Beware the Spell

Pastors should be servants. In the spirit of their Lord who "came not to be served, but to serve" (Matt. 20:28), they should be the transparent ministers of the Savior. They should be the selfless hands, the beautiful feet, and above all the trustworthy mouth of the Good Shepherd. To be faithful, they must remain self-consciously aware that they themselves never graduate from 'sheep-hood.' They must love, because they have first been loved. They must freely give, because they have first ever so freely received! "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me more than these? .... Feed my lambs" (Jn. 21:15).

But alas, it is not always so. Good men can go wrong, some slowly and imperceptibly, some fast and furious. Some men are good men at their core and have (as Cotton Matter later charitably said of Roger Williams) "the root of the matter," notwithstanding their erratic and schismatic behavior. They think they're doing the Lord's work, but are blind to their obvious faults and to the real harm they cause the Lord's precious sheep. Some, I would argue, have deep, unresolved insecurities and need some deep pastoral (if not clinical) counseling. Tragically, others are nothing other than wolves in sheeps' clothing, not sparing the flock. Time only will tell. "Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God" (1 Cor. 4:5).

The danger and damage remain just as real, whatever is going on under the hood. Over the years of my ministry, I've encountered types like the above, especially those who have engaged in emotional abuse. In the circles where I move—conservative, confessional Presbyterianism—the old, grotesque misrepresentations of Puritanism take actual modern shape. Hyper-scrupulous, zealous, and fearless leaders become master puppeteers of people's minds and hearts. Some I've seen from afar and some up close—and in one case, too close for comfort!

I'd like to help God's people (especially those more sensitive souls in conservative Presbyterian and Reformed circles) identify emotional abusers. I want to help them to see some of the telltale signs that their pastor or elder or whatever the spiritual leader is in fact manipulating them to achieve questionable ends. In a subsequent post, I'd like to offer some advice for how to free oneself from the tendrils. Like a friend who used to teach my children how to hit a baseball, advising, "See the ball, hit the ball," I want to help you to "Beware the spell, break the spell."

I believe there are a few telltale signs that someone, perhaps even a godly pastor, is actually manipulating you. Now, keep in mind that one sign is just one sign. But if you start noticing three, four, or five of the following, and something doesn't feel right, that may very well be your gut telling you that you are in danger! And remember, no matter how humble, how uneducated you are, and no matter how gifted, smart, and holy any man is, if you are a Christian, you have the Spirit of Christ in you. "But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things" (1 John 2:20). Don't underestimate what Jesus has wrought in you. "Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world" (1 John 4:1).

Here are six telltale signs that you may be on the receiving end of emotional manipulation:

1. Excessive self-talk. Speaking in the first person is unavoidable. But speaking too much in the first person eventually betrays a self-preoccupation. The Christian is called to self-denial. How much more the pastor? While some self-talk is inevitable, there will always be a tendency in the true, spiritually health man of God to try to avoid it when it's not necessary. There is a studied attempt to suppress, even an ongoing mortification of that nasty, hellish "ego" yet in his bosom, that noxious weed that would ruin both him, his ministry, and countless souls. The motto of the minister is the motto of the Baptist, "He must increase, but I must decrease" (Jn. 3:30).

A good barometer is to compare a man's self-talk with some other Christian, pastor or not, whom you love and respect. Could you imagine hearing that frequency of self-talk coming from her mouth? Or, compare the social media footprint of two or three pastors or elders whom you love and respect. Do they post as much? And even if they do, compare the content. How many "I's" and "me's" are there, put side by side? If all else fails ask your gut. Your Christian gut. Do you feel funny? It may not be reliable ... but then again, it just may be.

2. Early, excessive, or inappropriate confiding. We all confide. We need to share hard and challenging things to sympathetic friends. Sometimes, you just need a shoulder to cry on. But we don't just do that with anyone, because we don't trust everyone; nor do we trust everyone equally. And coming to the point where we can be vulnerable enough to confide just takes time. You can't rush that.

Manipulators rush it. They begin to share things privately with you in hushed tones. Or they reach out to you, just you, by phone. And they tell you things, personal things, about themselves. Perhaps they are personal sufferings they have experienced. Or how someone hurt them, or broke their trust, or just disappointed and discouraged them.

They also cross the line of inappropriate confiding. Confiding to my wife about some personal temptation? That's appropriate. Sharing it with my eleven year old daughter? Probably not. Confiding about my deep hurts and sufferings to a pastoral colleague? Appropriate. Confiding these things to a church member whom I discern seems impressionable and trusting? Definitely not!

3. Playing on sympathies. Dovetailing with the above is playing on sympathies. The "I" talk and "me" talk always puts its best foot forward and portrays the "other side" in terms that are rarely positive on the whole. Even if there are compliments of the other side, there are periodic swipes. The case is being made, your emotions are the jurors, and the defense gets no heads-up that there was ever a hearing to begin with. Manipulator 1, Bad Guys 0. A fair hearing of both sides is rarely possible, because the more aggressive (and unscrupulous) side wins.

4. Doing odd favors. Doing odd, unexpected favors, giving gifts, offering unsolicited help of some time may be innocent ... but then again, maybe not. A manipulator will not hesitate to ingratiate himself into the sympathies of someone by doing favors that he intends to cash-in for repayment at a later point. And if he later invokes a favor, or something he's selflessly done for you, take a breath. Stand back. Ask yourself, "Do I really before God owe him this returned 'favor?'" And especially beware at that point of the guilt trip. (More on that in a moment.)

5. Playing up loyalty. Conditional loyalty belongs to those who have a special relationship to us. Absolute loyalty, however, belongs only to Jesus. The two must never be confused. But if someone simply disagrees with the manipulator, or even appropriately critiques him (never mind full-on, Galatians 2 confrontation!) then he may be charged with outright "betrayal." Or, if the manipulator doesn't want to totally crush the spirits, he may administer the lesser sting of his expressed "hurt," "disappointment," or "discouragement." But loyalty is king. Personal loyalty.

6. Guilt-tripping. This is one of the most painful, and frankly the most wicked of all the tactics a manipulator will resort to. If a Christian has a particularly sensitive conscience, the manipulator will finger-wag the poor Christian, piously shaming or flatly rebuking. They are not holy. They are carnal. But ... is this guilt in the eyes of God or just of a mere man? Is this the conviction of the Holy Spirit, or is it the tactic of a man of God on a power trip? (Or at best, a soul who needs serious pastoring himself!) In any case, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29; cf. WCF 20.2).

Note, these things can stand with having a meek and mild manner. The man may not have a furrowed brow, a clenched jaw, or bulging eyes. He may seem like the most innocent and gentle spirit you could imagine. He could appear to be profoundly sincere and authentic. Just remember that appearances can often be misleading. One can be sincerely wrong. One can be gentle in the extreme, if it is serving an ulterior motive.

We certainly don't want to think the worst of people. Love "believeth all things, hopeth all things." This is true. Our default should be to assume the best of everyone, not judging motives, not suspecting what may or may not be the case. However, this ethic also stands with the ethic, "be not deceived" (Luke 21:8, 1 Cor. 15:33, Gal. 6:7). Note the ethical harmony of seemingly contrary principles in the wisdom of our Lord: "Be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves" (Matt. 10:16). It is a virtue to suffer for righteousness' sake. But it is not a virtue to suffer needlessly, much less for the sake of a spiritual predator.   "For ye suffer, if a man bring you into bondage, if a man devour you, if a man take of you, if a man exalt himself, if a man smite you on the face" (2 Cor. 11:20).

We've considered six warning signs that someone might be trying to abuse you emotionally. But what can be done about it? Check back next week for a follow-up post, where I will offer a few principals to help those abused to break the spell. 

Update: Read the follow-up post here

Michael Ives is the pastor of Presbyterian Reformed Church of Rhode Island. He also has been engaged in urban outreach in South Providence, and writes about parish missions at

Related Links

Mortification of Spin: "Touch Not the Lord's Anointed"

"The Right to Be Believed" by Matt Holst

"I Am My Own Greatest Hardship" by Guy Richard 

PCRT '89: Whatever Happened to Sin? with Becky Pippert, Roger Nicole, and Sinclair Ferguson
[ Audio Disc  | MP3 Disc  |  Download ]

Our Ancient Foe, edited by Ron Kohl