Manipulation

It’s Pastoral Ministry Tuesday.

Here’s an important question that comes up in pastoral ministry, “How do you get people to do what you want/need them to do?”

Most of the time we’re a little more nuanced in the way we ask it. We save the blunt questions until we’re alone in a “senior pastors only” meeting. But at some point, in our pastoral ministry, out of frustration, desperation or exasperation, we contemplate this question – alone or with others.

A friend of mine in ministry likes to compare being a pastor to herding cats. Jesus just called us sheep. In my experience, I can lead a sheep to water (or good grass) but I can’t make them drink (or eat). An old professor used to add, “but you can give them a salt block to lick and make them thirsty!”

I’d like to write to you a bit about salt blocks.

A little while ago I was visiting a church elsewhere and our experience there started like this…

My wife and I walked from the expansive parking lot to the front door. At the door we were greeted by a group of people wearing matching T-shirts that assured us they were “official.” One nice lady offered us a fruit tray as we walked in – not for us to take the whole tray but we could grab a piece of fruit with our fingers as we walked in. Then we came to the coffee and tea table. We navigated by one more layer of welcomers (with official Tshirts) and sat down.

We were early. Which to me meant we were on time. Suddenly on the screens at the front, images started to play – words were printed over the video images. Some of the images were local some were not. The words were all positive statements like, “You are a shaper of destiny.” And “You are the answer someone is praying for.” And “You have been created with a purpose.” It was like reading key lines from a motivational speech.

It was also some very skillful manipulation.

Please don’t freak out. We manipulate people every Sunday morning when we ask them to stand and sing. Unless we thought everyone was just about to spontaneously do that on their own. The songs we sing, their chord progressions, the key, the rhythm, all of these things manipulate people – they create an effect.

I’m not using manipulation as necessarily a negative thing.

But I think it’s important that grown-ups know when we’re being manipulated and that we’re participating by choice and not unaware of what is being done to us.

The person next to me loved the pre-service video pep talk. And that’s important to note. I was irritated by it because I found myself resenting their efforts to adjust my attitude for me. It was not unlike the feelings I have when a commercial selling greeting cards makes me feel like crying because I haven’t given my grandma a hug in a while so I better go buy a card and mail it off to her as a virtual hug.

Manipulation.

I understand the use of manipulation in getting kids to eat, doing their homework, not sticking the crayon up their sister’s nose. But grownups using manipulation on other grownups to get them to conform or perform to someone else’s expectations seems…well…dirty to me. Especially in the church.

Sometimes we use guilt. Because it works.

Sometimes we use shame. Because it works.

Sometimes we use anger. Because it works.

Sometimes we dangle a carrot on a stick. Because it works.

Most of us can agree those are all messed up. Most of us. But when you’re trying to move some people out of Egypt and up to the Promised Land, sometimes you just can’t keep yourself from hitting the rock with your stick.

But in the church world, in particular, the Charismatic church world, there’s a more subtle manipulation that can take place.

I’m referring to the Jesus Juke. The “the Lord told me.” The “felt lead”ness. That moment when I tell you as a leader or the leader that my way is God’s way. I’m not sure there’s anything dirtier than a leader telling others that “God told me” about a decision that involves them – and more importantly – affects them. It’s hard for me to exercise any autonomy when you’ve just made it clear that to disagree with you is to go against the Spirit’s leading.

It’s like asking a room full of people, “Who wants to go to hell and burn in eternal conscious torment forever?” And when people fail to raise their hands you say, “Great, I’ll put you all down as decisions for Jesus.” It just don’t do.

Another great manipulation among my brethren is the spontaneous healing on a plane, train or workplace setting. A couple things that happen here. The first involves having a “word” for one of your servers. Think this through. You are going to stop a server and ask them if they have any pains. Have you ever been a server? Every server I’ve ever worked with worked in pain because of the constant time spent on their feet, carrying heavy things, twisting in odd ways to lift and set down plates and trays, and so on. So chances are really good, like 99%, that you’re going to get “confirmation” on your “word.”

Compounding this is the presence of a type A or assertive personality. There are a whole herd of us non-A types who are wired to go along to get along. If you’re a strong personality and we’re sitting next to each other on the plane, chances are pretty good I’m going to agree with whatever you say if it means I can eventually go back to my book. It also means if an assertive type is beside a suggestive type, the suggestive type will have whatever disease they’ve been told they have and healed of that disease they just now found out they had all before the plane lands. Glory and Hallelujah.

Step 2, “Can I pray for you right now, a 10 second prayer, for you to be healed?” I’m a server. I’m serving you. If you want me to spin around 3 times while I touch my nose I will. Can we all agree that a person in the SERVICE INDUSTRY is likely to be agreeable when YOU have the power to complain about them and cause them to lose their job? Can we acknowledge that when tips make up the majority of my income, I will do my best to please you? So sure, you can pray for me.

Step 3, “When I pray for you, you will experience warm hands, itchy tongue, electric shocks, etc.” And now that I’ve prayed for you, did you have an experience “person over whom I have tremendous power right now?” “Person in the service industry whose income is based on my happiness,” are you feeling anything? Oh, yes, for sure, my hands are warm, my tongue is itchy and I felt an electric shock…” Glory and hallelujah.

Ug. There’s a power imbalance at work in this situation that is fundamentally a work of manipulation.

Don’t get me started on people who get other people’s legs to grow.

And sometimes, my well-meaning charismatic brothers and sisters will pull these stunts, knowing there is at least some % of manipulation going on to get “faith to rise in the room.”

I believe God heals. I believe God heals other people in response to our prayers and theirs. I believe that God can heal heads and backs and livers and cancers. I believe God can still make the blind see and the lame walk and the deaf hear. But I’m wildly suspicious of people who use obvious techniques of control and manipulation to create questionable results in order to make dubious claims.

And I have tremendous respect for everyone who just goes about quietly ministering healing to people without taking it on the road to score an honorarium.

Manipulation isn’t always a bad thing. But usually it is. And when people realize they’ve been manipulated, they either have to choose to lie about their experience or they quietly slip away, neither is good fruit.

Next week I’ll be writing some more about manipulation, the more common type we use in the church in order to get people to do what we want. Check back if you’re interested. Or don’t. It’s up to you.

Or is it?

Part TWO is HERE.

Published by APastor'sStory

Trying to squeeze this life for all the juice I can get out of it.

One thought on “Manipulation

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