Conflicts within Church Leadership - Trust, Manipulation, Depression, Suicide


(Yudai Chiba) #1

Hi. I’m in need of some feedback with regard to biblical love and the life of the church. I’m a deacon at a small church in Tokyo, Japan. A couple of months ago, our pastor was upset by something done by church members, and hasn’t come to our church (or any church for that matter) since. Though the church members did it meaning well, our pastor took it as a personal affront. Many agonizing conversations later, the leadership tried to create a roadmap for his return. In the end, however, he declared himself unable to continue, went to a mental clinic (which he referred to as “seeing a counselor”), claimed that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in that first visit, and claims to have suicidal thoughts because of some harsh words that the leadership had for him.

I was very close to this pastor, and I would confidently say that I was his protege. However, problems had abounded between him and the leadership board. He had begun a side business in which he was seeing a degree of success, while many in the leadership believed his responsibilities to the church were taking a back seat. He was often seen as dodging responsibility and unapologetic about broken promises or obvious mistakes (like arriving late to service repeatedly). Even when confronted by older members of the church about these same issues, he shrugged them off and simply deflected the fire. Since November, I have witnessed the leadership imploring him to move towards reconciliation, mustering up the courage to speak to him about their hurts while risking being hurt even more by his words, and going out of their way to create a smooth return for him even though their consciences told them that certain injustices were going unaddressed.

My question is this. What does it mean to show love to a brother like this? What does that look like? Though I don’t doubt the pain he is going through, my sense of justice cries out when he is able to appeal to mental illness blame others for his hurt - especially after he DEMANDED to be restored to the church as pastor (after clearly declaring himself that he had quit) and CRITICIZED the leadership for moving too slowly. I don’t mean to be insensitive to those who have loved ones who do suffer from mental illness, or have taken their own life - but those in our church who have experience with depression and bipolar disorder have told us that any mental clinic in its right mind would not immediately diagnose a first-time patient with bipolar disorder. This pastor was my mentor and my friend; I know of RZIM because of him. But I have also seen his dishonesty, his hardness of heart, his inability to admit wrongdoing, his lack of interest in the real struggle of others, and his willingness to bend the truth for the sake of his own narrative. We are all sinners, I realize that. But to be perfectly honest, I have grown tired of taking this person seriously. What would be a biblical response to this situation? I realize that all the details and the context of this situation are not given here; however, any thoughts on this would be appreciated. Thank you.

(SeanO) #2

@yc.greenbird That is a difficult situation; especially since this individual has been a mentor to you. If I am correct, it sounds like leaders in your Church have already approached him individually and as a group, as Jesus told us to do. Since the Pastor still refuses to change his behavior, I think that you have to set healthy boundaries as a Church for the sake of God’s sheep - it sounds like it is time for Church discipline. In some Churches that is the elders’ job and in others you ask the denomination to get involved.

If it were me, I would say:

  1. The Pastor should immediately step down from his position and the elder’s or another pastor should take his place for the time being
  2. Appropriate action should be taken to protect the Church members from any form of emotional abuse or retaliation on the part of the Pastor
  3. The elders / denomination should work with the Pastor to get him the help that he needs at this trying time in his life

I recognize there may be unique cultural or context specific considerations in what would be the best way to love the Pastor and shepherd God’s people. Do you need to help him save face somehow? How can the elders go about removing him in a way that is healthiest within your cultural context? What resources are available locally to help him with his mental struggles and who would be the point of contact?

Will be praying for wisdom. May Jesus bring healing to this Pastor as well as the Church where you attend and grant those in leadership wisdom to navigate this process.

(Matt Western) #3

I’m sorry to hear of this situation. I will write from a very general perspective - but please know that I do have some experience in this area.

It may be helpful to understand, if you haven’t already, the basics of what bipolar disorder is. If it has been diagnosed correctly, then it is a quite a serious illness, and would need managing for the remainder of your Pastor’s life. Bipolar Disorder is not purely depression, but involves both high and low mood swings.

If you are interested there is a book written by a Christian Pastor, in Australia, who’s wife has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder back in 1993. They have visited churches in Australia sharing about their journey together. There are not many books written from a Christian perspective and I found this one helpful to understanding more. It is a personal testimony book, not a medical book, as the author states at the start. It’s very balanced and shows both professional medical care, and spiritual guidance is needed. (also available on Kindle ebook)

My only general advice is, start to focus on Jesus, the author and finisher of your faith. Even in normal ministry, where there is no mental illness involved, it’s natural to look up to those older than us in the faith, and we are severely disappointed when those in leadership fail and fall short of the expectations we have of them. Eventually all people grow old, weak and will pass away. We need to focus on Jesus. Hebrews 12:2

A couple of thoughts below…

As a deacon, you should silently reject and completely ignore any statements that you and the church leadership are the cause for any mental illness, including suicidal thoughts. Presumably you are not trained to deal with this as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, and this would need to be handled by a professional.

In the manic phase of bipolar disorder, a person believes that they can do much more that they actually are able to sustain. They have too many ideas, and start too many new projects and neglect their primary duties they have committed to. Then in the depressive phase it all starts to unravel as this pace can’t be maintained. Starting a new side business, and then neglecting a primary responsibility of a Pastor may be this.

This is probably one of the hardest questions there is: How to show Christ’s love to a person with mental illness. God’s love for us through Christ is unconditional. But us showing of Christ’s love is only a reflection of His love and we need to be aware of our own limitations.

a general note of caution: You are responsible for your own health, before you are responsible for helping your Pastor. If you are not healthy (physically and mentally) then you are unable to help others. Only God can help and heal your Pastor and it may be a long journey for him if the diagnosis is correct.

And as the guidelines of this forum state, it is not a replacement for any care such as Christian counsellors, clinical psychologists etc.

Another book, on a Christian councillor perspective, which has helped me personally is John Macaurthur: Anxious for Nothing, and is based in Scripture.

I feel for you in this situation - and @SeanO’s advice above is excellent.

(Micah Bush) #4

Yudai, judging by what you’ve described here, it sounds like you have a very dysfunctional situation on your hands. I get the impression that you, along with the rest of the church leadership, have doubts about the veracity of your pastor’s claim to have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Frankly, I don’t blame you. Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition, so it seems unlikely that it would be diagnosed in a single visit, and one would expect to observe repeated fluctuations between mania and depression over time. What you’ve described, though, sounds more like an over-inflated ego seeking to justify itself and emotionally blackmail others in order to get its way. Either way, a person in this state of mind is in no shape to guide the spiritual development of a congregation. For both his good and the good of the congregation, your pastor ought to either step down or, if he refuses to do so, be removed. Again, though, it must be done in the interest of the well-being of everyone involved.

I am curious as to your pastor’s history at this church. Did he start the church, or did he step into an existing congregation? Has he been the pastor for some time, or is he relatively new? Also, how involved have you been in this whole affair? Your own personal role in correcting/reconciling to this pastor will likely depend on whether he still views you as a friend or has come to see you as an enemy.

(Andrea L) #5

@yc.greenbird, I might be wrong, what I feel as a real question here is whether it is ok to leave your mentor (and take side with the elders). I’d like to share two of my experiences I had with my mentors over the years, hoping it might help you to see your situation from one step back or from a different perspective, and get a clearer picture.

God, in order to bring us closer to Him, moved us literally accross the Earth. So here I was, no friends, foreign country, language, and culture. When I realized I have no one but God to run to, He sent someone to me who literally put me back on track back to Him. I trusted the person, I looked up to them, I even called them my spiritual parent. Never considered them being in any way harmful to me, but I must admint we barely met. Then things started to change. Somehow I started to feel like it’s better not to share my problems with them, rather just let them to talk. I started to feel unsafe to talk about myself. My discernment started to kick in. And slowly I started to recognize something strangely familiar - sometimes it sounded like my own mother talking to me when she used to emotionally manipulate me. And suddenly it all clicked, why it felt unsafe to share lately, why I kept more and more distance, why we did not meet often. God was pulling me away, preparing me for the split up. I cannot say it wasn’t challenging, and I sought advice whether my discernment was right. Even though I got confirmations, still wasn’t easy to swallow. I needed to leave it with God. I forgave, got prayed for and that’s all I could do beside praying for them. I am still thankful for them for sorting me out at the beginning, but now my journey towards Jesus goes on without them.
Another interesting experience happened with an old acquaintance of mine, who became my hand-on mentor, we kept contact through internet. We became quite close friends, it was safe to share my problems with her - she helped me through the babysteps (after being put back on track by the other one) and further on, until circumstances changed and she no longer was able to give me regular support. Still talk though. When it was about leaving my then church one of the confirmations that it was really God’s will came through her. Still, there was one particular issue I asked her about and she was on a totally opposite platform. I tried but I couldn’t find peace with that side so with all respect to her as my mentor, I chose what I believe the Holy Spirit said to choose, not what she suggested. What I learnt from this, that mentors are still humans, can be wrong. So I need to discern what they say, just as we need to discern all things. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

Beside the above stories, I’d like to share what God taught me a few years ago, it was a heavy one. I listened to a preaching, as I remember it was based on the book of Esther. In a nutshell it said: “If I feel offended then the problem is with me.” It took me months to push it through myself, to accept it and act accordingly, felt like every cell in my body was protesting against it. It was absolutely worth it though, it made my life much more easier through leading me to more freedom in Christ.

What I learnt from that and how I try to apply is like this. Let’s assume someone said some harsh words to me.
Option 1: I shake it off. Most of the times when people erupt like a volcano I think they do it because of their own frustration. I used to do the same. Very often and for a very long time. It was never about the other person around me, it was about me. And this was the most difficult part in accepting this concept. So if it’s about them, why should I take it on?
Option 2: they are right. Ouch, that hurts. God uses them as sandpapers to show me where I need some work to be done. I forgive (it’s about the message, not the messenger), then ask God to help me to deal with the issue it revealed, and work on that. At the end, I am thankful for them as they helped me.
Option 3: I took offence when I shouldn’t have. Ooops, I’ve got work to do. I shouldn’t have taken on but still did. Let’s ask God why and work on it.
I hope this story also helps you by showing another possible aspect of things happening around you.

I think God is the one who has the ultimate answers to you, keep seeking Him, His will, and keep on walking with Jesus on the narrow road.

(Yudai Chiba) #6

@SeanO, thank you for your response. I personally agree wholeheartedly with the advice you offer. I think the main difficulty lies in how deeply our church is connected to the pastor’s family - he is the 3rd generation in a line of pastors from the founding pastor. There is significant inertia to remove him, and the reality is the none of us know where to even begin getting him help. Thank you for your prayers, and I hope that the Lord will humble me in the process of navigating this messy state.

(Yudai Chiba) #7

@matthew.western, thank you for your advice. Yes, it has been a genuine struggle to keep the focus on Jesus through all this. My faith is really being challenged, and I appreciate your words of caution to be aware of my own health first and foremost. I no longer contact my pastor, as none of us can really even get through to him. I realize that, at least in his mind, I’m one of the “factors” contributing to his mental state, so I have kept my distance from him for these past couple of months.

I’ll look into the books you suggested. Thanks again.

(Yudai Chiba) #8

@MicahB, that’s exactly how I felt when all of this began. I can’t help thinking most of this is the product of an over-inflated ego. I believe he needs to be formally removed from his position; he hasn’t been in church for over 2 months now, and there is no sign of his desire to return to reconcile.

Our pastor is the 3rd generation of a line of pastors from the church’s founding pastor. Our church is, technically, his “home,” in that it is his father’s house, and was his grandfather’s before. He has been at the church for close to a decade. His first year was marked by turmoil, as he disbanded the entire leadership board and threw out most of the rules and roles in our church until that point. I arrived after all of this had gone down; many people had left because of this row in the beginning. In some sense, he “restarted” this church.

I have been in the deep as far as this issue goes. I was actively in the midst of talks as we tried to figure out what was going on when he first declared he would be quitting. The leadership spoke with him several times with an intermediary present, and I was present at most of those talks as well. In one of those talks, I personally questioned the wisdom of some of the things he said and did, and told him very clearly that though I desired his return to the church, I did not desire him in his current state to return as pastor. He apparently construed this (whether deliberately or not) to mean that I told him to never come back, and because of this, he seems to view me as an enemy and a cause of his “suicidal thoughts.”

The situation is dysfunctional indeed. It is made more complex because of how deeply our church is tied to the pastor’s family. Even though his family members were the first to call him out on his actions, they are also the most hesitant when it comes to deciding on discipline and consequences. Our leadership does not have formal rules for decision-making, and a single voice of dissent can shelve pressing issues for years. I am struggling to forgive the pastor myself, and I wonder if my current views and sentiments have more to do with vengeance than with Christ.

(Yudai Chiba) #9

@andrea.l, thank you for sharing your experiences.

This sounds very familiar. My experience with our pastor was similar. He put me back on track; he taught me the value of the church, about hospitality, about the trustworthiness of the bible - a lot of things that that have made me who I am today. I will mention that few - if any - people in the church have felt good, if not quite unsafe, talking about their most important issues with him. He had a tendency to categorically deny some of the things that were most important to a person’s heart - a decision to change jobs, an interest in pursuing the ministry, a potential marriage partner - even though I believe he did this unintentionally. He ultimately complained that nobody sought his counseling prior to engagement, though he had stated many times that he believed marriage counseling needed to be done prior to engagement. Even though he may be correct in principle, I don’t blame anybody for not seeking his counseling (esp. for mid - long - term issues). A couple of years ago, I tried to point out to him that our leadership never seemed to come up with good ideas, systematically avoided responsibility, and was becoming a source of frustration for him because, at least in part, he was setting the example, assuming that people other than him had to take exclusive responsibility for picking up his ideas (often hastily proposed) and working them out. This conversation didn’t go well, and it put a rift into our relationship. I distanced myself from him, and took time off the leadership. Though I returned after about half a year, things were never really the same.

But the lesson about taking offense is a difficult one, and one that I have to admit I still struggle with. By God’s grace, I’ve gotten a little better at taking Options 1 and 2. Our pastor noticeably clings to Option 1 - his constant assumption was that if people had harsh things to say, or were angry, it was because they were tired. I’m sure he hit his limit when this current issue came up.

Thank you again for the advice, and I hope the Lord would continue to have mercy on a sinner like me.

(SeanO) #10

@yc.greenbird You have shared why the Church is so closely tied to the Pastor, but I am curious why you are so closely tied to the Church? Have you considered leaving?

I ask because it seems that this Church is more of a family business type ordeal than an actual functioning Church. And it could be healthier for you and your family to find a Church that is healthy and has processes for dealing with these types of issues when they arise.

Blessings in Christ.