Hurtful Sheep and Bullied Shepherds

The final “Amen” was given and my friend descended the pulpit and took his usual place at the back door. As people filed by shaking his hand one particular member of the congregation approached him. Foregoing any and all pleasantries he immediately began to humiliatingly pick apart the message that had only ended minutes before. Overwhelmed by the onslaught my friend had no idea what to say or do. Thankfully, an older gentleman who was visiting–actually a retired pastor–overheard the harangue and interrupted: “What do you think you’re doing?” The man replied with all seriousness: “I have the spiritual gift of nitpicking and it’s my job to humble the preacher.” Defensively, the retired pastor fired back: “That’s nothing but spiritual bullying and it’s absolutely unacceptable!”

The relationship between a pastor and the people is one that should be grounded in every Christian grace but also crowned, in a special way, with joy and love. The Apostle Paul shows his pastoral heart to the church in Corinth when he said: “And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:3-4).

Tragically, that relationship can easily be shattered. We’ve heard and read of the abuse–physical, spiritual, emotional, and sexual–that some have suffered at the hands of a wily pastor. The very man entrusted with knowing, feeding, leading, and protecting the sheep of Jesus’ flock has the potential to do untold damage. If Robert Murray M’Cheyne was right when he said: “A holy minister is an awful weapon in the hand of God,” then equally true is that a manipulative, deceitful, or prideful minister is an awful weapon in the hand of Satan. And there are lives that bear the marks and pain of hurtful pastors. Personally, I have never known which is greater–the fear I sense for those pastors who must stand to give an account before the Chief Shepherd, or the absolute heartbreak of watching tender sheep being deeply wounded.

Without minimizing that, however, it’s also true that this relationship can easily be shattered from the other side. The sad reality is that sometimes sheep become hurtful and bully the shepherd. Now, just to be clear, I’m not passive aggressively speaking of myself. Words would fail me to adequately describe the way in which the congregation I serve has loved me and my family. Truly, they are my joy and crown (Philippians 4:1). But I know pastors–some who are good friends–who daily feel beat up, hurt, manipulated, neglected, and even tortured by wily sheep. The other day I got a phone call from one such pastor who said: “Help! Talk me off my metaphorical ledge!” That morning he’d gotten an angry text message from someone who blamed him for wrecking an upcoming family vacation because he didn’t approve of a Sunday school topic, he had an email faulting him that a woman was losing her faith because he wasn’t happy enough in his preaching, a family was threatening to withdraw their children from the church because youth group wasn’t what they wanted it to be, and he was on his way to visit a person who had been spreading gossip about him. It wasn’t even noon yet!

I know the ministry isn’t supposed to be easy. There are burdens and anxieties that are particular to pastors (see 2 Corinthians 11:28). Mary Winslow reminded her son Octavius of this when she wrote: “When you accepted the pastoral office you commenced a life of trial both from saint and sinner. Oh, do not be surprised at all you meet with.” A good shepherd will bear many of those trials in silence (1 Peter 2:19-23) and endeavor to let love cover a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). But it’s a painful reality. Pastors are only men, and just because they’re public servants doesn’t mean they don’t have private anguish. It hurts when sheep are meticulous fault-finders in everything a pastor says and does. It wounds when sheep lay all the blame only on a pastor’s shoulders. It’s traumatic when sheep hold their pastor to their unbiblical and unrealistic expectations. It aches when sheep neglect the material needs of a pastor and his family. It’s painful when sheep hold things like time, money, and talents hostage unless the pastor does what they want. It’s miserable when sheep secretly roundup the opposition failing to go privately to the pastor. It’s abusive when sheep have no regard for a pastor’s emotional, mental, and spiritual well being. Yes! Sheep can hurt, wound, abuse, and torture the shepherd.

Of course, that’s not how it’s supposed to be. While the shepherd is to do all he can to cultivate a relationship of joy and love with the sheep, the sheep also have a responsibility to do the same. The author of Hebrews wrote: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you” (Hebrews 13:17). You are either a source of joy or groaning to your pastor. Of the church in Galatia Paul said: “You did me no wrong. You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth?” (Galatians 4:12-16). You can either welcome and receive your pastor in the love of Jesus or reject him out of hatred for the truth. To the “saints and faithful brothers in Christ” Paul wrote: “And [you] say to Archippus, ‘See that you fulfill the ministry that you have received in the Lord” (Colossians 4:17). You can either be a constant source of motivation for your pastor’s ministry or a continual deterrent.

The potential that sheep have to help their pastor and his ministry flourish by the power of the Spirit and the grace of Jesus is immense. Believe me when I write that you can be your pastor’s greatest encouragement or his greatest discouragement. What kind of sheep are you?

37 Comments

  1. grh May 4, 2017 at 6:43 pm #

    This assumes that a pastor is speaking from a position of truth. What happens when they’re not/don’t? Further, Hebrews 13:17 occurs in the context of 13:7. A pastor who can’t or won’t provide a Biblical example, making it impossible to “Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith”, also makes it impossible to submit to them in a Biblical, God-honoring way. We need less of a “quiet down in the pews” mentality; that’s NOT where the crisis is today. The crisis is in leadership, and we need more of “the buck stops here” mentality with so-called under-shepherds.

    • Kyle Borg May 4, 2017 at 7:14 pm #

      GRH, Thanks for stopping by and this interesting assessment of the article. I’d say three things: 1) Of course a pastor who isn’t walking according to the truth isn’t to be followed and the Bible clearly outlines the way members should approach this specifically with regard to an elder (see 1 Timothy 5:19) and generally as with all who profess Christ (see Matthew 18:15-20). If a pastor is in sin then a sheep ought to still honor the biblical pattern of approaching and dealing with that sin. But on a simple reading of the article I obviously wasn’t addressing that issue. 2) I trust you’re not insinuating that the thrust of the article is “quiet down in the pews.” In fact, I noted that the relationship between a pastor and a congregation is one with mutual responsibilities (see paragraph 2 and 6) which actually requires interaction (see e.g. Colossians 4:17). There should be absolutely nothing objectionable to pointing that out. 3) Yes, there’s a lot of wayward leadership in the broad Christian culture (see paragraph 3), but please don’t be so nearsighted as to think sheep don’t harm pastors. Perhaps it happens more than you think. In fact, in response to this article today a person contacted me and said: “Pastors need to suck it up. Being hurt by people is part of the job description.” Are you sure that’s not the mentality of others? Cheers!

      • grh May 5, 2017 at 10:32 am #

        “I trust you’re not insinuating that the thrust of the article is “quiet down in the pews.””…

        I see volumes of articles written on exactly this, and relatively few to almost none written on the current crisis of leadership in the church. That tells me that the “system” is more interested in locking arms and defending itself than it is in being held accountable to Biblical faithfulness. For every legitimate situation you could point out of a hurtful sheep, I guarantee I could point out 10 situations of unqualified, unfaithful pastors who plague their congregations.

        Simply put, I agree that “hurtful sheep” are no better, but I assert that hurtful sheep are 10% (or less) of the problem while hirelings are 90% (or more) of the problem. Which is why we need to be inundated not with articles like these, but with articles spelling out the responsibilities of Biblical leadership, highlighting today’s collective failures, calling the evangelical community to account, and pointing out the right way. THEN, once leadership gets its collective house in order, let’s deal with the hurtful sheep.

        I hear a lot of talk about your “hurtful sheep”; I hear almost nothing of the evangelical collective getting together and saying, “Boy, we’re really off base and we need to repent, stop being hirelings, and start being Biblical examples to our flocks.” That tells me that there is either an unawareness of the problem or a refusal to recognize it as a systemic, deep problem. And that’s a problem.

        Oh, for a good dose of Ezekiel 9:1-6…!

        • Kyle Borg May 5, 2017 at 11:56 am #

          Ok.

        • Chris May 5, 2017 at 12:34 pm #

          “Which is why we need to be inundated not with articles like these, but with articles spelling out the responsibilities of Biblical leadership, highlighting today’s collective failures, calling the evangelical community to account, and pointing out the right way. THEN, once leadership gets its collective house in order, let’s deal with the hurtful sheep.”

          There is repenting to be done on both sides – how sad it is that we would ever discuss pastors and sheep as being on different sides (1 Tim. 5:19-20; 1 Thess. 5:12-14). Yet, if the pastors who are faithful to God’s call do not continue in the ministry, as a result of hurtful sheep, because they receive no encouragement from articles such as this, what would been gained? It is appropriate to address sin and to encourage brothers in the ministry. What sort of history (pain, bitterness) do you have in local churches that would prevent you from seeing the need for such articles?

          Your estimate as to being able to point out “10 unfaithful pastors” for every “1 hurtful sheep,” is difficult to substantiate. You (along with every other believer) know a small segment of the local churches worldwide. Rather than spend your time trying to argue that pastors are the greater problem, reread Ezekiel 9:1-6 and grieve for those in local churches (pastors and congregants) who are not honoring the Lord in their lives. Cry out to the Lord to bring repentance in those indiviuals. It would behoove us all to do so, rather than argue for who carries the greater blame.

          • grh May 5, 2017 at 2:18 pm #

            Thank you for illustrating my point.

          • grh May 5, 2017 at 3:22 pm #

            Chris:

            Further, looking at an all-to-common situation, measuring it against the backdrop of Scripture, identifying it as major problem, and exhorting others to address the problem is not “[arguing] for who carries the greater blame.” Rather, it’s actually the Biblically-mandated thing to do for those who have a zeal for God’s glory coupled with knowledge of Scripture. In fact, it’s why I wrote this:

            “That tells me that there is either an unawareness of the problem or a refusal to recognize it as a systemic, deep problem. And that’s a problem.”

            We are to exhort one another as long as it is called today (Hebrews 3:13); we are to consider how to stir one another up to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24, literally, jab someone so that they are force to respond).

            Unfortunately, your response (which was essentially “pipe down”) is typical of what I illustrated, and it can no longer be tolerated by those who desire to obey Hebrews 13:17 by putting themselves under Biblical shepherds who are exemplars of 1 Peter 5:1-3. I intend to speak out on this as loud and as long as I possibly can by any means at my disposal, but right now, it seems I am alone in doing so. That’s all right. The Lord knows.

            And that’s not demanding perfection; it’s demanding the basics. Trust me, given the current church landscape, we’re in no danger of perfection any time soon.

          • Kyle Borg May 5, 2017 at 4:01 pm #

            Feel free to continue if you wish but I won’t be corresponding with you anymore. It’s hard to have a decent dialogue with someone who seems to read only to respond. I only hope you will use biblical means at your disposal and not “any.” Cheers!

        • SR May 6, 2017 at 7:50 am #

          GRH- you just proved the very reason this article needed to be written!

          • grh May 6, 2017 at 6:45 pm #

            I think not.

          • grh May 6, 2017 at 6:47 pm #

            Sorry, I meant to include this in my reply:

            Gal. 4:16

          • Arline June 7, 2017 at 8:59 pm #

            *hits like button*
            The irony!! Your response was much more politely worded than the sarcastic one I “clicked here to cancel”, thanks!

            … gift of nitpicking, lol 😉

  2. Candice May 5, 2017 at 6:49 am #

    Wow, this makes me sad. A very helpful reminder to examine our hearts toward and treatment of those who labor for our spiritual good. Thank you for writing this.

  3. Renee Byrd May 5, 2017 at 7:34 am #

    Hey, only people in positions of authority can be abusive. Children (not teens) don’t abuse parents. A patient doesn’t abuse a doctor. A student doesn’t abuse a professor. You completely disregard the idea of power. People with no power often have no recourse in an abusive situation while those with power always do. Since the pastor is in a position of power, I just can’t believe he or she could be bullied as he or she has the power to stop such “abuse.” Your friend should just go find an easier job if he wants to be whiney.

  4. Emily May 5, 2017 at 9:59 am #

    Thank you for this article. I am the daughter of a grievously abused and maligned pastor–my father’s reputation and career appear to be all but ruined because of a church bully who stirred up discord and was aided and abetted by denominational leadership. If I may engage in promotion, my sister has a blog detailing what happened, veritaspraebita.wordpress.com.

    As a result of the way we were turned on–and it wasn’t just my dad, people I once considered friends started being cruel to me as well–I have resolved never to be a source of groaning for any pastor whose ministry I sit under.

  5. Renee Byrd May 5, 2017 at 10:26 am #

    Here’s what is spiritual abuse: evangelicals ganging up on Jen Hatmaker. While I disagree with her views, evangelicals have gone above and beyond to hurt this woman. She’s going to have a mental breakdown if people won’t leave her alone.

    • Kyle Borg May 5, 2017 at 12:00 pm #

      I can’t speak to this as I don’t know what’s going on. Cheers!

  6. Renee Byrd May 5, 2017 at 10:28 am #

    Only people in positions of authority can be abusive. Children (not teens) don’t abuse parents. A patient doesn’t abuse a doctor. A student doesn’t abuse a professor. You completely disregard the idea of power. People with no power often have no recourse in an abusive situation while those with power always do. Since the pastor is in a position of power, I just can’t believe he or she could be bullied as he or she has the power to stop such “abuse.” Your friend should just go find an easier job.

    • Kyle Borg May 5, 2017 at 12:00 pm #

      Renee,
      Well, the dictionary definition of abuse doesn’t require a position of power. Thankfully, in Presbyterian circles–which is where I am–we have a way for congregants to deal with the misuse of church power and authority. If I can, it’s statements like “Your friend should go find an easier job,” that made me write this post. It’s not only inappropriate to treat a pastor in the way my friend has been treated, it’s inappropriate to treat anyone that way.
      Cheers!

      • Renee Byrd May 5, 2017 at 12:10 pm #

        The thing about words is that their CONNOTATIONS are every bit as important as their denotations. Take the word malfeasance, for example. The wrongdoing could definitely and probably does include abuse. Your “answer” was seemingly simply a way to avoid addressing my point.

      • Renee Byrd May 5, 2017 at 12:11 pm #

        Also, telling someone they just aren’t cut out for a job is simply not abusive. For you to suggest such is beyond ridiculous.

      • Renee Byrd May 5, 2017 at 12:19 pm #

        Hurting someone’s feelings is NOT abuse. Also, abuse is a pattern of behavior, not one isolated incident. For example, my dad used to regularly beat me and then cover my mouth and nose with his hand to suffocate me so I wouldn’t cry out in fear or pain. You trivialize my past abuse when you call criticizing someone’s sermon abuse. Seriously??

        • Kyle Borg May 5, 2017 at 12:26 pm #

          Renee, I’m so sorry to hear of the abuse you suffered at the hand of one who should have loved you. This is obviously a very personal issue for you. I don’t intend to continue a public exchange. If you would like to email me privately please feel free: borgkyle [at] gmail [dot] com.

  7. Edmond Sanganyado May 5, 2017 at 12:08 pm #

    Is it possible that Christ used the analogy of sheep and shepherd for a reason? To describe the roles and relationships of the church members and the leaders, respectively. Why is that important?

    A hurtful sheep is a sheep in need. You probably heard that hurting people, hurt people. The shepherd has to walk in obedience and reach out to the ‘hurting sheep’.

    It’s quite naive to expect love, warmth and encouragement from a bleeding sheep. It’s noisy and discouraging when such sheep cry, but remember it’s a cry for help.

    Another blogger called these sheep, broken wolves. At least this exonerates​ him from reaching out to patch it’s wounds.

    • Kyle Borg May 5, 2017 at 12:32 pm #

      Edmond, I agree that sometimes sheep will do this when they are hurting and there’s pastoral concerns to address (I personally wouldn’t call them “broken wolves”). But as difficult as those situations are it’s still important–even for hurt sheep–to glorify God in obedience to Jesus. Isn’t that where faith is truly tested and seen for what it is. In my hurt, wounds, and pain I still seek to honor Jesus Christ and not yield to those things that are contrary to the Spirit. However, I also know that some people are just plain ole’ jerks and that’s really just inexcusable behavior. Blessings!

    • grh May 5, 2017 at 4:35 pm #

      Well said, Edmond!

      “It’s quite naive to expect love, warmth and encouragement from a bleeding sheep. It’s noisy and discouraging when such sheep cry, but remember it’s a cry for help.”

      Wouldn’t that require today’s pastors to forego their rabid hold of John 11:48 and instead embrace 1 Peter 5:1-3?

  8. grh May 5, 2017 at 4:14 pm #

    Kyle wrote: “Feel free to continue if you wish but I won’t be corresponding with you anymore. It’s hard to have a decent dialogue with someone who seems to read only to respond. I only hope you will use biblical means at your disposal and not “any.” Cheers!”

    I wrote: “Thank you for illustrating my point.”

    x 2

  9. Chris Wofford May 6, 2017 at 4:21 pm #

    I am not a shepherd. I think abusive church members is an issue that the church needs to be aware of. I think it is not that frequent, but the frequency would not lessen the severity when it does happen. The article was not denying that there are shepherds that are not doing what they are called to do. Church members need to be prepared to defend shepherds or sheep when it is needed.

  10. Josh May 7, 2017 at 8:24 am #

    Some of these responses are incredible. It’s like when someone writes an article like “how to be a better wife” and the comment section is full of people complaining about how husband’s need to be better. There are plenty of articles pointing out the abuses of pastors towards their congregations. Spend 3 seconds on a Google search and read to your hearts content.

    Our brother Kyle wrote a post on a specific topic that honestly needs to be discussed. The unbiblical treatment of our pastors/elders/overseers. I know for a fact that the elders at my church have definitely been mistreated numerous times over the years. Our role as church members is to respect and submit to our elders. *CAVEAT INCOMING* Unless they are either not teaching according to scripture or abusing their position of pastor. Even then, there is a Biblical way to deal with them. *REPEATING* Pastors don’t get a free pass to mistreat and abuse their flocks.

    Kyle, thanks for this article. It helped me to make sure I am not being a burden to those that God has placed at my local church. It is also a helpful reminder for those of us that love the Lord and love our local churches to being praying for our pastors.

    • Arline June 7, 2017 at 9:05 pm #

      *hits like button*

      What the heck, write an article about congregational abuses, attract abusive responses. Funny!

      … like they were just waiting for a title like this to respond to 😉

    • Arline June 7, 2017 at 9:10 pm #

      Y’gotta admit, the irony of ‘write an article about congregational abuses, attract abusive responses’ is kind of hilarious 😉

      … like they were just waiting for a title like this to respond to 😉

  11. ekkles May 8, 2017 at 6:55 am #

    I was shocked when I read an above comment that congregants in a church can’t be abusive because they aren’t in positions of ‘authority.’ This is simply naïve. For one thing, doesn’t a pastor’s ‘power’ or ‘authority’ depend on a given church’s or denomination’s form of government? In the US, there are about as many ‘styles’ of leadership as there are styles of pulpit. In some circles, pastors are treated as a commodity, or like a team’s coach or manager, and the congregation is the collective ‘owner’–the pastors can be given the boot at any time, especially if the ‘team’ doesn’t seem to be ‘doing well’ (they as individuals whose names are on the churches’ signs are easy to blame, easy to replace). Also, the term ‘faction’ comes to mind, as does the adage, ‘there is power in numbers.’ Not every pastor is in a position to be on the cusp of browbeating authoritarianism; the church’s government, or even the nature of the local community, can preclude this from happening. In situations with which I am familiar, the churches’ councils are elected by the sheep, and some of them were treated by the sheep like the complaints bureau: through them, dissatisfied church members leveraged out pastors who hadn’t done anything to deserve termination, often with very messy, very harmful ‘processes’, with even more damage done by the churches’ gossip mills. Anyone in a church can fall into temptation, and anyone in a church can nurse a grievance, desire power and influence, and will to abuse someone else. Whether that is suggested by leadership labels or realized by interpersonal/political realities is beside the point. Due to the names of super pastors and their co-conspirators in leadership, we can easily come away from evangelical news stories thinking there is no way pastors can suffer what sheep suffer at the hands of men like Mark Driscoll. But the pastors whose lives, ministries and even marriages are ruined by abusive sheep have no names, and people don’t know their stories. I cannot believe Christians are so unaware of this phenomenon, given the plethora of books written just in the last 20 years, beginning with ‘Clergy Killers.’

  12. ekkles May 8, 2017 at 7:39 am #

    Apologies: above ‘adage’ should read ‘there is strength in numbers.’

  13. Matt Patchon May 9, 2017 at 8:15 am #

    As a congregant my expectation of a pastor is as a shepherd: a responsible shepherd does not lead his sheep, rather he draws them close, and keeps them from straying (soul-concern).

    An abusive congregant is still under the discipline of the church, and so a pastor needs to exert his spiritual authority. That is his responsibility and prerogative. If he refuses to discipline then he has no right to whine.

    Having said that, a pastor’s heart is revealed when the straying sheep is allowed to stray from the flock, with barely a wave and goodbye. A pastor ought be using his crook to draw the sheep back to the flock. To let a sheep depart the flock without any by your leave reveals that a pastor is more concerned about his station than he is about his flock.

    Among the younger pastors, I think there is a big disconnect between what congregants expect and what the pastor is willing to give. Surely this is a communication issue, and such matters should be on the table. When they are off the table, the pastor makes assumptions and presumptions, and establishes a disconnect between himself and his flock. To let that stand, as far as I can see, is a pride matter.

    Lastly, a pastor is not a leader, he is a shepherd; they are not the same. Like I said earlier, a shepherd draws sheep near. He doesn’t lead them, because sheep as a rule, don’t follow. They need to be drawn near. You need to be among sheep to do this, not set apart up front.

    The fact this biblical analogy is off the table when pastors describe themselves, tells me they see themselves as anything other than a shepherd. A big clue here is when a pastor describes his role in secular terms: job, leave, day off, etc.

    Therein lay many problems. The expectation of congregants must always be understood by a pastor. Anything less says the pastor presumes he knows best. And anyone can tell you, that sentiment is foolish pride.

    Pride, in my opinion, is a greater challenge for a pastor than a congregant. He is in a position of great responsibility: the salvation of souls and nothing less.

    What should most drive a pastor’s ministry? Concern for his flock.

    What should thrill a pastor most? Seeing people come to faith.

    Are these expectations too high? I don’t think so, because I know some with this very shepherdite attitude. Some, but not many.

    Pastoring is a vocation, not a job, and it should be treated accordingly by those going into the ministry.

  14. Michael May 10, 2017 at 4:38 am #

    I feel sorry for the oppressed pastors as well as for the oppressed sheep. I think that the system is to be blamed. It is not easy at all to find biblical support for the office of the one pastor who is responsible for message, vision and administration of the church. Yet this is what 99% of churches look like: One man who is absolutely overwhelmed with responsibility to preach, teach, comfort, deal with terrible people, do administration, etc.

    I believe that wise pastors are those who transfer their responsibilities (and their vulnerabilities!) to other congregants. I also believed that the pastors who suffer the most are those who carry unmanageable burdens and who should get rid of them.

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