Confession: I Manipulated and Controlled People

I’m pretty ashamed to say it, but it’s true. And I regret it. If it was for freedom that Christ set us free, pastors don’t have any right to take away that freedom, and yet we so often do. Very subtly of course, and mostly unintentionally (our motives are usually pretty good). I mean we don’t actually see it as manipulation and control, it’s just what it ends up being in the cold light of day.

When it comes to outcomes (taking the church where God wants it to go – as if we have this nailed down) pastors don’t really have to many levers, but the ones we do have, are very powerful. We can’t pay people to do what we want, so therefore we can fire them. Of course some churches opt for firing people anyway under the guise of church discipline, but in larger churches this is very rare. And we can’t make people think or believe what we think or believe. Nor can we make people turn up or volunteer or give when we want them to. This kills us of course and we spend a lot of time thinking about this dilemma. We have this amazing (overrated word, please stop using it pastors) vision from God, we have incredible (also a word beaten to death) “God-given” strategies and plans and of course we know time is short, Jesus’ return is imminent and souls need to be saved – yesterday. So mobilising people to get our goals achieved (ahem, I mean God’s goals of course) without the levers we would like is tough.

But the one lever I did swing off quite a bit was to control people’s words and actions, by forming a culture which defines what is and isn’t acceptable. It’s not dissimilar to the army where if one soldier or recruit screwed up, all would be punished, such that in the future, the platoon or section would monitor and control their own to save from being disciplined. Saves the brass from doing it and they don’t have to have eyes and ears everywhere, all the time! The goal is to build a culture of control. Great solution.

Why are we trying to control people? Well we need them to attend (remember we’re going for numbers, because numbers matter, because Jesus counted the sheep and realised one was missing, so therefore the more the better), we need them to give, we need them to find somewhere to serve, we need them to bring their friends (so they can add to the numbers), we need them to be on board with the building fund and missions giving (all separate from tithing of course) and we need them to do all this enthusiastically with a cheerful spirit and an attitude of servant hood. That’s a tough ask without any control! This is why Bill Hybels said to George Bush, that it’s easier to be the president of the USA than a pastor, because at least Bush could fire someone’s ass and if push came to shove, he had the world’s biggest firepower at his disposal. That’s a pretty good lever right there!

How does it happen? (remember it’s usually inadvertent, otherwise I would have said “How do we do it?”). It happens through our words and actions. I’ll try and unpack this in a future post, but here it is in brief.

  • We use ideas of unity and oneness to get everyone to conform. Unity brings God’s blessing. You wouldn’t want to stand in the way of that would you?
  • We somehow hold up an ideal of the Christian life so that everyone knows what to aim for, but also so everyone can see if someone else is failing and “help” them
  • We use “spiritual” religious language to describe what’s “in” and what’s “out”. The spiritual language makes it sound like God’s saying it.
  • We talk about having a positive attitude versus a “negative spirit”. We prime people not to listen to anyone who is “negative” i.e. anyone who disagrees with leadership. Sprinkle a dose of stuff about a root of bitterness here too.
  • We teach about the importance of leadership and following leadership and vision and following vision – incessantly
  • We teach about rebellion, having “another kind” of spirit, about the perils of “division” and “divisive” people.
  • We teach about servanthood (man I’ve seen some abuses of this one) and show people that Jesus was a servant, therefore they must serve….us… I mean the church
  • We drop huge hints from the pulpit and get people to draw the conclusions they want us to draw and we might even use jokes or joke about real issues or problems in order to make the group laugh at them, so the people with the real problems or issues won’t be able to raise them for fear of not being taken seriously.
  • We tend to isolate people who disagree. We talk about them in a negative light. We warn people not to listen to them. We take them off rosters and we make them unwelcome. We might even covertly preach AT them in sermons (they know who they are). Basically we want to freeze them out.
  • We can make a big deal and reward people who are getting it right. We can applaud them and lionize them.
  • The most extreme case of manipulation is reserved for the most insecure pastors and that is where they warn “Don’t touch the Lord’s anointed”

Well, I’ve bared my soul, but I don’t feel any better. I’m not proud of the fact I’ve done this even if I didn’t make it to the last one.

It doesn’t mean church is bad and it doesn’t mean pastors are bad. It means that if we push the envelope on the way we’re doing church and what we’re trying to achieve, these are the kinds of levers we will pull on when we get desperate. It’s not just a matter of naming this up and asking pastors not to do it. It’s a matter of looking deeper at what the pastor is trying to do in his role as a pastor and they way we run our churches and asking “should we be doing this, the way it’s being done?”

Control works to a great extent, but the collateral is huge. See how it worked in Elizabeth’s life and see if you can pick the dot points above in operation:

My church taught me that church and school were very different worlds, and that I should not associate with Non-christians at my school because they might influence me to do wrong and destructive things. Most of my friends at school did not go to church, but I kept this fact well hidden, living two very different lives. I was so involved at church that some of the pastors on staff there called me “the Calvary Chapel princess” but at the same time, I was getting into trouble at school with my friends, mostly by ditching classes.

When I was in high school, I had a Christian boyfriend. I tried to confide in my mom one day by telling her that I wanted to do more than just kiss him and hold his hand. My mom began to panic when she found out that we had kissed each other, and she told me that I needed to break up with him if I wanted to be a Christian. Since we were so in love, I argued with her about it. So she set up an appointment for me with the pastor of our church, who told me that I needed to obey my mom if I wanted to be a Christian. I cried for days and I finally broke up with my boyfriend, shattering his heart too. I thought that God had required me to make some very difficult and unhappy decisions.

After graduating from high school, I became a youth group counselor at my church. One night I went out with some of my friends from high school to a dance club. A “back-slidden” youth group student saw me there and the next day, she happened to mention it to another youth group counselor, who mentioned it to the youth pastor. He called me into his church office and explained that I could not be a Christian and go out dancing. I told him that I wanted to be a Christian but that dancing is fun and he became angry with me and told me I had an inferiority complex. I left his church office in tears. Finally, I made the decision to stop being friends with anyone who did not go to church so that I could be a Christian and also be a youth group counselor at my church. I think that this hurt my Non-christian friends very deeply.

After a while, I couldn’t stand the pressure of living up to the high standards of being a Christian so I moved away from home to go to college

Read Elizabeth’s Full Story here

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2 Responses

  1. This is a compelling post, Jack. Grateful that you shared it – and I’ve linked to it from my Facebook page as well.

    As I mentioned to one of my buddies: it’s such an easy trap to fall into. No one sets out to manipulate anyone. But the bills have to be paid, and it seems an obvious choice to apply a liberal dose of guilt to make it happen.

    Funny thing: guilt. It’s a great motivator for a lot of things, and consequently seems to be the first go-to tool for many people, and not just in church settings. Takes time to built resistance to it, too. I’ve found that people in their 20’s are more susceptible to it, than those in their 40’s for example.

    I like what you said about the application of churchified peer pressure too. The very mode of thinking we discourage in our kids, to keep them from running with the crowd when they want to explore harmful activities, is the same kind of thinking we employ in other environments, without blushing over our hypocrisy.

    Your gentle approach to all of this is appreciated, too. When I first pulled away from the tar baby of church-mode thinking, I was incredulous at my own naivety, and then irritated and incensed when I saw the same thing in others. I quickly discovered that the most impassioned argument never wins, and in fact only encourages them to draw back. Folk need to follow their own logic their own way. You *want* them to see the harm they’re doing to themselves, and you’d rather it happen now, rather than later on, after they’ve had to go through some suffering, as you did. But….then you think “wait. If someone had tried to tell me, would I have listened? Or would I have considered him to be one of the anti-Christian or backslidden crowd my pastor warned me about?”

  2. Hey WS, I agree, guilt is a powerful motivator, particularly in religious circles. I hadn’t considered that I was tapping into that. Funnily I hadn’t thought about the hypocrisy of peer pressure either. Now I feel even more of a dick! I do train my kids to handle peer pressure on one hand, but on the other was using peer pressure to force people to do what I considered to be the right thing.

    If I was pastoring today, I’d say I was using “positive” peer pressure. But pressure is pressure, positive or negative and faith isn’t like that. Love and faith invites. Pressure prods. And whose version of positive are we talking about? Mine of course….

    I really dislike reading bitter stuff on the ‘net. There are so many sites that dis churches and pastors and there’s so much bile out there. I guess the “voice” I want to have is one of reflection, understanding and ideas than just pointing out what’s wrong with no solutions. I’d rather have conversations about this stuff, than just yell at people….

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