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A conversation with Michael Kruger - S11.E5

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WORLD Radio - A conversation with Michael Kruger - S11.E5

A Bible scholar and seminary president confronts spiritual abuse


Photo credit: Photo from RTS.edu video online

WS:  Dr. Michael Kruger, welcome to the program. And you know, Mike, my first question for you is this: why did you write this book? I mean, it's not an obvious choice for somebody with your background and somebody who's, you know, written other books that are much more academic and scholarly in nature.

MK:  Well, thanks, Warren, great to be on the show. And good to talk with you about this. And yeah, I mean, you're right, this book is definitely, in some ways, new territory for me. I mean, if anybody knows my background, I write more on New Testament canon and origins of the Bible, and these sorts of things. And, and that's where most of my publications have been. But I'm also a seminary president. I'm also a pastor. And we spend a lot of time here at RTS thinking about the kind of leaders we're producing. And I have a somewhat of a pulse, at least on the national scene trying to see what's going on out there. And honestly, for the last several years, I've been concerned about what I'm seeing, and I've been concerned for a while, I think it was in the last several years, it sort of coalesced, where I sort of could put my finger on the problem and sort of articulate it. And this was long before the whole concept of spiritual views became sort of the national topics since Mike Cosper's Podcast, everyone seems to be talking about it now, but I had actually been already in the weeds of it before that. And so yeah, it's just me watching what's going on with quite a bit of concern, not only at the national level, that the cases that everybody knows about, but also just in my own circles I see things, just as a seminary president, and I think we need to do some sharp thinking about what kind of leaders we're producing.

WS: Yeah, in fact, you say, very early in your book, in the introduction or the foreword to the book, "We need to think more carefully about the type of leaders we are producing." Now that seems to suggest to me and correct me if I'm wrong here, Mike, that maybe the very process of that we're requiring people to go through might be a contributing factor here, and that we need to actually change the process. Is that Is that what you're saying?

MK: Yeah, well, I'm saying lots of things by that statement, because it can capture a lot of things. Certainly the process is part of it. I think a large part of it is sort of what we're looking for. And I know that's part of process. So I think we've we've trained ourselves in the American scene to look for a certain type of person to be a leader. And I argue throughout the book, as you know that I don't know that I see those, those characteristics as highlighted in the Bible as primary leadership characteristics. And as I point out elsewhere, the Bible is much more concerned about character than it is about giftedness, when it comes to pastoral ministry. And so yeah, you could call that process; you could also call that sort of desire or model of ministry. You know, do seminaries play a role in this? Yes, we do. Although I always remind people, we don't ordain anybody. We just train people. And we could do a better job, obviously, all the time. We always think about how we can do better. But, but I think it's a combination of many factors. But one of them is I think we've just been trained to think a certain kind of person is the kind of leader we need.

WS: Yeah, I want you to drill down a little bit more into something you just said, which is that we tend to, value, venerate, look for, and are drawn to gifts over character. Sometimes the way I say it is is that people rise based on their competence and fall based on their character. It seems to be that you're saying something very similar to that. What sort of gifts are we looking at these days and sort of celebrating and which ones should we be looking for?

MK: Yeah, so if you look at a passage, like 1 Timothy 3, which is one of the classic texts that tells you what someone who's called to be a pastor should be (now again, my book covers more than pastors, but let's at least start there), every one of the qualifications but one is about character, and the only one that's about giftedness is the ability to teach. And so in terms of sort of where we want to start, we want to start with a recognition that you need to be able to teach, then after that character is the main thing that matters. Instead, what we're looking for, I think, in the church today, is not so much about character, but about someone who's dynamic, someone who is a powerful leader, someone who's inspirational, someone who's strong, someone who, 'gets things done.' Now, certainly, we would value many of those things, right? There's nothing wrong with strong leaders, and there's nothing wrong with someone who gets things done. But when you only look at that at the expense of character, you end up setting yourself up for a real problem, because those aren't the kinds of leaders that are held accountable very easily. And if there, if the character isn't there, they're going to need to be held accountable. And so we've created this problem, we put someone up who doesn't necessarily have the character, but we have no accountability structure to go with it. And why are we so surprised, perhaps that we're having all these problems?

WS: Yeah, you know, it's, I don't mean to go too far down a rabbit trail on this, Mike. But it's always interesting to me that there is kind of this nexus in the Christian publishing world, in the Christian conference and speaker world, between leadership and pastoral ministry that, a lot of times when a pastor washes out of pastoral ministry because of a character issue, they end up writing a leadership book. Or you end up with a lot of leadership writers and I'm thinking of, for example of a John Maxwell, for example, who speaks often in churches. And there's nothing wrong with that - I mean leadership is good, let's just stipulate for the record that leadership is not necessarily inherently a negative thing. But it I think it is tangible evidence of exactly what you were saying, right, that we value the wrong things when we look for leaders.

MK: Yeah, and I would argue that the term leader isn't really even a very common biblical category. And some English translations, we use the term leader in certain passages, and that's fine. I'm not objecting to that. But what people have in their mind in our day when they use the term leader is not, not, you can't just impose that on Scripture. And in our day, as you indicated, we've taken more of a corporate business model for leadership and then just stuck it on the church. And so when people think about, you know, John Maxwell or others like that, lots of times, you're looking at sort of corporate models for leadership and thinking, how can we utilize this for the churches that we're creating little CEOs, running churches, like companies. Now again, some of those principles are common grace insights we can be we can benefit from and I'm not saying all those books are inaccurate, I'm sure they're not I'm sure they have helpful advice. But we've got the cart before the horse here. You know, you got to have a, again, we got to start with a biblical structure of what a leader should be, and make character primary and then we can sort of massage some of the ways to improve the way he executes his role. But not at the expense of the of the qualifications. And I think that's where we get in trouble.

WS: Yeah. So let's stipulate for the record, then that leadership per se is not evil. It's not wrong. It's not bad. There can be positive, biblical ways to exercise leadership. But there can also be toxic ways. I mean, Satan doesn't create he corrupt. So he takes a beautiful thing. This is this idea of leadership and, and he does corrupt it. And often that corruption shows up as a practical matter in what we have come to call lately spiritual abuse. You've already used the term at least once in our conversation.

MK: Yeah.

WS: Can you define it for us? What do you mean by spiritual abuse? And more specifically, what is it not?

MK: Yeah, so I, as you might imagine, and you know, you've got a pre pub copy of the book. I spend a lot of time on this, to make sure people understand what it is and what it isn't. And a lot of people have written on it, I pull in prior research, I pull in my own research. The short version for a conversation like this is basically spiritually abusive leaders are leaders who are authoritarian and domineering over those in their charge. And spiritual abuse, is when a leader like that is in a position of spiritual authority over somebody. So you can be abusive, you know, as a boss to the people you work with at your work, okay, fair enough. But spiritual abuse is when a spiritual leader, endowed with spiritual authority, executes his office in such a way that he sort of domineers, runs down, and rules in a harsh and authoritarian way, those under his leadership, all the while thinking he's accomplishing God's good work. Now, this is where the title comes in. Right? Bully Pulpit. Effectively, spiritually abusive leaders are spiritual bullies, right? They manipulate the domineer. And they do it awfully in harsh and cruel ways under their people under their care.

Now, I go into a lot of the particulars of this, what is it not? Well, I mean, there's a lot of things spiritual abuse is not: spiritual abuse is not just making a mistake in a conversation, spiritual abuse is not just is just making a relational misstep where you say something bothersome or offensive to somebody on occasion; spiritual abuse does not necessarily just standing up for spiritual truth, right? If I tell someone something is sin, that's not abusive, if it's in fact, sin, according to the Bible. So there's lots of things that spiritual abuse is not. But most of the time I describe this to people, they actually know people in their lives that are like this. And this is the thing that has been stunning to me as I've written a book The the tsunami of emails I've received from people saying, Wow, you just described my pastor. It's been pretty shocking to me and I knew it was a problem, but I think it may be bigger than we even know.

WS: Yeah. Whenever I have written about people that are involved in spiritual abuse, and I've written you know, a lot lately, unfortunately, on this topic, I, you know, covered the Mark Driscoll story probably 10 years ago for World Magazine, I've written about Ravi Zacharias more recently, Jerry Falwell Jr, and many many others

MK: Yeah I mentioned all those names in my book as you know,

WS: exactly. In fact I was gonna make that point and I appreciated that because you were not afraid to name names appropriately. You didn't pile on but you, I think that you appropriately use, you know, real world examples were

MK: As I only in the way I could with as a public case. And of course, as you know, I also mentioned a bunch of private cases. I don't mention names in.

WS: that's right. That's right. But So given that, you know, that reality and whenever I write about it, and I'm sure whenever you've talked about them or mentioned them, in the book, you've gotten some pushback, that sounds a little like this: "Mike, touch not God's anointed," right? These These folks are having such great success. People are coming to, you know, coming to Jesus as a result of their preaching. Folks are maturing in their faith, families are thriving, churches are growing, you know, money is being poured out from this church to ministry. Touch not God's anointed. What's your response to that?

MK: Golly, so many things. First of all, the 'touch not God's anointed' is entirely a misapplication of that language referring to, I think, the person is trying to refer to how David thought of Saul. Obviously, we're not talking about God's annointed king here. We're not talking about anybody with sort of that direct divine office. More than that, even people who were kings, even people like David, we're not above the law, so to speak, in a way that they can behave however, they wanted to with no accountability. And even David committed sexual abuse, with Bathsheba and certainly other other crimes and was held accountable for it by God. And so the idea that someone in leadership is insulated from critique by virtue of the fact that they're successful in their ministry is exactly the problem. That's not a defense. That's exactly the thing that's been going wrong as people are turning a blind eye to the people who get crushed by these leaders under the auspices of 'they're doing good stuff'. I'm like, Yeah, God can use people to do good stuff, even when they're wicked, and that's His sovereign prerogative. But we're also called to uphold people to biblical standards. And so I don't think we should shy away from from addressing these people's problems just because they have successful ministries. In fact, that's exactly the problem is we use success to protect people from accountability.

WS: Well, the 'touch not God's anointed' verse is one that I hear a lot. The other one that I hear a lot is Matthew 18. That when whenever, you know, I have criticized someone in the past, a pastor in the past or a ministry leader, I will inevitably get an email for me, did you go to them personally? Did you confront them? Did you then take two or three more?

MK: Oh, yeah.

WS: You know, in other words, they get very prescriptive about applying Matthew 18, and hold those that don't follow that prescription precisely in every context, they hold them accountable. So talk about that. First of all, does Matthew 18 apply in this situation?

MK: A couple of thoughts for you. First of all, one of the things you're noting, there is something I addressed in the book, which is that people are remarkably obsessed with process over the actual problem of abuse. So I'm amazed that you have a situation where you have an abusive leader. And rather than being upset by the abuse, which seems like a good biblical way to respond, people are actually obsessed with making sure that, you know, you follow the right steps and do the right paperwork, and so forth. And I don't want to pretend for a moment, the process doesn't matter. It's important, like any judicial system. But what I'm routinely shocked by is it's almost like the real problem is the person coming forward. The real problem is the person making the accusation. The real problem is whether you follow the steps, not the abusive leader, it's you who brought it up. And I think that already sets the tone for the discussion.

Now secondly, as it pertains to Matthew 18, in the situation you describe Matthew 18, does not apply. This is the thing I make a point in the book. Matthew 18 applies to someone who sinned against you directly, not just whether someone has sinned in a way you can see. If I see that someone is sinning in a way that I can see, I'm free to call that person out publicly. And I don't have to go to them privately, according to Matthew 18, to do it, because Matthew 18 says if your brother sins against you, not if he just sins in general. And so I point out this people use Matthew 18 like the cure all, as if it was written to solve every possible church conflict. And I think I don't think that's the case. And I bring up numerous qualifications in my book about Matthew 18.

WS: Yeah. You've mentioned the qualifications for church leadership on the one hand, and that, all of the ones that we see in Scripture - or most of the ones that we see - are related to character, you mentioned that teaching was the one that was related to character. And of course, we've also identified that there are a lot of pastors that that fall short of those standards. So, at what, at what point does the church polity does discipline, play a role in this process? Because when I hear you talk, there's a part of me that wants to say, "Hey, guys, this is really not that hard." You know, if if a pastor is no longer meeting the qualifications set out in Scripture for leadership, then they should be removed from ministry or they should be put in a you know, maybe in a season of rehabilitation and restoration. That rarely happens. Is that part of the problem here?

MK: Yeah. It's interesting. I agree 100% that a good church polity should solve this. And what I mean by that is, gee whiz, isn't there a group that should hold these guys accountable when they don't meet up to the standards of behavior that you deal with it, you discipline them, you remove them, or whatever needs to be done. All that's true. Here's the problem is that there's plenty of churches with those whole systems in place that do nothing about abuse. And this is the reason I wrote the book. First of all, there's a misconception that having good polity is enough. And I say, No, no, there's plenty of churches with sophisticated church policy with thick books on how to run every judicial process that are not solving or addressing the problem of abuse. Why? Because they don't understand it. They don't know how to spot it, they don't even know what it is. And so they're actually not equipped to identify the problem. And they don't also appreciate the inherent bias, even in a judicial system to protect your buddy, to protect your friend. You basically are being tried by your friends. And there's a little bit of this in- house investigation problem I bring up the book, is that when organizations investigate themselves, it rarely produces a good result. Usually, they just defend themselves and defend their friends. I wish it wasn't that way. But the case after case I've seen it's exactly that way. So is polity enough? Well, you have to have a minimum, you have to have it. But you also have to have it well trained, well educated and structured in a way that actually acknowledges the realities that we're talking about here.

WS: Yeah, I want to, in a few minutes. Mike, come to some of the solutions to these problems. Okay. One of the things I also appreciate about your book is that you close the book with a discussion of how to create a culture that resists spiritual abuse, and we will get to that in a moment. But before we do that, I'd like to kind of get you to talk about one other significant issue of it that you that you discuss on the book. And, and I think, one of the reasons that we that we don't follow the processes, even if we do have a sophisticated process in place, is that we don't, and I'm saying this out loud for you to react to and tell me where I'm right or wrong.

MK: Okay.

WS: I think I think maybe we don't have an adequate appreciation for the negative consequences of spiritual abuse. That that if we really understood, just how damaging it is

MK: yes

WS: That that we would take it more seriously. You have a chapter in your book called Suffering in Silence that really talks about how, you know people's spiritual lives and emotional lives, in some cases, their physical lives.

MK: Yeah

WS: Has just been wrecked by being victims of spiritual abuse. Can you say more about that?

MK: Yeah, I appreciate you bringing that up, Warren and that's exactly right, I put that chapter in there for a reason is that I don't think people take it seriously. Cuz they don't really know what effect it has. They don't really know what it is. They've never experienced it themselves. I can tell you this. It's not it's not as if you have to experience yourself to get it but but most people will have an experience just can't sort of understand the damage this does to someone emotionally. And by the way, this is why this has to be called spiritual abuse. Because it's not just domineering behavior from a person, it's domineering behavior from someone who at least at some level represents God to you. Okay? Doesn't mean you think they speak infallibly or something like that, but they at least represent God in some fashion to you, right? And the damage that does is is really remarkable. And in my studies, in my research, I uncovered more than this and even realized, just the damage emotionally, the damage physically, as you noted, spiritually, and then the other area that is often not talked is the relational damage to these people's lives. The friends they lose, the splits in the church, it's really, really awful to look at. And so I want the reader to get up close and really feel the impact of that. And my prayer is that if church leaders read this book, if Elder boards read this book, that they can say, Oh, wow, this really does damage; we need to take this seriously. We need to we need to put this on the radar.

WS: Yeah. Well, I found that to be a very powerful chapter, because some sometimes, you know, we, we use words like bullying, or spiritual abuse. And, you know, they don't for some reason to have the same emotional impact as destroying a person's faith,

MK: That's right, that's right

WS: Or rape or sexual abuse. And, and, you know, and I want to be clear that those are very, very, very serious ends, and I'm not trying to diminish them in any way. But But bullying and spiritual abuse can have very similar impacts on a person.

MK: Oh, yeah. In fact, studies have shown you don't need to be physically assaulted, to have a very similar psychological and emotional damage done by abusive behavior. And again, as you noted, that's not to diminish the the effect of physical assault. It's simply acknowledging there's different ways to damage people. And this is a way that I don't think we have a category for.

WS: Well, Mike, I'd like to pivot in our conversation because your book, praise be to God does not leave us hanging. It does at least, you know, offer some solutions. Let them Let's just stipulate for the record that a conversation like this, or even a book, like yours cannot fully, you know, unpack all of the things that need to happen in our lives and our churches and in our, in the eventual evangelical culture, generally, but you, you do give us a pretty good start and one, and I'm just gonna mention a few of the ones that you mention in your book and asked you to, you know, say a few words about it. One is that, as we said earlier, instead of looking for gifts over character that we need to start valuing character over giftedness in the part of our leaders. Can you say more about that?

MK: Yeah. So in my last chapters, you know, that I tried to lay out some practical steps. And in the scope of things, they're really tiny. I mean, they really are, they just try to get churches thinking differently, and structurally changing a few things to help accommodate them. And one of them is the way we assess potential candidates. So one of the ways to deal with spiritual abuse. I know that sounds a little trite, but I really think it's true is to try to keep them from getting in positions in the first place. In other words, how do we weed out the people who have abusive tendencies? And I think we need to rethink the way we assess character. I've done a lot of interviews myself, I've been in a lot of interviews over the years, and so have you and we know how the character is assessed. You have your references, you give them to somebody, they read their two or three references, and they assume all done here, when the references are handpicked friends, they're not really that, that insightful in terms of really getting to the heart of somebody. So I suggest a number of ways to go deeper further, and really penetrate into the character question. And I bring up you're gonna find stuff if you do that. But but at least you're honest about the person you're hiring. And you know what you're dealing with, rather than this sense of hiring the perfect pastor, put him up on a pedestal, and then you only find out later that he's not a perfect pastor - he's got all these problems. And I think we got to we got to deal with that.

WS: Yeah. Another thing that you talk about, is that the whole issue of accountability. That that's a big question. I know, you know, I, in my role as the president of Ministry Watch, I basically say that our ministry comes down to two things, trying to create an environment where there's more transparency, and more accountability. So I was delighted, of course, to see those both of those ideas in your

MK: Sure.

WS: But you unpack this a little bit in ways that I that I thought was helpful. You talk about accountability over secrecy, which I think means in part, increased transparency. But you are and you also talk about limiting power, that, can you say more about limiting power for this for the senior leader? What that looks like, and why that is so important and valuable.

MK: Yeah, there's a remarkable way that the American church at least takes their pastor and puts them generally in a unique position that sort of above everybody else, even if they say they're not doing that lots of churches technically are doing that. He does all the teaching. He does all the leading, he chairs, that session or the elder board. He's the one that is the pivot point for everything in the church. That creates a level of power that makes someone sort of untouchable and unassailable, and what you have to do if you're going to keep abusive leaders from doing that, you need to make sure that that power is dissipated in a sense. It doesn't in either role. But that doesn't give them sort of autonomy over everything. And so a suggestion was, I don't think, if possible, they should do all the teaching, because that definitely creates this sense of, "you're the only guy we listen to," right? And I know some small churches probably can't rotate teaching as well argued they shouldn't necessarily always chair, the elder board. They should be on the board, and a key member of it. But there should be a sense in which other people do that. And I think there's other ways also to make sure that are not able to just fire staff, whenever they want to. They're not a football coach, right? You got you these football coaches come in, they get hired, like, I'm just gonna fire everybody and start over. I have the full authority to do that. I think that's very dangerous to let senior pastors have that kind of authority. So those are some ways I suggest limiting power. And I think those are practical and helpful, and I hope people implement some of them.

WS: Well, you know, one of the things when I was doing a lot of reporting on the Mark Driscoll situation back when Mars Hill Church was still around, one of the things that that that stunned me, until I started digging around and realize that it was really not all that uncommon, is that often the staff members will also be the elders. So, if I'm an elder, but my paycheck is being signed by the pastor or he has the ability to hire and fire me, there's a pretty serious financial and career disincentive for me to actually fulfill a biblical understanding of what my role as an elder should be. Is that a fair statement?

MK: That's right. And not all not all elders in churches, of course are on paid staff. But you're right, a number of them are and at Driscoll's church, a lot of them were because it was a big church, lot of paid staff. This I bring this up in the book a number of places having someone as your both your pastor and your boss is weird. And I think the idea that they could they could be over you in a way that they can fire you if you don't submit to them and go along with them creates a real conflict of interest. And it really it puts people in a trap situation. So I suggested in the book that there needs to be some other body that handles those situations so that a person's job is not on the line. Because what happens is it just is a way to silence people. What a senior pastor will do is like, basically, if you come against me, I'm gonna fire you. And people know it, and they stay silent. They don't do anything. And that that has played out over and over and over again in the cases I studied.

WS: You know, Mike, I don't want to get too much in the weeds here or too granular, because I know every situation is different, but, but I want you to say some a little bit about annual reviews, one of the things that I appreciated about the book is did you get did get specific, and I don't think that we talk enough about performance reviews or annual reviews. But for a pastor, it's really hard. I know, I have sat on the leadership team of my church. And you know, once a year, we have to approve the budget. And usually that involves, you know, looking at the pastor's compensation. And so, you know, we send him out of the room for 20 minutes, and we talk about whether we like him or not, and, you know, whether he did a good job or not in the past year, and then we

MK: it's all pretty informal. Really. Yeah,

WS: it really is. And, and even while I was in the midst of that process, I was having disquiet about it. But what can we do differently? What, what should a a really helpful performance review, annual review look like for a senior leader?

MK: Yeah, well, several things. First of all, it needs to be 360, meaning that it can't just be the elders, it needs to be the people who are under the senior pastor and work for him able to give feedback. And so it can't just be the elder saying, We think we're doing a good job. How does the people this person leads think he's doing? How are they responding to his leadership? Also, secondly, there needs to be a certain level of anonymity. You gotta be able to speak freely without getting repercussions. And so I suggest that that needs to be built into the process at some level. Third, there needs to be full disclosure of the reviews. I can't tell you how many churches I study where the pastor gets reviews, and the elders never see the reviews. Have no idea there's a problem, because it's in some subcommittee, which is another major problem. And the other thing I mentioned, is it that the senior pastor has to do annual reviews of all his staff. That sounds odd to people like why is that? How does that help? It protects the staff. Because I can't tell you the retaliatory tactics of these abusive leaders, if you cross them, they're gonna accuse you of everything. But if you've got eight or 10 years of good reviews, and suddenly, the pastor accusing you of everything looks vindictive, it doesn't look like he's got any real basis for saying that. So those annual reviews of the staff under the senior pastor actually protect the staff. And I think that's a really key part of keeping people safe.

WS: Yeah, well, I found that part of your book to be helpful. Mike, I'd like to pivot one more time, and maybe come back around to the beginning to a certain extent. And, and and ask you, because you're not only an author of a really excellent new book, and I am grateful for the book. And of course, we're talking about the book, but you are also, you know, the president of the seminary. And so I can't resist trying to tie the two together.

MK: Sure.

WS: And talk a little about that. And so the first question that I would have is that has has writing this book, researching this book and writing this book, caused you either to do anything different in your role as a seminary leader, or plan to do something different, hope to do something different, realize that you know what, we've got to make changes here. And these are the substantive changes? Have you had that conversation with yourself and others?

MK: Absolutely. So I think there's two layers to it. One is a personal layer. I think the more I study this, I realize how dangerous leadership is, and how it can really bless people, and really hurt people if you're not careful. And so in my role, one of the personal applications of my own book, is I just wanted to continue to work even harder at being the kind of gentle, soft leader that I need to be like, as much like Christ as I can be. There's, there's times I need to stand up for truth and be strong, yes. But I realized that that leaders don't realize how influential they are and how impactful they are. So I'll just on a personal level, I'm trying to apply the book to myself. But then structurally, in curriculum level, I think, RTS, you know, my goal is to try to build this into our curriculum in some key places. I was sort of, I don't know, embarrassed is too strong a word. But as I finished writing the book, I realized we don't even really address this in our curriculum. And that's just not, that's not acceptable. We need to have a place that we address this. And so I'm working on that right now trying to figure out what slots in the curriculum we're going to try to put people face to face with this issue so that they know how to not be an abusive leader themselves, which of course, it's step one, and then that they know how to spot it if it happens to them.


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