By the Rev. Dr. Lakeya Stewart
Pastors are men and women of God who are called to spiritually care for and lead God’s people. The position of pastor is esteemed highly in the African American community. This is even more so true for the African American church. It must be noted that this is the case for other communities and cultures as well. I speak from my African American frame of reference and experience.
Historically in the African American Community, the pastor is given unquestionable respect and authority. This is why the words of F. Flake, E. Flake and E. Reed are important when they say, “The pastor must live and minister with integrity amid all of the pressures of society (African American Church Management Handbook, page 33).” Unfortunately, the statistics of fatherless children are high amongst African Americans. Because of this statistic, mothers often seek male pastors as mentors and father-figures for their children. Other times, parents seek older women, who happen to be pastors, to serve as mentors as role models for their children. Because of the sometimes blurred roles, also known as role strain by sociologists, it can be difficult for people to leave a church even when they know or believe God desires a change from them.
In our society, the word “family” has come to mean more than just biological members, church friends, close friends, adopted siblings and “play cousins”. That word “family” gets tossed around and is even seen in scripture. In scripture; however, the word “family” is most oft used metaphorically to represent the relationship the body of Christ should have. There are examples of the responsibilities of husbands as the head of the household and things of that sort, but in many cases, the term “family” when it speaks of the body of Christ is not intended to imply a sole reliance on the church and a rejection of one’s biological family.
I have seen this with my own eyes… Leaders in some denominations require members to forsake their loved ones for the cause of Christ. Scriptures like Matthew 12:46-50 are oft times used to justify physically separating oneself from their family. Leaders have been recorded telling members that the church is now their new family. Something happens psychologically when one associates their church family as their sole familial support system. The lines of allegiance begin to blur and exiting a church can be very difficult for this reason. What often results when a member begins to feel “trapped” in a church is spiritual abuse. What happens when a member of a church whose “father” is Pastor feels that God is calling them to another ministry? Is the allegiance of the member to God or to the leader?
Many people call leaders in the church their “spiritual father” or “spiritual mother” but what about leaders being called “Big Pa” or “Big Ma”? Words have power and something intrinsic happens when a member refers to a leader as a biological family member when they are not. This is not bad in all cases, but when this phenomenon happens and a leader also struggles with issues of misuse of authority, something spiritually abusive is bound to happen. Sadly, teenagers, young adults, college students, those alone, and those vulnerable often fall prey to this.
The role of pastor for some goes beyond spiritual leadership. Some Pastors have extended themselves to also act as surrogate parents to members of the church. This is not always a bad thing. The relationship becomes toxic and spiritually abusive when expectations of church members are not the same for that of the surrogate child. That is to say, any member of a church should feel comfortable “following the Spirit” even if the Spirit leads them away from the church their surrogate parent pastors.
Pastors have a lot of responsibility. They are often times held to higher standards than the average church goer. The nature of the position tends to carry influence and social status. As leaders and Pastors, we must ensure that we continually “Walk in the Spirit” so that we do not hinder the spiritual and natural growth of those in our sphere of influence. On this week, I challenge you to examine the relationship that you have with your leader or pastor. Are they your pastor or your parent?
For questions or further correspondence concerning future topics or speaking engagements, please email at RevStewartSpeaks@outlook.com.
The Rev. Dr. Lakeya Stewart, M.Div., D.Min., ABD attended Berea College and the Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky and earned a double major B.A. degree in Sociology and in African & African American Studies as well as the Master of Divinity Degree. Rev. Stewart is currently writing a dissertation on Toxic Leadership and Spiritual Abuse through Regent University.