The Leading Man Syndrome & Avoiding Spiritual Abuse

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It has become a commonplace to speak of “spiritual abuse”. By it we generally mean
a pattern of leadership that abuses its power, controlling, wounding and diminishing
people in its wake.  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 painted a picture of the wider church environment and the world around us which made our church a lone lifeboat in a stormy sea. He was the captain and helmsman to guide us all to safety. To question him was 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. A couple of years of that dynamic created a cult-like environment – one which it took up to a decade for its escapees to recover from.


The worst time I ever saw it was in another mainstream denominational church. Here the senior pastor was gaining a renown as something of a despot. Among themselves, for some light relief, his staff had renamed the weekly executive meetings as the “execution meetings” because of this pastor’s blistering pattern of “encouragement”. 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. In his answer the pastor insisted 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 I heard that 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 been reflecting that everyone of us is vulnerable to slip-sliding onto that territory. So how might that happen?

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

Some new insight dawned for me the other day as I eavesdropped a dialogue between actors, William Shatner and Walter Koenig. If 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 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, reported that 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. He reflected that this TV break came at an insecure stage of his career and created a sense of crisis wherein he simply had to make it work. In other words he was in a mental space where he saw that the success of series was carried, essentially, by the draw of the leading man; that if anything broke “IT” – ie the fragile magical spell of his screen presence – if anything detracted from his pulling power or 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 an explanation. An insight into what the pressures are of being 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 impossible 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. Clearly being pulled into a space that says “the success of all this depends on me” is bad for an actor’s character, evincing in them traits which we might associate with an abusive pastor.

Conversely it offers us an insight into what things might protect us 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. It depends on the grace of God. Your role is important but it is not the key.

2) Your role is to be obedient to God’s instructions, not to maintain a particular attitude or mental zone.

3) God’s love for your church and resources for its mission are not fragile!

4) Even you are part of the body – even if the body is sick – even if a team dynamic has not yet emerged.

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

6) And, though this may sound very untheological, acting is reacting! In other words if your leadership does not express itself relationally, it’s not Jesus-like and ultimately it’s not going to work!

At the end of the day though we who are senior pastors may like to see ourselves in the role of the captain and 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 supporting actors. And we must all be ensemble players.