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Coping With an Abusive Leader

We’d like to think that abusive leaders are strictly a secular problem, but the reality is personalities and high-level leadership styles can be imperfect in any setting. Recent research shows that abusive leaders (those who belittle, threaten, yell at, intimidate, or otherwise degrade staff) are a significant source of stress. If you have an abusive leader, you may experience a low level of job satisfaction and commitment, intensified work/family conflict, and psychological distress. Here are tips to counteract the effects of an abusive leader.


Find a nonchurch-related outlet. You need social support if you’re in this situation. Consider your network of friends and acquaintances who aren’t connected to your church. Determine who might have good advice or offer a listening ear, then ask them if they’re willing to talk you through the situation. Once probably won’t be enough—you’ll need ongoing support as long as the situation continues.

Institute predictability. A key characteristic of a truly abusive leader is that he or she is unpredictable. As much as you can control your work environment, create organization and predictability—even if it’s as simple as on which day you water office plants—to help keep sanity in an unpredictable environment.

Check your team. Without speaking ill of your leader, conduct frequent touch-base meetings with your team members to ensure open communication. If you’re feeling squeezed by your leader, not only will your team sense it, but they may also be experiencing similar frustrations. Don’t allow these meetings to become complaint sessions; steer the conversation toward progress and your shared goals for the ministry.

Rest. A high-maintenance or abusive leader drains productivity, creativity, and effectiveness. One of the most effective ways to counteract this constant drain is to rest. Take actual breaks during the day where you don’t think about work. Go to bed 30 minutes earlier. Set aside a time for rest on your days off. The more rested you are, the more emotionally equipped you’ll be to handle an abusive leader.

Recognize a no-win situation. If your situation is intolerable and there’s no chance it’ll change or you’ll be able to stick it out, start your job search.

Adapted in part from Sources of Work Stress by E. Kevin Kelloway, et al. (now out of print)


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Coping With an Abusive Leader

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