The Leading Man Syndrome & Avoiding Spiritual Abuse

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The phrase “spiritual abuse”  generally means a pattern of leadership that abuses its power, controlling, diminishing and wounding people on its way.  There are many  psychological issues that can lie at the route of it. Not every story is the same.

The first time I recognized a case of spiritual abuse was in a mainstream denominational church. The senior pastor’s teaching persistently painted a picture of the wider church environment and the world around us which portrayed our church as a lone lifeboat in a stormy sea. He was the captain and helmsman to guide us all to safety.

To question him (the leader) was therefore to threaten the fragile well-being of the church. Anyone who did question would be diminished from the pulpit and a few would be explicitly excommunicated, to be shunned – because of the danger to us of their alleged state of mind. After only couple of years of that leadership dynamic had created a cult-like environment – which the regional structure was powerless to address – and which it took up to a decade for its escapees to recover from.


The worst example I have encountered in person was in another mainstream denominational church. Here the senior pastor was gaining some renown as a despot. For some light relief, his staff had (among themselves) renamed the weekly executive meetings as the “execution meetings” because of this pastor’s blistering pattern of  “encouragement” towards team-members. One day at just such a meeting the senior pastor responded to the suggestion from one of his staff that his handling of colleagues and volunteers was overly harsh. The pastor replied by insisting that the things he had to attend to as senior pastor were of such import that he could not possibly give time to worrying about whether he was being nice enough to them!!

When one of his staff meekly reported this exchange to me I could only baffle at the loss of Gospel perspective in that statement. How does a pastor reach such a sorry place as that? However, more recently I have come to realise that everyone of us in pastoral leadership is vulnerable to slip-sliding onto that kind of territory.

So how might that happen?

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Ensign Chekov (co-star – Walter Koenig) and
Captain Kirk (star – William Shatner)

Just the other day I eavesdropped on a dialogue between actors, William Shatner and Walter Koenig. (In case you don’t know, these actors played, respectively, Captain Kirk and Ensign Chekov in the original and iconic 1960’s Star Trek.)

Outside of the central three actors in the series, William Shatner was not well-liked by his fellow cast members. Nichelle Nicholls – who played Lt Uhura, told him many years later, “Bill, don’t you know we all hated you?!” Yet in the 2000’s fellow-actors working with William Shatner in his capacity as a character actor and ensemble player on Boston Legal, held a very different view of him. They reported that their William Shatner was professional, creative and fun to work with. So what’s the story?

In his conversation with Walter Koenig, William Shatner reflected that people don’t change a great deal through life, and that he couldn’t imagine being so insensitive to colleagues in the present. However what he did recall from the context of the 60s series was the attitude and the pressured mental space that came with the mantle of playing the lead.

William Shatner reflected that this TV break came at an early and insecure stage of his career. This moment created a sense of crisis wherein he simply had to make it work. In other words he found himself in a mental space in which he saw that the success of series was carried, essentially, by his draw as a leading man. The tension in his mind was that if anything broke “IT” – ie the fragile magical spell of his screen presence – if anything detracted from his pulling power, took him out of his zone, or distracted him from his groove – all of which was delivering for the show at that time – then he and the show along with all his crew-mates would be scuppered.

A huge responsibility. And he felt it acutely. Perhaps that, he said, had boxed him in a world where it was all about him, and where his psychological impact on others was, consequently, not even on his radar. Not an excuse, maybe. But certainly an explanation. It was a lucid insight into what the pressures are for the leading man who must make the show or the movie work.

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A mellower space for William Shatner,
acting with David Spader in Boston Legal

William Shatner’s explanation rings true to me. It explains why other long-lived actors such as Kevin Costner, Barbara Streisand, and Dustin Hoffmann have made similar transformations. Renownedly difficult to work with when they played lead in their earlier movies. Much more fun to work with in their mature years, as character or supporting actors.

It would seem from their stories that being pulled into a space that says “the success of all this depends on me” is bad for an actor’s mindset and behaviour, evincing in them traits which we might associate with an abusive pastor.

Perhaps this insight offers us a clue as what things might protect us as pastors from slipping into abusive patterns and mentalities. So brother/sister pastor, may I humbly propose six thoughts that may safeguard us a little:

1) It doesn’t all depend on you. Ultimately it depends on the grace of God and in practice the church is an ensemble piece. It takes a community to be a community. So don’t see yourself as the key – even if others might want to project the spotlight on you. Your role may well be that of change-agent, and your desk may well be where the buck stops, but be sure to present the major issues to your board or leadership team and include them in the process of distilling and actioning the necessary responses.

2) Your role is to be obedient to God’s instructions, not to maintain a particular attitude or mental zone. When Jesus began his teaching ministry, Matthew’s gospel summarizes his first message not as “Change your mindset and then the kingdom of God will come.” Rather he said “Change your mindset BECAUSE the kingdom of God has come near and is at hand.” Knowing that God is on the case can give us confidence to “Just do whatever he tells you.” This is what Mary tells the servants at the wedding in Cana.  In this story the servants set us an example. They just do what they have been told to do. Jesus works the miracle!

3) God’s love for your church and his resources for its mission are not fragile! Jesus said, “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not be strong enough prevail against its power.” Does that sound fragile? Our side of the equation is to steward what he has given.

4) Even you are just one part of the body – even if the body is sick – even if your colleagues or board are delinquent – or if you’re in a situation where a team dynamic has not yet emerged, you are still only one part, and can bring no more than your own contribution. It takes a board to be board, a team to play team, and a community to be community. Just take responsibility for the integrity of what you are bringing. But there is a balance here…

5) If you are too caught up in your own contribution for your emotional impact on your fellow actors to be on your radar, then you’re off your mark! Do your colleagues look happy?!

6) This may sound very un-theological, but acting is reacting!  It’s all about what happens on the way, between players. In other words if your leadership does not display itself well, relationally, then it’s not Jesus-like leadership. How you respond to people is, potentially, one of the key things that Our Father is interested in from his vantage point as our author and perfecter.

When others falter do you steady them? When others withdraw do you stay engaged? When others bite do you correct them, or do you allow a little violence, or do you even bite back? When others jump to assume the worst do you consider all possibilities? When others lean to mistrust do you offer honesty and vulnerability? When others are afraid do you reframe with calm and encouragement?

At the end of the day, though we who are senior pastors may like to see ourselves in the role of the Captain or the Romantic Lead, and while the things we bring to the table and to the stage are certainly a vital contribution to the body, even as the leader we are in the end not the star. Jesus is the Captain. His are the commands. We are all his supporting actors. And for a godly outcome we must all be ensemble players.