Why do churches and church members doggedly defend Pastoral Abusers? What are the essential reasons this happens? Here is what I and other victims’ advocates and abuse consultants have found.
Familiarity Bias: Technically, Familiarity Bias is a financial term. When newcomers start investing in the stock market, they believe companies they are familiar with will make the best investment. They falsely believe they really know the company just because their name is recognizable. This is a dangerous way to invest.
And, this is what congregation members do when they assume they really know a leader. That leader has publicly revealed things about their life, so congregants adopt a false intimacy with them. Most people believe the story of someone they know more than someone they don’t. The victims are often people that very few members of the church know well. Or even if they know the victims, the pastor is often perceived as the best known person in the congregation. Because of this notoriety, the average person will automatically assume the person they know (pastor, principal, etc.) is more trustworthy than a victim they’ve never met.
Over reliance on Personal Experience:Abusers do not abuse everyone. They could not possibly do so. In a previous article, I laid out the blueprint for how pastoral abusers choose their victims. Only a small number of people are actually victimized by even the worst sociopathic offenders. That means the vast majority of people in a church have never known the pastor/principal/worship leader to abuse them.
Most abusers are Narcissistic and Machiavellian in personality. This means they can be tremendously charming to all people, even their victims. They appear as disarming, warm, confident, nurturing, and intelligent. It is virtually impossible for the vast majority who have never been hurt by the pastor to initially believe the story that the victim tells. It is simple: “Pastor X never treated me that way. I can’t believe what this victim is saying. The so-called victim must be making this up.”
A Theology of Leadership Protection:Many churches teach some variation of the idea that the leader of the church needs to be protected from outside attacks. The congregation members feel no compulsion to abstain from criticizing him privately, but as soon as someone brings the criticism into the public eye, everyone becomes his defender. You will hear Psalm 105:15 quoted often: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” This is interpreted to mean that no one is allowed to touch God’s leaders; they are above criticism from the outside.
Other people will hide behind Matthew 18 and the process for dealing with conflict among believers by saying that these victims should have confronted their abuser the “biblical” way. This implies they should have made their accusations in-house and never included outsiders. This adds to the problem, because the congregation already believes the pastor more than the victim. The church will rarely side with the victim without an outside entity directing the process.
He Who Controls the Microphone, Controls the Direction of the Discussion: The Senior Pastor is the voice everyone knows and most people trust. This person is afforded a platform to express his views every week. When the Senior Pastor is an abuser, he is also the one who controls the narrative of how the abuse will be viewed. When the Senior Pastor is not the abuser but wants to defend the person who is, they still control the microphone and they can subtly shift focus away from the offense. They can minimize it, shift blame, victim-shame, sin-level the offense, or call for unity to gloss over the offense. Anyone who controls the pulpit during the time of inquiry controls the most important place where the narrative of abuse can be discussed. If that person is the offender or a friend of the offender, then it is unlikely the average church attender is going to believe or sympathize with the victim until someone else is given the microphone. Anyone who has followed the process of recent disclosures of pastoral abuse will affirm that the pastors and elders of those churches have used the pulpit to do damage control. Very few churches use their public platform to help the victims. Most just pay lip service to the victims at best.
Retroactive Reality: The cost entailed with believing a victim involves believing the pastor has always been an abuser. This causes church members to have to re-examine their spiritual walk in light of this information. Victims are revealing to the congregation that the abusing pastor is a deceiver. Therefore, church members fear their own spiritual formation is tainted as a result. Some congregation members have spent their entire spiritual lives in that one church. They begin to think, “what does this say about me?” This comes out so much in one-on-one interviews I have done with congregation members.
I said it myself years ago. The man who mentored me in the Christian faith when I was 14, assaulted two other boys sexually. I was about six years into my faith walk when I heard about these accusations. I could not believe it. I would not believe it. If he did this, then maybe everything he taught me about God was wrong. It spawned an existential crisis of faith. Most people hate existential crises and will avoid them. The easiest way to do this is to discount the story of the victim.
Doubling Down: Once you have publicly declared you believe the pastor more than the victim, it is hard to change your story. It has been proven that once people have taken a position, whether voting for a candidate or choosing a particular story to believe, they are more likely to keep holding onto that story even when evidence suggests they are wrong. This explains why people can continue to support a political party or candidate even when these are shown to be duplicitous. If the individual congregation member publicly defends a pastor near the beginning of the discovery process, they are very unlikely to change that opinion no matter how much evidence is revealed.
Maximum vs. Minimum Harm Concept:This is an easy one to understand, but hard to admit to. Even though we love to cheer for the Long Shot, if we have a horse in the race, we will cheer for him. In addition, most people will choose the path of least harm time and time again. With abusive pastors, many congregation members when they must choose whom to believe, will choose the path of least destruction.
In the case of a church, if the pastor is forced to admit sin and resign, the church will lose members, community standing, financial support, and future opportunities. Members then decide the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This is the underlying emotional reason why some will admit the pastor should be disciplined in some way as long as they can stay on at the church in some capacity.
Misapplication of Grace and Sin-Leveling: These are simply two versions of the same false teaching. Misapplication of grace teaches that since God has forgiven all our sins, we should just admit that a sin was committed and allow the pastor to say he is sorry–hopefully with tears and a standing ovation at the end–and then the congregation can move on emotionally.
Sin-leveling is the teaching that we have all sinned and all sins are the same. But this is not true. Thinking about having sex with someone not your spouse is not the same as committing adultery. They are related to one another, but they are not the same sin. Nor do they have the same consequences, which is the key point. But it sounds good, because all of us carry some shame around with us. It is easy to see our own faults and think that we would want people to overlook our mistakes. But abuse is not a mistake. Abuse pours acid on the soul of another human. God reveals great wrath about those who abuse “one of the least of these”. He says it would be better if a millstone were hung around their necks.
This is what we did with the principal and the pastor. The principal went to jail for ten years. The pastor was removed from the pulpit and the Elders board made the recommendation he never pastor again.
So many churches are wrestling with these decisions. We are cleaning out the septic tank of abusers, and it is going to be messy for awhile until we get rid of all the pastoral abusers.
The pulpit unfortunately attracts some narcissistic individuals and these days their victims are coming forward. But will they be believed? I desperately want to say that they will. But most congregation members won’t believe them.