Unmask Controlling Structures

Sometimes the first impression is great, but after a while people find themselves in a place they didn’t expect. The need of unmasking control — even in churches — is big. Note: Work in progress.

What does control look like?

A controlling setting wants that people move into a certain direction they didn’t necessarily decide for. One can feel a certain pressure, though it can get veiled by persuading explanations. If someone gives you a task to fulfil and they actually want you to do it how they would do it, criticise you permanently even though you did your best, want you to get it ready before everything else or constantly ask for the outcome: this is controlling behaviour.

People who think for themselves and are not willing to give up their independence, threaten a controlling setting. They can spot it and also define the controlling mechanism. People who desperately look for direction and guidance are more in danger to get trapped in a controlling setting.

Sadly, control happens also in some churches.

The less people use their own discernment and the more they put their life into the hands of others, the easier it becomes to control them. Someone who likes to control would therefore give the impression that they have the answer for those who look for answers. The answer in a church setting could be "You need counselling.", "Serving will bring you to a better stage.", "Obedience will promote you.", "Honouring and blessing your leaders with service and money is a prove of your love for God." Later, if nothing happens: "Something must be wrong with you. You should probably get counselling."

With people who actually get some confidence during counselling so that they would start to notice things, the conversation can look like this: "I'm sorry that you view things like this. You know that talking bad about leaders is not in the bible. What you experienced in the past still clouds your mind. We can schedule some counselling for you."

You see in this example that control uses manipulation to maintain the status quo. The idea is simple: The one who demands control is superior and better to the one that needs to be controlled. The blame would always have to be at the one who "should" submits to the control.

Another sign of danger in churches is when the church and the activities become more important than anything else — even Christ.

Control isn’t always obvious, in fact, it can stay hidden for a very long time. That’s why I created this list of open questions you could ask people who go to a church that you find interesting. I also provide a tool that you can use to interpret the answers. I want to help you to navigate here safely.

Since narcissists are the masters of control, I considered their typical behaviour as indicators for a controlling setting. It doesn’t mean every person who exercises control is a narcissist, because everybody likes control (self-control is even healthy). Most people have a few narcissistic adjectives hidden or a bit more obvious. That, to a degree, is normal and one can deal with it.

But the more control and manipulation are in our life, the more dangerous it gets to spirit, body and soul. Control is also the complete opposite of how God is. That’s why it shouldn’t be in the church, though sadly it is there pretty often — unaddressed.

This is how you can find out whether a church nurtures controlling mechanisms:

Visit a church for some time and observe it. Talk to the people and get to know them. I prepared a set of questions for you that you can ask. If you want to do that, prepare it a bit. Practise the questions. This sounds strange but it’s absolutely helpful to practise the interview with a few friends. Ask them for feedback how they felt. Take this into consideration.

When you feel safe enough to approach members of the church you consider becoming a member, you are ready. Find more than one person and try to find people from “inside” the leadership team as well as people who are a bit more loosely connected.

What I would like to ask you when you get answers to the questions:

Please value the person! They share something important and vulnerable with you. Keep it to yourself and respect their privacy! Even if you find out there is control going on, don’t use their information to confront someone. Keep the answers absolutely anonymous. It could get dangerous for them and it would cost you your trustworthiness.

The setting for the interview

For getting good answers, meet the persons you want to ask the questions one on one. Create a nice atmosphere, maybe with a coffee or tea and have a chat, very relaxed.

If you feel during the interview that they get stressed or feel uncomfortable, ask them if everything is okay. If they don’t want to continue, stop and excuse that you were too nosy. In that case bring an easy topic up and change the subject. Check constantly in the spirit if it’s okay to go on. When you ask these questions, observe their body language: Do they suddenly stiffen up? Or do they stay relaxed? Pay attention to that. Pay also attention to the atmosphere.

Starting the interview

Ask them with an open mind. You really want to get to know this church. This church is a gift from God and the people have talents and great callings. Be open for any answer. Ask the questions in a natural way.

As an introduction for the interview you could say something like:

“I’m looking for a new place to stay and grow. Since a few months I visit your church regularly and what I experience is great! I know every place is a little different and I would really like to know more about it. Could you help me by answering a few questions, since you seem to go to this place for some time already?”

If they agree you can start with the questions.

Here’s the list

These are only the questions. Further down in the article you’ll find suggestions how you can interpret the answers.

1. How long do you go to this church already?

2. Are you a “guest” or a member?

3. Why did you decide for this place?

4. Do you have some “tasks” in the church? Or: Are you in one of the teams?

a. If yes: How do you like it?

b. What is your responsibility there?

5. How are the senior leaders as persons?

a. What is the favourite topic they preach about?

b. How do they interpret their favourite topic?

6. What is the main teaching, the foundation in this church?

7. Is a person connected to that teaching?

a. Does this person visit this church regularly?

b. How would you describe this person?

c. How does the leadership treat this person?

8. What would happen if one can’t completely embrace this teaching?

9. Are there projects you do together with other churches?

10. What do you think of other churches?

11. What is your gifting and how were you able to grow in this place regarding your talents in the past 2 years?

12. Would you say you belong the leadership of this church?

13. How would you describe the style of leadership in the church?

14. How do you feel in conversations with leaders of this church?

15. How does the leadership deals with criticism?

a. How do they deal when confronted with criticism?

b. How do they confront others?

16. Have you ever observed something in the leadership team that needed to get addressed?

a. If yes: Did you address it and how did they deal with it?

b. If yes and you didn’t address it: What were the reasons you didn’t address the issue?

17. Could you tell me about a challenge that the church had to face and how they dealt with it?

18. In every church it happens that people leave. Do you happen to know a few cases in your church and the reasons?

19. How do the senior leaders and the leadership team react when people leave the church?

20. I know this is a strange question for me to ask, but I really would like to know: How do YOU feel about people who left?

End the questions with thanking them for their openness.

You could continue with small-talk and end the meeting in a natural way.


Evaluating the answers

After you asked these questions, take some quiet time to memorize and journal the answers and what you observed.

When you are done with this step, ask yourself a few questions:

How did you feel while doing this kind of interview?

Did you feel like you were in ease or did you feel somehow out of your leisure?

What stuck out to you especially?

What did you observe regarding the body language?

What did you sense regarding the atmosphere?

Got every question addressed?

Did you get triggered at one point?

How did the interview end?

Based on the answers please consider honestly: Are the results of the interview a valid source for your analysis?


Interpret the answers

While I try to help you with the direction, I can’t guaranty absolute acuracy of the results, since many factors play a role for interpreting. But I trust it will help detecting control easier.

The intention of the first questions is to find out the perspective of the person.

1. How long do you go to this church already?

If they attend for more than 5 years it’s either an indicator of either a great church they feel safe and good, or there is no other alternative, or they feel insecure to leave. Stay open, because all options are possible. Lets assume it’s a great church!

2. Are you a “guest” or a member?

A guest is usually not so much involved in the matters of the church. A member knows more about the things that are going on. If people are guests but go to that place regularly for more than 1 or 2 years, you could also ask them why they didn’t become a member yet. If they live close by and still didn’t decide to become a member, you could ask them why, but accept if they prefer not to say something. Sometimes these things are too private to share.

3. Why did you decide for this place?

How excited are they? What do they emphasize? Do they talk about Jesus and God or do they talk about leaders? Do they mention how they felt and how they feel now?

Let the answers be open.

4. Do you have some “tasks” in the church? Or: Are you in one of the teams?

This is important to know in regards of interpreting the other questions.

a. If yes: How do you like it?

Observe in their answer whether you believe them that they do something they absolutely love (or not).

b. What is your responsibility there?

With this question you will most likely find out whether they have a leading position or a serving part.

5. How are the senior leaders as persons?

Collect the attributes. Check whether you can hear slight criticism. Do you feel like the person you interviewed feels seen? An indicator that this isn’t the case would be if they state that the pastor is very busy. Remember their reaction in body language and describe it.

a. What is the favourite topic they preach about?

Collect the info. Check if there is a lot teaching about serving and giving. Check how often they mention Jesus.

b. How do they interpret their favourite topic?

Watch the body language again. Check whether insecurity kicks in or if the interviewed person stays relaxed and sure of themselves. Check whether one could get the impression of a feeling of condemnation or instead freedom and joy. Take notice of how they word their answer. What do they say?

6. What is the main teaching, the foundation in this church?

Check it and also check the wording. You can test it on your own by studying it out in the bible, whether it is good or now. Indicators for testing based on 1John 4: Fear or love? Is there some judgement or punishment mixed in? That would be on the fear-side.

If there is freedom of judgement: Is there still a chance for healthy reflection on one’s behaviour? Or is there a slight or obvious assumption that a Christian can’t fail anymore at all? Especially if there is no necessity to reflect that would be a signal to be alarmed. Check especially than how the leadership deals with criticism.

7. Is a certain teacher or preacher connected to that particular teaching?

Observe if there is a “hype” around a person. Thoroughly test whether the admiration or honour goes into the direction of a cult around a person. This happens often in churches and can be a problem of the individual. Therefor one needs to check whether the leadership of the church admires that person as well. Check if other teachings get mentioned additionally and how they get emphasized.

a. Does this person visit this church regularly?

Again: notice the wording. Do they say something about culture differences or what they find a bit unusual? Do they talk about what this person wants the local church to do? Check whether you can feel freedom and selfless support — or an agenda.

b. How would you describe this person?

Check for narcissistic traits vs. humility. Do they love the front light and the stage? Do they persuade with knowledge or words? Does the interviewed person test the input or simply takes it? A person who simply and blindly admires others is usually not very convinced of themselves and easy prey for narcissists, who love admiration.

c. How does the leadership treat this person?

Respect and value are good. Blind admiration would be a sign for danger. Also twisted admiration, like honour outwardly, but at the same time signs of fear would be a red flag.

Expecting the congregation to agree on this particular teaching (and maybe even excluding those who don’t) are signs of control. Every person can make mistakes, even a gifted teacher/preacher. If this thought doesn’t get applied in this church, be very careful.

8. What would happen if one can’t completely embrace this teaching?

Check the reaction. Of course, certain things one should agree on. This is my personal Credo:

“Jesus Christ is the son of God. He died on the cross for us and rose from the dead. He is now seated in heaven and sent us the Holy Spirit as a comforter and the one who helps us. When we believe this, we enter a relationship with God and are his children. God is good and wants the best for us. With him we can conquer every obstacle, and everything is possible for us.”

I have a clear opinion on other things as well, but I accept that there are different point of views. A healthy church should be okay with people who don’t always think the same way.

9. Are there projects you do together with other churches?

If not, check how they speak about other Christians.

10. What do you think of other churches?

Do they seem to believe their church is the only one and the best one? Or do they embrace the possibility, that certain styles don’t fit everyone, even in church?

11. What is your gifting and how were you able to grow in this place regarding your talents in the past two years?

Do they start to complain (boredom or not feeling seen) or talk about their (own) issues that hinder their growth? Or do they talk about what they accomplished with happiness? Can you get the impression that this church really helps the people to discover their potential? Even those who need some extra help?

A tool for control is keeping people down and occupied. As long as people are busy trying to solve their issues, they are easy to handle and won’t start thinking big. People who are gifted can often be bribed with positions (the need for admiration and importance for something), where they only stay as long as they do what they are taught.

Independent thinkers are not good for a controlling system. They would start to question things. A strategy to silence them is to give them the impression that they can’t trust their senses and their observation. That could be done for example by stating that the person is still hurt from experiences in the past.

If people are happy: That’s great! Check how much they agree with the teaching and how strictly they follow their leaders and if they still have a free mind.

12. Would you say you belong the leadership of this church?

If someone belongs to the leadership of a controlling church they will only tell you good things about it. This is tricky, because what if the church IS in fact really good? But they will also emphasize the teaching and that other churches more or less “didn’t get it”, “are still religious” and give the impression that this is the only place where you can find the freedom you need. It won’t be so much about Jesus than about that church.

They will try to get you in. Maybe they will talk about all the good things they see in you and flatter you. They will have a problem when you don’t agree with them. The tension would be obvious. It’s also likely that they start to talk bad about people they assume you aren’t connected with. They might even downplay others. This is gossip. Be careful.

Someone who belongs to a healthy church (and is a healthy person) would never try to press you towards a decision but leaves you freedom. They would point to Jesus and God. They show gratefulness for other people and what they are blessed with. They are humble. They would encourage you to test things in the spirit and pray. They know they aren’t perfect and are humble enough to take criticism seriously. They will value honesty and create an atmosphere in which people can be themselves.

13. How would you describe the style of leadership in the church?

Is there an emphasis on “honouring leaders”? Or is there the emphasis on servant leadership, as servant to those who aren’t leading?

14. How do you feel in conversations with leaders of this church?

This is a question where it’s extremely important to watch the body language. The body will tell you more than their answer. Do they react stressed or happy and relaxed?

15. How does the leadership deals with criticism?

Narcissists, the masters of control and manipulation, hate criticism. They would create a teaching that allows them to gossip about others but forbids everyone even to only give the impression of slight criticism. It doesn’t matter whether someone observed something correctly and states that — it would typically get labelled as “talking bad about your leadership”. They want to have a blameless image.

Trying to open the eyes of a narcissistic person for things that went wrong (worse: they did wrong) is a horrible experience. They will try to give you the impression that everything is wrong with you and that they are the victims of your attack. If you get the impression that this is the case in a church, better leave it. Don’t become a member.

Healthy leaders are aware that they can make mistakes. They are aware of their responsibility towards other people. When they notice something in their behaviour, they will take effort to change and apologize, if it hurt others and if it’s possible. They know that not every source for criticism is good, but they have people around them who are allowed to reflect them honestly. It’s possible to talk to them about problems and problematic observations.

a. How do they deal when confronted with criticism?

To which of the description above does the answer fit more?

b. How do they confront others?

Do confronted people feel encouraged to change or horrible and bad?

16. Have you ever observed something in the leadership team that needed to get addressed?

a. If yes: Did you address it and how did they deal with it?

Does it fit more to a controlling style or a healthy style of reaction?

b. If yes and you didn’t address it: What were the reasons you didn’t address the issue?

Is the reason fear? Is it fear because of experience? Does the experience fit to the controlling type of leadership?

17. Could you tell me about a challenge that the church had to face and how they dealt with it?

Does this example match to what you find out until now regarding freedom and love or control?

18. In every church it happens that people leave. Do you happen to know a few cases in your church and the reasons?

Check if the reasons are frustration, hurt or positive reasons like job change, moving to a different place or marriage.

19. How do the senior leaders and the leadership team react when people leave the church?

Do you get the impression that the leadership starts to gossip about the people who left? Or do you feel like it fits more into a healthy reaction?

20. I know this is a strange question for me to ask, but I really would like to know: How do YOU feel about people who left?

It’s the same with this answer: does it fit to a controlling model or a healthy reaction?

Compare the results with other interviews. If you have a few:

Congratulations!

Now you have a pretty close idea whether the church you wanted to know more about operates in control or not. I pray it is free.


Author of the picture: Andrea Wright [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]