The Temptation of Spiritual Abuse

Now that I am a religious leader and a religious authority, I understand how quickly patterns of spiritual abuse can be established, even when you don’t intend to do so. I understand that sermon preparation can change so easily from exegesis to isogesis, from relaying what the biblical text says to what I want the biblical text to say. I can understand how the pulpit can transform from the holy desk to a soapbox to share my opinions and beliefs rather than to encourage each individual in the congregation to wrestle with the text.

Because as a spiritual leader, inevitably, you find yourself in situations where you are asked what needs to happen or what the church should do in response to a situation or what a biblical passage means and it’s so tempting in those moments with all eyes on you to answer authoritatively and confidently providing “the right answer.” After all, isn’t this why you went to seminary? Isn’t this where the long hours in the library and in commentaries and in research were meant to bring you?

When we, as religious leaders and authorities, become the only voice of authority for our parishioners, we miss the opportunity to shepherd our congregations. Shepherding is walking beside God’s people, gently guiding them to the path God has called them to follow, allowing them to live into the call to be disciples of Christ, not us. But having disciples, having fans, people who believe that we we do and what we say can’t ever be wrong is tempting in a life of ministry that is often lonely and asks us to give our whole selves to serving God’s people.

The temptation to use our positions of power as religious leaders and authorities is tempting, especially when we believe we are using our power for good, but our call is to speak God’s word to God’s people, not to be God for God’s people. May we be reminded of the holy work we are called to do and the very real temptations that are part of that calling.