When Ministry Becomes An
Emotionally Abusive Relationship

Keep in mind that an emotionally abusive relationship…like any relationship…can be
  • ...pleasant or unpleasant
  • ...voluntary or involuntary
  • ...intentional or inadvertent

And so it is in ministry.

Though it is odd to think of an abusive relationship…especially an emotionally abusive relationship…as pleasant…such relationships often are…at least for some of the people involved.

And because this is so… considering what acts of kindess actually accomplish is important for the self-supervising minister…practicing due diligence about maintaining proper boundaries for effective ministry.

While some ministers are intentionally predatory…most are not. Yet the non-predatory minister is just as capable of inadvertently wreaking havoc on others as are the predatory ones.

So how does a non-predatory minister inadvertently…with the best intentions to be helpful…create an emotionally abusive relationship? Meet…

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Father Dennis and his new secretary

A parishioner came to see Father Dennis about the difficulties she was having in her marriage. Her husband…a miner…was recently unemployed by a company cutback. As a result…he had become bitter and argumentative and…at times drank and became verbally abusive to his wife and five children…all of whom needed new shoes.

Father Dennis…a pastor known for his cheerful kindness…listened attentively to his parishioner’s distress.

And then he made his first boundary mistake.

He offered to intervene directly into the family and solve one of its problems by paying for new shoes for the children.

The woman reported back to Father Dennis that her husband was angry about the shoes and yelled at them all that they were not “a charity case”.

Father Dennis came up with an apparent solution to which the wife agreed.

He needed a new secretary to answer the phone in the rectory and she agreed to take the position. She would…she said…make it alright with her husband by presenting it as a temporary measure until he could get on his feet again. She was sure he would consent.

She was wrong.

And Father Dennis was wrong to use the woman to meet his own needs for a secretary. Because it is always a serious boundary violation when someone with authority over someone else uses that person to satisfy their own needs (this is most obvious in cases of sexual abuse).

The husband did not like it that his wife was spending so much time at the parish church. The wife often took the two younger children with her. Soon the others wanted to go with their mother to the parish office on a regular basis because…

Father Dennis began to treat the children to movies…ice cream and pizza. And to give them spending money.

When the wife continually praised Father Dennis at home and the husband learned from his children what was going on with treats…he became infuriated and more verbally abusive to his wife and children.

Finally…he went to see Father Dennis and in a rage threatened to take a shotgun to him if Father Dennis did not mind his own business and leave his family alone.

Kindness is not kindness if it inflicts cruelty on others...even unintentionally.

Notice that the emotionally abusive relationship was not with the woman. It was the husband that was emotionally abused.

What Father Dennis did not consider in his kind acts toward the wife and children was…

  • The husband’s injured pride that he could barely support his family…
  • His embarrassment that others knew he could not provide for his children…
  • His children’s affection was alienated because of treats that he could not afford to give them…
  • That his wife was spending significant time with a man she openly admired…

The husband’s values as the one responsible to support his family were offended when he lost his job and the offense was compounded when his wife and Father Dennis colluded…with the best intentions…to make up for what the husband thought were his deficiencies.

The implied or subliminal message to the husband was that he was incompetent …when in reality he was only a victim of circumstance…losing his job through no fault of his own.

Father Dennis’s charity…without any intention to do so…offended the man’s dignity.

There is a difference between doing ministry…which is defined above…and doing (unsolicited) secular social work.

It is not uncommon that unsolicited acts of kindness backfire when you were “only trying to help” and the other person…without an ounce of appreciation for your effort…reacted negatively. Most people would not have any trouble coming up with an example or two in their own lives.

An emotionally abusive relationship can be obvious to any observer…or it can be completely unobvious…and even seem like kindness…to the perpetrator.

Ministers who want to be kind and helpful have to think carefully about values and boundaries before they make such interventions.

From emotionally abusive relationship you can go to relationship boundaries.

Or you can…

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