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Published on Friday, August 11, 2017

Temptation and Manipulation: The Shadow of Spiritual Leadership

Crossing the boundary between "influence" and "manipulation" can be intentional, but most often is unintentional or subtle as spiritual leaders become frustrated in achieving their goals to help others and the world.

One of the differences between Christian spiritual leaders (and Jewish and Muslim, for that matter) is that they are fundamentally activists. They are not passive. This is inevitable because Christians believe God created the world good. Creation is not neutral or irrelevant. It is valuable and precious. So Christians spiritual leaders have moral imperative to act or intervene when they see the creation abused or human beings suffer.


This is true even in the most contemplative behavior of spiritual leaders. Service is part of contemplation, since the spiritual leader participates in the saving work of Christ going on every day in the world. If you want to be with Jesus, that you have to be serving alongside Jesus. Therefore, spiritual leaders always want to influence people.


But where does “influence” end and “manipulation” begin? This is the shadow side of spiritual leadership. It is tempting for spiritual leaders of all functions or identities to cross over that line when they are frustrated in their efforts to persuade people, intervene effectively, or make positive change. Manipulation can be different among different spiritual leaders.


Constant Visitors become manipulative when they use psycho-babble to pretend to the authority of professional psychologists in get someone to do something. It is a kind of trickery, for example, that manipulates and elderly or sick person to choose something they don’t really understand or don’t really want to do. Constant Visitors (care givers) cross the line to manipulation when they assume that they always “know what’s good for you”.


Constant Gardiners become manipulative when they play politics, manipulate the system, resort to back-room alliances and use factions to achieve some result that they are convinced is “good for the church”. It is an abuse of power that gets results in the short term, but undermines trust and warps corporate culture in the long run. Constant Gardeners (enablers) cross the line to manipulation when circumvention replaces collaboration.


Constant Builders become manipulative when they obscure bedrock beliefs and core values in order to procure resources or form non-profit partnerships that would not otherwise be available if the truth about their intentions were clear. They camouflage the true nature and purpose of the organization, and then surprise social service or mission partners with unexpected assumptions and ideological surprises.


Faith Tutors (disciplers) become manipulative when they exaggerate success in order to use peer pressure and popular opinion to influence church participation or financial giving. The very size of membership, high number of conversations, or constant allusions to the Holy Spirit miraculously “showing up” in their lives on a daily basis deceives skeptics. “If everyone else is doing it, it must be good and you might as well join in”.


Life Coaches (gurus) become manipulative when they emphasize personality over spirituality. After all, “spirituality” is very nebulous and it is difficult for people to commit, follow, and shape their lives around abstraction. “Personality”, on the other hand, is more concrete. People “see” the target of their generous giving, and can simply imitate the guru rather than learn from, and grow beyond, the guru.


Relentless Futurists (visionaries) become manipulative when they distort or exaggerate reality. The context becomes over-simplified, the threats become apocalyptic, and the issues become black and white. People may not like ambiguity, but in fact it is unavoidable. Without ambiguity, people stop thinking for themselves or critiquing the message, and obey blindly to do things or believe things without reflection or dialogue.


Greek Interpreters (mentors) become manipulative when they impose personal ideas, practices, and assumptions on mentees. They cease being mentors and become “programmers”. They reveal a hidden agenda to persuade the mentee to agree with their ideological or theological convictions, or fit neatly into their categories and preferences. They cross the line when they “put people in their place” rather than “opening people to fresh possibilities”.


Finally, even Determined Travelers (pilgrims) become manipulative when they impose their own spiritual goals on others. Their way becomes the only way. Their lifestyle becomes the best, or most meaningful, lifestyle. After all, it is more satisfying to the ego when people imitate you rather than just learn from you. This hidden egotism appears in subtle ways, and can create co-dependencies within the pilgrim band.


Basically, manipulation emerges in spiritual leadership when the end justifies the means. They see the good that potentially lies ahead … but circumvent healthy processes for growth and change … and impose a policy, force a decision, or impose a lifestyle on situations and people. Yes, the goal itself may be beautiful; but the method of manipulation will only taint the final result.



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