Anyone who has been in a relationship with a controlling personality or a controlling organization can testify about how difficult--even traumatic--breaking away from such a relationship can be. We can all save ourselves a lot of grief if we can avoid such relationships in the first place. It is the purpose of this post to help identify the warning signs of an unhealthy or manipulative church dynamic so that when we are evaluating churches for possible membership or find ourselves newcomers in a church, we can avoid entanglements with controlling people while leaving is still relatively easy.
I want to make a couple points here before I begin. Please forgive me if I am repeating myself, but I feel they are important. I am not a mental health professional or a certified counselor. I am a layman sharing information that I hope will be beneficial to people facing encounters with manipulative people in the Church. As such, I am not giving any advice on diagnosis or treatment of these people.
Second, the manipulative techniques and behaviors I describe are often present in healthy, well-developed people to some extent. Sometimes they are sin, and at others times, in their proper place, they are a perfectly legitimate form of exercising healthy leadership for unselfish purposes. As Christians we need to consider our own behaviors with honest self-evaluation based on Biblical principles. When these behaviors, though, define they way a person relates to others and are used as a means of getting what that person wants for selfish reasons (adoration, power, money, sex, praise, fame, or even the thrill of having people angry and upset at them), they become the problem I am trying to address in these posts--a problem that can cause great emotional and spiritual damage to its victims.
What I have done here is pull together information on what the characteristics of a manipulative Church dynamic looks like and then use that information, personal experience, and the testimony of past victims of spiritually abusive churches to come up with things that might alert us to possible problems. The two books I have listed in my sidebar, The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen, and Toxic Faith, by Stephen Arterburn and Jack Felton, are sources for information on what manipulative church systems look like, as is this web site, by Ron Henzel.
One or more of these characteristics might be present in a healthy church, and sometimes differences between the legitimate characteristic and its manipulative counterpart is very subtle. For example, it may be difficult to tell the difference between legitimate, heart-felt, warm hospitality and the manipulative love-bombing technique (described below), that is used to evaluate potential new members and groom them for membership in a manipulative group.
The first piece of advice that I would give, then, is to listen to your gut feelings. If you read the accounts victims give of their experience or if you talk to people about what they went through, you will hear again and again that they were uncomfortable from time to time, that warning bells were going off, but they ignored them, or chalked them up to individual quirkiness. Everyone has their faults and quirks, after all. Yet, if you find yourself often pushing concerns aside, or censoring your own evaluations or opinions, or concealing things about yourself that might not be acceptable in this group, carefully consider whether or not you are responding to manipulation.
Here are some possible warning signs. I'd appreciate hearing from you if you can add to or expound upon these.
An Initiation Process
We all hope our churches warmly welcome newcomers, help them to meet new friends in the congregation, and help them become acquainted with the activities and programs from which they would most benefit and to which they could contribute. Many otherwise good churches fail in this regard, but when it is done well and with a sincere heart, it is of great benefit to the newcomers and to the body of Christ.
However, manipulative church systems typically have a warm, friendly welcome, too, but for other purposes. Those who research cults refer to this technique as love-bombing. Newcomers are enveloped in warm, flattering, over-loving welcome. It seems too good to be true, and it is. Let's look at some of the things we might pick up on as differences.
First, are introductions steered toward a small group of very faithful members or are they wide-ranging? For example, in a healthy church when someone hears of your interests or occupation, they may suggest you meet another person with similar interests. In a manipulative church, you might be encouraged to meet so-and-so, who, "is a very faithful member and can show you the ropes." Or, your social interactions may be monopolized by the pastor, the elders, or a select few members. Perhaps when you arrive at the church dinner, you are quickly whisked away and shown where to sit and with whom. Manipulators want to steer you away from unhappy or disgruntled members from whom you might hear complaints or negative information or who can't be trusted to give the party line. Try to circulate among as many members as you can.
In abusive churches, there may be many members who understand that they are not among the favored few. They may be struggling with shame or ostracization. They may know they are not trusted. These folks may feel intimidated not to show hospitality to newcomers whom they know are being groomed for membership. You might find yourself in conversation with one of these folks at some event, feel you made a real connection, and then be disappointed that they never show you further hospitality.
There may be a suggestion that your relationship with the pastor or someone else be one of discipleship--with the assumption that since you are the newcomer you are spiritually less mature and need to be discipled. This discipleship may turn out to be intrusive and controlling.
During the initiation phase into a manipulative group there is much flattery. You will be complimented on your sincere convictions, your intelligence, your character, etc. You may hear that you are just the sort of people this church needs more of. You may even hear that not everyone can join, but that you do qualify for this special group.
You will be sold on the uniqueness of this church. Healthy churches might point out their characteristics and vision in an effort to help you decide if this is the church that fits your convictions. Unhealthy churches will denigrate other churches and try to convince you that this is the only church that anyone should attend.
You may be given accounts of past problems in the church and explanations for why all this was the fault of others. For example, you may hear of a group of people who were in some sort of sin, caused a problem in the church, and then were expelled or left on their own. Manipulative people use this sort of technique in order to prepare you ahead of time when they expect you might hear of these problems from others. Later, when you hear of the complaints of a former church member, you may be predisposed, by the information you hear now, to think the fault lies with the former member. We tend to believe what we heard first when contradictory information is given.
You may hear stories that glorify the pastor or other controlling person. You might hear of how he endured trials, especially the attacks of others, or stood alone for what is right. Abusive churches are very personality centered. Charismatic or continuing-revelation churches may claim the pastor has a 'special annointing'. Others may refer to God choosing them for this special purpose.
Descriptions of the congregation may be very performance-oriented. None of our children are in public schools. Our teens don't rebel. Our children are well-behaved. Our women are modest.
There may be a noticeable difference in how new members or visitors
are treated and how older members are treated. In normal relationships
new friends are great, but old friendships are the warmest and the
deepest. If there is a lack of warm, comfortable relationships in the
church, and newcomers are showered with attention while old friends are
ignored, there may be a problem. Remember, if you join this church,
you'll be an old friend one day.
New member classes are a good idea, because membership vows should not be taken lightly, and everyone should be fully informed about what they are getting into as they submit to the leadership of a church. However, in manipulative churches there are purposes for these classes other than giving such information. Potential members are groomed to accept standards for such things as dress or family culture (TV watching rules, child training methods, education choices), to accept a certain level of intrusiveness into their personal lives, and to commit to keeping group information confidential. Perhaps there is an emphasis on the authority of church leadership. Perhaps there is information on how your commitment to your church should exceed your commitment to your extended family. Perhaps there are instructions given on how to (or more likely how not to) handle concerns about the pastor. Perhaps financial commitment is emphasized. In short, these classes are not for getting you informed, but rather they are to make you committed and cooperative.
You may also notice a lack of individuality in the congregation, and a certain uniformity. In any group there tends to be trends and style norms, but in manipulative groups individuality is squelched. Does everyone use the same version of the Bible? Do the women all wear their hair the same way and choose the same dress and jewelry styles? Are the children all dressed alike? Does every family educate their children in the same way? Do they all drive the same kind of car? Do they all read the same books and watch the same movies (or watch no movies at all)?
Lack of Debate
In healthy churches there are differences of opinion on non-essential doctrines, even if the church teaches them one way or another. Debate is not welcome in manipulative churches. Let's say a Sunday School teacher is teaching eschatology from a premillennial point of view. Would someone be comfortable asking a question that presented a different view? Would there be a friendly debate? Can the teacher admit that though he is convinced of his view, he could be wrong? Can he admit that those who hold another view are still his Christian brothers and sisters? In manipulative churches people with different opinions on non-essential doctrines learn to keep quiet.
Elitism and Isolationism
Healthy churches see themselves as one small part of the body of Christ, and as such, part of the fellowship of believers throughout the world and throughout time. In abusive churches, however, there is an emphasis on the specialness of this particular body and why we need to keep ourselves separate from all the corrupted churches and inferior churches that are 'out there'. Even if the congregation is a part of a denomination, it may be that the other churches in the denomination don't get it right either. In time, as the members absorb these ideas, they feel that if they leave this congregation, they are leaving the True Church.
It is also necessary to keep members from having interaction with other congregations and possibly finding a connection with them. Therefore, the abusive church is not likely to encourage activities that require inter-congregational cooperation. So when you visit a new church, find out if they take part in service projects or cooperative activities with other congregations. Do they give their members information about the denominational women's group activities? Do they support the missions projects of the denomination?
A lack of missions activity can also be a warning sign. If you have a zeal for increasing the worldwide body of Christ for the glory of God, you will have a zeal for missions. If you are interested in having control over more people in your local congregation, sending funds or people across the ocean for missions is a waste of money and resources.
Another sign of elitism and isolation is labeling. If, "He's a ----" (Calvinist, Charismatic, Premillennialist, or whatever), is enough to discredit someone, there may be a problem.
Yet another sign of elitism is a censoring of reading materials or ministries that you may learn from. I was once in a Christian bookstore and my pastor saw me there with an armload of books. He looked at the stack, pulled out two and said, "Read this one and this one and throw the others away." He was joking. Sort of. In some churches it may not be said out loud that you should consult the pastor to find out if reading materials are safe or not, but people feel compelled to do it. In other churches it is said out loud.
Isolationism can also take the form of attempting to distance members from their family. Sometimes this is overt, but more often it is subtle. You may be encouraged to consider your family to not be true Christians.
You may also be encouraged to believe that you were not a Christian before you came to this church, too. I heard of a pastor who, when he wished to impress other pastors, would introduce a certain member of his church and then imply that his ministry had brought her to Christ. He'd say things like, "She's still smoky, we just snatched her out of the fire." It was often repeated until one day the woman responded by saying, "Why pastor, I've been a Christian longer than you have!" (Which was the truth.) She later overheard the same scenario, only this time it was another woman, a more cooperative woman, 'snatched from the fire'.
So what is the difference between obedience and legalism? Sometimes at first glance it's a tough call. Abusive churches tend toward legalism, though, so it is important to pick up on this dynamic. Bragging about the behavior of congregants is a warning sign that legalism is in play, though it may be subtly expressed as how beautifully they display the gifts of the Spirit, or how Spirit-filled they are. (And don't you want to be Spirit-filled, too?)
Preaching in legalist churches tends to cross the line between teaching Biblical principles and deciding for you how to apply those principles. Legalists add to the law of God. Legalist churches have rules such as: It's wrong to wear (or not wear) crosses; Christmas trees are idolatrous; mothers must breastfeed their babies; parents must homeschool their children.
One clue to legalism is to pay attention to what people apologize for or feel the need to explain. In one group I know of, every time a mother gives an infant a bottle she feels the need to explain that it is breast milk, or that she did nurse, but recently stopped, etc. Why is this explanation needed? Are parents explaining that they only have three children because they couldn't have any more for medical reasons? Are young men quick to explain that their wives only work part time and they will quit as soon as they have children? These kinds of statements reveal a spoken or unspoken standard that people are nervous about not living up to. It also demonstrates a preoccupation with how things look, rather than how they are.
Often manipulative churches are quick to say that salvation is not based upon obedience, but on faith alone. However, they may also encourage members to question their faith and salvation if they do not meet that church's legalist standards. Combine that with the elitism we discussed earlier, and it is easy to see why people come to believe that if they do not meet the standards to remain in good standing with the only faithful church around, they may not be in good standing with God either.
Abusive churches must keep secrets. The church budget and the pastor's salary are often not disclosed. The method for calling elders or deacons to service may not be clear. The process for decision-making or setting the church's mission or agenda may be invisible. A newcomer asking questions about these things may find the answers confusing or evasive.
A History of Disgruntled Members and Staff
Do you hear of assistant pastors, administrators or mission leaders who left on a sour note? Is there a history of elders leaving on bad terms? Is the bulk of the congregation fairly new members, with a large turnover of members over the years? When all these staff members and congregants left was their own sin always at the root of the problem? I know of one pastor who actually bragged that his arrival at the church caused all but one of the elders to resign and all but a handful of families to leave the church. Why did they leave? Because they hate the truth and are in rebellion against God, he said.
Pet Scriptures and Sayings
Are there favorite verses of Scripture or favorite sayings oft-repeated by the pastor or other leaders? What are they, and how are they interpreted? Manipulators use verses and sayings to shame people into compliance. Here are some of the most common I found in my reading:
Do not touch My anointed ones and do My prophets no harm. Psalm 105:15. Interpretation: Do not criticize or complain about the pastor.
The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it? Jeremiah 17:9 Interpretation: You can't trust your own judgment, you must trust your leaders.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn `a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law--a man's enemies will be the members of his own household. Anyone who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; Matthew 10: 34-37. Interpretation: You must distance yourself from your extended family and make this church your true family.
If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. Matthew 18:15. Interpretation: If you have a complaint against your pastor, you can't share it with anyone else but must handle it one-on-one. (Imagine this if your complaint was that he had been abusive. The victim is required to confront his or her abuser in private before any further action can be taken.)
There are also pet sayings you may pick up on. One pastor liked to say, "Hard preaching makes soft hearts," and use it as justification for sermons that were designed to provoke shame and guilt. Another liked to say, "You can measure your commitment to God by how you spend your time and how you spend your money." True enough, but this was used to shame people into working harder and tithing more to prove the sincerity of their faith.
Sometimes the oft-repeated words speak of emphasis, and not necessarily misinterpretation. Is the emphasis of a church on something other than the Gospel of Grace and the worship of God?
You don't usually know about these until you have violated one. The rules are legalistic, and you will be corrected when you break them.
If you find yourself concealing things about yourself because you are not sure the group would find them acceptable, you may have sensed the presence of unspoken rules. Do you not mention that you are familiar with a certain movie? Do you not talk about your square dance club until you find out what the congregational standard is on dancing? Listen to your gut. Is it telling you there is pressure to conform?
Lots of Workers, Few Decision Makers
Are volunteers in the church given liberty in organizing and running events and projects or are all decisions tightly controlled by a few people? Are most volunteer jobs strictly labor? Is the pastor or his wife on nearly every committee that operates in the church? In a healthy church there is a balance between accountability to the leadership and delegation of decision-making tasks.
Authoritarian Leadership and Lack of Accountability
Biblical leadership carries with it real authority. However, the Biblical model of leadership is one of servant leadership. Jesus Christ laid down His life for His sheep, and good shepherds should follow that model. Biblical leaders work for the benefit of those whom they lead. This does not mean they do not lead, but it does mean they do not lead in order to gratify themselves. Leaders should be respected and they should be given the tools they need (resources and cooperation, for example) to do the Lord's work.
However, the human flesh is weak and easily tempted. There is no class of people that Jesus Christ was harder on than corrupt and selfish church leaders. Not once do we read of Him lashing out at Rome's oppressive rulers, but time and time again we read of His outrage at the Scribes and Pharisees, expressed in the harshest terms. Whitewashed tombs, He called them. Wolves. Brood of Vipers.
God, knowing our weak frame, has given us a structure for church authority. He tells us to have a multitude of counselors, all under the authority of King Jesus. Abusers, however, wish to operate on their own. They want to be king of the congregation. Their approach to this may be very subtle. A church council may be in place, but each elder is hand-picked and known to be cooperative. They may be inexperienced churchmen who got their elder training only from this pastor, or overworked businessmen who are relieved to let the pastor make all the decisions. The elders themselves may be manipulated and lied to and have information kept away from them. In a church with no denominational structure there may be no church council at all.
Manipulators devise various ways to avoid accountability through operating procedures. The newcomer may need to ask some questions to find out what these procedures are. Who is the church treasurer? (If it is the pastor or his wife, run away!) How often does the treasurer report the finances to the congregation? How detailed is the financial report? Can you see the last one? Honest church leaders shouldn't be offended by such questions. After all, if you are going to be giving 10% of your income to this organization, it is only prudent to know how the money will be managed.
Ask to see the church's vision statement. Ask who wrote it, and how it was adopted. Then compare the stated vision with what is happening around you. Are these goals being pursued, or are they just for show? Is the emphasis in the vision statement the same as the emphasis in action? Is the emphasis Biblical?
Ask about congregational meetings. How often are they held? Can anyone bring up a matter for discussion, or are the meetings tightly controlled? Meetings need to be controlled enough to keep them on track and yet open enough to allow for free communication between the people and the leadership.
Chances are if you ask all these questions a healthy church might think you're a bit odd, but an abusive church will most likely let you know you're not welcome!