Emotional Manipulation in the Church

The personalities, games, and church-speak are those odd and humorous experiences that occur so frequently in the ministry. Pastors and leaders often share the psychological games that they experience in their day to day dealings. If leaders haven’t yet heard about them, it would be good to be aware of them. Some of the people require caring but firm discipline, some are in a class of their own and need only some sympathetic understanding, and others just require a good sense of humor! Chances of hearing about them in seminary are slim, but those who learn about them early will fare far better than those of us who didn’t.

Adam at the Airport

This early warning, thankfully not true in all cases, applies with such regularity that it has become one of those inside secrets. This word of caution applies also to the first people who are your friends at the church, greet your moving van, wish to host a welcome party, or are on the pastor search committee. Most experienced pastors will get this point.

Someone will say, “Let’s meet the pastor at the airport!”

The inexperienced shepherd most likely will be very touched that some of his new flock have taken the time and trouble to go out of their way to greet him and his family with such a warm embrace. The many strings attached to it aren’t evident in the initial stages of the new friendship.

The unspoken words of this transaction seem to be, “We’ll become best friends and you’ll do what I want…or I’ll be forced to hurt you!”

Deep, unexpressed issues of power and self-identity adhere to this transaction. Unsettled matters of marriage, family, growing up, rejection, and childhood crises can be intertwined in this simple act of greeting the pastor. The psychodrama will inevitably be played out and the pastor will be shocked and confused when the moment of Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation comes. The irony of it all will strike him—how his best buddy could turn so vicious for some small matter or even no known reason at all, virtually overnight.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that no one should meet the new pastor at the airport or be there to greet him. Someone has to! And most pastors appreciate it.

Pastor Says

The majority of pastors have been unsuspecting losers of the church game where he is wrongly cited on some issue. “The pastor wants…” or, “The pastor says…” or, “The pastor doesn’t want….” There doesn’t have to be any evidence whatsoever for the false assertion. It’s just used routinely by those who need the pastor’s authority to confirm or add weight to their opinion on a matter.

Such statements may alienate others who will never go to the pastor and ask whether he really said it or not. All he’ll ever notice is that some people are no longer friendly or warm toward him, or seem to have a disapproving scowl on their faces when he preaches on Sunday morning. If he goes to them and asks them if there’s anything wrong, he is assured that “everything is fine.”

The pastor is the consistent loser of this game.

Wounded Wayne and Hurt Hannah: The Wounded Attackers

These persons have one unique characteristic of their own—they conform to the pattern of the chronic abuser. They will attack, get “hurt,” then back off and declare themselves the injured party. This cycle is repeated several times: attack, retreat, feigned remorse, and then become the sufferer in acute need of an apology.

It’s hard to discipline Wounded Wayne because he has been conning the church for so many years that others have unwittingly become his enablers. “It’s just the way he is.” He’s so well liked by so many, even by his targets in the past!

Here’s a person in need of treatment, but who usually will never receive it because both he and his friends are reluctant to admit the truth. Moreover, his victims become terribly disturbed by his being hurt himself. This is the classic scenario of the abuser and the abused.

Following closely on the heels of Wounded Wayne is Hurt Hannah: “I’m hurt. You’re going to pay.” One of the enduring effects of the “me-first” movement (by whatever label) is the notion that “hurt trumps right.” To feel hurt is to experience the ultimate injury. To hurt someone’s feelings is to commit an offense so grave that any response is deemed justified, no matter how exaggerated or destructive on the part of the “hurtee.”

Using this rationale, any negative emotion could be couched in the language of “hurt.” Anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, hatred, malice—any that can be named—is easily transformed and allowed to ride in on the back of hurt.

If Wayne or Hannah were to admit to the sins of bitterness or resentment, then we would be inclined to tell them, “Get over it!” or, the way the apostle Paul would put it, “Get rid of it” (Eph. 4:31). However, if the emotion being experienced is hurt, then the finger of accusation shifts toward the miserable wretch who did the alleged hurting.

The pastor loses in this battle because he’s supposed to understand that when someone behaves obnoxiously and acts hurt, it’s only because they’re going through a hard phase in life. If you point out that hurts can result for many reasons—when truth is told, someone is exposed for dishonesty or is fired, any decision is made, or the Gospel is preached—it will always seem insensitive and unnecessarily harsh.

When the biblical foundation for ethics and morals is removed from view, then any standard can and will take its place. When right and wrong, good and evil, truth and falsehood, light and darkness are disregarded, the vacuum will be filled by whatever random standard is brought forward. Since the church dutifully follows the culture, then the standard du jour is allowed to dominate. “Hurt” becomes just as legitimate as “right” or “true.” Actually, even more so.

What’s your story of emotional manipulation (whether by a pastor or a church member) in the church?

Photo “The Gossips” by Julie Falk via Flickr

John I. Snyder
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