I want to learn how to recognize a bad pastor. Over the last year, I’ve read a number of books about incredible, powerful, visionary people who achieved incredible things, only to have everything fall apart due to their own self-destruction.
I’ve read sobering stories of bad pastors/spiritual abusers (Jimmy Bakker), deceitful startup founders (Elizabeth Holmes), and obsessive athletes (Tiger Woods). I’ve also witnessed the profoundly destructive power of bad pastors and spiritual abuse first hand.
What struck me as I read these books was that in both the “secular” world and the church, destructive leadership tends to look the same. In other words, the same things that caused Jimmy Bakker to implode also led to the downfall of Elizabeth Holmes and her company “Theranos” (once valued at $1 billion).
And Tiger Woods, though not necessarily a “leader” in the same sense as a pastor or CEO, imploded for many of the same reasons.
More and more, it’s critically important to be able to identify dangerous, destructive pastors BEFORE everything falls apart. Few things cause Christians to become disillusioned more than being ripped to pieces by a really bad pastor. Few things do more to sully the name of Jesus more than abusive spiritual leaders.
Here are six bright red when learning how to recognize a bad pastor.
6 Warning Signs: How To Recognize a Bad Pastor
1. A Bad Pastor Surrounds Himself With “Yes” People
Godly spiritual leadership is about helping people move from where they are to where God wants them to be. It’s a wonderful thing when a leader desires to see people going full-throttle for God.
Unfortunately, what often happens is that pastors and spiritual leaders conflate God’s plans with their own plans. What often starts as good and godly ambitions can curdle into spoiled, selfish ambitions.
They say they want to gather thousands of people and create massive movements and do giant things “for God”. In reality, it’s more about creating something that will shine the white-hot spotlight on them instead of God (even though they might not recognize it as such).
The problem with this (apart from the obvious pride and glory stealing), is that creating massive movements requires massive amounts of momentum. To generate momentum, everyone has to be on board, eager to make the pastor’s vision a reality.
Those who challenge the pastor and the vision only slow things down, making it really difficult to pick up speed and achieve the “big things”.
And so bad pastors and abusive spiritual leaders surround themselves with people who always say, “Yes.” The inner circle — those closest — will support every decision the pastor makes, no matter how destructive or ludicrous.
2. Spiritual Abuse Isolates Critics
This is closely tied to the previous point. Not only are critics cut out of the spiritual abuser’s inner circle, they are also isolated. After all, the leader can’t afford to have critics talking behind his back.
And so they do everything they can to isolate and discredit critics, smearing their character, accusing them of lacking faith, saying their understanding of the Bible is wrong, and even spreading lies about them. The pastor wants his followers to have nothing to do with critics and seeks to discredit them as ungodly sinners who are holding back God’s plans.
The sad reality is that those labeled “critics” often start as close confidants of the pastor, but once they begin to push back, they are cut off. Instead of being able to provide guardrails for the roaring ambition of the bad pastor, they are sidelined and slandered.
3. A Bad Pastor Prizes Loyalty Over Diversity
In order for a church or spiritual movement to be healthy, a diversity of opinions is required. In Christ, we are all priests to God, filled with the Holy Spirit, and given unique gifts to build up the church.
But this doesn’t work for the dangerous pastor or spiritual leader. Diversity leads to dissent, which slows momentum and keeps him from achieving his grandiose plans. He doesn’t want a variety of opinions, he wants loyalty. You’re either in or out, for or against.