From the Archives: Not Stupid, Well Perhaps Maybe Some Are…

kinnon —  January 7, 2010 — 6 Comments

LinkWithin (which shows up at the bottom of each post with suggestions for other posts) often points me at posts of my own that are particularly appropriate to the present conversation – when not offering completely off-the-wall suggestions.

This one below from October 2007 seemed rather appropriate. I've edited it somewhat.

Group think is not limited to churches; whole movements can be so infected.


I recognize that it's a rather cryptic title. And some folk won't bother to read it because, frankly, it makes little sense. There is a real art to headline writing. This post doesn't reflect that.

Church-Thinkingoverrated1The title is a reference to a post from Todd Heistand that I linked to last week, Congregations Aren't Stupid.

I truly would love to believe, as Todd quotes Eugene Peterson writing, "the congregation is not stupid and lumpish, waiting for pastoral enlightenment". But on pondering that statement and Todd's post, my experience suggests otherwise.

My buddy, Brother Maynard talks about leaders, the people in the pews and the Stockholm Syndrome,

…yesterday I was driving along and thinking about past (bad) church experiences, and what causes us to stay in those situations, even thinking that they are normal or acceptable. We feel affection for or affinity with the leader, we’re “in it together,” and we’re “on the same team” and all that. Then suddenly — sparked by a news story on the radio I think — I found myself thinking about Stockholm Syndrome.

Not to be too harsh or to put too fine a spin on it… but isn’t that essentially what we’re talking about here? Perfectly normal people suspending their better judgment on many issues based on identification with the perpetrators (or ringleaders, or whatever) of some, let’s say “unhealthy” system.

Stupidcouple1I'd probably say perfectly normal and intelligent people suspend their judgment and reasoning abilities and buy into just about any kind of nonsense. This Juanita Bynum clip (via Jared @ The Thinklings) would be an extreme case in point.

But there are congregations throughout the world that are, for want of a better word, stupid. For, as Forrest Gump is wont to say, "Stupid is as stupid does."

Rather than exhibiting the power of collective intelligence*, they reflect the swamp of collective stupidity. Their senior pastors or movement leaders operate like potentates with management skills worthy of inclusion in Bob Sutton's book or possibly one of Robert Hare's – whilst these so-called leaders are busy self-identifying as Level 5 leaders. Yet the pew people/movement identifiers stay loyal followers.

If you dare to suggest their leaders are a little less than the biblical model for leadership, you find yourself being threatened with Old Testament plagues as you've dared to "touch the Lord's anointed." (If you dug through the comment archives on this blog, you'd find that very thing there.)

I have sat with people who have told me horror stories (and yes, I could tell some of my own) about the disastrous impact of certain Christian leaders on their lives and/or those of their families. And yet most of those storytellers still attend the same churches or are part of the same movement. "All our friends are there." "We just ignore the bad stuff." "Yah, I know he/she/it is not a very nice person, but people are still getting saved, right!?" "Actually, I really didn't need my left arm. I am right-handed after all. And the limp? Didn't Jacob walk with a limp."

Brother Maynard's concept of this being like the Stockholm Syndrome is helpful – at least for those of us outside the swamp.


ADDENDUM: I think it's important to note that I think the vast majority of people in church leadership are not psychopaths or sociopaths – in fact, most are good people trying to do what they believe God has called them to do. However, there are enough "perpetrators (or ringleaders, or whatever)" to cause great concern. And I am truly shocked by the number of pew people who know full well what is going on…but do nothing other than show up faithfully and give liberally of their time and money.

UPDATE: Rainer Halonen and Greg Laughery join the conversation in the comments – but both have written good posts on their own blogs.

Rainer, who works as a "missional missionary" in the Ukraine points to

visiting pastors, mission teams, etc…  coming to this country, who, even after seeing the problems, recognizing that all is not right, continue to support the system without confronting the issues."

Greg has continued in his Exodus series with Part 5, where he says,

We are experiencing the deep psychosis of cultural despotism that is thoroughly soaked into our Christian flesh and blood, leaving us with empty imaginations. Our bones are disintegrating before our eyes, our bowels are exploding, and there is no strength left in our guts. Too much fast food spirituality. Are we stupid or what?

UPDATE 2: My friend Sonja @ Calacirian responds to both Brother Maynard and me in her very good (as usual) post, On Breathing, Painting and Sweden. Where we normally see eye to eye on topics, Sonja disagrees with me here.

Sorry, Bill, I need to part ways with you on this. I don’t believe in collective stupidity. I do, however, believe in a state of collective fear. Or should I say … pack behavior. We are, after all, dogs. Or, in the words of Handel, sheep. No one wants to be excluded from the pack (herd). May I refer you to my (not so wonderful) post on the topic? The people in a church know exactly what happens to those who step out of line. The leadership make sure of it.

Please read her entire post.

Technorati Tags:
, , , ,

Technorati Tags: , , , ,



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

6 responses to From the Archives: Not Stupid, Well Perhaps Maybe Some Are…

  1. hehe … I think I still stand behind that. I don’t believe in collective stupidity, but I do think that many people when listening to leaders (in many venues) suspend their critical faculties. The rise of Glenn Beck in the U.S. is a testament to that.

    There are some leaders who have such charisma (in it’s original meaning) and charm that those within their gravitational pull do not believe them capable of anything negative. When this is combined with other specific traits, we know it as Narcissism. These leaders know how to use the dark force of their charm as well to keep nay-sayers out.

    Unfortunately, I think the system of education and training that pastors go through in combination with the appeal of the particular field, tends to concentrate people with this personality-type in it. Shameful, really, when one considers what the role of pastor is supposed to encompass.

  2. “Their senior pastors or movement leaders operate like potentates…”

    In my limited experience I have certainly seen pastors rule things. My own senior pastor growing up told me that the only viable form of church governance was “a benevolent dictatorship.” Worse than that…somewhere along the lines the benevolent part got lost.

    My concern is that I’ve also seen senior leaders who wanted to harness the power of collective intelligence and move away from this potentate model, but the congregation has been unwilling or unable to do it. They were so used to following and doing as they were told that opening the doors to other strong voices had devastating effects.

    In some cases…arrogant, misinformed individuals who sensed the opportunity stepped up and became self appointed potentates. The pastor, not believing that he should fill that role, didn’t fight on behalf of the health of the church and the church was led down devastating paths. The congregation wanted…in the words of “The American President”…”leadership and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” Sometimes it’s too easy to blame this pack mentality on the leader.

    I’ve also seen places where there is a high level of built in cultureal respect for the position of senior pastor. I’ve interacted with senior pastors who want to free people to voice their perspective and to harness the collective intelligence, but people still just wanted to follow. I’ve sat in meetings where the senior pastor was silent on an issue encouraging consensus to emerge from the wisdom of the group. As discussion moved forward, someone has looked at the pastor and said, “I want to know what the pastor thinks.” After trying to put off the question, but being pushed the pastor has shared his view with a caveat that it is a group decision. I’ve watched groups of normally intelligent independant people leave behind all their discussion to follow “the wisdom of the pastor” even in contexts like these. In many church cultures, this is what people have been taught to do for decades and current pastors have to work within this context.

    All I’m saying is that it is too easy to always blame the pack mentality, which I believe does exist, on leadership. Sometimes a congregation is rooted so deeply in the culture of the pack that will take years, if not decades to change. In the meantime, however, the church still needs to function and move forward for the sake of the kingdom. In the meantime the pastor must work in that culture to do what he/she has been hired to help the congregation grow (in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ) and go. What’s a good pastor to do in a context like this?

  3. Jon, I believe that the pastors/leaders being referred to here are not the “good” pastors. Those pastors are concerned about the dysfunction they see in their flock and are willing to go to great lengths to change it; investing years and decades in the process. Sometimes they even sacrifice themselves.

    So it’s not all pastors who are being tarred with this brush. Just the folks who go so far as to encourage the herd mentality for their own personal benefit. That benefit it almost never money (though it sometimes is), but is usually about creating and maintaining an image in which their ego is the centerpiece, rather than Christ.

  4. I would agree that “fear” is major motivator esp. in those communities where the church has become central. Also if one is a published author associated with a particular brand (see Frank Schaeffer), leaving that environment can mean a total personal/career transformation. I recommend Frank’s books for those who feel they need to change but feel they’re unable to do so for fear of the future.

  5. Thanks for that clarification, Sonja. I don’t think it is always easy to discern from a distance between a pastor concerned with the dysfunction of his flock and in the midst of a long and painful task of introducing change and a pastor who is working with the herd mentality to promote their own agenda for their own benefit.

    I know of pastors who have been accused of the latter when the issue was others trying to control in ways that weren’t for God’s glory. I’ve known pastors who have had to exercise some level of authoratitive control in order to preserve a kingdom agenda against wolves in sheeps clothing in order to bring people along to the place where a healthy transition away from the pack mentality could happen. In the earlier stages of this kind of process it can look very much like a pastor out for control when the long term goal, which may only be seen through deep conversation, has truly been anything but authoratitive control.

    I do appreciate your clarification and Bill’s obvious caveat about “the vast majority of people in church leadership are not psychopaths or sociopaths”. I’m just trying offering a voice from the other side that points out that some pastors operate with certain levels of control, not because they want to but because the culture of the herd expects and demands it.

  6. Hhmmmm, as I recall, I took quite a bit of flak for that post. Thanks for dredging that up again, Bill! ;^)


What do you think?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.