Celestial Lands The Religious Crossroads of Politics, Power, and Theology

The Abuse and Misuse of Emotions

This week, I have been wrestling with how to talk about something that has been instrumental in my recent ministerial formation, while still “agreeing in love”. It is hard for a seminarian to say something that might be construed as critical of colleagues, even if, as one minister friend told me, we are formed as much by what we think are not-so-positive examples as we are by positive examples.

Writing for Celestial Lands is a part of my spiritual practice. It is how I take internal spiritual reflection and learn how to share that reflection openly and responsibly. It is my pre-writing for sermons. When I go a week or so without posting something here (as I just have) it will often be because there is something I am wrestling with that I do not know how to share.

How do I talk about a fundamental realization in my formation as a minister when it may be construed as being critical of colleagues? Here is what I have come to: I will not mention any names or specific incidents. I will not say anything I have not said directly to the individuals in question. I will talk simply about the spiritual problem, and the realizations that I have come to from it.

And I will re-read the UUMA guidelines before posting this article… and to also say directly (though I think it is implied about everything at Celestial Lands) that this article is merely my thought at this point in my ministerial formation.

The issue that has been weighing on my heart and mind is the power to use and manipulate the emotions of those around them that ministers have.

At its foundation, the work of ministry is emotive, not rational or logical. At its foundation, the call of ministry is to the hearts and lives of women, men, and children, not primarily to any specific goals or plans of the minister. Our faith guides our ministries, but someone can participate as deeply in faith without taking on the call to ministry. When furthering our goals and plans distracts us from the call to minister to hearts and lives, then I believe that we are stepping away from that foundation of the call to ministry.

In recent days, I have seen colleagues, both ministers and seminarians, for the purpose of furthering their plans, reaching their goals, or achieving their ends, use that connection to the emotional lives of others as a tool. Be it using fear to motivate someone into supporting something they might not otherwise support, or guilt to convince someone that the minister is right and they are wrong, or to intentionally play on someone’s sympathy to convince them not to do something the minister does not want them to do.

This has been in my awareness, because in my career assessment (psychological profile of a minister) one of the realizations they led me to is that I was blissfully unaware of the ramifications and intentions of my own use of power and authority. The emotional manipulation I have seen in others I can also see in my own life and ministry. In fact, looking for it within myself is what has made me sensitive enough to see it around me.

In our society, such manipulation of emotion has become commonplace. When I discussed this with others, two of the answers I received were “everyone does it”, and “well, it works”. Politicians and their advisors are consummate artists in manipulating people through their emotions, often the negative ones. Commercials seek to play our emotions like fiddles. Whole relationships are built upon this dance of emotional manipulation. Businesses routinely use emotions to manipulate their employees, by playing them off one another.

The awareness of this ranges from intentional political campaigns expressly designed to stir emotions of fear and hatred, to a mother who gets her children to do what she wants with the threat of disappointment, completely unaware of what she is doing. Though the intentional manipulation often gets the most attention, perhaps we can cause greater harm when we do not realize what it is we are doing. We are less wounded when a politician plays our emotions for their own ends, because we did not trust them… unlike a minister, a spouse, or a close friend.

There is a special kind of trust reposed in ministers. It is unlike the trust we place in almost any other kind of leader, because whether they are able to bring themselves to it or not, people know that they are supposed to be able to trust a minister to be careful with their emotions. It is similar in this respect to a relationship with a partner, or a long time friend. With that trust comes a deeper and easier path to being emotionally wounded.

One of the lessons in this for me is that it is not important whether I view myself as a particular person’s minister. Just by being a minister, a certain level of emotional trust is placed in me, even by people I barely know. If I then seek to manipulate those emotions to serve my goals and plans, I can cause greater injury than many others because of that trust.

Now, I am not saying that ministers cannot connect with the emotions of those around them… for doing so is much of the “stock in trade” of the ministry. My understanding of the sermon is that it is an intentional, collective, and co-creative emotive experience, in which the minister is actively seeking to evoke the emotions of the congregation. I have intentionally sought to connect to and evoke emotions in pastoral counseling, and I have in certain sermons judged my success by how many dry eyes were left in the sanctuary.

The formational lesson that I am circling around here is to continuously look closely at my intent… to continually ask myself whether I am seeking to evoke emotions to minister to others and the institutions I am a part of, or am I seeking to evoke emotions to serve some ends and goals of my own? Am I seeking to use emotional connections to lead people to a vision that we co-creatively share, or am I manipulating the emotions of others to serve a vision that is my own?

And, perhaps more importantly, the lesson here is to ask my own friends and colleagues to serve as a critical eye upon how I use the ability to evoke emotions in others, and engage with that critical eye when it comes to warn me. I need more than just my own perspective on my intent, and the ability to find someone I can trust. Because I too can be manipulated and hurt. That hurt is underscoring this lesson for me.

The ability to connect and evoke emotions in others is a power that must be respected, because it is all too easily abused.

Yours in Faith,


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