Fear, coercion and manipulation

Leadership looks very different from traditional church leadership.  Leadership in conventional church circles involves the management of resources, events and policy.  You are looking after the building, figuring out what to do next Sunday, and figuring out how to organize the committees.  There is a lot of that stuff that is typically nominal or non-existent in an organic church context.  There are very few assets to manage.  Most of the churches in our network weren’t formal organizations with a bank account.  If they needed to give money to something they just pooled cash or wrote cheques directly to the person or agency.

One of my cardinal rules is: resist the urge to use coercion, force or leverage.  Even if people don’t have power in an official capacity they can still use their influence as leverage to force an issue to their desired result.  It is something of a misnomer that if you have no recognized formal authority, that everyone will just come together and make decisions ad hoc.  That will work until their is conflict and without leadership that conflict can easily spiral out of control.  I take Jesus as my example on this.  He didn’t force anyone to follow him, he didn’t threaten or cajole anyone.  He invited the people to follow and when they left him, they left him.  I think there are times he felt sad about it.  When the crowds left him after he told them they had to eat his flesh and drink his blood you can almost here the emotion in his words to the disciples “Are you going too?”  The power in a movement doesn’t come from the will exerted by the leader, but by the inspiration of common ideal.

Some people in the church  is pretty good at use subtle ways of leveraging shame or fear to get people to do what they want them to do.  I think one of the most seemingly benign examples is offering people gold stars on a chart for Sunday School attendance.  Providing temporal rewards to motivate spiritual behavior is one way to keep motivating people to participate in church activities but it does very little to help people truly grow.  That isn’t to say that encouraging people to engaging in a potentially helpful spiritual activity is wrong.  I can tell my son that it is good to see him reading the bible.  When receiving the temporal rewards becomes the primary motivation for engaging in a spiritual activity you’ve crossed the line from encouragement to manipulation.

Have you ever been to a series of meetings where the speaker warns you not to miss the next session because you don’t want to miss out on what God has for you?  Then the speaker goes on about how important it is to take every opportunity to receive God’s blessing and how the church is so weak and hasn’t overcome because they won’t enter in to what God has for them.  This is an excellent tactic to ensure people keep showing up for the meetings, but it really undermines any purpose God has in this situation.  So much of what influences us isn’t what is directly spoken but what is implied.  What is implied here is that you need to keep your spiritual performance up if you want to be approved of by God and the community.  This undercuts and undermines the gospel message which says, you have God’s favour regardless of how well you perform.  That isn’t to say God wouldn’t be upset or sad if you started sabotaging your life and abusing others.  I think God cares, but regardless of what you do you’ll always be valuable to him.  God will always meet you where you are and help you turn around.  There is nothing you can get in a meeting that God can’t give you directly.  All our blessings are found in Christ.

The alternative to all this is to simply speak plainly, transparently and honestly.  If the speaker says:  “In my next session I’m going to be talking about such and such topic.  I think it is really relevant and I hope to see you all back for the next session.”  This is being open, honest and transparent.  Just give people the truth and let them make their own decision.  Don’t worry if people buy in or not.  If people aren’t buying in then the problem is something deeper that isn’t solved with providing an alternative motive to keep the show going on.  The problem just might be you.

The downside to churches that are full external pressure to perform or behave is that you never actually have idea what people are really like or where people are at.  It creates the conditions for all manner of fakery, pretense and self-manufactured psuedo-holiness.  It can lead to some very embarrassing leadership failures because people have limits.  You can keep whipping that horse but eventually that horse will find ways to turn on you.  When the dominant form of motivation in a community is external, the whole organization becomes inwardly fragile like a house of cards.  When people are motivated by personal fear or greed, that fear or greed can turn against the organization when the right circumstances arrive.  It inevitably results in strife, terrible conflict and deep wounding.

It is really important that you let people rest.  Let them be who they are and do what in their heart they really want to do.  Our goal as leaders is to point people to Jesus so that he can heal their heart and mind.  Motivating people to perform for you makes that mission more difficult.  Jesus called to himself all those who were weary and had heavy burdens so that he could give them rest.  The burdens they had at that time were often religious ones.  There was political and economic oppression as well but Jesus only goes into great deal about the religious oppression.  His woes against the scribes and Pharisees are text book examples of how people can use religious leverage to exploit people and undermine God’s heart for this people.    It is best if we follow Jesus’ example and become people of peace and rest.