victim/objector may be in a state of shock and think that they may truly have done something wrong - which they need to try remedy. 

An easy threat is that the leadership will publicize the abusive false accusations.  Others, not knowing that they are from an abusive ministry or otherwise in denial may, believe them.
If the above approach does not work, and the objector is not intimidated by the abusive behavior but persists with objections, then the abusive leaders may either escalate the abusiveness or alternatively shift to conciliation and flattery.  This is similar to an abusive husband who beats his wife and then the next day tries to romance her so that she forgives him.

After such abuse, the objector/victim will often be so relieved by the shift to conciliation that he will accept anything rather than re-raise his issues of objection.  The issues can thus just be sidelined by evasion and doublespeak without the need for the use of additional threats.  The objector may be offered some benefits from the ministry in exchange for dropping the issue.

Nevertheless, if the objector does persist, the "good cop-bad cop" manipulation technique will shift back to abusiveness.  If they cannot silence the objector, then they will have to find a way to discredit them (using true or false accusations) or otherwise evict them from the ministry.
Now there are serious ethical problems with the above approach:

- It is deceptive to invite someone to a "friendly' meeting," which is actually an ambush. 

- It is manipulative to forbid bringing a witness.  This then gives the abusive leaders two further tools of manipulation.  Firstly they can deny their abusiveness at the meeting; and secondly, they can later accuse the objector of anything having happened at the meeting, for example being "disrespectful," and then use this to institute disciplinary procedures against him.

- It is unfair to criticize without giving a person the opportunity to defend themselves. 

- It does not follow any biblical disciplinary or grievance procedure. 

- It is clearly aimed at frustrating biblical procedure being used to try to hold the leaders accountable.  Because of this, it can be manipulated and also the victim cannot legitimately proceed to the next stage of church discipline because they have no witness to the discussion.  Thus the abusive leaders are protected, while the objector is vulnerable.

- It frustrates the opportunity to resolve the concerns of the objector in a reasonable way.  In this way, either it will be suppressed altogether – or alternatively escalated if he decides to pursue it.  Either method is usually unhealthy.

The above methods are classic abusive manipulation techniques developed by the communists to try to break people who dissented with communism.  With the communists they were usually successful.  This is classic brainwashing methodology.  Communist methodology should not be tolerated in Christian ministries.

An atmosphere of ungodly fear develops in the ministry, and less courageous people learn that they should not challenge the autocratic leadership.  Then more hypocrisy and abusiveness is tolerated. 

It is a way of  "finding out" more information from the objector so that any future real disciplinary or grievance procedure can be frustrated by cover up or false accusations against the objector. 

The goal of silencing the objector can be achieved by the following mechanisms:

The objector genuinely is convinced by the abuse of the leaders that he is in the wrong and needs to repent. (brainwashing)

The objector leaves the ministry.

The objector is intimidated into silence.

The objector agrees to participate in the recommended leadership structure, counseling or discipleship by which he is then further manipulated.

All of the above constitute unethical manipulation.

The abuse of trust of position as a ministry undermines respect for the office of other good ministry leaders.

Such false accusations can do serious psychological damage, especially to an emotionally weak person.

The leaders are de-facto judging their own case, where they have a conflict of interest.  Effectively, the disciplinary process is inverted and reversed.  Rather, if it cannot be resolved privately, outside mediation should be brought in.

The leaders have pre-determined an outcome which they want to manipulate the victim/objector to accept.

The biggest problem with the above is that most of the time it is effective.  Once all objectors are silenced and the ministry is in denial, then all types of hypocrisy and abusiveness can, AND DOES flourish. The climate has been created where scandal can fester and grow.
Many people will have a difficult time with understanding how leaders who are otherwise often nice people can use such manipulation and thus not want to believe it.  

One must understand that in abusive families, the father is usually outwardly a nice person, but sometimes, something triggers his abusiveness, for example alcohol.  The dynamic is similar in abusive ministries.  In this case, the trigger is a threat to power.  

Abusive leaders are driven by a love of power.  Any attempt to take it away will elicit a violent reaction.  To those who don't threaten their power, they will be nice people.  Abusiveness on various levels can become part of a culture of a ministry.

So-called Christian ministry driven by a lust for power, fame, money, success or anything else worldly is actually idolatry.  Leaders can shift from good spiritual motivation to worldly motivation without realizing it.

There is also the issue of presuppositions.  All denominations read the same Bible, yet their members come to different conclusions from it, because they start with different assumptions.  Usually one of those assumptions is that my denomination is right - or alternatively that the error is not important.  A hunt is made for scriptures seeming to defend the denominational position and those against it are ignored.  

In the same way, most people in abusive ministries assume the leader is right.  Thus any evidence showing the leader is wrong is ignored or trivialized.  A hunt is made for evidence to discredit the objector and the evidence he presents is ignored.

Nevertheless, beyond this, there is a culture of denial.  Ministries don't want to admit they or their leaders have behavioral problems.  It leads to fundamental painful questions.  It is much easier to pretend nothing is wrong.  In the same way most alcoholics refuse to admit they are alcoholics.  The first step in coming right is to acknowledge they have a problem. 

False accusations repeated often start to be believed.  The abusive leaders are likely to have previously discussed the issue in the absence of the objector.  Any number of stories or accusations or half-truths can be raised at such meetings without the objector having opportunity to know them or defend himself.  The leaders want to believe these, because it is much easier than considering the possibility that their ministry is unethical/hypocritical etc.

Elitism in many ministries creates a spiritual blindness.  Anyone below the level in the hierarchy is simply ignored or at best treated like a child.  Their concerns are treated as personal worries rather than real problems with the ministry.

Such ministries develop a culture where leaders are obligated to defend each other rather than investigate the truth. 

In most ministries, leaders use the senior leader as an ethical guideline, thus no one questions his behavior.  If invited to such an abusive interrogation, they just assume the procedure is acceptable and that the objector is a troublemaker needing to be "sorted out." 

There is no moral feedback to the abusive leader, and he becomes more and more like a problem child who never matures due to lack of discipline.

As with abusive families, also there is usually a culture of silence.  The whole family knows, but they want the family to stick together and keep their social reputation - so they say nothing.  Often the abused are financially dependent on the abuser.  The same in ministries.  Money is used as a tool to manipulate and control people.  Anyone who breaks the "no talk" rule, will in both abusive families and abusive ministries be usually accused of insanity.

As with abusive families, most abusive leaders have been mentored by another abusive leader – and thus think that the behavior is "not so bad" or even legitimate.

Similar tactics of trying to discredit a witness are commonly used in law courts - often successfully.  Lawyers will interrogate a witness to try to get him to admit something that will discredit him.  Nevertheless, in a law court, both parties have access to lawyers and the judge tries to be objective.  In a church "kangaroo court/gang up/abusive interrogation," there is no one being objective and no support for the objector. 

If anyone thinks this is far-fetched, look at the behavior of the Pharisees and priests at the trial of Jesus - when he challenged and undermined their religious power.

Most people will not be brave enough to confront authorities that behave in the above manner - or even get near such a meeting.  Thus any type of hypocrisy and abusiveness can, AND DOES flourish in the ministry.

The above techniques and many others have been well documented by those helping people from abusive ministries and I have seen variations on these techniques more than once first hand myself.  The organization, "Rape Action," has recommended that sexual accusations against people in ministry should be taken directly to the secular courts and not dealt with internally within ministries – citing the abuse and manipulation of church discipline.  At the time, I argued against them.  Unfortunately, I now think they have a point. 

To read more on these abusive methods in the discipleship context go to

There are many other tools abusive leaders use to defend themselves against accountability, but the abusive interrogation is one of the most powerful.  This practice needs to be attacked and stopped, because if is successfully stopped, then the entire abuse system of abusive ministries will collapse – rather like how the Soviet Union fell apart once they stopped the government killing people and exiling them to Siberia for speaking up.
To try to prevent abusive interrogations and other abusive behavior:

All ministries should have a policy to ban the practice of kangaroo courts/ abusive interrogations.  There should be proper channels and procedures in every ministry for dealing with both discipline and grievances in a fair way.  Try to create a culture of openness.

Leaders who have been part of such practices should repent to their victims.

Ministries which have covered up sin in this way need to repent both of covering up sin and for the sin itself. 

All Christians should be taught their rights and the proper discipline and grievance procedure to follow in terms of Matthew 18 and Acts 6. 

Anyone who discovers they have been invited to a ministry "kangaroo court/gang up/ or abusive interrogation" should walk out immediately.  There is no benefit in dialogue in such circumstances.  Anything a person says may later be used against them.  They should then re-convene the meeting at a later date with witnesses.

Christians should be taught to beware of abusive and unethical leaders and hold them accountable rather than blindly following authority. 

Christian leaders should avoid symbols and behaviors of spiritual elitism, which make them unapproachable and thus their ministries unaccountable.

Leaders should withdraw support from other leaders who behave in an abusive manner.

If you are raising an objection to the ethical behavior of your ministry, you must chose your witnesses from outside of the salaried employees of the ministries.  Financially dependent people will almost always defend their employers (otherwise they lose their job stupid!).  Preferably chose a witness from outside the ministry. 

If you are a leader:

Consider whether you may have defensively used or participated in such methods in the past – possibly without realizing it.  If this is the case, you need to repent.  You will not get away with it forever.  Remember Jesus warnings of God’s judgment against abusive religious leaders (Matthew 23).

Examine your own heart, motivations and life to see whether you have developed the fear of man (Matthew 10:28), turning aside from your first love (Revelation 2:4) and the love of money (1 Timothy 6:11).

Missionaries going to communist countries or other hostile governments should practice the skills of combating abusive interrogation before leaving - as the techniques are the same.

Philip Rosenthal
Webmaster Note:  Let's add one more tactic that is not mentioned in this particular article, yet nonetheless, is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the abusive church leader.  


Is it wrong to take your family and leave a particular church and join another?  Is it wrong to arrive at a different belief system?  Is it wrong to disagree with a church policy?

With many abusive church leaders, the answer is 100% yes.  So wrong in fact that a tactic that many abusive church leaders engage in is to deliberately and methodically step in between a husband and/or wife and counsel them to separate or divorce from their spouse in order to teach them and the congregation a lesson.  That lesson being, "don't you ever disagree with or go against the pastor or else this is what will happen to you!"    

Inside of these abusive churches, the leaders will approach a husband or wife separately and subtly instruct them to spy on their spouse lest there be found “sin in the camp,”  the sin being of course, "stepping of the pastors toes" or disagreeing with some church policy.

So what happens if some “questioning” or a sign of “disaffection” should arise in husband or wife?  What happens when a husband or wife begins to question the pastors sermon and/or church policy?

Answer: The abusive minister's actions, along with his cohorts, intensifies to the next level.  

The following steps are manifested in many abusive church ministries where authoritarianism rears its ugly head.  These steps show clearly how a local institutional church and its abusive leadership scars the sacred marriage institution, embroiling it in a web a deception.

How do you deal with a so-called rebellious, disaffected spouse in the church? 

First, the abusive leaders closely work with and ruthlessly persuade the “obedient spouse” to follow their plan of action.

-Special instructions are now given to the "obedient" and "faithful" spouse to report back immediately of any increased "disaffection" arising in their partner. 

-Close monitoring is now implemented. 

-Spies are sent out to listen in to conversations in the church lobby, or auditorium, or church parking lot.  

-Any incoming mail must be screened by the "obedient" spouse.  Going through your spouses trash to locate any papers or notes to “incriminate” them is not uncommon.

-If things aren’t going too well, talk of "separation" is now introduced to deal with and punish the offender.  

But when this doesn't work......when the "unsubmissive" and "unruly" spouse increases in their true understanding of the Scriptures (“rebellion”) and begins to grow more and more in seeing the abusive ministry for what it truly is, then that's the end.  The "abusive church leaders" cannot and will not put up with this damaging "leaven".  

When all else fails, divorce is now the only option to rid the church of this disease.  

And of course, the “obedient” spouse, being counseled and manipulated all along the way, fully complies to this “sad, sad” decision.

And to top it off, after the separation/divorce, the “obedient and faithful” spouse receives a nice card from all of the abusive ministers along with the church members saying what a great testimony they are to the congregation!

Many times these abusive ministries and their destructive practices continue unabated!  We hope and pray that someday, all of them will eventually stop their senseless and destructive ways.

But for many, time is running out.  Many have been locked into this evil for a long, long time.  

The words of Jeremiah 13 are so fitting: "Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?...then may you also do good, that are accustomed to do evil."

I realize that perhaps some in "abusive ministry positions" in the church are brainwashed themselves -- that perhaps some do not realize they are nothing less than Satan's emissaries; fashioning themselves as ministers of righteousness.

However, they have made themselves untouchable. They have insulated themselves from the Truth. They cannot and will not be approached and questioned concerning the subject matter at hand. They like the "kingdoms" they have built.

To admit they are wrong and change their practices will in many ways destroy the system they have built (along with themselves) because it is built upon nothing less than a house of sand.

May God have mercy upon those who have corrupted, de-formed, and abused His church.

See also:

1)  BRAINWASHING: How church leaders prevail in their deception

2) Touch Not The Lord's Anointed Catch Cry
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