Author(s)Simon Tomkins
Date 29 July 2021

Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.
Acts 20:28-29

Spiritual abuse is not confined to one particular social or geographical area, and all pastors need to ensure that they are guarding their precious flock as best they can, both now and for the future.

Consider this sobering thought experiment: If your successor was a man like Jonathan Fletcher, what would he be able to get away with in the church culture you have established?

The following questions could usefully be considered in staff teams, PCCs, or in accountability groups. You might think about inviting a focus group from a cross-section of your whole congregation. It is worth doing this carefully, perhaps taking just one area to look at each time, so that it gets due consideration.

1. Can your leadership be questioned?
That is, do people in your church feel that ‘questioning the vicar’ is equivalent to ‘questioning the gospel’? Is there a sense that your status as vicar prevents others (wardens, church members, trainees, other staff) from challenging you? Are you aware of that power differential and what do you do to mitigate its effects? Are you connected with high-profile Christian leaders, and does their endorsement of you intimidate others who might be more able to point out your flaws?

2. Is your leadership accountable?
Can anyone stop you if you really want to get your way? How would they do that? Do you have genuinely plural leadership or is your PCC accustomed to signing off on everything you say? Do you listen to your wardens and let them overrule you sometimes? Is there any external accountability? Who knows what you are doing and can tell you when you’re wrong? Who do you answer to? Who will your successor have to answer to?

3. Do you take safeguarding and HR seriously?
Do you roll your eyes at the need for ongoing DBS checks? Are you reluctantly adding safeguarding training into your diary only because you must? Do your staff have employment handbooks, proper contracts and grievance procedures? Do your volunteers have role descriptions? Do you use safer recruitment procedures when appointing new staff and volunteers? Are you clear about how concerns should be reported and how they will be handled? Do your church know how they would report a safeguarding issue that concerns you?

4. Do you allow a tribal mindset to get in the way of good practice?
What relationship do you have with the diocesan safeguarding team? Do you think of them as ‘not on our side’ if they are not conservative evangelical? Are you reluctant to report safeguarding concerns about someone you agree with theologically? Would you prefer to handle issues “in house” rather than call in the safeguarding team? Do you take advice from the diocese about recruitment procedures, contracts and staff working conditions?

5. Is there a lack of diversity in your church leadership?
That is, does your church leadership reflect the diversity of your church congregation? Or does it skew towards a particular demographic? Consider all aspects of this: gender, class, ethnicity, age. Are there any women in senior roles in your church? Who do you have upfront and who is hidden away? Is there an ‘inner ring’ of leaders, whether or not they are in formal leadership roles? Whose voices are being heard and who is not listened to? What are your blind spots?

6. What guards are there on work with individuals?
What policies and protocols do you have to guard against abuse in working with individual adults and young people? How would an unhealthy relationship be noticed and how would it be dealt with? How easy would it be for one of your church leaders to secretly be grooming or bullying someone in your church? What could you do to ensure that this work is appropriately open and accountable, while respecting the need for confidentiality? How is social media being used well or badly in this area? Is anyone working offline and under the radar?

7. Does your complementarian theology lead to a distorted view of masculinity and leadership?
Does your church leadership reflect a particular sort of masculinity that has more to do with so-called ‘muscular Christianity’ than the servant-leadership of Christ? Are physical strength, sporting prowess, good looks and charm valued highly? Is self-confidence confused with gospel-confidence? Are you prioritizing godliness or talent in identifying future leaders? How easy would it be for an arrogant bully to fit in with the culture in your church? How easy would it be for a godly man from a different social background to fit in with the culture in your church? What sort of women are valued highly in your church culture? Are there any leadership roles for gifted, godly women?

Where is your church most vulnerable to spiritual abuse now or in the future?

What steps can you take to guard your flock from the savage wolves who will come in?