There is almost nothing more painful for church people than being let down by their leaders. And yet, it seems we constantly hear reports of significant leadership failures. Most revolve around three big issues: the abuse of money, sex and power.

Recent high profile examples of alleged safeguarding issues are but the visible tip of deeper problems in many Christian communities. It’s an iceberg capable of sinking vessels of Titanic proportions.

Rather than merely ranting over tragic cases or, worse still, attempting to exculpate those involved, we must take a long, deep breath and reflect. What is actually going on? What does the prevalence and ever-increasing incidence of leadership let-down tell us about selection and training, supervision and, above all, the actions needed to provide the best chance of preventing them in the first place?

Selection and Training
Having been involved in leadership training for almost 4 decades I am in a position to reflect on many of the processes currently being followed. Every church denomination has its own methods. These usually include ensuring denominational knowledge and loyalty, theological and practical competence, and emotional health and sound character.

In ministerial preparation, character can be treated as a truism reinforced by loud, platitudinal exhortations.

In my experience, denominational loyalty is uppermost in ministerial selection and training while the development of character is given less attention. This is not because the importance of good character is underestimated. Care and attention is usually given to ensure that the candidate is a person of good report. But sometimes, this is influenced by who you know in the upper echelons of an organisation, rather than who you actually are in the depths of your being.

In ministerial preparation, character can be treated as a truism reinforced by loud, platitudinal exhortations. For example, ”It’s character, not charisma that counts!” Or warnings and threats, such as, “This is what happens to bad leaders in our organisation!” This externalised approach is breathtakingly superficial and woefully inadequate. Where is the in-depth understanding of the human personality and those beneath-the-surface issues which seem only to be exposed when it’s too late? Fundamental weaknesses left unattended, later erupt in public scandals long after the leader is well-established and in a position of power and influence.

Most leadership structures include accountability and disciplinary procedures. When applied well, these can prevent disasters from happening and deal with them when they do. But this presupposes a courageous intentionality on the part of those who supervise this process and a willingness on the part of leaders to be open and transparent. I’ve seen failures of both.

Fear of negative press, and the desire to avoid reputational damage on the part of organisational supervisors, is a particular problem when the denomination itself counts more than Christian principles.

When a situation becomes public, inaction is no longer an option. At this point, the organisational leaders tend to disassociate themselves from the alleged offender. Sometimes this is more about limiting reputational damage than genuine care for the leader or those who have been hurt.

Real empathic engagement is almost impossible between authority figures and their subordinates.

People who are struggling need fellow soldiers alongside them in the trenches to help fight their battles. Authority and accountability structures are necessary, but they mean absolutely nothing without the effective soldiering of the ‘band of brothers’ on the ground.

For this reason top-down supervision is not enough. Real empathic engagement is almost impossible between authority figures and their subordinates. What is needed is confidential and skilful supervision coming from outside the authority structure. Such supervision exists for the mental, emotional and spiritual well-being of the ministers themselves and not for the purpose of issuing reports to their superiors. Openness and transparency within the safety of this relational space means that sensitive issues can be aired confidentially and dealt with sensitively before they get out of control. Encouraging such relationships ought to be part of the duty of care in any church organisation.

Many leadership failures we are currently witnessing could have been prevented. Hopefully, some are in the process of being prevented from happening in the future.

But what does prevention actually look like? There are no simple answers. Ultimately, the issue is about the quality of Christian community. Where the corporate culture of a church body is open and forgiving rather than secretive and critical, healthy spiritual relationships can develop. But where ego and intrigue are allowed to grow unabated, the deep issues of human motivation are never explored. Hierarchy trumps mutuality and broken personalities are never restored. The so-called gifted rise to positions of power. Dominant personalities begin to suppress rather than face criticism. Abuse is never far away.

A leader who is capable and who also possesses narcissistic traits, may be on a fast-track to success as long as he or she scores high on the performance metrics of attendance and income. Narcissism is about self-interest, self-promotion and non-empathic domination of others. When Narcissistic tendencies are identified, immediate supervisory action must be taken before catastrophe hits.

Where ego and intrigue are allowed to grow unabated, the deep issues of human motivation are never explored.

It would be far better to discover these personality traits early on, preferably during initial leadership training. As far as I know, very little preparation for ministerial leadership involves delving into weaknesses in the candidate’s personality. Psychometric tests are increasingly being used, but these must be followed up by giving the help needed to address potential personality issues. There is always hope for those suffering from personality problems, especially for those whose personality traits indicate a problem but are dealt with before they get out of hand.

Church Matters Series


What if I told you that narcissistic behaviour and exaggerated empathy are merely different forms of the same root problem?


Empathy is a good thing – the capacity to see and understand the perspective of another person. That is something I, for one, would like to see in a Christian leader.


Thirtyone:eight is a leading safeguarding organization which takes its name from this verse in the Book of Proverbs.

Narcissism and Leadership Abuse

Narcissistic spiritual leaders hold their followers captive. Masking their own inner fears, they are powered by overblown egos and become tyrants of domination and control.


All confusion and division in church life is almost certainly the result of false and demonically-motived wisdom.

Church is people

Today, society is being divided into ever-increasing numbers of identity groups. This is part of a greater political agenda to sow seeds of discord and discontent in order to impose politically-correct agendas on us all.


God pours his abundant blessing upon his children even beyond their capacity to receive. For me, this is a reminder that I should do everything I can to enlarge my personal capacity and be trusted by God for what I do receive.


Colin is always on the move, so keep up to date, interact with him and pray for him.