How churches manipulate us

Image from Red Letter Christians

It’s really hard for church leaders to recognize when they’re wrong.

If you’re a pastor or any other kind of leader within a church, chances are good that you have very noble intentions and believe the things you do and say are motivated from a place that honors and respects God and the church.

Because of that, even when those intentions are indeed noble, those of us in leadership positions have a devil of a time seeing how our actions and words can nonetheless be damaging, hurtful, and manipulative of others – when you think you’re doing God’s work, you’re extra susceptible to being oblivious to your own faults, especially when you don’t realize their full ramifications.

This is very commonly seen in how churches can be emotionally manipulative in order to stamp down on dissent and foster unity.  Group unity is a good thing, but dissent can also be a good thing – it is often only through dissent that flaws are pointed out.  And the pathways taken to achieve unity – or, more commonly, a perceived unity that is actually fake – can be sinful.

Folks in churches need to be aware of this so they can lovingly call their leaders out or, in the worst case, remove themselves from unhealthy churches when leaders refuse to listen or repent.

Also called “gaslighting,” (which uses emotional / psychological means of making people question themselves), my understanding of the process improved from a series of tweets from psychotherapist Sean Mortenson.

According to Mortenson, “churches exercise a quiet form of control by creating enmeshed systems of poorly differentiated people.

“Healthy differentiation is when a person can be relationally connected to others while maintaining their own thoughts and feelings.  Poor differentiation is when a person sacrifices their own thoughts and feelings in order to maintain connection with others.

“A system (family, church, etc.) with poor differentiation between members is said to be enmeshed.  People make choices based on how they think the group (or authority figures) will respond in order to maintain harmony within the system.

“But harmony shouldn’t be confused with health.  It often just means lack of discomfort or tension…

“In systems like this, focused on maintaining faux-harmony, differentiated people pose a threat because they are free to differ from the group or even push back on it.  If differentiated people do challenge the group, they’ll find the system closing ranks to push them out.

“The system will ‘other’ them and communicate, ‘it’s unfortunate you feel the need to be different but when you’re ready to get over that you can be part of the group again.’  And since our need for inclusion is hardwired, that threat of rejection is not insignificant…

“Unfortunately, pastors are often trained to wield these very forces in order to get and maintain buy-in to their system.  One reason is that greater buy-in helps the church become a sustainable business.  But also, enmeshed members are easier to control.

“And when an enmeshed system feels threatened, it actually intensified the unhealthy bonds.  The members rally to, once again, defend the faux-harmony.  This is why we get those bizarre displays of solidarity in churches dealing with crises…

“Obviously it’s good for churches to be likeminded and it’s not wrong for them to have boundaries.  But as far as I’m concerned, being coercive and controlling does not align with the way of Jesus.  Nor does avoiding tension or discomfort in service of a false peace.”

There are a number of ways in which gaslighting can happen, and it can be tricky to spot because a lot of the techniques people use when gaslighting are not “wrong” in and of themselves; they become wrong out of the intent in which they’re used.

For example, dropping hints in any kind of way that you are holding a minority position regarding a particular issue works to make you feel like you are the one with a problem and are on the outside of the group as a whole.  That can be done by mentioning anything like, “I haven’t heard anyone else say this is a problem,” or, “We’ve asked for input and only heard from a few people” – statements that aren’t necessarily incorrect but nonetheless psychologically manipulate people who might disagree with the leader or group into questioning themselves instead of being encouraged to be open and honest.

Another example could be, ironically, repeatedly stressing the need for unity in a group.  Again, as Mortenson states above, “it’s good for churches to be likeminded,” and Jesus prays to the Father in John 14 that his followers would be one just like He and the Father are one – unity is an important and good thing.  But the act of emphasizing unity when trying to make decisions or encourage discussion, serves to once more make those who believe they hold a minority position question their opinions and remain silent so as to either not be perceived as posing a threat to unity or be labeled as a malcontent by leaders.

Further examples could be endless, because the point is nearly any statement that serves to make you question yourself and feel like you’re not part of the group is a form of gaslighting. 

This is so tricky in churches because often one role of a pastor is, in a healthy way, to encourage folks to question their beliefs to ensure they align with Jesus – the difference is, are you being led to question yourself in a way that could lead to your edification and benefit, or is it to serve the purpose of leadership? 

It’s important to be convicted of our sin and wrongdoing, especially when we’ve been blind to how we’ve acted sinfully, and it’s the role of the pastor to help show us how we may have gotten some things wrong in our lives so the Holy Spirit convicts us.  But when leadership uses similar tactics to exert power over us in order to accomplish their objectives and desired ends, they’re gaslighting us.


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