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Bully Pulpit (Book Review)

Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church by Michael J. Kruger. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2022. 164 pages. ISBN 9780310136385.

Abusive leadership in Christian settings is devastating for its victims and harms the cause of the gospel. Sadly, it is more common than many Christians would like to admit. In this fresh contribution on the subject, Michael J. Kruger sets out to help churches and their leaders to identify “spiritual abuse”, to understand its impact, to stop abusive pastors and to prevent the problem arising. The book’s seven concise chapters offer many revealing insights into abusive leadership and practical pointers in response.

After helpfully defining some key terms in his introduction, Kruger’s first chapter identifies the problem of bully pastors. He summarises a few high-profile cases and presents one “paradigmatic case” (from the UK) before asking how this problem can arise in the contemporary church. Kruger acknowledges that we cannot know whether cases are on the increase or simply more likely to be reported than in previous times. He nevertheless suggests some factors that may contribute to the phenomenon: celebrity pastors, emphasising gifts over character, filling leadership boards with ‘yes men’, a misunderstanding of authority, and a posture of defensiveness. Chapter 2 defines “spiritual abuse” as the misuse of a “position of spiritual authority” by a ”spiritual leader” to maintain power and control by manipulating or coercing others. In Chapter 3, Kruger reflects on abusive leadership in light of biblical criteria for leadership. Subsequent chapters consider the reasons why churches do not stop spiritual abuse (Chapter 4), the tactics abusive leaders use to avoid being held to account (Chapter 5), and the effect such abuse has on its victims (Chapter 6). In his final chapter (Chapter 7), Kruger suggests measures churches can take to prevent appointing abusive leaders, to hold leaders to account and to protect those who expose abusive leadership, while his Epilogue adds advice for leaders who are eager not to be abusive.

Bully Pulpit flows smoothly from diagnosis of the disease of abusive leadership, through an exploration of its symptoms and consequences, to a proposed course of treatment and preventative measures. Kruger writes with sensitivity and pastoral concern for victims of abusive leadership. His account of their suffering is moving, while his outline of the retaliatory tactics employed by abusive leaders is chilling. I found myself, in equal measure, challenged to examine my own leadership and reminded of painful experiences in my own past. Anyone who opens the book unconvinced of the seriousness of abuses of power in Christian settings could have no remaining doubts by the time they finish reading.

Equally helpful are Kruger’s suggestions for creating healthier cultures in churches. In my view, his call for churches to prize character above competency is especially important. To ensure this priority, he suggests that churches should seek comment on the character of candidates to be a pastor from a wider range of people than just the standard referees, including people who have previously worked under him and all the elders of his previous church. This is just one example of several highly practical suggestions from Kruger. Other principles he argues for include prizing team work, establishing accountability, providing real and sincere feedback, and having clear procedures for complaints to be dealt with. There is much here for any church to consider and adapt.

Whilst Kruger has provided a helpful analysis of leadership that is clearly abusive, he acknowledges in his Epilogue that some pastors who start with good intentions slide into abusive leadership, but he does not delineate the steps through which that occurs. Marcus Honeysett’s Powerful Leaders (2022, IVP) is a more complete consideration of the categories of misuse of power in churches. Bully Pulpit sits alongside that more foundational book, providing additional insights into the category Honeysett calls “the most serious abuses”. Considering the diagnostic category of “spiritual abuse”, I was not convinced by Kruger’s use of the term. As I reflected on his definition, I realised that is largely because it rests on a concept of “spiritual authority” of which I am uncertain and that he does not define. This lack of clarity about the nature and limits of leaders’ authority is potentially hugely problematic when seeking to identify misuses of power. Without knowing what a leader can legitimately ask people to do, how can we be clear about what constitutes overstepping authority or misusing power?

Bully Pulpit emerges from a specific context and recounts real stories that occurred in English speaking countries. Readers outside the USA, or whose churches do not fit into the dominant pastor-led model of church governance among American evangelical churches, will have to work to contextualise Kruger’s proposals. Some may argue that Kruger’s inclusion of true stories of abusive leadership makes the book more engaging, but I felt somewhat uneasy reading brief summaries of complex cases and wondered how fairly the issues and people could be presented in so few words. I felt more confident when Kruger stepped into Scripture and when he drew out generalised principles he had identified across numerous anonymised real-life situations.

In the round, Kruger’s treatment of abusive leadership is generally balanced, although his helpful proposals to keep pastors accountable and protect victims could do with matching proposals for the support and development of pastors. There is no excuse for abusive leadership, but the problem of leaders who misuse power cannot be divorced from the issue of churches that mistreat their leaders. A similar concern arose in Kruger’s expectation that leaders will always speak gently. He is surely right to encourage pastors to default to a gentle approach in most pastoral encounters, but he could have said more to clarify the boldness and, at times, sharp rebuke, that is described and expected in Scripture when confronting sin. Clarity about the locus of authority, which is lacking in the book, may help here. If Scripture is clear and forceful, should the leader not be likewise, so long as he or she is clearly resting on the Word and not his or her own will? How can leaders and churches distinguish appropriate rebuke and admonishment from bully tactics amidst a dominant culture in which the greatest ‘sin’ appears to be hurting the feelings of others?

Whether you agree or disagree with my concerns about the term “spiritual abuse”, Bully Pulpit is an immensely helpful book on the subject of abusive leadership in churches. It deserves a place in theological college libraries and on the bookshelves of pastors and is a useful resource for churches seeking to prevent or recover from abusive leadership.


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