By Laura Petherbridge
“Your church is encouraging my wife to divorce me! You call yourself Christians? You ought to be ashamed of yourselves.”
These were the statements the church secretary reported to the pastor after receiving a call from a furious husband. His wife had joined the healthy, Bible-based, divorce recovery program hosted by that church. He was livid.
What this husband conveniently omitted from the conversation was that his wife desperately wanted the marriage to be healed. For six years, she had begged him to get help for his ongoing drug abuse.
He refused, blaming her for the unstable marriage. His unwillingness to seek treatment had reached a point where her life—and the lives of their children—were in significant danger.
After 30 years in pastoral care ministries, I’ve developed a good radar for detecting people who are manipulators. I’ve also discovered how masterful they are at deceiving pastors and church leaders.
They know the church is passionate to exemplify the love and forgiveness of Jesus. They also know biblical teaching is of the utmost importance. It’s with skilled and calculated maneuvering that these predators dupe the church staff.
Here are a few of the characteristics and competent tactics used by a manipulator.
1. They’re charming
It’s easy for the manipulator to deceive others because they are often delightful, polite, and enchanting in public.
Many people have a difficult time believing this person could be nasty, cruel, or abusive because they’ve perfected the craft of portraying just the opposite.
2. They’re deceptive
The manipulator is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. And while masquerading as a holy, dutiful spouse, this person laughs at the church leadership, branding them as naïve and gullible.
3. They cast themselves as blameless
A manipulator feels they’re always being attacked, abused, ignored, arrested, or fired for no good reason. They’re always the subject of injustice after trying their best to make things right.
You’ll rarely, if ever, hear a manipulator assume responsibility for making poor choices.
4. They can seem to fit in
The manipulator efficiently learns the church lingo, Bible verses, and Christian phrases—and then uses them to his or her advantage.
This allows the perpetrator to go undetected and smoothly fit in as “one of the team.” They’ll often be the first one to arrive and the last one to leave so they appear committed and servant-like.
5. They’re fast learners
Most manipulators are very smart, and they strategize well. They know what’s worked in the past to take advantage of friends, family, and the church. They use those tactics to discover the church’s most vulnerable weak link.
6. They lie effortlessly
A manipulator is fully convinced the lies they tell are the truth, and a necessary means to an end. It’s what is required for them to “make things right.”
7. They use gender to their advantage
Male manipulators know the church is typically made up of male leadership. They also know the Bible teaches the husband should be the head of the home.
A perversion of this teaching is often one of their favorite deceptions. He uses the Bible to vindicate his domination, dictatorship, or abuse of his wife and family. This truly is his masterpiece weapon of destruction.
If his wife tries to explain the truth to leadership, he calmly, lovingly—and deceitfully—shares he’s the godly one and she tries to take the lead and just won’t submit to his authority.
The female manipulator often uses a fake illness and phony vulnerability to catch her prey.
By portraying herself as a damsel in distress, and knowing that Christians are to be kind and loving, she easily lures her victim with tears, neediness, and frailty.
8. They shun discernment
When the manipulator meets someone who can “see” them without the mask, and/or detects harmful motives, they typically run away quickly. They avoid people who have a radar for evil.
9. They know their hunting ground
Churches, especially those that are outreach-minded, often attract people who are hurting, fragile, and vulnerable. The manipulator loves this because it provides a vast hunting ground.
They enter the church or group with a scheme of enticing someone (usually the opposite sex) into their web of lies.
The church leader as gatekeeper
I view my role as a gatekeeper of the groups I host. My job is to remain alert, keeping the wolves away from the sheep. Church leaders need to do this as well.
But before I could assume this role, I had to learn how to spot the difference between a predator and a person who is emotionally unstable. It isn’t easy and has taken me time to discern.
I often remain in the background, observing. I never want to unjustly label a person or mistake a personality clash for something else. Sometimes it’s a fine line.
Fortunately, when we ask and pray, God is faithful to reveal the truth.
Unfortunately, we don’t always think to consult with God when dealing with a manipulator. The drug-addicted husband mentioned above deceived the church his wife was attending.
His manipulation worked at shutting down the support group for hurting people like his wife. Which was, of course, his (and the devil’s) goal.
This husband couldn’t manipulate his wife while she was getting wise, godly information and support. Therefore, he attacked the source of her counsel—the church.
And he won.
The heartbreaking part, and the reason for this article, is that precious and well-intentioned church leadership never knew he had successfully deceived and manipulated them.