Leadership in general is tough, but leadership in a church or ministry setting even more so. We’re not just expected to lead people; we’re expected to lead them like Jesus would have. We lead by serving, by loving, by taking care of those who follow. We lead with honesty and integrity. We lead by example. The bar is set high, as it should be.
Leadership like that has no room for manipulation of any kind. And yet we see it happen, even within the church, within youth ministry. It’s a dangerous tool to use, manipulation, and a damaging one that can have lasting effects. People may fall for it at first, but when they find out they’ve been manipulated, lied to, taken advantage of, they will stop following us. And sadly, they’ll often stop following Jesus as well. There’s a big group of disillusioned Christians out there who have given up on the church or on serving in any ministry, because of manipulative leadership.
As Jesus’ ambassadors here on earth, we have to stay far away from manipulation of any kind. We have to lead with truth, honesty, and authenticity, especially when we’re trying to get people on board for a decision or course of action.
Here are some ways in which you might be unintentionally manipulative in your leadership:
- You don’t give all the info
Of course you don’t have to tell your volunteers or leaders everything. But when you ask them to make a decision, to support you in an undertaking or some kind or take sides in a situation, you need to paint the whole picture. If you are withholding important information that may affect their decisions, you may be on a manipulative path.
Don’t just give the information and arguments that support your position. Be fair and give the counter arguments as well. If you are truly convinced of your position based on its merits, the others will come to see your point.
- You don’t inform all people
While it’s natural and perfectly okay to have a deeper bond with some volunteers or leaders than with others, you should treat them all the same when it comes to sharing information. If you are leaving certain people out of the loop, for instance because they’re always giving you a hard time in meetings, or because they’re known to be ‘difficult’, you’re being manipulative. Also, you’re shutting people out and this can evoke powerful negative feelings.
- You inform the wrong people
Another way to manipulate people into doing things your way is by sharing information with people who aren’t on your team and who have no direct stake in the outcome, but who you know to be important influencers of people in your team. Some people would simply call that church politics, but it’s a grey area that you’d better avoid.
In a previous church we worked in, there was one extended family that was involved in a lot of leadership roles and positions. It was tempting to get one of them on board, because they would act as a sort of first domino to get the rest of this club behind you. I didn’t always make the right decisions here, but often regretted it later.
- You give wrong info
Giving the wrong information is also called lying. It doesn’t always feel that way, because we can reason it away as being for the sake of our youth ministry, just a white lie or some other excuse, but it’s still lying. Even exaggerating information is lying (‘Everyone feels this way’ when you’ve spoken to exactly three people or ‘The board doesn’t agree either’ when you’ve only heard one elder wasn’t happy).
We have a saying in Dutch that literally translated goes like this: no matter how fast the lie is, the truth is always faster. Sooner or later, the truth will come out. People will find out you’ve lied to them, misrepresented the numbers, exaggerated support for your decision. And what will you do then? Lie again to cover up, deny? One lie always leads to another.
- You give no info at all
Being the leader does not mean you’re above the law. Your team has a right to question you, to ask critical questions about decisions that you have made. It’s not easy to deal with criticism in general and of course people don’t always dole it out the way they’re supposed to. But that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to deny them the right to question your decisions and actions. The minute you’re falling back on ‘I’m the leader, this is my decision and criticizing me is criticizing the church’, you have stepped into manipulative territory.
It’s a tempting trap sometimes, manipulation, especially when we’re facing opposition and we want to move on. But we need to guard our hearts and our leadership from even the appearance of manipulation.