I have been doing a lot of reading on various aspects of a problem in church life that surrounds the idea of controlling or manipulative people in the church. I am not qualified as a psychologist or counselor or mental health professional, so I have no desire to diagnose people or label behaviors categorically, beyond what is necessary to discuss a problem dynamic that goes largely undiscussed, to share what I have read and what I have learned from others, and to offer personal observations.
I would also like to see discussion on this, and in order to facilitate discussion on what could be a very touchy topic for some, I am going to suspend one of my usual comment rules. Usually, if I discover that someone has used a fake email for comments, I delete them. However, for this discussion I will not. I only ask that you enter an email that is obviously fake. Use something like firstname.lastname@example.org. Use any name you want. Feel free to leave comments that enlighten and will help people to understand this type of interpersonal dynamic, but please let's not get into bitter venting. I know the temptation for that is strong if you have been in one of these situations.
So what problem, exactly, am I talking about? The literature on this sort of thing might identify problems like this by various names. You might search the Internet on covert-aggressive behaviors or Narcissistic Personality Disorder on spiritual abuse or spiritual manipulation, on cults or cult-like groups. When considering these various sources of information side-by-side, certain common personality characteristics emerge, and I will be grouping all these things together as I discuss them here. The study and documentation of these things are fairly recent, so the various titles may be referring to different viewpoints of the same problem.
As I read on these things I learned that personality disorders have been defined for only about twenty or thirty years. In that time, very little clinical research has been done in this field, because there has been little hope that such people will cooperate with counseling or benefit from it. More work has been done on helping people to recover from their relationships with these manipulative and controlling people--relationships that can be very traumatic and destructive.
The personality traits that come together in a highly manipulative person are estimated by psychologists to be present in about five percent of the population, though estimates range from one to ten percent. But whatever the actual frequency, it seems we all will come across some people like this at some point. Having a few of these traits to some degree is perfectly normal. After all, we all have to manage other people and gain their cooperation from time to time. However, in some people the controlling behaviors dominate their relationships with other people.
Probably every pastor can relate tales of folks in the congregation that display these traits and the disruptions they can cause. They may try to run the church from the pew. I can remember in a church I attended as a youngster that a pattern emerged in which families would come to the church for a while, attend regularly, seem interested in joining and then suddenly disappear. The elders decided to investigate, divided up the list of families, and went on personal visits to find out why each family had stopped attending. What they found out was that a couple in the church had taken it upon themselves to visit each of these families and let them know why they were unsuitable for membership. The reasons given were based on such things as racial and class prejudice or a lack of conformity to their unwritten rules, such as hairstyles and dress. Humiliated and traumatized, these families just quietly went away. The couple that had notified these families of their unsuitability was also the same couple that, when the new pastor came to the church, greeted him with the notice that they had been at this church since it was formed and if he had in his mind to make any changes, he needed to check with them first.
Even more problematic, though, is when the controlling personality in the church is a member of the pastoral staff or the lay leadership. The lay couple I described above had no authority in the church, though they apparently thought they did. Most people in the congregation were able to simply ignore them when they became obnoxious. But a pastor or church officer does have real authority, and where there is real authority, there is the possibility of abuse or misuse of that power. There is also the opportunity to shape the culture and group dynamic that prevails in that congregation.
I think it is important to note that a manipulative leader can create a cult-like dynamic in a church that is not cultish or heretical in its doctrine, but rather well within the range of what would be considered the historic Christian faith. There may be an unbalanced emphasis on certain doctrines, such as an attitude that emphasizes works at the expense of grace, or an emphasis on such things as submitting to authority and giving financially to the church in a sacrificial way.
On the next post on this topic, I will write about the warning signs
that we can look for when looking for a new church, or evaluating one
we have already joined. In this post, though, I want to discuss the
common characteristics of a controlling personality.
The Characteristics of a Controlling Personality
Note: I will be using male pronouns here, but that is not meant to imply that only males possess this kind of personality. Some researchers say it is more common in males, but I suspect the feminine version of this problem may be less recognized and less studied, and therefore under diagnosed.
Projects a grandiose image: This is one of the defining characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder. The grandiose image may be a cover, though, for a deep-seated sense of inadequacy, unlovability, and insecurity. Psychologists speak of a grander self being created by the insecure person, first to please or deceive others, but eventually they believe the lie themselves. Others maintain that the narcissist sincerely believes to his core that he is a special person deserving adoration and praise. Whichever the case, this kind of person presents himself as a hero. He will entertain you with tales of how he defeated this or that foe, stood against tyranny, heresy, etc. In the church these "hero tales" often take on a religious tone. When he runs up against troubles, he is standing against the devices of Satan. When others oppose him, they are opposing him because they hate righteousness or hate the truth. He will also emphasize his accomplishments and abilities, his credentials, and his acquaintances with well-known people. He expects to be treated with deference and to be given VIP respect, though he often commands this kind of deferential treatment in subtle ways. For some reason you just know that when he enters a room and sits down, he will not be pouring his own coffee, but you should be getting it for him.
A lack of empathy for others: A manipulative person is very adept at predicting how people will react in given situations, and knowing what they want to hear or what it will take to get them to do what he wants them to do. He is a student of human nature, and may know your reactions better than you do. However, he lacks the ability to really understand or identify with the feelings of others. He may treat people badly and then be surprised that they are hurt and won't talk to him when next he calls. He cannot identify with another point of view. Psychologists theorize that because of a lack of emotional attachment, this empathy failed to develop as it normally does in the first five or so years of life. If they are correct this may explain why narcissistic people often have at least one narcissistic or abusive parent.
Combine these first two traits and you have a person who can seem to be a godsend when you have suffered a loss. The conquering hero is able to ride in on his stallion and be a paragon of strength when you are at your weakest. He does not fall apart with the gravity of the situation and the sadness of your loss. That's because he can't identify with it or feel it. Rather, he remains steady and strong--and let's you know what you ought to do at a time when you need someone else to think straight for you.
Inability to express some emotions: The narcissistic person does not feel emotionally the way others do. While he may be able to passionately express a vision for a church mission in a very inspiring way, he will not convincingly express genuine tenderness, compassion, or love. There is little acceptance of weaknesses in others. Even expressions of love toward spouse and children tend to be related to his own image as a spouse or parent.
There is a particular hardness toward people who are struggling with mental health or relationship issues. The solution for parenting problems is more use of the rod or casting the troubled teen out of the home and out of the church. The solution to marital problems is for the husband to make his wife submit. The solution to problems with depression is to repent of your sins and shape up. It is easy to see how destructive such advice can be to an emotionally vulnerable person or an already troubled relationship.
Paranoia: This kind of personality is suspicious of others, and quite certain that there are those who are focusing their time and attention on thwarting him and destroying his person and/or his ministry. People who disagree with him or refuse to be manipulated by him are assigned wicked motives. These suspicions begin to be wear thin once the listener realizes the number of people who are said to be "out to get him," is quite large, and the reason for their alleged plotting is unclear or stretches credulity.
He is also convinced that people are thinking and talking about him constantly. He is likely to want to know who you had over for dinner, and what you talked about. He might come close enough to a conversation to be able to overhear it. He might acuse people of meeting together secretly to conspire against him. Perhaps Carly Simon had this sort of person in mind when she sang, "You're so vain, I bet you think this song is about you. Don't you? Don't you?"
Preoccupied with appearances: Manipulative or narcissistic personalities are very attentive to appearances--more attentive, in fact, than they are with reality. It is more important to seem to be holy than to be holy. They may want to project an image of wealth, accomplishment, and even Christian humility and zeal. They will speak the words that make listeners believe there is a sincerity of heart that is not really there. When they speak of the church or its ministries, idealized claims are made of the holiness of the people, the harmony of the relationships, and the success of its missions.
Projection: The manipulative person is living a lie. He is trying to hold up this grandiose image to others, while denying the real image he has of himself. In the process of struggling with his own shortcomings or sins, he projects these things onto others. Does he lie? Then he accuses others of lying. Does he think he is weak or stupid or envious? Then he accuses others of these things.
Lying: This kind of person is constantly lying, and soon lies become as natural as the truth. They lie without batting an eye. They lie when it isn't necessary. They will lie to you about things they know you witnessed with your own eyes. It is as if they are constructing a new reality as they speak, and they expect you to just go along and play your part in the unfolding drama.
Undeveloped sense of humor and sense of irony: This relates to a lack of empathy. They hate being the butt of a joke or prank. They can't laugh at themselves. They don't laugh spontaneously or get jokes easily, especially if there is irony involved. When their own words or behavior is somehow ironic, they often don't realize it. They consider humor to be undignified. In general you will probably find that he is not the kind of person you can relax with and have a good fun time.
Inability to Grieve: This also relates to lack of empathy and lack of emotion. At a time of tragedy or great sorrow, the narcissistic person is unable to grieve and may chide others for doing so, by suggesting that they are failing to submit to the judgment of God.
Someone related to me their experience with this kind of person as he reacted to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. "Our reaction was not to be one of sorrow. When we prayed together and I asked God to comfort our sorrows and the sorrows of the victims' families, I was corrected. I was told I should only be repenting of national sins that brought on this obvious judgment of God."
Flatterers and flirts: "You're my kind of people." "I can confide something in you I wouldn't say to everyone." "Our church needs more people like you." Manipulators use flattery to their own ends. Charming and flirtatious behavior is just another form of flattery. If we weren't such prideful creatures this sort of thing wouldn't work. But it does.
Over-loving treatment of newcomers or new acquaintances is used as a technique to groom them for future compliance. 'Confidential' information is used to provide a proper framework for evaluating future events. For example, you might be told that that so-and-so is dishonest and jealous of the pastor. Then, in a few weeks, when you hear there is a disagreement between so-and-so and the pastor, you see this as confirmation of the 'confidential' information and you are predisposed to think it must be so-and-so's fault. You may also find that the unfavorable view of so-and-so is shared by many people in the congregation, which you may take as further confirmation of it, though the real reason for that may be that the 'confidential' information wasn't so confidential after all, but was shared in the same flattering way with anyone who was willing to listen.
Black and white thinking: This also relates to a lack of empathy. The narcissist seems to think everyone is seeing things exactly as he is. To him the truth is so clear. There is only one answer. Only one right way to go. If anyone claims a different opinion, he reasons they must be denying the obvious truth for wicked reasons. This leaves him totally unable to compromise or live with differences of opinion.
Craves admiration or attention: Though the grandiose image that is projected seems to say the manipulator feels he is better than others, he seems to crave and thrive on the praise and admiration of these 'inferiors'. He requires hugs and pats on the back, and if you don't bring up what a fine job he did on something, he will ask for compliments or mention it, modestly of course, himself. If he cannot be admired in a positive way, he will settle for being feared or reviled by his 'wicked persecutors'. Some researchers refer to this as a need for attention as a need for 'narcissistic supply'. This refers to a craving for a strong emotional reaction--either positive or negative--from others. For him, the absolutely most distressing thing is to be ignored or forgotten.
Denial, diversion and blame-shifting: If you ever bring up a concern for the behavior of a manipulative person, you will likely leave the encounter confused, feeling guilty, and wondering if the whole thing was your fault. You may be frustrated by your inability to keep the conversation on topic so you can address the problem you came to discuss. You may find you need to defend yourself. Anyone bringing a complaint or criticism publicly is likely to become a target of personal attack and character assassination. People who are not wise to his wiles may be manipulated into joining in on the attack, thinking they are joining in a just cause: defending the man of God against the attacks of Satan.
One person told me, "When I go to her and try to tell her that what she is doing is wrong and making things worse, it is like looking into a fun house mirror. All reality is distorted. I feel confused. Then a day or so later, I think back on what was said, the truth becomes clear, and I can't believe I had stepped so easily into her fantasy world."
When his back is up against the wall, the manipulator will admit and apologize for small things, often with accompanying excuses or implications that it was really someone else's fault, or someone else's sins were far greater. Nonetheless, he will be magnanimous and repent for the sake of peacemaking.
Subtle or covert aggression and manipulation: The manipulator is a master at subtlety. The victim of his aggression or manipulation is left knowing or suspecting that this is the case, but often unable to point to specific examples or convince a third party that they have been wronged.
Manipulators also get other people to do their 'dirty work' and thereby keep their own hands clean. Suddenly six members of the congregation write you letters or confront you about your alleged poor treatment of the pastor. They all use similar wording and reasoning. Did they all come to this conclusion independently and independently formulate the same arguments and phrases for expressing it? Probably not. Did the pastor suggest to all these people to confront you on this? Probably. Will you ever be able to prove that to a third party? Probably not.
Name-dropping and claiming the support of others: The narcissist is keen to identify himself with big-name people, and therefore is likely to engage in a good deal of name-dropping and claim intimacy with famous people. These may be exaggerations of a real acquaintance or pure fantasy, though if there is real opportunity to get to know a famous person, they are likely to have taken advantage of it.
Claims that others--famous or not--agree with their point of view are used to bolster their argument, as if it could not stand on its own. "I spoke to so-and-so about this and she agrees with me that you are in the wrong," or, "Several people in the church came to me concerned about what you are doing." The others may be named or unnamed. When they are named, you may find that the named person claims to have no recollection of any such conversation.
Selective inattention: Complaints or concerns made to the manipulative person may be simply ignored, or the manipulator may play dumb and pretend to have no idea what you are talking about. He may claim letters or emails were never received, or that he thought so little of them that he had forgotten about them.
If you remember that the worst thing that can happen to a narcissist from his point of view is to be ignored, you can see how pretending to not even remember your expression of concern can be meant as an insult or a power play. He assumes you covet attention from his exalted person, and he is punishing you by withdrawing it. The truth is, though, that most people in any kind of relationship with a narcissistic person wish he or she would ignore them more often.
No hobbies or amusements: Most people have something they like to do in their spare time for enjoyment. Perhaps they are woodworkers or crafters or enjoy poetry or birdwatching. Narcissistic people have little interest in anything that does not add to or enhance their grandiose image. Perhaps they work out or play at working out and claim athletic prowess. Perhaps a woman will participate in sewing or handcrafts that enhance her supermom image. Generally, though, there will be a lack of activity in non work-related interests pursued for the sheer joy of it.
So does some of this sound familiar? I'd be interested to hear your comments. Please, though, be careful to change information enough to assure that people you write about cannot be identified. The goal here is to understand the problem, not vent our bitterness.
Next time, I will post on some warning signs that might clue you in that a controlling or narcissistic person is shaping a church's social dynamic.