Pulpit Bully


bullyThe 26th United States President, Theodore Roosevelt coined the term “bully pulpit.” His observation was that his position of influence as president gave him a unique platform from which to persuade, exhort, instruct and inspire. Roosevelt famously used the word bully as an adjective meaning “great, superb, excellent or wonderful.”

Pastors have been given a similar position of influence from which to speak out, advocate and encourage. Their unique bully pulpit has also given them a platform from which to persuade, exhort, instruct and inspire. Danger is inevitable, however, when those pastoral leaders choose to invert that bully pulpit from a place of influence to a person of control. This transposition from advocacy to autocracy, from adjective to noun degrades the platform of the bully pulpit into a platform for the pulpit bully.

Bullying is no more noble under the guise of pastoral leadership. The pulpit bully often demands authoritarian or controlling influence over staff and teams for the purpose of directing, requiring, regulating, containing, moderating and restraining. This type of bullying holds others in check and always retains the power to make decisions in order to influence end results. In the name of spiritual insight, the pulpit bully acts as a gatekeeper who holds his staff, congregant and even denomination captive to styles, traditionalism, forms and structures.

The pulpit bully believes all problems originate in someone else’s office or organization. He rejects cooperation, compromise and kindness in order to guard territory and filter information. He has outgrown the need to learn anything new. Shared ministry threatens his position since it requires mutual approachability, availability and accountability. Collaboration, therefore, is suspect because different perspectives are viewed as insubordination.

That pulpit bully attitude of entitlement and invulnerability may attain compliance but it will never achieve buy-in. So even those within the so-called inner circle are submitting to the leadership of a pulpit bully out of fear not friendship, out of caution not loyalty, out of acquiescence not conviction. As a result, being a pulpit bully is actually a position of profound loneliness.

Pastor, is being a pulpit bully really what God intended when he called some to be apostles, some to be prophets and some to be evangelists? Don’t you realize what you are missing by disregarding intentional, significant conversations about vision, hopes, dreams and goals? Aren’t you longing for staff, congregational and denominational relationships built on trust, loyalty, respect and friendship? Wouldn’t you love to pray and plan together with others as partners instead of pawns? How fulfilling could it be to minister in a place that constantly conveys an attitude of mutual spiritual development with no ulterior motive?

Being a pulpit bully is really just the fear of losing control of something that was not yours to begin with. It is never too late to realize that the final word doesn’t always have to be yours. When that occurs your ministry relationships will never be the same.


8 Responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Bill Simpson on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    Right on the money once again, David. Thanks for your insights and your willingness to share! Blessings!

  2. Posted by Neil Brown on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    Good stuff!

  3. Posted by Milton Ferguson on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    David, this is a splendid statement. It reflects accurate insight, mature understanding, spiritual depth, objective analysis, and personal warmth and openness.

    Don’t be embarrassed by my sincere praise and appreciation. You have focused on the most crucial relationship in church life and fellowship. Leadership character and style, both pastoral and lay, is a vital avenue for the Holy Spirit’s presence and power.

    Let’s hope we can have more discussion and input at this point, especially from pastors and lay leaders. Thanks for opening the door!

  4. Posted by Dave Williamson on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm


    Bully! (in the Roosevelt sense…)

    The single most hurtful, frustrating, and ultimately destructive experience in my entire 40+ years in ministry happened when, in a stunning left turn, my loved and respected pastor took a sabbatical for health reasons, during which he became convinced that he was an apostle, not a pastor, and came back from the sabbatical seeking to control every aspect of people’s lives. The church, which had grown to an attendance of 1500 in its first three years, quickly dropped to 500, with statements made such as the proverbial “if you don’t like where we’re going, there’s the door” type.

    My wife and I felt we had no choice but to pull the “Potiphar’s wife” retreat, immediate and leaving them holding the bag for a worship leader. The guilt I felt in leaving them like that was balanced by relief that I would not be expected (required) to lead the people under my influence in the new direction, which I could not do, even for a day. Many hundreds of folks in our community have left either the church or the faith, while the man continues to drive his sheep over the cliff like this–“for their own good.” Counseling offices of surrounding churches, where good folks have ultimately landed, have dealt on an ongoing basis with the fallout from this presumption. And 14 years after the fact, the tide still rolls.

    Thanks for writing this. To any who have had the good fortune not to encounter this scenario, keep a sharp eye out, and be willing to call it for what it is–spiritual abuse of the worst kind.

  5. Posted by Patrick Merchant on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    Been there, done that. Never again!
    Thanks for sharing the truth, friend.

  6. Posted by Marty Blume on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    This is one of the most important articles on church leadership. To say more would be redundant. Get this one out there! Everyone needs it!

  7. Posted by Sheila Mills on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    Great article, David! Your observations are very insightful and apply not only to church leadership, but to leadership in ANY area of life, be it church, business or family. Thank you for speaking out!

  8. Posted by Bryan on 15.09.13 at 6:32 pm

    Valid article. Early in my ministry I worked/dealt with the legalist combatants you’re speaking of. Probably why I’ve remained bi-vocational.

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