how to not be controlling

puppet control cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

The other day a pastor sent me a letter. It’s the kind of letter I rarely ever receive from pastors. It was encouraging to me because I know there are such pastors out there, quietly working in the trenches out of the limelight. Here it is in part:

“Dear David, thank you for your post which gave a response to Lillian Daniel. This was some weeks back… it takes me a while to reflect on things while most people have moved on.

“One of my great desires as a pastor is to help people take the next step towards God. I’ve given up long ago trying to tell people what that step is. I’d rather come alongside and help individuals to determine for themselves what that step is.

“What I don’t want to get in the way of this desire are the subtle ways of manipulating people. I’m asking because I’m not sure i would always see the subtle unintentional forms of abuse without the help of another’s eyes. Would you please share with me some subtle “abusive” tactics you have seen churches employ to control others?

I hope this okay to ask. But I ask so that I can be more self-aware and a better human being.”

Fantastic! This is my response:

Of course there are easy ways to avoid abusive tactics: Don’t tell people what to do. Don’t criticize people. Don’t threaten people. Don’t even suggest threats. Don’t use fear, guilt or shame to motivate people. Don’t use names, even if they’re from the bible. Don’t slot people, because we change from day to day. Don’t pressure people. Don’t beg. Don’t talk down. Don’t discourage questions, even the scariest kinds. Don’t dismiss suffering. Don’t put a time limit on emotions. I could go on an on.

I would rather talk about the environment that encourages the abuse and manipulation of people. I wrote a book called “Without a Vision My People Prosper” in which I critique visionary thinking in the church. I’ve come to question whether we can live entirely ideology-free, but I believe ideology, utopia mentality and visionary thinking is the greatest threat to human liberty in a church community setting. No matter how lofty the vision is, it will require the surrender of freedom to some extent. Whenever you say, “You have to do this to make this work,” then the manipulation of the human spirit is at work. Sometimes compromise is necessary. Sometimes agreeing to put our hands to the wheel together is required. But if it becomes constant then I question it.

Organizations breed systemic evil. It cannot be helped. They endeavor to take on a life of their own like corporations demand to be respected and obeyed like human lords. This boils right down to the most basic organizations like family and marriage. If you have to sacrifice who you are, your freedom, to make this family or this marriage work the way it says you should, then something’s gone wrong.

“In order for this church to accomplish its goals, you have to do this and stop doing that.” This destroys community. Businesses and charities and other organizations may do this when it only requires the mutual consent of its members for a limited time in the day. This is called work. But when it becomes life then it’s slavery. It doesn’t matter how effective or world-changing it is. If it demands the sacrifice of human beings then it has failed to liberate them.

When I pastored my last local church we had no vision. No goals. We just were. The pressure to develop a vision was strong. But when we left people to live in their own way in the context of a loving, supportive community, it was a dynamic I’ve never experienced before. Things got done. Spontaneous projects and charities would rise up. But no one was coerced. No one felt manipulated. We called it “authenticity with accountability”. That is, I’m free to be me, but as soon as I hurt someone they or the community have the right to challenge me on it.

We received a lot of criticism for it. People can’t believe this is possible. But it is. I’ve seen it and experienced it. And the community was the richest I’ve ever seen in a local church. I don’t boast about myself. I boast about the people who achieved this by refusing to focus away from themselves to a visionary goal or ideological utopia. It really did work when it worked. I’m seeing the same thing now in my online community The Lasting Supper, and the same dynamic is at work. It’s amazing.

So that’s my answer. Remove the expectations you or a goal would have for people and most of the manipulative, abuse tactics become useless. Then, just be compassionate.

Try it.

"Nice vid David - hilarious! We'll miss you and wish you all the best! (and ..."

nakedpastor’s goodbye video to patheos
"Good idea! I look forward to exciting developments at your own site. I like Patheos, ..."

nakedpastor’s goodbye video to patheos

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Pat68

    “…as soon as I hurt someone they or the community have the right to challenge me on it.”

    And that’s what’s missing in so many churches. Got hurt? Well, that person has been here forever, we can’t possibly question their behavior motives. We don’t want to make a scene or make them uncomfortable. Never mind the people that person has offended and made uncomfortable. And so the cycle of abuse continues with the expectation that the offended party will get over, not rock the boat, etc. ad nauseum.

  • It is true that horor stories exist in any kind of organization of people from governments to corporations to charities and to churches. I feel it is also true that the better organizations have a well written meta document (constitution) that doesn’t itself define the aspiration and goals but how these aspirations and goals are to be determined – in a way defining the organization culture. I’m a big believer that good ideas should be able to stand on their own without resulting to arguments from authority. Although it is good to give credit for who thought of the idea, a good idea is good because it is good; not because person X said it. This brings us to churches and the culture of worshiping scripture as the Word of God. Scripture is a mixed bag of arguments from authority and a bunch of shoulds and shouldn’ts. It is not a good meta document. Although it has some good ideas, it also has bad ones as well. IMO the bible should just be used as a historic reference book on what people believed 2000 to 3000 years ago. It should not be used as constitution, legislative, and judicial document all wrapped up all in one. Problems happen when this is attempted. The problems become exasperated when the arguments from authority are to come from the greatest conceivable authority possible to conceive. This is ripe for abuse. I think the greatest abusers are always those that claim to speak for God or claim to write down the words of God. IMO the scripture authors were abusers. So are the ones after them that quote scripture as the word of God.

  • Jim Wright

    Thanks. I full agree (at least with this specific article). 😉

    Church is NOT a vehicle for organizing folks around someone’s particular vision, gifts, calling or mission. Also, utopian ideologies – like forming “radical” communities – will kill community. I see it all the time.

    We are very much doing church the way you describe, and I am amazed at what God can accomplish when we trust His people to hear His voice as He releases them into their own vision and calling – rather than advancing my (or anyone else’s) vision and calling. Sometimes, someone will have no vision or sense of calling, because in God’s timing He just wants them to chill for a season – and that’s OK too!

  • Al Cruise

    We have a group that’s being doing this for 7 years and the results have been amazing. We started in a Church as an evening service, but we got kicked out last February because we weren’t encouraging the people to attend the Sunday morning service. This month’s service we had people from many different faiths, and people with no faith. We have no goals, its a place were your welcome with no pretence. Here are words I live by. Jesus never intended his Church to be a place to give power to the status quo or the self appointed religious elite, he intended his Church to be a place to give hope to people who don’t have any.

  • Carol

    Scripture proclaims that “without a vision, the people perish.”
    A vision is different from an ideal.
    An ideal is a perfectionistic measure used to make a dualistic judgment: right or wrong, pass or fail, etc.
    A vision is more like a lodestar that keeps us moving in the right direction, the basis for the theological virtue of eschatological hope that keeps us from falling into despair even during the darkest of times.
    Everything has its dark side and that certainly includes formal organizations. However, without institutionalization authentic spiritual movements tend to either dissipate in an excess of enthusiasm or become hi-jacked by charismatic, but dark individuals.

    In the OT Scriptures and the history of the Church we find a tension between the priestly and the prophetic traditions that, over time, seem to keep the people of God moving in the right direction in spite of many wrong turns and desert wanderings.

    Institutions are by their very nature conservative. The keep us from “throwing out the baby with the bath water” in times of rapid historical change, but they also stand in the way of the creative thinking necessary to meet contemporary challenges.

    “Institutions are a strange mix of the mass and the individual. They abstract. They behave according to a set of rules that substitute both for individual judgments and for the emotional responses that occur whenever individuals interact. The
    act of creating an institution dehumanizes it, creates an arbitrary barrier between individuals.
    Yet institutions are human as well. They reflect the cumulative personalities of those within them, especially their leadership. They tend, unfortunately, to mirror less admirable human traits, developing and protecting self-interest and even ambition. Institutions almost never sacrifice. Since they live by rules, they lack spontaneity. They try to order chaos not in the way an artist or scientist does, through a defining vision that creates structure and discipline, but by closing off and isolating themselves from that which does not fit. They become bureaucratic.
    The best institutions avoid the worst aspects of bureaucracy in two ways. Some are not really institutions at all. They are simply a loose confederation of individuals, each of whom remains largely a free agent whose achievements are independent of the institution but who also shares and benefits from association with others. In these cases the institution simply provides an infrastructure that
    supports the individual, allowing him or her to flourish so that the whole often exceeds the sum of the parts.”
    ~John M. Barry, THE GREAT INFLUENZA: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History, p. 299

  • Al Cruise

    I would say people without “hope” perish, often by their own hands. Visions usually start off with very noble goals but in almost all cases become smothered by the ideal. That being power and money. Finding out and relentlessly pursuing and appyling what really gives people true hope and purpose and helps them take that step closer to God is the purpose of the Church.

  • Brigitte Mueller

    I would recommend Bonhoeffer’s “Life Together”. We have no control over each other but between us stands Jesus, and he is the path.

    (It bothers me that David calls Lasting Supper “my” online-community. It seems to me an ironic slip-up in the language about freedom.)

    “A Christian man (or woman) is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man (or woman) is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.”

  • klhayes

    Yes, I agree. I remember having to say no sometime to projects or joining a group and then being interrogated for it. This was particularly bad when I was a student studying in the biological sciences. I had to study, I may have had another obligation or maybe I just didn’t want to do it. Of course the argument for me doing something was that it was “for Christ.” When I was a Christian, I believe that any thing I did should be for him so that was never a valid argument.

  • Shary Hauber

    Often the concern is to keep the visible church organization and programs going at any cost to the individuals in it. If any church organization was just allowed to fad away when it no longer served the individuals it would be a blessing to all. The invisible church will not die because it is not an organization. It just goes on being the church welcoming all who come. Making no demands just being the path.

  • Hello David,

    “Don’t tell people what to do. Don’t criticize people. Don’t threaten people. Don’t even suggest threats. Don’t use fear, guilt or shame to motivate people. Don’t use names, even if they’re from the bible. Don’t slot people, because we change from day to day. Don’t pressure people. Don’t beg. Don’t talk down. Don’t discourage questions, even the scariest kinds. Don’t dismiss suffering. Don’t put a time limit on emotions. I could go on an on.”

    Those advice are great for many people to whom you can just say “try to be act like a good person” and let them draw their own conclusion as to how to act.

    But there are people who are either psychologically or morally unwilling to consider something other than their selfish interest. I’m not sure it is wrong in such cases to use shame to push them to change their behavior.

    After all shame is a God-given (or evolution-spawned 🙂 ) feeling which can be quite adaptive for the group.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

  • Carol

    I would agree that people without an eschatological hope perish. I also believe that it is an eschatological vision that sustains that hope.

    I believe that the difference between a romantic idealist and a pragmatic visionary is that the idealist needs immediate change to sustain their hope while the visionary is “in it” for the long haul.

    Of course, in our “immediate gratification”, hedonistic society most people will be idealistic rather than people of vision. This is true even in the church, where many have given up all hope for the transformation of our secular society and have withdrawn into the ecclesiastical subculture for their social network.

    Many cradle Christians have placed their hope for the healing of our social ills in ideological political agendas rather than Grace. Although profiling is not always accurate, statistically most progressive Christians prove to be Democrats and most conservative Christians prove to be Republicans. This does not mean that their faith is not sincere, but it certainly suggests that their eschatology needs work!

    Scripture reveals that God is not time-constrained–to God one day is as a thousand years and a thousand days is as a day. We are called to sow seeds and let God determine the time for harvest. It has taken quite a few millenia for slavery to be recognized as intrinsically evil in spite of the existence of benevolent slave holders.

    While it is true that we can only live in the Present Moment, time is a continuum, not a succession of separate frames. We arrive in the Present through the Past and hope [or not] in the Future.

    For some rare and truly wise persons, hope can also be found by taking a long view of the past:

    “There have been tyrants, and murderers, and for a time they can seem invincible, but in the end they always fall. Think of it… always.” — Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948)

  • “people without an eschatological hope perish”. I disagree that this is generally true. There are for a fact people without a belief in an afterlife that have meaningful happy existences while they are alive and who work to make the world a little better than what they found it. Some are able to take a long view. All (of these people) realize that their time is finite and they will never see absolute perfection. They can still, nevertheless, have hope that their own future will be a little better and the world that will exist after their passing will be better as well.

    Different things motivate different people and don’t assume that the things that motivate eschatological (end time) believers must be the same things that motivate all people.

  • JenellYB

    …shall I complete your observations? Wherein it proceeds to, should any that are victims of real offense, real inflicted hurt, say “ouch” and speak up, try to bring it to the attention of the church and church leaders, they are, 1, dismissed, oh, they didn’t really mean that, well there’s always going to personality conflicts we have to work through, you know, to, should they persist, 2, transformed into the offender, you are just being too sensitive, you need to learn to be more forgiving, more tolerant, well maybe you just don’t fit in well here, to 3, transformed into enemy, you are just trying to stir up trouble, stir the pot, hurt the church.

  • JenellYB

    To this pastor that seems sincerely seeking how to best pastor effectively, I will take occasion to say some things I have so many time over years attending various churches really wanted to say to pastors, and in a most well meaning and kind hearted way, but always felt wasn’t likely to be taken that way.
    1. Don’t let yourself fall in love with your congregation. I should think surely that would be taught in seminary or wherever, but I’ve not heard if they do. When you fall in love with your congregation, or even just some parts of it, you are as the infatuated lover that is blind to the real nature, flaws and weaknesses, of their beloved, instead, projecting onto them something, some idea image, out of their own psyche. If you fall in love with your congregation, in your eyes, they can do no wrong. And abusers will take full advantage of that!
    2. Learn some psychology. real psychology, not bible verses to flip about or pop psych from mass media publications. Learn about human nature, how people are, how people interact with others in social situations. Learn to objectively read people and their social interactions better. And learn how to recognize the usual sources of discord within a group, that may not be obvious to you.
    That ever eager one that jumps to please you, seeks like a puppy seeking a pat on the head, as word of praise, is that really an apt pupil that reveres your superior knowledge and gifts? Or a suck-up? And take care, not to mistake them the other way around, either!
    Learn to recognize signs of classic abuser personalities, they are probably not as you think. Most of them will be impressing you with their attentiveness and suck-up.
    Realize people do NOT act out in their every day lives like they do when at church, and especially, whenever in your presence! Realize very few really read their bibles or discuss Christ and godly things among one another when after they leave that church parking lot!
    3. Learn how to read your congregation as itself a unit, rather than just doing the above to try to apply to individuals. A perceptive ‘people watcher’ can walk the first time into the sanctuary during services, and get a pretty good impression of the social dynamics, including power games players. in once glance. Given a few times attending gatherings of various size and nature, ie Sunday morning service, Sunday evening Service, Wednesday evening, a few SS classes and bible studies, and they can know more about what’s going on within your congregation than you have learned about them in your entire time there.
    4. Above all, DON’T BE A PARENT! Don’t let them maneuver you into role of parent, which they will, for more than one reason. And none of them are good ones, and none lead to good outcomes, for them, or you.

  • Matthew Wilson

    I was a Mormon for 30 years, part of a corporation, and struggled to keep my relationship with God separate from the church. It was only when I left the church and started ‘throwing out the bathwater’ that I saw how beautiful the ‘baby’ was. Any church or group of individuals should only support or help us find and maintain a strong relationship with God; they too often get in between us and God, and demand our allegiance to them. Our primary source of love and ‘vision’ should come from our Father himself through his Spirit, increasing our feelings of being his individual sons and daughters.

  • Carol

    That was not my assumption.

    Eschatological hope does not require formal theological faith, but it does require faith in the essential *goodness* of life and a certain hope, not just wishful thinking, that justice and love will become the future “norm” in spite of much immanent evidence to the contrary.

    Eschatological hope is what sustains the “faith” of many secular humanitarians and political activists as well as religious faith when self-sacrificial effort seems to have had little or no effect.

    And, yes, it always takes the long view and an altruism that extends beyond one’s own immediate self-interest and life span.

    Perhaps because I do not interpret the apocalyptic biblical texts literally, I, personally, am not motivated “end times” beliefs. I do, however, have an eschatological hope for the healing of humanity by grace. I also believe that it is possible to have an intuitive, non-theological faith that empowers people to cooperate with grace in the repair and healing (tikkun) of the world. In fact, heretical relgious beliefs can become an impediment to cooperating with grace in the transformation of the world.

    “When religion is in the hands of the mere natural man, he is always the worse for it; it adds a bad heat to his own
    dark fire and helps to inflame his four elements of selfishness, envy, pride, and wrath. And hence it is that worse passions, or a worse degree of them are to be found in persons of great religious zeal than in others that made no pretenses to it.” –William Law

    “I think we must fully face the fact that when Christianity does not make a man very much better, it makes him very much worse. . . . Conversion may make of one who was, if no better, no worse than an animal, something like a devil.” ~C.S. Lewis in a letter to Bede Griffiths, dated Dec.20 1961

    “Plenty of kind, decent, caring people have no religious beliefs, and they act out of the goodness of their hearts.
    Conversely, plenty of people who profess to be religious, even those who worship regularly, show no particular
    interest in the world beyond themselves.” -John Danforth, priest, ambassador, senator (b. 1936)

  • Carol,
    I appreciate your words and our outlooks have much in common. Perhaps the only difference is in whether or not we both believe in a subtle permeating Grace that it is possible to get in resonance with to do even more good. My view is that any such resonance is only between humans themselves or with the inward complexities of our own minds (which can be good) and not with a divine presence or supreme being actively and consciously involved with His creation.

  • Carol

    In the Orthodox Churches of the East Grace understood to be “uncreated” or the Divine Presence, not a created “power” that enables the believer to keep the Law.

    If God is omnipresent, which I believe is a fundamental universal Christian teaching, then everyone is subject to the Divine influence whether they recognize it as such or not.

    The Latin/Western Church has been accused by the Eastern Church of interpreting Grace as “created”
    rather than “Uncreated.”

    The Roman Catholic eucharistic liturgy would indicate otherwise:

    The older Missal had the following prayer, said silently, at
    the point when the priest mixes a little water with the wine:

    Deus, qui humanae substantiae dignitatem mirabiliter condidisti, et mirabilius reformasti: da nobis per hujus aquae et vini mysterium, ejusdivinitatis esse consortes, qui humanitatis nostrae fieri dignatus est particeps, Jesus Christus Filius tuus Dominus noster: Qui tecum vivit et regnat in unitate Spiritus Sancti Deus: per omnia saecula saeculorum. Amen.

    O God, Who did wonderfully create the dignity of human nature and still more wonderfully restored it, grant that by the Mystery of this water and wine, we may be made partakers of His divine nature, Who vouchsafed to be made partaker of our human nature, even Jesus Christ, our Lord, Thy Son: Who with Thee, lives and reigns in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God: world without end. Amen.

    In the new Missal, this prayer, even in the Latin, has been reduced to only the words “by the Mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.” And it
    is still said silently.

    The silent aspect of this liturgical prayer may account for the fact that, on the popular level, many Catholics as well as most Protestants do interpret grace as created and an effect of faith rather than as the Divine “energies” or Immanent omnipresence of God in his Creation.

    My personal theological beliefs and spiritual practice is much closer to the Tradition of the Orthodox Churches of the East than those of the Latin Western Church(es) which may explain why we share the same faith; but have different beliefs.

    Western contemplative Religious Orders that have remained faithful to the theological/spiritual vision of their Founders are also closer to the Tradition of the Eastern Church:

    “The typical moralist sees grace as a means to fulfill a commandment. He puts the commandment in the first place and sees the difference of Old and New
    Testaments in the observance of the Decalogue.
    In the Old Testament they did not have the grace to keep the commandments; now in the New Testament they have sufficient grace if they use all the means, the sacraments, and so on.
    This is an anthropocentric, moralistic approach which makes the grace of Christ and finally Christ Himself only the means for the law, for the commandments . But primacy is not the law, the commandments “thou shalt” and “thou shalt not”; the primacy is our Lord, who in his grace, his tremendous love, comes to encounter us.” –Bernard Haering, C.Ss.R., Redemptorist Moral Theologian

    “Core moral concepts, such as freedom, conscience, obedience, and fidelity, can have very different meanings and importance. These differing meanings depend on if our concern is with conformity, fulfilling norms, and subordination, or instead if our focus is radical thinking infused with the spirit of God blowing as it wills and marked by grown-up, freely affirmed responsibility.” –Bernard Haering, The Virtues of an Authentic Life (1997)

    “A moral theology built on the authentic Gospel will be a far cry from a stoical morality built on duty and obligation,
    both deduced from some cosmic law of nature.” –Fr. Joseph Oppitz, C.Ss.R, Autumn Memoirs of St. Alphonsus Liguori