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Leadership: Malpractice and Abuse

Now what?  If I go back to the “victim” and tell her about the response of the leader, it will probably make things worse.  Shall I just decide which of them is likely to have the most truth in their story?  Then what?

Not long after Marti and I were married, and when we were in the first couple of years gaining some experience in leadership, we attended a seminar on issues that face youth.  It was a four-day event, and the speaker was outstanding.  He had attracted over 20,000 people to an arena and held their attention hour after hour.


One of his subjects was submission to authority.  He had an amazing story of his struggles to submit to the leadership of a young man who was clearly arrogant and incompetent.  But when he did get his attitude right and trusted God for the humility to treat his “leader” with respect, it seemed the Holy Spirit entered into his difficulties and within a few weeks everything changed.  The young man was removed and the man who was presenting the seminar was promoted to leadership.

He went on to teach about David’s attitude to Saul over the years when Saul was pursuing David to kill him.  The message was clear: always obey your leader!  If you do, God will make a way for justice to prevail.


I was inspired and began to study the subject of leadership and submission in the scriptures.  It wasn’t long before I began to see exceptions to that rule.  One example was when, in Acts 4, the apostles were called before the religious leaders in Jerusalem and commanded to stop talking about Jesus.  The apostles, who faced the possibility of execution said, “You be the judge, shall we obey God or man?”

I began to teach on submission and one session included how you or I could disobey our leader, but with a submissive heart.  I have recently reviewed that teaching and there is a video on the subject on my website.  Having said that, I would not want to teach that subject the way I did all those decades ago.


So much has changed!  Now it is more difficult than ever to navigate the terrain that arises when charges of abuse of authority have been made.  That word, “ABUSE” is a description that can be used to describe cult-like psychological manipulation and domination, but is also used as a charge against someone who just crosses our selfish interests in a manner that we don’t like.  I prefer to avoid the term, but I recognise that leadership malpractice is widespread and always has been.


I think the biggest challenges related to this subject are due to the rise of social media.  We all know it is now possible for someone to charge another person with an offence and to do it so that the charge gains support from many people.  Then the online mob becomes a digital lynch mob.  Once that has been done, it is impossible to undo it and that information, or misinformation, is very hard to erase, even if the charge is shown to be false or exaggerated.

Another one of the changes is more subtle and makes truth harder to be sure about.  Over a period of several years, beginning in the late years of last century, a new rule was created:  You should always believe the victim.  Or, more accurately, you should always believe and support the person who claims to be a victim.  That maxim was a direct attack on centuries of highly developed and principled processes that were designed to protect both parties in a conflict.  The Marxist view that social life is primarily a struggle for power and that the power of “the mob” should support the weaker person in the conflict, has come to dominate popular thinking and social media forums.  Therefore, “the mob” will almost always decide that authority figures, or the wealthy people are guilty.


Justice has for centuries been represented by a female figure wearing a blindfold and holding balance scales in her hand.  It demonstrated that justice must be administered by weighing the facts, not by the appearance of the conflicted parties.  Now it might be more accurate to show her with the blindfold off and with a thumb on the side of the scale where the apparently weaker party stands.


Some counselling guidelines can also hinder the process of discovering the truth.  It is widely understood that victims of abuse are usually traumatised and that any effort to have them face the abuser can be an occasion of further abuse.  I get that.  But it makes it almost impossible to find out what actually happened.  I will explain with an example.

Let’s say I have been informed that a leader has been guilty of abusive behaviour and that a couple of the people on the receiving end of abusive leadership have come forward with charges of leadership malpractice.  Let’s also say that they perceive me to be in a position where I might be able to bring about justice.  They have been in counselling and are working through their trauma and they feel that the abuse must stop and I am responsible for making that happen.

My first step is to say, “If I make a safe environment for you, will you sit in the same room and say to that leader what you have said to me and your counsellor?”  The answer is “no, I’m too afraid”.  So I check with the counsellor who confirms that they should not be asked to do that because it is likely to cause more trauma.

So, I usually take another person or two with me and I go to the leader and explain the charges against her/him.  But he or she has very convincing explanations that demonstrate that the “victim” has a history of problems with leaders, and this is just another manifestation of those problems.

Now what?  If I go back to the “victim” and tell her about the response of the leader, it will probably make things worse.  Shall I just decide which of them is likely to have the most truth in their story?  Then what?


It is not difficult to see why the law requires an accuser to face the accused.  It is also Biblical.  Matthew 18 and other passages say you must go to the person who has offended you.  I understand that can seem impossibly difficult, but there is little chance of discovering the truth of what has gone wrong without being in the same room together.  I, as the person trying to help, have to thoughtfully and sensitively create an environment where the aggrieved person knows they will be protected from further harm.  (It is worth thinking about how courts of law do that.)


Spiritual abuse and general abuse of authority happens a lot!  It is often men in a position of power, who use that power to dominate others, or to manipulate people to obey them by using guilt or threats or enticements.   But female leaders can also be guilty of the same offences.  If we regularly read the news, we will see countless examples of government leaders bullying their staff, teachers assaulting or seducing students, bosses exploiting employees, using sexual favours to blackmail—it’s a very long list of abuse of power/authority.  When spiritual leaders become abusive it can be particularly damaging, so we must be alert and responsive guard against it.


What can be done to protect against abuse?  The first guard is to avoid the development of leadership hierarchies that place one person at the top.  The healthiest leadership is team leadership.  And that does not mean one strong leader with a number of people working with/for him or her.  We should always work towards genuine plural leadership.

Every person in leadership must concentrate on growing in humility.  I know I have sometimes become defensive when challenged, so I feel challenged and a bit self-conscious just writing the previous sentence.  But I can say I am still working on it.  In a recent conversation, a friend told me how incensed he was at the disrespect shown to me in an earlier meeting.  You may be surprised to know that that conversation made me feel pleased—because I had not been offended by the insults in the earlier meeting.  A small victory!


A wise leader or leadership team will invite a trusted person or team with wisdom to evaluate their leadership from time to time.  In the early years of the work of YWAM growing in England, my co-leader and I felt that things were going very well and, frankly, I was proud of all that seemed to be flourishing under our leadership.  From that position of apparent strength, we thought it would be a great idea to have a review of our leadership.  We invited an older, wiser leader to come, interview our staff and then give us feedback.

At the end of three or four days of consultation with us, and those working with us, we sat down to hear the results.  He brought us down to earth with a thud!  We found that our co-workers were willing to tell the consultant things that they were reticent to tell us.  There was a long list of ways we could improve our leadership practices.  What a great assist to our efforts to develop humility!


Leadership malpractice is widespread in all sectors of human society.  But that should never mean that we take it for granted and do nothing about it.  Leaders in mission movements and organisations, churches, religious charities etc.  Must take every report seriously and do their best to follow up with an inquiry into what is going on.  Over the years, especially in the early decades of the growth of the Jesus revolution and all the movements and organisations that arose from it, leadership malpractice was rife.  It was mostly out of ignorance and there was usually a lot of grace extended to inexperienced leadership.  Nevertheless great psychological and spiritual damage was done to some.

So, we pray, we teach, we exhort, we support, we encourage, and where necessary we discipline.  We will never completely eradicate mistakes by people in authority, but that can still be our aim.

Lynn Green and his wife Marti first came to England and began the work of Youth With A Mission here in 1971. From 2004-2011 Lynn was YWAM’s International Chairman. He continues to convene YWAM’s global leadership meetings, and focuses much of his energy on international leadership development.

3 comments on “Leadership: Malpractice and Abuse

  1. Jonathan Gindau Maigari

    For the growth of the work of YWAM,truily context has being allowed to deter growth and multiplication thus bringing elders or an elder from another context is very important and constant as many are dying in silence when subjected by elders in crime from same context that don’t ever talk bad of your leader. While what they say is bad is their style of leadership by context. God help YWAM!

  2. Thanks for this balanced post. You probably know of book – The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen (Bethany House pub.) Have a good day.

  3. Jonathan Gindau Maigari

    Sir! I long coveted an external elder to come into Nigerian YWAM leadership not birds of the same feather to compound Africa or Nigerians kind of leadership full compromise and the politics of divide and rule or pull down syndromes. Everybody knows what we are suffering and still suffering under the guise that it is Nigerian kind of leadership not knowing that it is the power of the Burkina Faso smart man using the weaknesses of Nigerians challenges to compound his weaknesses of manipulation and control through the game of divide and rule just to build his empire of projects and power gained. Please salvage the state of YWAM Nigeria

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