This is Pastoral Ministry Tuesday. Every week I try to contribute a post about a pastor’s life. This is the second of two parts and you can read Part One by clicking the link. And now, on with today’s post…
Manipulating people isn’t unique to the Church or to church leaders. I’d call it a learned behavior that we seem to bend towards, especially when we find ourselves in a leadership or management role. Like any dysfunctional family system, the participants tend to repeat what they’ve learned. When we repeat it often enough it becomes normative behavior.
We don’t think of it as unhealthy, unethical, anti-Christ or even inappropriate. It’s how we get things done.
And let’s be honest, you can’t find a Bible verse against it. Ergo, nothing wrong with a little manipulation or even a lot of manipulation if it gets us where I want us to go.
Some of the classic ways we do this…
1) The church bully. An aggressive personality type who intimidates others with veiled and not so veiled threats. I’ve known pastors and parishioners who’ve even gone so far as to “lay hands on one another” that was more choke-hold than prayer posture. However it manifests, it’s about the power of intimidation to manipulate others to get our way (for the Lord).
2) The customer. This person may threaten to take their business elsewhere or they may suggest to the pastor they’d be interested in coming their way if things were more to their liking than in their present situation. Either way, this consumer wants to leverage their presence – a butt in a seat, a dollar in the offering basket – for their own ends.
3) The job creator. Sometimes a pastor will offer a person a potential staff position to a person to get them to stay, to quell complaints, to engender a favor or just recruit people for their new church plant. “Hey, I’ve been looking for a Children’s ministry director…I can’t pay you right now, but if you come to our new plant and help with our children’s ministry, it could turn into a full-time staff position…” They key word: “could.” It’s “carrot on a stick” stuff.
4) The biggest fan. A lot of people are motivated by what you think of them. And a lot of people can be manipulated by what you say you think of them. Early on in ministry I was deeply encouraged by people who told me how awesome I was, even more awesome than the last pastor they had…blah, blah, blah. I learned to distrust and then run away from my biggest fans. They praise you and then let you know when you let them down. You’d think encouragement was always a good thing but we often say positive things to people to manipulate them and get them on our team, get them dependent on our compliments and approval, create a fear of disapproval. It works both ways, pastors and members of the church.
5) The spokesperson. It’s a special moment for a pastor when someone asks to meet with you and the conversation begins with, “Pastor, a number of people have been talking to me about the way you…” or “Pastor, I don’t want to use any names but several people have told me their not happy with…” It’s all about creating authority by claiming representation of a constituency. Generally it turns out to be the person speaking and their spouse but it’s a gambit that often works on pastors who like their job.
6) The liar. This is the person who pretends to be onside but isn’t. They present as a friend but really they’re undermining you, wearing a mask, setting people against one another in order to achieve their intended goal. Pastors do it. Church members do it. This is overt manipulation coupled with covert manipulation – usually gas lighting and innuendo. But if our cause is sanctified, surely our actions are justified?
7) The spirit-led soothsayer. In my charismatic world, but I don’t think exclusively so, we have that person who intimates that they have a super secure connection with God, a hotline to Jesus. God tells them stuff. A big part of this person’s game is to tell you how happy God is wth you. They will “prophesy’ about your sonship, your anointing, your calling, your spiritual ‘leveling up’ which is all just talk meant to butter you up. Eventually they come with a warning that is usually about someone they’re jealous of or perceive as competition for your ear. Or they have a dream that you should/shouldn’t do something. Or they were just praying for you and felt the Spirit say you shouldn’t read any more of my blog posts.
8. The anointed. Leaders, pastors in particular, can work staff, including pastoral staff, admin staff and volunteers over with the magical thinking that somehow God has made them special and if you challenge them, disagree with them, confront them, you are opposing God. “Touch not the Lord’s anointed!” is the fun phrase we like to utter…or mutter. The idea has become popular in recent US politics – if the Pastor does it, it can’t be illegal – or in our case, a sin. And even pastors who don’t play the ‘touch not’ card still play on the persona and mythology that they are somehow on a “level” wherein only their perceived equals or angels can challenge them. And boy can we make you feel bad, and either ashamed or embarrassed or both for calling out God’s man or woman of the hour. (Often tied to this is the appeal to God’s authority being synonymous with their own and the use of a phrase like “if you can’t submit to me you can’t submit to God…”)
It’s not an exhaustive list, but you get the idea.
The tricky thing about manipulation is that we can be doing it without even meaning to do it. We can try to sway people without consciously being aware that that was what we were doing. It becomes such an ingrained way of life, such an easy ‘go to’ form of communication that we can sometimes only see it through hindsight as we look back on a relationship or situation that went spectacularly wrong.
For people involved in pastoral ministry, I think avoiding manipulation – in the giving or the receiving – is one of our greatest challenges. It works. It seems natural. And that’s what makes avoiding it so hard. I believe that for pastors, we’re supposed to be about helping people grow up in Christ and a big part of that is, I think, personal autonomy. Yours. Theirs.
In I and Thou, my man, Martin Buber writes, “Mundus vult decipi: the world wants to be deceived.” I don’t know the Latin for it but I’d add, the world wants to be manipulated and the world wants to manipulate. As pastors, our job is to not give in to the temptation, not fall back on old ways just because they work, not to let ourselves be swayed by the manipulations of others – perpetuating these unhealthy ways of relating to each other.
Warning: not being swayed by manipulation sounds good, but not going along with the system, no matter how dysfunctional and destructive it might be, will get you in trouble, will make you the bad person, will make others want to dispose of you for making a mess of their old familiar ways.
The first step, is to acknowledge we have a problem and it’s out of control.
The fourth step is to make a list, a fearless, searching list, of the ways we tend to manipulate and the ways others have manipulated us.
The fifth step is to share that list with another human being. Get it all out there.
The sixth step is to disavow those ways and be willing for God to extract them from your psyche and your way of living.
The ninth step is to make amends with people, where possible, that you have manipulated.
One last thought, for those who need a Bible verse for it, the Old Testament word for manipulation is witchcraft.
So help me out, what classic manipulations would you add to the list? What has been “normal” in your circles and experiences?