Preventing and Investigating Allegations of Pastoral Malpractice

A practical resource for churches

A practical guide for churches looking to prevent, or navigate accusations of, pastoral malpractice.

Good spiritual leadership is vital to the health of a church. When leaders misuse their position and are controlling, egotistical and proud, they abuse the trust they have been given by the Lord. Abuse of power is not a new phenomenon however, it is an ancient biblical category, and must be addressed.

There are delicate situations to be navigated. Drawing lines between abuse and normal, appropriate pastoral care, including warning, admonition and discipline is crucial, as is discovering when accusations are false.

The author team behind this book bring many years of pastoral experience, as well as wisdom and training in the area of abuse within the church.

This book is for

  • Those struggling to navigate this hazardous landscape
  • Church leaders working through these issues
  • Churches seeking to create a healthy Christian community
Sections of the guide
  • The term “spiritual abuse” is a contested descriptor and therefore throughout this guide we will instead use the alternative terms “pastoral malpractice” and “abuse of power”. But whatever we call it, this is not a new extra-biblical category. This chapter explores the terminology and the practices it describes, looking also at the biblical censure of bad leadership and the responsibilities leaders have as under-shepherds.

    The Bible is clear that church leaders have a trust from God with regard to their pastoral responsibility for the people in their care. The standards to which they are held are above and beyond those of other institutions and communities (Matt. 5:19-21; 1 Tim. 3:1-12; 5:7; James 3:1). Therefore, any emotional or psychological abuse they perpetrate are that much more reprehensible.

    Pastoral malpractice has always been present within God’s church and is still present today. Sadly, it will continue to blight our congregations unless more effort is made to identify, expose and address controlling behaviour, bullying leadership and an expectation on the part of some leaders of unconditional loyalty.

    Church leaders are called by the Great Shepherd to make every effort to prevent and respond to abuses of power and to deal justly and tenderly with all those who are victims of such abuse.

  • Culture – the accepted and expected ways of thinking and behaving  – is a powerful factor in the life of any group or community, and any local church is no exception. Creating and sustaining a spiritually-healthy culture is vital in the life of a church for many reasons, not least because it may help guard against the abuse of power by leaders or factions within the membership.

    This chapter includes a description of what a healthy church culture should look like, along with a diagnostic tool to help identify areas where your church needs to change and develop in line with God’s Word. This will include things such as humility, honest reflection, prayer, repentance, openness to criticism and correction, a willingness to ask the hard questions, to be held accountable by others, and to develop links with other gospel churches.

  • The idea of a gospel church developing an abusive culture may seem unthinkable but the hard reality is that it can, and it often does happen. Instead of being a context of care, nurture and growth, the church becomes an environment of harm. The long-term distress that this causes and the damage to the witness of a church in the community will be deep and lasting. In this chapter, we look at what happens when a church goes wrong and its culture becomes abusive. We need to learn from past mistakes so they will not be repeated.

  • This chapter defines trauma in the context of spiritual abuse and gives pastoral advice on how to care for those who suffer.

    A legacy of trauma is often the result of the experience of abuse. Trauma is a literal or metaphorical “brush with death” that is too much, too soon and too fast for the mind to process. The effect of past events may create a psychological wound that leads the sufferer to “act out” that pain in the present, thereby damaging relationships in the present. The trauma of spiritual abuse may well threaten the faith that, for the Christian, is their refuge against other forms of abuse. Instead of finding comfort in faith and fellowship, the trauma may create doubt and fear of things that were once most precious, and make uncertain what were once fixed and certain convictions. It may distort a Christian’s understanding of God and the church. Those who experience the effects of spiritual abuse often live with the tension of looking for comfort in their faith but finding that faith to be also the context of their abuse.

  • In this chapter, we will be looking at how a church puts in place procedures to ensure that complaints and concerns are heard and responded to in a timely, appropriate, and God–honouring fashion.

    We recognise that some churches will be independent, and some will have denominational structures which provide help and also place certain obligations on a church when dealing with allegations. Church denominations and networks can also be of great help in writing policies and in any formal process of investigating a leader.

    Whatever the ecclesiastical structures, there are a number of vital principles to bear in mind in developing policies and dealing with allegations of malpractice

  • While there are still some broad principles that stand; media relations have become very complicated in a very short period of time. This began to happen with the rise of the internet, but has since exploded, with the rise of social media platforms and the ubiquity of tablets and smartphones for rapid access and response. It means that the lines between traditional media and new media have become blurred, and not everyone is playing by the same rules.

    Almost inevitably, serious complaints and allegations in a congregation will find their way into the public domain, via both traditional and new media. This chapter offers advice to churches on how to understand their responsibilities and exercise wisdom in their public statements.


Revd Graham Nicholls

Graham Nicholls is Director of Affinity, an organisation seeking to promote Christian unity and partnership of about 1,200 churches and Christian organisations throughout the British Isles. He has also been one of the pastors at Christ Church Haywards Heath in West Sussex for over 20 years. Prior to being in full-time pastoral ministry, Graham trained as an engineer and worked in the process control and computer industries with various computer technology companies in the UK and Europe in senior management roles before going into full-time Christian work.

Revd Dr David Hilborn

David is the Academic Dean and Senior Lecturer in Theology and Church History at London School of Theology. Before that, he was the principal of Moorlands College in Dorset. Prior to taking up this role, he was principal of St John’s College Nottingham from 2012-2018, principal of the North Thames Ministerial Training Course and assistant dean of St Mellitus College from 2006-2012. David was head of theology at the Evangelical Alliance from 1997 to 2006 and an Associate Research Fellow of the London School of Theology between 2000 and 2012. He led three URC congregations before joining the Church of England in 2002 and served for ten years on the CofE’s Faith and Order Commission. David has written and edited a number of books. He has written, published and presented papers on the topic of spiritual abuse.

Revd Ralph Cunnington

Ralph lectured in law before training as a pastor at Union School of Theology, and Westminster Seminary London. He is currently one of the pastors of City Church Manchester. Ralph is a published author, on the boards of Crosslands and UCCF. He is also a catalyst for the Northern Gospel Project - church planting initiative.

Elinor Magowan

Elinor Magowan studied History and Law then worked as a Solicitor, and then a UCCF Staff Worker. She is married to David and has been a ministry wife in Whitby North Yorkshire and at Carey Baptist Church in Reading. For four years she was the Women’s Pastoral Worker at UFM Worldwide and is now working as one of FIEC's Directors for Women’s Ministry.

Philip Swann

Phil began ministry in Pontefract in West Yorkshire in 1990 after leaving a career in Cardiff as a Chartered Physiotherapist where he specialised in psychiatry. He is now the Pastor at Llanelli Free Evangelical Church in West Wales. He teaches Pastoral Theology for the Evangelical Movement of Wales on their Theological Training Course, and heads up the Soul Care Network for the Wales Leadership Forum.

Jen Charteris

Jen is the Executive Director for Crosslands, serving churches with in-context theological training and resources for ministry and mission. She made the move to Crosslands in 2018 after more than 25 years working in organisational, and leadership consulting for the government and the private sector. A trustee of UCCF and Stewardship, she also continues to speak on organisation, leadership, and governance for ministries around the world, including IFES and ELF. Originally from South Africa, she is married to Hugo, a church pastor and planter in Newcastle.

Sue Harrison

Sue coordinates the training for Christian Safeguarding Services (CSS). She's a Team Manager for a local authority's Learning & Development team. Sue works in children's services and manages the newly qualified social workers' training programme and the progression pathway for social workers. Sue supports CSS in advising churches on the various levels of safeguarding and competencies they need. She also manages the trainer's network for the CSS as well as delivering training to churches herself.

Paul Harrison

Paul is a former manager of a SureStart programme in the most deprived area of Leicestershire. He had the lead for safeguarding across the locality and across the Leicestershire programme. Has also been in the Local Authority Designated Officer (LADO) role advising schools, investigating and responding to allegations against school staff and adults who work with children & young people in another local authority team. Paul founded CSS with his wife, Sue. He is also a preaching elder in an independent evangelical church in Loughborough.

Colin Berg

Colin is a former Chief Executive of a local authority in Wales and was previously Head of both Children and Adults Services in a local authority in England. When Colin retired he became a trustee with CCPAS (now 31:8). He ended his time there in 2016. Colin currently co-pastors Little Mill Baptist Church in Monmouthshire, South Wales, and is the Safeguarding Adviser to the Associating Evangelical Churches of Wales.

Phil Topham

Phil started working for FIEC in the role of Head of Communication, then became Executive Director at the start of 2019. Before taking up his position with FIEC he used to read the news for Heart FM in North Wales and has also worked as a football commentator and reporter. He has also worked with the Anglican Church as a Communication Officer for the Diocese of St Asaph.