Pastors that Prey | Abuse of Ministerial Power in the Black Church


Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock?  You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock.  You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice.  Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 34, verses 3-4)


The current protests in response to the long history of law enforcement related brutality against Black and Indigenous people of color are fueled by the anger of injustice that occurs when the people empowered to be keep and deliver justice, are incapable of earning the trust of the communities in which they are to serve, due to its pervasive brutality. The anger is not just inflamed by the injustice towards the victim, but the duplicity and hypocrisy of the perpetrators.


This is seen in the Church today as well. The people who are literally “called” to guide, encourage, protect and promote your spiritual well-being, are often the people who are literally perpetuating abuse. Just like with racial injustice, spiritual abuse is often a manifestation of individuals committing abuses against others, within systems that are designed to encourage such behavior. Without understanding the deeper systems, it is nearly impossible to confront and dismantle systems of evil.


As a pastor, physician, parent, and husband, I have seen the systems at work. Not only in churches, health systems, and the neighborhood, but in inter-workings of my own heart and God’s dealings with my soul.   I share this as I write from a place of humility and grace.  I have known many leaders who ministered from what psychologist call our “shadow”.  Our shadow is “the inner urges, compulsions, and dysfunctions of our personality that often go unexamined or remain unknown to us until we experience an emotional explosion, or some other significant problem that causes us to search for a reason why.” (Gary L. Mcintosh And Samuel Rima in Overcoming The Darkside Of Leadership).  We all have a shadow, but it becomes amplified in leadership unless it is identified, confronted, and transformed.


Within the African-American community, the role of the pastor has had a prominent position in leadership, beginning with the forced enslaved communities of African peoples of different tribes and languages.  The pastor or spiritual leader was not only the person who “spoke for God” to the people, but also cared for the souls of most downtrodden, despised, and desperate people and helped them to speak to God. Prior to, but more so after emancipation, pastors were often the spokespeople in civic matters as well and developed a tremendous amount of power, influence, and respect within African-American communities.  While the doors to many careers were bolted shut to most African-Americans until the civil rights movements (for many careers, the door is just barely open even today), the opportunities in the organized church were a primary draw to many who dared to make a difference.


Today, there are thousands of churches in the United States (385,000 in 2012).  About 25% of those churches identify as non-denominational and the rest are affiliated with about 100 different recognized denominations, with the largest being the Roman Catholic Church.  African-Americans participate in most denominations including the traditional African-American denominations AME, AME Zion, CME, COGIC, National Baptist Convention, National Missionary Baptist Convention, Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, and the United Holy Church are among many. Currently, the fastest growing segment of African-Americans in  churches are those that describe themselves as non-denominational.  This has led to an incredible proliferation of pastoral opportunities in the African-American communities.


As a person with over 25 years of experience in ministry, I have seen many pastors and church leaders who have started ministry well, but along the way, have been overcome by their own needs, and as a result, exploited, abused, or denigrated others. The pain caused by this is devastating, often with explosive spiritual, relational, familial, and even financial fallout.


Most pastors are incredible people who sacrificially love and lead communities.  The number of clergy who are abusive is difficult to estimate. Recent reports reveals significant numbers of sexual assault and harassment accusations with in the Roman Catholic Priesthood and Southern Baptist Churches, but no wide spread surveys have been done.  It is important to realize that although those who are inappropriate are few, whoever the damage that is done is substantial.


We were all created to seek significance, security, and acceptance.  Significance means that we have value and worth.  Who we are and what we do has meaning and value. Security means that we are free from threat and can be what God created us to be. Acceptance is to be loved, received, and embraced just as we are. The core of good news of Christianity is based upon the fact that Jesus gave his life for us (demonstrating your value), to help you become whole through love (Security and Acceptance). A preacher of the gospel (literally means good news) promotes and embodies that message. He or she does this by overseeing a community, centered on Jesus, a place where people find significant, security and acceptance.


In the Bible, God has a long standing love/Anger relationship with the people who are to oversee his people.  In the opening scripture, we find that God is chastising his “shepherd” who are exploiting the sheep instead of caring for the sheep.  Eventually, in the cosmic story of God’s shepherds, he sends his own son to shepherd, and future shepherds are only those who are led by God’s Spirit.


So, what happens when a shepherd’s desires become distorted? What happens when the shepherd begins to act like more of a wolf than a shepherd?


In a letter to one of the earliest church, the Apostle John (one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus) warned the church:


Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the father in.  For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. (I John 2:15-16)


The systems of the world offers false significance through what we do, false-security through what we have, and false-acceptance through physical pleasure. Abusive pastors, who seek to exploit others are often shame and fear based people who are struggling with insignificance, insecurity, and rejection. Often, this will have family of origin roots where they experienced shame and fear.


We often feel that Pastors, or any one claiming to have an authentic experience with God, should be automatically healed or immediately transformed through that authentic experience, but within the Christian Scriptures, salvation is the initiation of character development (church folks call this sanctification) and this process, requires not only  the cooperation of the believer with God’s Spirit, but his or her ongoing surrender.


Unhealthy pastors will often reveal that they are ministering from their shadow through the following signs:


• Inappropriate respect of boundaries.

• Using sermons and teaching to personally belittle, humiliate, or tear down someone.

• Refusal to comply with systems and structures of accountability.

• Strong desire to develop secret communications

• A pattern of accusations from multiple sources over time.

• A pervasive “blaming mentality” to defend ones inappropriateness or incompetence.


The presence of one of more of these, should be warning flags of leaders who are “wolves” (Ezekiel 22:27). Boundary transgressions are often the earliest warning sign. A male pastor who comments on a women’s body. A male leader who makes many women uncomfortable through “wandering eyes” or being “touchy-feely.”  I am using those terms not to diminish the offensiveness of the actions, but to illustrate how we often use “cutesy” language to gloss over, and in my opinion, become complicit with the systems of abuse.


One of the ongoing concerns related to the explosion of non-denominational churches, is the development of leadership structures that make the pastor the unaccountable super-hero.  They have no accountability for their actions other than making the organization more money.  The lack of accountability is revealed by pastors who have years and years of inappropriate and abusive relationship, wrecking the lives of generations of people in that particular community that is also well known in that community. Additionally, many churches have narrowly interpreted and manipulated scripture to refuse to allow women in ministry. This fuels the view of women as tools to serve men, but not as reflections of the image of God demanding the dignity, honor, and respect that was intended in creation.


The matter of inappropriate relationships by a pastor is particularly complex. I have found that there are really 4 different classes and that each should be approached differently.


• Pastor demonstrates a pattern of habitual predatory behavior and is calculated in his or her approach and in choosing their victims. (Predator)

• Pastor desires appropriate support for victim, but through his own neediness, the relationship becomes exploitative to meet his own emotional, social, or physical needs. (Vulnerable Pastor)

• Pastor desires appropriate support and ministry for victim, but refuses to put appropriate structures in place and relationship becomes inappropriately intimate over time. (Naive Pastor)

• Pastor desires appropriate support and ministry for victim, but underestimates his neediness and the neediness of the person with whom they are having the inappropriate relationship with. (Tempter/Temptress)


The Predator often goes from church to church and the denomination or churches often have settled with their victims so there is a lack of history. These pastors can be men or women.  Secrecy and blaming are their weapons. These pastors need to be confronted by church leadership in a public manner and terminated, after due process.


The Vulnerable pastor is most common. Being a pastor is difficult and above all, very lonely.  During your pastorate, your marriage, dating relationships, and parenting are all incredibly stressed.  So, when you have been arguing with your spouse for weeks, but you are counseling someone who seems to receive you and your work, there is a temptation to cross boundaries to getting your needs met. These pastors need to be restored through mentoring and counseling.


The Naive pastor simply doesn’t believe that others would desire them for anything other than spiritual counseling and find themselves emotionally intimate because they did not develop professional boundaries. These pastors need to be restored through mentoring and counseling.


The Tempter or Temptress pastor is the pastor who understand that someone in their congregation is attracted to them, and they use ministry to indulge their interest in them. In this situation, it is not uncommon for a member of a congregation who has been inappropriately involved with previous pastors to be drawn to new pastors who understands the danger, but is excited about the possibilities. These pastors need immediate systems of accountability, mentoring and counseling.


Pastors preying on congregations is a sad, tragic phenomena that occurs in churches of all types and all over the country. It’s my prayer that the love of God would lead to repentance (change of mind and action), and restoration where it has occurred. It’s is my prayer that while hurt people, hurt people, that free and whole people liberate and heal others.  It’s my hope that I will spend more time writing about Pastors who pray than pastors who prey.


Michael Traylor is an ordained Elder and Superintendent of the River Conference of the Free Methodist Church. He currently serves as a Pediatrician for the US Army at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, TX.


Michael was born in Massillon, OH, and answered his call to ministry while finding success as a board certified Pediatrician in Cleveland, Ohio. Michael along with his wife Amelia, were the founding Pastors of Christ Community Fellowship, in Twinsburg, Ohio.  Michael has also served as the coordinator of local ministerial groups and has directed numerous community based ministries over the past decade. He has also served in denominational roles as district leader, conference boards and general church delegate. His passions include leadership development, community development, cultural competence and relational wholeness.


Michael has served in multiple pastoral roles in Ohio and western New York. His medical experiences include directorships of health centers, Free Clinics, and child advocacy programs. Additionally, he was involved in short term missions programs in Kenya, Malawi, and Rwanda Africa, where Michael and his wife, Amelia Cleveland-Traylor, MD, rendered patient care, offered consultations, and preached the gospel.  


Michael and Amelia have been married for 32 years and have two children, Matthew (26) and Michaela (23).   He enjoys reading, fitness and is an avid movie-goer.  He and Amelia are huge Cleveland Browns, and Cleveland Cavaliers fans.


Michael’s academic training includes degrees from Oberlin College, University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Northeastern Seminary, and Cleveland State University.  He also completed Physician Executive leadership training at the Weatherhead School of Business in Cleveland, OH and Coach training with Spiritual Leadership Inc., located in Lexington, Ky.  Michael attended Ashland Theological Seminary and is continuing his theological education at Northeastern Seminary where he earned his Masters in Theology and Social Justice.  Michael has developed significant interests in organizational change, culture, and transformational leadership and writes frequently in his blog “Learning, Loving, and Leading”.


“Encouraging wholeness and health through joining the Life-giving, liberating mission of Jesus.”


Michael can be reached by email at:


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