Thoughts on Lloyd Rediger’s Clergy Killers
Speed B. Leas 

Like Lloyd Rediger, I have devoted a good deal of my life to wondering how to respond to difficult, ornery, hostile, or mean-spirited people in congregations. Rediger’s book Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack is a serious attempt to figure out what to do with people who make life hell for others.

I admire his attempt. He has given his subject much thought. I imagine he has had his own encounters with people who make others miserable. However, in this book he approaches his subject as one who has heard from many, many clergy about the impact of spiteful and malevolent congregation members, and he sides with these clergy. Without giving similar attention to what others (laity, consultants, or denominational officials) have to say about the matter, he has decided that the clergy’s perspective is adequate to sum up the situation in congregations that have what he calls “clergy killers.”

Rediger is a strong advocate and defender of those he perceives to be unfairly and inappropriately challenged by people so out of control they become vindictive and unwilling to negotiate disagreements and problems.1 Extraordinary measures are required to deal with such people, who are truly problematic. They exist. Not to acknowledge that fact may mean more people are hurt than necessary, the congregation is distracted from its mission, and clergy become sour and hopeless.

I have written on Rediger’s book elsewhere (a review in the Christian Century),2 and the editor of CONGREGATIONS proposed a dialogue between Rediger and me in these pages. After noting some of what I think is helpful in the book, I am going to raise a series of questions to Rediger.

What I Liked about the Book 

  • Rediger has named a problem congregations and clergy need to face. He has helped us all by stating unequivocally that there are difficult people out there. Out of these issues he and I both see in congregational life is the reticence of many (most? all?) to confront unpleasantness—no I should say malevolence. There are indeed difficult people, and congregations and pastors don’t know what to do with them. I do not believe Rediger has demonstrated what to do with them either, but he named the beast.
  • Congregations as well as clergy need to be responsible. Rediger touched on this theme only in a cursory manner in his book, but I noticed that he began to address it more directly in an article he wrote for the Clergy Journal in July 1998.3 In that article he says that clergy are not the only resource a congregation has for dealing with difficulty. The other members of the congregation can help with conflict management. Putting clergy on the spot by making them the sole conflict managers makes them vulnerable—not just to the antagonist but also to a congregation who will become dissatisfied if the pastor is unable to fix the problem.

In the book, Rediger does talk about intervention, but it is an ad hoc intervention, put together to meet an immediate crisis. He doesn’t explore ways to help the congregation become aware of its ongoing responsibilities to deal with issues of the whole and its parts.

In the article, Rediger advocates a grievance process that involves others besides clergy. He talks about putting procedures into place “before need” to both develop policy and implement that policy when the need arises.

This broadens the base from which the congregation can assess situations and take action.

  • Congregations have the right to take action. One of the most important points in Rediger’s book, though he doesn’t state it directly, is that the congregation and pastor have a right to take action against those who are hurting people and the organization’s mission. Remember the 70’s, when assertiveness training was the rage? The assertiveness folks told us that we had the right to have our own ideas and to take action, and that we didn’t have to feel guilty when we protected ourselves or asked for what we wanted. Rediger has done that for the 90’s.
  • Hooray for support systems! Attempting to manage challenges alone is unnecessary and seriously limits perspective. How bad is it? If it’s happening to me, it’s terrible. Outsiders are usually able to see some alternatives, bringing perspectives of which the insiders are only dimly aware. Clergy need support systems. They need families, denominations, friends, and therapists to help them see what is happening inside a system from other points of view.
  • Hooray for taking care of yourself! Pastors physically and spiritually strained by overwork and unhealthy habits cannot bring their best resources to bear when sturdy and indefatigable ill-wishers add to the stress they have created for themselves.

Questions for Rediger

What’s the difference between “abnormal” and “spiritual” conflict?

Rediger developed a taxonomy of conflict in his book. He spoke of healthy conflict, which he called normal. He also identified two other kinds—abnormal and spiritual. Let me try to summarize them:

Abnormal conflict seems to be caused by people who have a mental or personality disorder. They should be dealt with by therapists. It is the task of the congregation or clergy to get these people to professionals who can help them. Rediger says we are to “surround [them] with guidance.”4

Spiritual conflict involves people who “resort to sinful tactics without remorse, and have a persistent energy for their nefarious causes that wear good people down.”5 What do we do in this situation—“surround or expel the person doing evil”?6 or “guide the person into disciplined recovery insistently”?7 He also proposes that exorcism might be used to help people who have unintentionally come under the influence of evil.8 I was disappointed to read that he believes the Roman Catholic Church has turned exorcism into “an exotic and specialized ritual.”9 It would have been helpful to me for Rediger, instead of blaming, to comment here on what an appropriate exorcism ritual would be.

I didn’t find the differences between abnormal and spiritual conflict to be useful, and I am not sure the difference is important. The categories of spiritual and abnormal seem to me to be rather vague. When Rediger talks of people who are “vindictive,” “unwilling to negotiate disagreements,” and “demanding the punishment of others,” I have a grasp on an issue I can do something about. When I read that people are demonic or mentally ill, I am lost without specifics such as “deceitful,” “intentionally inflicting pain,” “intimidating,” or “threatening,” words used in other parts of the book.

The question I am asking here is, How are these distinctions meaningfully different, and how do they relate to choosing strategies?

What’s the difference between abusive behavior and anxiety-producing behavior?

I think this question is even more important than the one cited above. Rediger uses the word “abusive” from time to time when I think what he means is “anxiety producing.” I understand abusive behavior, as we are using it these days, to mean limiting another’s freedom, taking advantage of another’s relative powerlessness, taking another’s property without his permission or a fair exchange, or changing another’s circumstances without her knowledge or permission or ability to partic
ipate in any way in deciding those changes.

Anxiety-producing behavior, on the other hand, is behavior that arouses feelings of threat or dread or suspicion. I have had a good deal of experience with congregations in which clergy and laity are anxious, but label the behavior of those who threaten them as abusive. Following is a list of anxiety-producing behaviors that do not, in my opinion, constitute abuse.

  • Expressed displeasure to me about the content of my sermons.
  • Was disrespectful to me, called me a low-down snake.
  • Talks about me behind my back.
  • Deliberately distances himself from me, staying away from me before and after worship services.
  • Is constantly asking questions about what I do with my time, how far I actually traveled to do a wedding, and what I put on my travel expenses.
  • Belongs to a clique that is regularly disparaging to my ministry.

In my opinion these behaviors don’t merit “guiding the person into disciplined recovery insistently.” Here is a list of behaviors that I would say merit vigorous confrontation coupled with threat of appropriate consequences:

  • Actively interferes with the worship or the process of a meeting by filibustering, interrupting others, or making an outrageous scene. Notice, I am not saying, by making “I statements,” or bringing up difficult issues that others would rather not talk about.
  • Acts violently or threatens to act violently toward others or self.
  • Takes property that does not belong to him or her.
  • Develops close personal relationships with individuals or small groups that are secret.
  • Attempts to change the behavior or situation of others without their knowledge or without allowing them to attempt to influence the situation.
  • Defames others in public or private. I am defining defamation here as making charges that are known to be false or that have not been checked out.

Has Rediger given thought to the difference between the two kinds of behavior, anxiety-producing and abusive, and if he has, does he have some ideas about nuanced responses to both?

What about other causes of difficulty besides emotional dysfunction and malevolence?

I do not mean to denigrate a perspective that does not address other causes of abnormal functioning in a congregation. One should not expect any book to cover all aspects of the topic under discussion; however, I wonder what Rediger thinks of other perspectives on congregational difficulty. There has been a good deal of discussion in the past 20 years of how congregations might actually develop patterns of interaction that require antagonists as part of their essential character.

Could it be that a system maneuvers clergy members into roles, sometimes healthy and sometimes unhealthy, and that to notice only what the individual does (and guessing at what her motives might be) may be to miss a powerful dynamic that is shaping everyone’s behavior?

To what extent does Rediger think the anxiety and timidity of the congregation or clergy might make them vulnerable to so-called clergy killers? Could it be that personal forces and motives are only part of what shapes an individual’s behavior? Moreover, could it be that one who seems to be a malefactor is a person so well differentiated from the anxiety of the group that he threatens just by the act of taking a stand.

And I’d like some help on knowing when one is pushing too hard on an idea that she feels is very important, while the rest of the congregation feels that she is an agitator and malcontent—perhaps a clergy killer.

Finally, why did Rediger use the term “clergy killer”?

I was so put off by the book’s title that I almost did not read it. As I said in the Christian Century review, Ronald Reagan did not inspire trust in me when he labeled the Soviet Union an evil empire. I feared his political judgement would not be balanced if he used that kind of language to describe others, especially others with whom some modicum of cooperation would be required for the safety of us all. I believe all people have evil as a part of their being. I’ll own that in myself. However, if I describe another as evil, does that sum up his character entirely? Doesn’t the language I chose reflect the degree to which I am able to make judgements that are prudent as well as caring?

I was consulting in a church in Northern California this past year where there was (and still is) a conflict between the pastor and a substantial group within the congregation. On the day I was interviewing to learn what the issues were, a person (anonymously) put in every member’s mailbox a copy of the clergy killer article from the Clergy Journal. This clinched the job for me. I don’t think it helped anyone in the church, however.

It seems to me that the language Rediger uses in that article and in the book to describe problem people and relationships in congregations arouses people’s fears and provides language with which some can blame and demean rather than build up the body.

I wonder if Rediger has had any second thoughts about his choice of title and tone of the book, which strays from explaining to blaming.


1. G. Lloyd Rediger, Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), p. 49.
2. July 29-August 5 1998, p. 727.
3. Rediger, “Instruments of Peace,” The Clergy Journal, July 1998, pp. 22-26.
4. Rediger, Clergy Killers, p. 65.
5. Ibid., p. 58.
6. Ibid., p. 65.
7. Ibid.
8. Ibid., p. 66.
9. Ibid., p. 68.

Copyright © 1999 by The Alban Institute

Response to Speed Leas’s Critique of Clergy Killers
G. Lloyd Rediger

I appreciate the invitation of CONGREGATIONS Editor Linda-Marie Delloff and the Alban Institute to engage in dialogue with Speed Leas, one of the notable authorities on governance in religious congregations.

Let us note that we are discussing more than the book Clergy Killers. We are also discussing Leas’s publications on conflict in congregations. And we are discussing the contemporary context for conflict in organized religion, and spiritual leadership as shared by laity and clergy. Since these are enormous issues, we concentrate here on a particular type of conflict, which I have called “The Clergy Killer Phenomenon.”

I begin with expressions of appreciation for Leas’s work, which has become a primary reference point for any discussion of conflict in congregations. His “Levels of Conflict” schema is invaluable in guiding both inexperienced and experienced participants in typical congregational disruptions. And Leas’s obvious concern for the health of the church is one that I share with appreciation.

As I read several books and articles Leas has written concerning the functioning of congregations I feel agreement with nearly all of his insights and guidance. Two issues, however, elicit a response in me: One is his lack of attention to the realities of spiritual warfare in our world and in the church. The other is the model of the congregation he uses as reference point for efforts to manage this warfare. After discussing these issues I will respond to the questions Leas asks.

Taking Evil Seriously

Though Leas leaves his major displeasure with Clergy Killers—its title—till the end of his comments, I will begin with this issue, for it colors hi
s review of this book1 as well as his critique in these pages, and it is one of the areas where we have disagreement. He says he “was so put off by the book’s title that I almost didn’t read it.” Such distaste is bound to prejudice his response to the major premise of the book, namely the “killing” of pastors. I respond by indicating that my reason for writing this book is that other authors, including Leas, do not take the reality of evil seriously. This reflects a liberal perspective, which I once held, that evil is nothing more than human foibles—behaviorally challenged people, mistaken opinions, or personality disorders. The corollary to this view is that good negotiation or psychotherapy will be able to manage even the most difficult conflict situations. After dealing for many years with abused pastors and their families and the collateral damage to congregations caused by persons intentionally perpetrating such trauma, I now understand that evil is of a different order of magnitude than disagreements and personality disorders. Further, the distaste of present-day religious leaders for the realities of spiritual warfare allows for the growth of disrespect, violence, and abuse in the community of faith.

M. Scott Peck, in his book The People of the Lie, provides a valuable insight into the reality of evil. He tells of trying to explain evil to his young son, who then offered a brilliant synthesis of his father’s complicated explanation: “Why, Daddy, evil is “live” spelled backward.”2 Peck goes on to note that evil is the opposite if life. My experience as a pastor and as a counselor of pastors collaborates this perspective, for a clergy killer does not just disagree or make trouble in a congregation.

A clergy killer sabotages, destroys, and abuses intentionally. This is the ancient story of the conflict of good and evil in contemporary form. No matter the denials and subterfuges, a clergy killer targets a spiritual leader who interferes with his agenda for controlling a congregation. Such a person has no interest in rational, respectful dialogue and negotiation and little concern for the damage done by getting his way. He may even pretend to negotiate, but then will go ahead and do what he was going to do anyway. A clergy killer forces conflict to a level of traumatic abuse and violence (viscous accusations, physical attacks, and stalking are not uncommon), for he senses he thereby has a kind of “power” nice people eschew.

This viscous level is not recognized by typical conflict resolution methods. Leas and others relegate anything not readily manageable by congregational leaders to “outside consultants.” Except for secular lawyers who are willing to use drastic legal measures, I have seen few professional conflict consultants who were able to manage determined abusers with negotiation methods.

Leas professes confusion as to who these clergy killers are. Most pastors who have encountered them know the following characteristics: they are very few in number, but they have a canny ability to mobilize unhappy parishioners and intimidate supporters of the pastor with their viciousness; they resort to any artifice to gain their ends; they are unrelenting and typically outlast the pastor’s resources and the willpower of supporters; they depend on the silence of good people and enjoy outwitting the well intentioned; they are unrepentant. This latter characteristic confuses many sincere denominational officials and consultants who do not understand that people who give themselves to evil have no interest in repentance, and therefore relish frightening parishioners who try to forgive and convert them prematurely.

At the close of his expression of concern for the title of my book, Leas wonders if I have had “second thoughts” as I “stray for explaining to blaming.” I have indeed. My second thoughts confirm my first thoughts. Though I was reluctant to use drastic terms to confront this heinous condition a few years ago, I now know we must. The enthusiastic response to the clergy killer book from emotionally and even physically battered pastors and concerned denominational leaders has kept it on the religious bestseller list since it was published. This is a confirmation that the church should be recognizing abuse of pastors as drastic, and often a function of evil.

I still dislike using dramatic language unless it becomes necessary as a wake-up call to a church in denial. Jesus didn’t come to call people names or assess blame, yet on many occasions he had to confront opposing religious leaders and even members of his own inner circle.

Being nice in the face of evil is surrender. We need not stoop to sinful means in stopping evildoers, however. We need only to be spiritually tough-minded enough to confront prayerfully and intervene when necessary, even as Jesus did. Evil does not change through normal negotiation. Can you imagine Jesus asking his attackers and Herod, or even Pilate, to sit down with him and negotiate their differences? Being nice and trying to negotiate with an intentionally evil parishioner is like trying to negotiate with Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia or Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

The agenda of evil doesn’t change when we are polite and offer to negotiate. Clergy killers specialize in the use of power—the un-nice kind, such as innuendo, threats, and abuse—for they know such power intimidates nice or timid people. Power negotiation is the only type of negotiation that works with intentional evildoers. It begins with an understanding that the damage being inflicted must end, and so opposes unrepentant evil with authority—that of the bible and the denominational polity.

Nice parishioners, pastors, and denominational officials all use power when they want to. Yet for some reason they have not learned the “street smarts” necessary for handling the realities of non-nice people and their tactics. Nice negotiation seems to be the only tool, outside of calling in an outside expert, that Leas offers.

We should note, however, that negotiation is a highly valuable method for dealing with conflict…anywhere. I encourage this in my book. A large proportion of conflict in the church can be dealt with through negotiation. Leas and others such as Ken Haugh, Hugh Halverstadt, David Augsburger, Wayne Oates, James Qualben, Dennis Hatfield, and Peter Steinke offer valuable negotiating techniques, as I do. But they seem unable to apply street smarts to the contemporary church scene.

The clergy killer is not an illusion, nor someone we can define away. Statistics from Fuller Institute of Church Growth, Christianity Today market research, and the winter 1996 issue of Leadership magazine, as well as my own experience, indicate that in approximately half of the congregational conflicts where a pastor is abused and forced out, this was accomplished by fewer than ten people, usually only one or two. Also, as Leadership magazine noted, the clergy killer devastation has successfully targeted nearly one-fourth of this nation’s pastors, with well over half of the congregations that force out their pastors having done so before. This escalating pattern of abuse is a shocking indicator of spiritual sickness in the congregations which allow such evil in their midst. We can do better than this.

Indications of pathology

Leas implies that I am vague in discussing the role of personality disorders, mental illness, and poor socialization in the involvement of a few parishioners in congregational conflicts. I call this category of people and conflict “abnormal.” My intention is to avoid complicated terminology and yet be descriptive. There is not pejorative intent, only a concern to help people see that when behavior is seriously disruptive and persistent, it probably indicates pathology and signals that normal responses will not be effective.

This ab
normal category is much smaller that that of normal conflict (disagreement, personality clashes, diversity, frustration). People with personality disorders and mental ilnesses3 and those who have difficulty learning acceptable behavior should not be expected to function with the rationality required by a serious negotiation process. This lesson was learned and honored by school and family therapists a generation ago (William Glasser, Virginia Satir, Donald Jackson, Jay Haley, Murray Bowen, Carl Whitaker, and others). They contributed to a family therapy model called “tough love,” which was demonstrated by Jesus with his disciples.

Some basic ingredients of this model are applicable to the abnormal category of conflict in congregations. In this model the whole family (team, committee, congregation) gathers and owns shared responsibility for the dysfunction. The person whose behavior has become the occasion for the shared dysfunction is informed of this problem and is shown an acceptable alternative. All participants agree to make changes necessary for this alternative. Rewards and penalties are established to reinforce acceptable behavior. Then, all participants celebrate progress and family health together, as it develops. Needless to say, prescribing and utilizing a tough love model typically requires trained leaders or psychotherapists. However, a task force, leadership team, or church council can learn and apply this method, with Mathew 18 and Mark 5 as reverences. The point is that negotiation is seldom effective with people who fit this abnormal category. We must have this added method available.

Since I have already discussed the smallest but most deadly category of congregational conflict, namely, the clergy killer phenomenon, I move back to it briefly only to address Leas’s confusion over the intervention model as used to manage this most serious type of conflict. Intervention is not an ad hoc process. It is a serious, intentional, last resort in the face of unrepentant evil. We may name this category of conflict spiritual warfare, for the clergy killer is symptomatic of spiritual anarchism. In the gospels Jesus used what has been termed exorcism to cast out “demons.” This term has become archaic and confusing, even though the process it names is valuable. So we can simply call it an intervention, for it closely resembles the intervention model developed in substance abuse treatment.4 This method is exceptionally valuable for cases where a dysfunctional or intentionally evil person persists in destructiveness and abuse. In fact, this is the only generic model likely to be effective with clergy killers and such. Therefore, a competent conflict consultant and a fully functioning congregation and denomination need to have this method available.

The intervention model requires honesty in assessing the dysfunction that is causing the devastation. It also requires the ability to gather resources effective in stopping the perpetrator, to empower a treatment team, to employ the treatment for the perpetrator along with recovery support for victims of the abuse, to maintain a recovery and accountability regime after treatment, and to celebrate and reinforce the recovery. Further, this method must contain a corollary process for separating the perpetrator from any potential to continue the damage.

Like the tough love model, intervention requires trained leaders or therapists for implementation. Applying it to the clergy killer phenomenon, however, is neither irregular nor complicated. The requirements are honesty, spiritual discipline, denominational policy, and the biblical formulas I allude to elsewhere, along with the spiritual tough-mindedness and legitimate authority to impose this remedy.

Normal negotiation, tough love, and intervention are all explained in my book. In the July 1998 issue of Clergy Journal, my column entitled “Instruments of Peace” offers a ten-step instrument for teaching and applying the rudiments of this trilogy of methods in nearly any congregation. Part of the value of this instrument and the three methods lies in the attitude of spiritual health, confidence, and prevention they encourage.

Beyond Secular Systems Theory

Having incorporated answers to his other questions in this discussion, I conclude my response to Leas’s critique with an admittedly rhetorical question: “Can you see yourself using your considerable skills and experience to go beyond secular systems theory and develop your conflict management model on the basis of the spiritual incarnation paradigm?” This incarnation paradigm for the church is organic, ingeniously instructive, compatible for believers, and naturally spiritual. Even Ed Friedman, in his astute development of systems theory, was careful to include theological perspectives.

Yet his disciples seem more enamored of the secular, psychological perspectives of systems theory. This theory is uniquely valuable for understanding systems of all kinds, yet its insights are limited by the mechanistic, Newtonian science popular in the era when Ludwig von Bertalanffy proposed it. In more recent times, Gregory Bateson, Virginia Satir, Salvadore Minuchin, Murray Bowen, and others developed this theory into a family therapy model. Pastoral counselors such as E.M. Pattison and Edwin Friedman (mentioned above) applied it to pastoring. But the spiritual dimension is largely missing.

I believe the incarnation model, which presumes the community should and does function like a living organism, and in the case of the Christian church, like the body of Christ, serves us best in trying to understand the functioning of the community of faith. Jesus initiated this model in his being and in his teachings. In John 15:1-6 he speaks of himself as the vine and his followers as the branches. Then in verse five he speaks more organically of this connection by saying we are in him and he is in us. In this same chapter he even establishes the intervention model for dealing with intentionally evil persons, in the strictest form, by teaching that God removes branches which do not bear fruit. In the Epistles the Apostle Paul insists on the incarnation model of the church in multiple passages, such as 1 Cor. 3:16-17 and 6:19-20, Eph. 4:1-16, and Phil. 2:5. Though the incarnation model has been treated poorly by some theologians over the years, it remains ingeniously instructive, and we do not need to force the spiritual dimension on it as we do with secular theories.

I join Speed Leas in prayers that our dialogue will be useful in faithful and satisfying pastoring.


1. Christian Century, July 29-August 5 1998, p. 727.
2. M. Scott Peck, The People of the Lie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983).
3. See The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, 4th ed., for descriptions. For an explanation of such disorders in a theological context, consult Joseph Ciarrocchi’s A Minister’s Handbook of Mental Disorders (New York: Paulist Press, 1993) and Dictionary of Pastoral Care and Counseling, ed. Rodney Hunter (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990).
4. Intervention by Vernon Johnson (Minneapolis: Johnson Institute Books, 1986) may be helpful in explaining this method. Materials and training are available from the Hazelden Foundation, the Mayo Clinic, and the Betty Ford Center, among others.

Copyright © 1999 by The Alban Institute

Readers comment on “A Dialogue: Thoughts on Lloyd Rediger’s Clergy Killers,” by Speed B. Leas, and “Response to Speed Leas’s Critique of Clergy Killers,” by G. Lloyd Rediger, which appeared in the September/October, 1999 issue of CONGREGATIONS.

To the Editor:

Thank you for the
interesting and valuable dialogue between Speed B. Leas and G. Lloyd Rediger. I have been engaged in conflict management with churches for a number of years now, and team-taught a course in it at Andover Newton Theological School with my colleague Karen Nell Smith. I have some observations about the dialogue on the basis of our experience over the years.

First, the development of categories such as “normal,” “abnormal,” and “spiritual” is not very useful. We found that there is a spectrum in conflicts and that the dividing line between such “categories” is not at all clear. Leas’s model of “levels” we found very useful precisely because one level shades into another. It is more like a spectrum than separate tiers.

Second, for this reason we as facilitators often found it necessary to deal with all three dimensions simultaneously. We begin all of our work by having a group adopt a “behavioral covenant” to govern the way members treat each other. (We have been doing this for years. Gilbert R. Rendle’s Alban book Behavioral Covenants in Congregations reflects this approach, but we tend to be more specific in identifying the behaviors which are demanded or enjoined in the covenant….)

Working in such a context means that at all times we are using the kind of “incarnational” model of which Rediger speaks. The covenant demands that the group members themselves be the “enforcers.” We find that having such an instrument encourages the well-intentioned but fearful to stand up to the bullies in the group.

We as facilitators also can and do “call” people on violations of the covenant.

Third, we find that working in this way helps a group, over time, form a new ethos. We are quite conscious of engaging in evangelism as a part of our work as facilitators. By coaching a group in behavior based on “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4), we work on “converting” the “angel of the church….”

For these reasons we think incipient polarity between Leas’s and Rediger’s positions is a false one. We have insights from systems thinking, family therapy, New Testament study, and theology that all need to inform our work at every point. The balance may shift from time to time. Sometimes a particularly fractious individual must be confronted and controlled—usually by the group, but if necessary by the facilitators. We aim in our work to coach the group so that when we leave we will not have to come back. They should be ready to handle “antagonists,” set limits for those whom Rediger would call “abnormal,” and “edify” each other in good Pauline fashion.

Finally, I’d like to make a comment on the title “clergy killers.” We believe that it refers to a very real group of people within the church. It might also refer to some congregations where the “angel of the church” badly needs converting—even though none of the individuals with whom we work are “antagonists.” But the title can be a real danger. We have discovered that it provides some clergy who have been inept, antagonistic themselves, or otherwise at fault, a handy scapegoat. One area minister of our acquaintance noted that she had clergy under her supervision who refused needed counsel or coaching because they were convinced they had been victims of “clergy killers.”

Again, thanks for providing us with good food for thought in publishing this dialogue. We also need to go to another dimension: what are some of the social, systemic causes of what seems to be increasing fractiousness in our congregations? Karen Nell Smith and I have discovered that some insight can be gained from a study of Robert Kegan’s book In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1995).

M. B. Handspicker
River Run Communications
North Bennington, VT
Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Theology,
Andover Newton Theological School

I would like to comment on the dialogue between Speed B. Leas and G. Lloyd Rediger. I am married to a Presbyterian minister. During the past 15 years we have endured the presence of clergy killers in two churches. I have not only read and studied Clergy Killers, but have also attended one of Mr. Rediger’s workshops on the topic.

The book “tells it like it is.” It contains more helpful information than I could possibly document in this letter. It includes very carefully thought-out descriptions of exactly what a clergy killer is—and is not. The term is not applied loosely or lightly, but only to very specific behaviors….

I take issue with most of Mr. Leas’s critical remarks, but will comment only briefly. I am not writing this to be critical of a critique as much as I am to emphasize the importance of Mr. Rediger’s book. Mr. Leas questioned the distinction between anxiety-producing and abusive behaviors. Is he implying that Rediger’s book exaggerates the presence of abuse in the church setting? Or that we are too quick to assign blame for abuse on innocent members? …It’s a fine line between anxiety-producers and abusers. When does mild anxiety become extreme anxiety? When does extreme anxiety become mild abuse? When does mild abuse become extreme abuse? This seems to me to be semantic hairsplitting distracting us from the real issue, which is how to deal with the serious negative consequences of such behavior.

The title of the book seems to have caused some problems for Mr. Leas. Mr. Rediger does not overplay the seriousness of the clergy killer phenomenon. It’s almost unbelievable unless you have witnessed it. I’ve been eyeball to eyeball with clergy killers…. I’ve been an observer and a target. Because of my experience, I know that spiritual warfare is a reality. Evil is a reality…. But “clergy killers” don’t stop with the clergy! They also kill staff, enthusiastic lay leaders, music directors, educators. In the end, they can kill the spirit of an entire congregation….

The ability to discern truth from untruth is an extremely important quality for all of us, but especially for those in church leadership…. Anyone, no matter how unfit for office, deficient in relationship skills, [or] lacking in spiritual development can be an elder [or the equivalent]…. When people in leadership positions are clergy killers, elected to their positions by nondiscriminating and unsuspecting members, the wreckage that ensues from their actions continues until they are removed from office. Yet [the latter] rarely happens…. We may use negotiation and consultation repeatedly, but until we are also willing to apply intervention, we limit our ability to deal effectively with some very serious problems caused by specific individuals…. Silence is tacit acceptance. It only makes the problem behavior worse by encouraging its escalation….

As Mr. Rediger notes, it is difficult for this phenomenon to flourish in a truly healthy congregation. His listing of traits of a healthy congregation is worthy of memorization…. [All churches] need to know, even if the idea makes them squirm (as I did), that evil is real….

Karen Schneller-McDonald
Hamilton, Mont.

Copyright © 2000 by The Alban Institute

Two Heavyweights and a Ringside Commentator:
The Fight over Clergy Killers
Scott Olbert

In the September/October 1999 issue of CONGREGATIONS, Lloyd Rediger and Speed Leas circle one another like two boxers. Leas steps into the ring and pummels Rediger:

Could it be that a system maneuvers clergy and members into roles, sometimes healthy and sometimes unhealthy, and that to notice only what the individual does may be to miss a powerful dynamic that is shaping everyone’s behavior?

Rediger returns a left hook to Leas:

Can you see yourself using your considerable skills and experience to go beyond secular systems theory and develop your conflict management model on the basis of the spiritual incarnational paradigm?

Leas and Rediger split congregational conflict right down the middle and head to opposite corners of the ring. Leas exercises a sociological model, avoiding the resources of Christian tradition. Rediger rebuffs Leas’s secular strikes in favor of theological weapons.


Putting up a good fight in both book and article, Rediger comes up with a “no decision.” Despite heartfelt compassion for pastors under fire, and a desire to incorporate the resources of historical Christianity, he ultimately misreads the dynamics of congregational conflict.

Rediger bravely defends the beleaguered pastoral office. But by imagining the pastor as high-minded innocent, he resurrects an old Freudian fantasy: The parishioner (client) is the one with the problem—the one who is the problem.

He asserts that people with serious psychological disturbances sit in our pews and on our boards. While standing at a distance he identifies symptoms or behaviors that yield static pictures of parishioners’ disturbed inner lives. This “experience-distant” approach attempts to understand a person from an “objective stance”—a hopeless and unhelpful project.

A “subjective stance” views human personality as fluid, dynamic, in process, and always relational. This “experience-near” approach allows that the only way to understand what’s happening for another person is to comprehend as closely as possible what that person experiences.

Further, Rediger places people in rigid categories of nice, bad, right, wrong, functional, dysfunctional, good, and evil. To quote Rediger, “A clergy killer sabotages, destroys, and abuses intentionally. This is the ancient story of good and evil in contemporary form.” Whenever we imagine the world as consisting of the saved and the damned, the sheep and goats, the good and the evil, we are employing the psychological defense of splitting.

Taking evil seriously, Dr. Rediger urges us to do so also. He is willing to make us uncomfortable so that we do not imagine evil as solely a human failing. It seems anachronistic to move back to a pre-modern worldview that ascribes evil to demons taking possession of human beings.


My argument is not so much with Speed Leas but with the systems theory he embraces so wholeheartedly. Applying the lens of family systems theory to congregational life and conflict presents significant problems.

Systems theory pathologizes dependency. Those most dependent are least self-differentiated—a cardinal sin in systems theory. Yet pastors who engage in the systems theory action of “defining themselves over against the dependency needs of their parishioners” psychologically wound people at the level of their need. Newer psychoanalytic theories assert that all of us retain healthy dependency needs our entire life. In other words, heeding the systems theory exhortation to “individuate” from dependent congregants is the perfect way to injure another and sow conflict.

Systems theory remains captive to the notion of the autonomous, individual self. However, there is never a “me” without a “thee.” The idea that I can be an “I” apart from a “you” or a “we” is a psychological impossibility.

Viewing aggression as an innate drive, systems theory posits conflict as inevitable and, in a sense, normative. While Rediger imagines sick individuals who destroy pastors, Speed Leas imagines sick systems “that require antagonists as a part of their essential character.”


Heinz Kohut, the father of self psychology, proposes the notion of a self. Until Kohut, psychological theory spoke of a single line of development, that of the ego. Kohut perceives a second line of development, that of the self.

Self and Selfobjects

Kohut sets forth the self as the center of the psychological universe—the core of our personality, the structural glue that holds our inner world together. The self is the center of experience and initiative, developed in our earliest childhood environment through our interactions with those whom we experience as selfobjects.

A simple definition of selfobject is twofold:

  • One’s experience of another person or object as part of one’s self. The healthy congregation functions as a selfobject for the pastor, contributing to the pastor’s sense of well-being and psychological cohesion.
  • A function provided by another person or object rather than the full reality of the person or object. The pastor serves as a selfobject for parishioners, even though they may know very little about him/her as a person.

Kohut identifies three selfobject relationships as essential to a firm, cohesive, harmonious, and vigorous sense of self:

  • The experience of being mirrored: I know my sermon was good this morning because a number of people important to me said so. 
  • The experience of connection to the idealized other: When there is trouble in the congregation, a conversation with Jim, the older and wiser board president, calms me and gives me hope. 
  • The experience of twinship: We share common values and goals for the parish. 

Self psychology holds that self-selfobject relationships form the essence of psychological life from birth to death, that a move from dependence to independence in the psychological sphere is no more possible . . . than a corresponding move from life dependent on oxygen to a life independent of it in the biological sphere.1

It is psychologically inconceivable to be an independent self, unmoved by the words and actions of parishioners; untenable to self-differentiate as a non-anxious “I” apart from an anxiety-provoking congregation. What is possible and optimal is to mature as an authentic self within a congregation of selfobjects.

The Centrality of Empathy

Kohut places empathy at the center of the self-selfobject bond. “The best definition of empathy . . . is that it is the capacity to think and feel oneself into the inner life of another person.”2

As we reflect on conflict in congregations, we cannot understand the experience of participants by standing at a distance and imposing our theories on them. Only through empathic attunement to the subjective experiences of those involved can we reach understanding. I can know the meaning of what you do only when you explain it to me and I am willing to hear it through your ears.

The Healthy Narcissistic Self

Narcissism is a dirty word, or so most of us think. As defined by Freud, narcissism is withdrawal of energy from others, and the simultaneous redirection of that energy toward the self. Typically, we consider this behavior selfish and contrary to Gospel values. From a self psychological perspective, however, narcissism exists on a continuum from healthy to severely pathological.

The healthy self is able to insert itself into the world, transforming narcissistic energy into creativity, the ability to delay gratification, empathy, humor, wisdom, and love.

The healthy self will be experienced as more cohesive than prone to fragmentation; more harmonious than conflicted; more vigorous than anxious; more structured than chaotic; more enlivened than depressed; more initiating than fearful, and more able to experience self-esteem than self-degradation.
The Vulnerable Self

The less attuned the childhood caretakers are, the more likely it is that the adult self will emerge with greater vulnerability. Each of us emerges from the environment of our childhood selfobjects with some deficits. We might say that the vulnerable self may be experienced as more prone to fragmentation than cohesion; to inner conflict than to inner harmony; to anxiety than to vigor; to chaos than to structure; to depression than to normal moods; to be fearful than to initiate; and to self-degradation than to self-esteem.

The Meaning of Aggression

Lloyd Rediger imagines inherently conflicted, psychologically disordered parishioners waiting to destroy innocent clergy. Speed Leas imagines systems set up to spawn conflicted and conflict-producing members. A fundamental theoretical shift in self psychology is to no longer imagine aggression as a basic human drive, always in danger of erupting within the individual and the community.

From a self psychological perspective, aggression always results from an injury due to selfobject failure. Rage is never primary, but always secondary, resulting from the disruption in the self-selfobject bond. If one is contained within a self-selfobject environment, there is no aggression, hate, anger, or rage. Our mutual selves are held in one another’s psychological arms. A narcissistic wound shatters this self-selfobject containment and, depending on the degree of self-deficiency, one may display irritation, frustration, disapproval, criticism, complaint, accusation, indignation, distress, resentment, condemnation, anger, or full-blown rage.

Both Rediger and Leas, using their favored lenses, end up blaming someone when conflict occurs. Self psychology asks us to see the eruption of conflict through compassionate eyes; asks us to see where human need has floundered once again in our closest relationships. While Rediger and Leas cannot avoid getting stuck in guilt and shame, self psychology allows us the freedom to understand empathically the tragedy of derailed human interactions.

Is This Woman a “Clergy Killer”?

The following example of conflict appears in Rediger’s Clergy Killers:

“I’ve done everything I can think of to help this woman,” [the pastor] said, “but she keeps attacking me as if I were the devil himself!”

…The single parent the pastor [referred] to worked in a clinic whose specialty was caring for troubled children…. When she joined the congregation she immediately volunteered to help with the youth program. The pastor and religious education coordinator were delighted and gave her full freedom to start any youth program she wanted. Soon she started a community Explorers Club for middle school children. The tours she led them on and her study classes became very popular with youth and parents.

Trouble began when the religious education coordinator…asked her to limit her tours and class materials, for the religious education budget was exhausted by her activities before the year was half over. She was furious and went to the pastor, demanding that the RE coordinator be fired and funds be found for her ministry. The pastor…called on her often in an effort to mollify her. His wife and daughter even baby-sat for this woman as she took night classes and worked at the clinic.

She calmed down for a while. But when it became apparent that the pastor would not fire the RE coordinator or find more money for her activities, she began to attack the pastor…. through innuendo, starting rumors that [he] didn’t care about youth ministries…. [S]he organized the parents of her youth group to bombard the board with demands for more money for her program, and with accusations that the pastor was sabotaging her ministry.

…At the next board meeting [the pastor] was accused of not calling on members, not being in the office when needed, starting rumors against parishioners…. The board postponed action….

During this time, a letter listing the claims against the pastor was sent by accusers to every parishioner. At the next board meeting, a dozen parents of youth, as well as the two accusers, appeared with the list of charges…. The board began to waver.

After three more months of this barrage, the board voted to dismiss the pastor… A denominational official who told me this story said…. this accuser had apparently been sexually abused as a child and never received therapy.3

Note the faultless clergy whom Rediger views as doing everything possible to help this “personality-disordered” woman. Initially the pastor did offer crucial selfobject experiences to this volunteer. Given the little we know about her abusive past, we can imagine the powerful experience of being adequately mirrored by the pastor and the religious education director. They see her talent and skill in working with the youth. They “gave her full freedom to start any youth program she wanted.” The male pastor and female religious education director function as idealized figures for her even as she functions as an idealized figure for the youth and their parents.

Then funds are withdrawn for youth ministry, and she is told to limit her work. Unwittingly, the religious educator acts as yet another “untrustworthy other” who injures the volunteer by ceasing to mirror her. Given what we now know about narcissistic injury, we cannot be surprised at the rage that pours forth from this woman. What is her experience? She is encouraged once again, psychologically engaged once again, narcissistically wounded once again, betrayed once again, used and set aside once again. Hoping against hope, she goes to the pastor, insisting that he protect her and restore the broken promise—restore the original selfobject state that she experienced as so enlivening. How thoughtful but naive to think that visiting with her and baby-sitting her children will somehow calm her. Bleeding from major injury, she is offered butterfly bandages. The pastor’s failure to fire the RE coordinator and find more money to support her youth ministry—surely a rational administrative decision—shatters the fantasy that she might find her expansive self restored. With the loss of her mirrored self and her loss of containment by the idealized figures, the self-selfobject bond is severely disrupted and she is outraged.

When narcissistic trauma occurs, the injured but still vigorous self will make active attempts to effect a meliorative change in the selfobject. When these efforts are unsuccessful, aggression [and] rage…are mobilized in order to restore a functional selfobject relationship. Ultimately, all conflict concerns self-esteem regulation and the maintenance of self organization.4

As destructive and misguided as the youth leader’s actions appear, she is desperately attempting to re-establish her lost sense of psychological well-being. But wound upon wound is inflicted as she is not seen, heard, or understood.

Everyone needs and deserves the experience of being the twinkle in the other’s eye. For a too brief moment this volunteer basks in the reflected glow of her pastor, the RE coordinator, the youth, and their parents. For a shining second she is a twinkle in the eye of her parish. And then it is gone. Her rageful attempts to restore the twinkle are misheard and misinterpreted. Then she herself is pathologized as a “clergy killer.”

From a compassionate perspective we see the unwitting and tragic consequences of failing to understand the depth and complexity of the human soul.

A Self Psychology Postscript

I empathize with this minister whose life and ministry were so thoroughly wrecked by this single experience of conflict. This is why my heart breaks over the church’s seeming refusal to adopt more sophistic
ated psychological understandings.

This tragedy might have been avoided if the pastor had access to an in-depth psycho-dynamic understanding of human nature. It is naive to offer anyone “full freedom to develop any youth program you want.” This kind of carte blanche is heady and inflating for even the most psychologically sound among us. When narcissistic grandiosity is stimulated, we are drawn into fantasies about what we can be and do. Then to rip away this “full freedom” as the person is experiencing success invites the trouble it gets.

However, a pastor can make this mistake, experience the initial outrage, and yet fully redeem the situation. If the RE coordinator or the pastor had been able to understand what was happening to the parishioner from her point of view, they could have re-established the empathic connection with her by understanding her hurt and disappointment. Being understood by the idealized other would have begun to quiet the outrage. Our volunteer would have had the old experience of being hurt and then the new experience of being held in empathic arms. At this point an offer to find alternative ways of funding her ministry or to increase the funding in next year’s budget might have worked magic.

Most theories inevitably pathologize the members of a congregation in conflict. Self psychology moves us from guilt and shame to tragedy.

A Community of Selves

There is no self-resurrection in the church…. Moreover, no parish or pastor is ever “autonomous” or “self-reliant.” A self survives and is maintained in a milieu of real, remembered, anticipated, or fantasized selfobject support, whether human, divine, or inanimate. A healthy selfobject milieu is the psychological precondition of a good life. Fostering healthy selfobject relationships, therefore, leads to the restoration of selves.5

We can no longer afford to think of a congregation as consisting of individuals, some well and some ill, as Rediger does. Nor can we afford to imagine the congregation as a system, as Leas does. A congregation is a community of selves, attempting to hold one another in self-selfobject connection.

What pastoral leaders must learn is a more sophisticated approach to the work of the congregation. It is crucial for clergy and laity alike to learn to understand one another when critical self-selfobject bonds have been shattered.


1. Heinz Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure? (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 47.
2. Kohut, How Does Analysis Cure?, 82.
3. G. Lloyd Rediger, Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 81-83.
4. Elliott Markson and Peter G. Thomson, Progress in Self Psychology, volume 2 (New York: Guilford Press, 1986), 35.
5. Robert L. Randall, Pastor and Parish (New York: Human Sciences Press, 1988), 153.

Scott Olbert, ordained for 21 years as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, is a pastoral psychotherapist and a founding member of Limina Institute, a not-for-profit religious organization committed to the healing ministry of pastoral psychotherapy.

Copyright © 2000 by The Alban Institute

Readers Respond to Scott Olbert’s Two Heavyweights and a Ringside Commentator

When I first saw Scott Olbert’s “Reader’s Response” to the “clergy killer” phenomenon (“Two Heavyweights and a Ringside Commentator,” November/December 2000), I hoped for significant progress in the discussion of this very real problem. I was disappointed. The author criticizes Rediger for a theological adherence to the notion of personal and systemic evil and calls this anachronistic. He then criticizes Leas for an over-reliance on the categories of sociology, which the author claims lie outside the purview of Christian tradition.

While Rediger’s theology of evil might not be as thoroughgoing as some would like, to label it as anachronistic is to ignore biblical witness. It is also to ignore the work of Christian psychiatrists like M. Scott Peck (People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil). Though we must be very cautious about labeling people or systems, we ignore the possible presence of evil at our peril.

While Leas is more optimistic about people and systems than would seem to be warranted, most people familiar with the social gospel movement, itself influenced by sociology, would place his work within recent Christian tradition. That the optimism of the social gospel was refuted by experience does not contradict the fact that it emerged among Christians. The real problem with Leas’s work is the one he shares with Scott Olbert. Both deny the adequacy of the biblical notions of sin, repentance, and grace to characterize God’s interaction with human beings and the interaction of human beings with each other in God’s family, the church. Since Olbert is a Lutheran, this is truly amazing.

Olbert seeks to replace the Bible with a set of psychological theories. The value of these theories is that they allow pastors to more accurately interview parishioners and gauge their potential behavior. The danger is that they feed the current trend toward blaming pastors for the destructive behavior of parishioners. The author takes an example from Rediger’s book to show how the pastor caused his own dismissal. Rediger intended the story to illustrate his point that the clergy killer phenomenon is a church problem. “Church” includes members of governing boards who choose to dismiss pastors while leaving destructive dynamics in place. Olbert’s most incredible suggestion is that the pastor should have acceded to the demand that he dismiss the religious education director, who was literally there first. It is hard to see how doing this would not have produced the pastor’s own dismissal. Olbert maintains that the pastor should never have allowed the volunteer, a wounded woman, carte blanche over a church program. This is true, but situational stupidity is not usually sufficient reason for dismissal. The governing board was spineless, and spinal fusion is part of Rediger’s goal.

Neither more psychology nor simple liberal optimism can avoid the implications of Lloyd Rediger’s research. The church is a theological institution before it is anything else. It belongs to God, and there really is a force in the world that seeks to destroy what is God’s. Part of the work of parish leaders is to be on guard against that force, even as we seek to serve Jesus Christ.

C. Eugene Bryant
First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Newton, Iowa

I am intrigued by Scott Olbert’s “Reader’s Response” in the November/December 2000 issue of CONGREGATIONS.

I am only vaguely familiar with the work of Lloyd Rediger, but more familiar with the Bowen Theory of Family Systems, especially as interpreted by the late family therapist and teacher Dr. Edwin Friedman.

Pastor Olbert underdepicts systems thinking about self-differentiation to the point of caricature. One can never self-differentiate in isolation; self-differentiation is only possible in relationship. The question in self-differentiation is always, “Can I define myself and connect effectively with others in the system?”

I find Heinz Kohut’s notions about self and the development of self helpful. But Mr. Olbert’s application of Kohut’s ideas sounds more like an argument for fusion than for healthy selves in mutually engaging and dynamic relationship.

Rev. Michael W. Kerr
Trinity Lutheran Church (ELCA)
Lawrence, Kansas