Clergy Killers?


If this happens to be your first time here, I’m currently writing a brief series of posts examining clergy health. At the conclusion of the series, I’ll have a special announcement for clergy to consider. Please let others know if this series might be of benefit. Thank you!


The very first book I remember reading that was related to clergy health was written by Lloyd Rediger. Rev. Rediger is an ordained Presbyterian clergy member who is also a Diplomate in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. His doctorate in human personality and psychotherapy was earned from the Chicago Theological Seminary.

Rediger, I think, has some credible credentials.

The book of his I read, published back in 1997 by Westminster John Knox Press, is titled Clergy Killers: Guidance for Pastors and Congregations Under Attack. In the book Rediger discusses how some people take great pride and energy from destroying the lives of clergy. They do this in a number of ways and the congregation also often suffers from going through clergy, one right after the other.

I was interested in the book because I had seen this behavior before. It appears to occur most often when someone (or a usually smallish group of people) are somewhat anti-clerical to begin with and whenever the clergyperson attempts to do something different there begins to be an outcry the clergyperson has overstepped her or his authority.

There is then movement to discredit the clergy member in whatever way seems to work best. Many times the grumbling begins in more low key ways until something “sticks” and the grumblings grow louder until there is enough disruption that something big happens.

Most often, says Rediger, the clergyperson is sacrificed because it seems pretty easy to cast clergy aside and start over with someone else who might be better ‘trained’ by the congregation. This leads to clergy being timid, not willing to take chances, and thinking twice before challenging the congregation in a way that might create too much discomfort.

This, in turn, can create an atmosphere that leads to clergy burnout. Clergy health is often compromised in situations like this. Rediger called this phenomenon “Clergy Killers” and institutions that do this over and again, Serial Killers. Clergy may be killed metaphorically, as in losing their position or standing, or they may be killed literally via the consequences of degrading physical health.

What was fascinating to me, even when reading this years ago, was that Rediger never seemed to allow for the possibility that clergy themselves sometimes played a role in their own demise. And, at the same time, it is easy to see where clergy, who GENUINELY feel called to their ministry, would have difficulty being told what to do by mere mortals.

But the fact is, it seems to me, that religious communities are made up of mere mortals. Today, there is little deference given to clergy by society at large and often by the people they serve. Perhaps that is the way it should be, I’m not sure. Whether it should be or not, that is the way it is.

Clergy caught up in these situations almost always feel betrayed. They feel betrayed by individuals. They feel betrayed by the church. They often feel betrayed by the hierarchy they hoped would lend them aid. They will even feel betrayed, they say, by God. In fact, there was a movie produced in 2012 based on the ideas first reported by Rediger. It is called “Betrayed – The Clergy Killer’s DNA.”

I watched the film recently and, quite honestly, did not agree with all that was reported. Yet, I do believe that most clergy, in most instances, most of the time — are doing the best they can with the talents they have.

There were, however, several statistics given in the film that are clearly identifiable with clergy health. Like these:

  • 1,500 clergy leave ministry each month
  • 61% of congregations have forced clergy to leave
  • 83% of clergy spouses want their spouse to leave the ministry
  • 90% of clergy will not stay in ministry long enough to reach the age of retirement
  • 50% of clergy would leave the ministry if they had another way of making a living

In my estimation these are dire numbers. It is no wonder clergy health is so difficult to maintain. Additionally, fewer and fewer people are choosing ministry as a profession because they may feel their isn’t enough support offered.

I’d love to read your thoughts about the idea of Clergy Killers in the comments below.

Until next week…

I wish you well,

Rev. Russell Elleven, DMin, BCC, CWP
The Minister of Health

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  • R Lebron

    WOW! This totally describes what a few of the ‘old guard’ in our church did to my husband and myself! So sad that people who are willing to give of themselves to serve are thwarted by ‘dark souls’.

    • I agree R Lebron! It can create an atmosphere where clergy feel like they are constantly having to look over their shoulder…


      • Laurie

        Oh grim! I remember working through “How Your Church Family Works” with the group at Westside. You are so right to recommend; those of us who attended gained insight and perspective that was really valuable! This should be part of a class for ALL new members, imho..

        • Thank you Laurie!


  • Xolani

    Yesterday, I received a letter from Starr King School of the Ministry asking that I invite another potential minister to consider enrollment there. (It probably went to all UU ministers.) That leeter seemed an innovative way to increase enrollment. But, I have no one to give the letter to. It arrived with no info on scholarships! Reading the stats here, I’m given pause, again, about inviting someone into ministry. The “clergy killers” phenomenon sounds quite real to me. Thanks for lifting up that personal responsibility component, too. xk

    • It certainly give one pause, doesn’t it! There is good news too and I’ll be writing about that soon.

      Thanks for commenting Xolani!

  • Carla Hardy

    I had no idea it was so bad. I feel like when I go to church this week I should hug our minister and say, “I’ve got your back. Call me anytime to stand up for you.”
    How can we as congregants help change things?

    • I think there is a way to help and that is to stop the clergy killer before they get on a roll. There are legitimate times when clergy need to move to another post but there are many situations/congregations where clergy just can’t win.

      I like to recommend Peter Steinke’s “How Your Church Family Works” because I think when we are able to recognize rising anxieties for what they are, we can name it and (in a way) disarm it.