This is a part of an ongoing series on the problem controlling personalities in the church. The other posts in this series can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Manipulation Techniques and How To Defend Against Them
The best defense against being manipulated may be to recognize it as it happens and to have an idea ahead of time about what you will do. In this post I will write about some of the techniques that are used in manipulative and cult-like groups (including churches with orthodox Christian doctrine) and some suggestions you might try to resist them.
My goal is two-fold: first, to help those who suspect they may be a part of an abusive group to determine whether or not this is the case, and second, to help those who are dealing with controlling people to protect themselves from further manipulation.
I want to restate here that I do not wish to encourage anyone to diagnose the people with whom they are having trouble. That is the job of professionals. I am using words such as manipulative, narcissistic, covertly aggressive, abusive or controlling, not in a clinical sense, but in a broad sense to describe the problem I am trying to address.
Also, while the manipulation techniques I am going to address are typically described in literature about spiritually abusive people or groups, the presence of one or even a few of these traits does not mean the group or the person is necessarily abusive or has a personality disorder. Even healthy people occasionally manipulate or fall into a controlling leadership style. It is sometimes just an indication that someone is emotionally immature, lacks social skills and mature powers of persuasion, or is simply having a bad day. When this kind of controlling dynamic predominates as the organizing social structure for a group or is the only way in which a person seems to relate to others, however, the potential for abuse is present.
Controlling people are very good at studying people and discovering what their weaknesses and vulnerabilities are, so that when the time comes that they want something, they can exploit those vulnerabilities to get what they want. Very often the same qualities that are considered virtues in other situations can be vulnerabilities when a manipulator uses them to his or her advantage. So perhaps the first step in protecting yourself from a manipulator is to know yourself as the manipulator does.
George K. Simon, Jr., in his book In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People, lists five characteristics that covertly aggressive people will exploit. The first is naivete. Are you the sort of person who just can't believe that this seemingly nice man standing in front of you could possibly be devious, scheming, and using aggressive tactics to get what he wants, or that what he really wants are such things as control, adoration or riches rather than the earnest zeal for God's kingdom that he professes? The manipulator will take advantage of your naivete by rationalizing and lying about his behavior and trusting that you would prefer to accept the rationalizations and lies than to believe the contrary evidence that is before you. The Bible does not present mankind in this naive way. All men are presented as sinners with shortcomings and weaknesses. The redeemed are to rely on the Holy Spirit for sanctification and growth in maturity and godliness. Yet we are warned again and again in Scripture that there are wicked people with dishonorable intentions and that these wicked people often masquerade as God's people and wish to use God's people for their own desires.
The second and third traits Simon mentions are over-conscientiousness and low self-confidence. Basically this means being harder on yourself than you are on others. Perhaps you will always give others the benefit of the doubt, but when it comes to yourself, especially when the manipulator accuses you of having been at fault or having bad intentions, you are filled with self-doubt and self-condemnation. Perhaps you set impossibly high standards for yourself and yet excuse all sorts of misbehavior in others. Perhaps your lack of confidence that your own judgments are correct keeps you from acting or speaking up when you think there may be a problem. Many of the manipulative behaviors I will discuss below are effective because of the over-conscientiousness and lack of confidence of those being manipulated.
The fourth trait Simon mentions is over-intellectualization. This causes the victim of manipulation to focus his or her attention on trying to understand why this person is behaving as he does rather than just accept and and deal with the fact that this person is acting in a covertly-aggressive way to manipulate people into giving him what he wants. The over-intellectualizer, according to Simon, sometimes thinks that by understanding the roots of the troublesome behaviors, he might be able to help change those behaviors. He also notes that over-intellectualization can cause people to excuse bad behaviors because they think they understand the root causes. We ought not ever excuse sinful behaviors because we pity the manipulator for his difficult upbringing, the unkind treatment he gets from others he has offended, or the like.
The fifth trait Simon gives is emotional dependency. He is referring to a personality that tends to be submissive, not in a Biblical way, but in an overly-compliant way even when genuine authority is not being exercised. Do you fear abandonment or being left alone? Are you fearful of making your own decisions and deciding on a course of action? Is the approval of others necessary for your happiness, comfort, and self-approval? A manipulator will use threats of abandonment or withdrawal of love as a weapon against this kind of personality.
I would also add spiritual dependency to this list. There are some who depend upon others to define for them their standing before God. Approval by spiritual authority becomes a replacement for approval by God. Rather than rely upon the grace and faithfulness of God and the works of Jesus Christ, some people rely upon meeting the standards of men and gaining and maintaining the approval of their church or its leaders. Rather than trust their own ability to read and understand the Scriptures, (or be willing to expend the effort to do so), they trust without question the interpretations spoon-fed to them by an authority figure. They do not test their teachers by the Scriptures as the Bereans were commended by Paul for doing. If a manipulator realizes that a person is spiritually dependent upon him, he can secure your cooperation by merely claiming the authority of God or causing you to doubt your salvation if you are unwilling to do as he says.
As you read what follows, think about these personality traits and consider how they might be making you vulnerable to to the techniques listed. Awareness of what method is being used and why you are vulnerable to it is the first and most important step in rendering the techniques ineffective. Remember that the purpose of each of these techniques is to get you to do what the manipulator wants you to do.
You're My Kinda People
Let's face it, flattery is sometimes all it takes to turn us into putty, ready to be formed into any desired shape. Flattery is not always obvious, but can take many subtle forms. The flatterer may pay you extra attention, make you feel special or place you in the role of trusted friend. He may have already discerned what your needs are or in what areas you are especially prideful, and exploit those areas. Once you perceive yourself as 'special' and a part of the 'inner circle', you will be more vulnerable to listening to inappropriate talk or gossip (because not everyone is hearing it, just those who are trusted or need to know), or to take on inappropriate tasks that must be kept confidential.
The Scriptures warn us again and again about receiving flattery and dealing with flatterers. See my previous post on this subject here, which contains many Scripture references that you could use to study the topic. We need to recognize flattery when it is coming at us, recognize it as a manipulation tool, and figure out what it is our flatterer is trying to get us to do or think. Once we understand what it is our flatterer wants us to do or think, we can consider the merits of that apart from the buttering up we received.
Here, Use These Magic Glasses
Christians often speak of the need to develop a biblical worldview, because those of us who believe that the Bible is true realize that we view the world rightly only when we do so in the light of that truth. We often speak of viewing the world through the lens of the Scriptures. Likewise, the manipulator wants you to view the world through the lenses he has prepared for you. In order to do so, he must feed you 'truths' which make up that lens. This information can be communicated in many forms. There may be histories or adventure tales that help project a grandiose image of the manipulator, (especially if he has a personality disorder or is sociopathic); gossip which prejudices you against certain people, groups, or organizations; histories that revise a negative event you may one day hear about (perhaps prior accusations against the manipulator, an earlier church split, a divorce, etc.); encounters with or praise from notable or famous people; twisted Scriptures to justify a particular point of view, group custom, or course of action; a twisted view of church authority; or information that encourages viewing this particular church as special and encourages isolation.
The best defense to this kind of communication is to ask yourself, "Why is he telling me this?" and "What does he want me to do or believe?" You can even ask your manipulator those questions, though doing so may cause him to become defensive. Heed the Biblical warnings against accepting information as true on the testimony of one witness, and when there is another person who verifies the information, consider whether they know it first hand, or whether they, too, have gotten the information from the manipulator or one of his supporters.
Gossip is a major weapon in a campaign of covert aggression and we do well to remember the Biblical warnings against receiving it and repeating it. Women, in particular, are warned about being gossips and busybodies, and manipulators may target women with gossip, knowing that men will sometimes hear things from their wives that they would find inappropriate to hear from others.
This leads to another manipulation tool, pressuring you to hold loyalties to your church or your pastor above your loyalties to your spouse or your immediate or extended family. You have probably heard how cults will turn young people against their parents. Cult-like Christian groups sometimes do the same thing, though the pressure is often more subtle than a call for complete separation. Perhaps you will be encouraged to consider your family as unbelievers because they belong to another Christian denomination.You may be discouraged from visiting family when doing so prevents you from attending services or keeps you from another church activity. Pressure to participate in a lot of mid-week activities may seriously cut into your family time. Wives may be encouraged to pressure their husbands to a particular point of view, or to believe that their husbands are not leading the family adequately.
An interesting phenomenon that I noticed in one manipulative church group was that husbands sometimes had a bad feeling about the pastor and weren't comfortable trusting him, while the wife was enthusiastic about joining the group. Rather than advise the wives to go with their husbands and find a church where both spouses were comfortable, the wives were encouraged to attend and join the church without their husbands. In time, the wives sometimes came to believe their husbands were not believers (even if they were attending other Christian churches), and began to ask for prayer for their husbands' salvation. No woman should be advised to separate from her husband for worship unless the church he has chosen is heretical. Just as a man may be more easily charmed by a smiling, manipulative woman than his wife will be, a male church leader's charms may impress a woman and yet raise suspicious in her husband. We are better at reading the body language and vocal cues of people of our own gender. Wives, in particular, need to be aware of situations in which their loyalty to their husbands is being challenged.
It should also be noted that the controlling leader will confuse loyalty to himself or his ministry as faithfulness to God, though he will not likely state it explicitly. He will not, for example, suggest to a wife that her faithfulness to him should supersede her loyalty to her husband. He will instead equate attending this church with loyalty to God, and imply that any other choice would be man-pleasing. The leader may also be spoken of in subtly messianic terms. Perhaps faithfulness to the church will be spoken of as "following" this leader, or his "voice" will be equated with the voice of God, or his office one of special anointing. Some use of such terms may actually be appropriate, but they should never imply that a man is anything more than a fallible man, nor should they be used to imply that any man is untouchable or that his ministry should be followed without question.
Biblical authority is never vested in one man. It is vested in councils of men. The pastor may be better educated theologically than the other elders, and he may be relied upon for the spiritual direction of the church and as the main source of its teaching. However, as a man he has no more authority that the other elders, and like theirs, his authority is properly exercised only as part of a session.
Manipulators want to minimize all contrary influences, and so will seek to isolate you from others. You will be taught to mistrust certain authors, find fault in other churches, seek counsel from no one but your pastor, and to limit friendships with troublesome people (even if those troublesome people are a part of your church). If you are feeling rebellious because you read a certain author, visit another church, or ask someone other than your pastor for advice, consider whether or not you are responding to pressure to isolate yourself and limit outside influences.
Spiritually abusive church leaders also encourage their members to believe that this particular church is better than others, and perhaps the only acceptable church within hundreds of miles. This plays into the isolation mentioned above, because members are discouraged from worshiping with or learning from other congregations, even within the same denomination. Christians need to guard our hearts from pride in this regard, and resist thoughts that would lead us to exalt ourselves above other Christians.
This elitism is also used to control dissent. Any actions that
threaten your good standing in the only good church around may also be
perceived as threatening your good standing with God. After all, if you
can't cut it in the only acceptable church, what does that make you?
If you must leave, where can you possibly go?
Black and White Pronouncements
Narcissistic personalities often cannot think other than in terms of black and white, and other kinds of controlling people may choose not to. Manipulators will often present you with a false dichotomy: either you believe or do as I say or you deny God. An example of this might be in evaluating a work of literature. Rather than see the negative and redeeming aspects of the work and recognizing that some sincere Christians may wish to read it or allow their children to read it and others may not, a declaration is made, and anyone who disagrees is simply either wrong or wicked.
Does disagreeing with your leader make you feel disloyal or rebellious? Do you check with the group when deciding how you should think about something or what choices you should make? Do you conceal things about yourself, such as a movie you watched or hobby you pursue, until you figure out whether or not it is okay? If so, you may be attempting to navigate the broad gray ship of Christian liberty in a narrow black and white sea.
As an example, Melissa was interested in attending a conference, but
upon reading the brochure learned that it was being held at a hotel
chain that the pastor had spoken out against because of its owner's
affiliation with the Mormon Church. She asked her friend, "What is our
policy on whether
or not we can patronize these hotels?"
Her friend answered, "Well, I don't know what our policy is, but it ought to be that you can make up your own mind on that."
"Well, yes," Melissa answered. "But I was wondering if it would be...you know...acceptable."
Clearly the decision to patronize or not patronize this hotel is one of personal choice and within the parameters of Christian liberty. We are never free to disobey God, but we are free to disobey men when they would bind us to anything more than the law of God. Melissa's hesitation to trust her own judgment was a sign that she was dependent on something (someone) other than the law of God. Notice she was not asking for a point of view to consider as she made her judgment. She was asking for the "policy".
Is It Unity or Is It Uniformity?
Black and white thinking will manifest itself with a uniformity among members who are submitting to the black and white mandates of the leader. This uniformity is often presented as unity, but it is a false unity, a unity of image only. Genuine unity among Christians should be Christ-centered and Gospel-centered. Unity based on works--even good works--is nothing more than worldly uniformity. The group uniformity will produce a silent group pressure for conformity. The manipulator will leverage this group pressure when someone begins to get out of line. Perhaps he will point out that all other members of the group do things in a certain way. Those who differ from group norms may find their roles in the church diminished, and those who conform will be rewarded with prominence and favorable treatment.
Controlling groups often have a group lingo, or special vocabulary that sounds foreign to outsiders. The words are often not well-defined, but just as no one was willing to say the emperor had no clothes, no one is willing to admit that they do not understand the meaning of these words. The result is a quiet confusion that is unsettling and causes you to see yourself as a follower in this group rather than a leader or even an equal contributor. No person of average intelligence ought to feel he or she isn't smart enough to contribute to discussion or understand the teaching in his or her church.
Some people in manipulative groups will also take on the role of guards, who protect the leader from dissenters by jumping in and defending the leader or the accepted doctrines whenever someone questions them. These guards are most often not being consciously manipulative, but are responding out of their own anxiety about having the groupthink subjected to scrutiny. (See Catez's excellent post on Cognitive Dissonance at Allthings2all.) Others in the group remain silent and their silence is interpreted as agreement. This kind of group dynamic has been much studied by psychologists, and is known to squash dissonant thoughts and encourage conformity to the group.
Confusion also arises when a manipulator suggests that you said or did something or agreed to do something in the past. "Didn't you say you would be writing a letter of support for this project?" "Wasn't this meeting your idea?" He may also deny that he said or did something in the past. Since we all know our own memories are not always completely reliable, we don't feel we can say for sure that we did not do or say what is being claimed, even when we doubt it.
I think it is also important to note that the confusion and groupthink mentality can extend to a church council or session. In that case, a controlling elder can manipulate the other elders, and it will appear that they are all working together equally. In this way, the real authority of the church council can be manipulated to do the controller's bidding. (See an insightful article from the Chalcedon Foundation on the groupthink phenomenon in the church leadership.)
The Pity Play
Martha Stout, in The Sociopath Next Door, gives the pity play as, in her opinion, the most reliable warning sign that the person you are dealing with is a sociopath. Pity is a very effective tool in manipulating people with normal capacities for caring and compassion. One manipulative woman I know has a habit of shouting insults and accusations and then moving immediately into a tearful recitation of how mistreated she is and how no one loves her, is a good friend to her or appreciates all she has done for them. The result, with most normal people, is that she is never held accountable for her vitriol and the victim of the verbal assault has no opportunity to respond without feeling hard-hearted toward this poor, mistreated, weeping woman.
The manipulator may also use the pity play to avoid being held accountable for his actions. He will complain about how any censure is an overreaction to his misdeeds and overly harsh. He will excuse his sins by stating how he was driven to them by the mistreatment he received from others. Pity is also used to manipulate people into doing the person's work for him. After hearing how burdened and overworked someone is, we naturally ask, "What can I do to help?" A skilled manipulator might have other people doing his household chores, his personal business paperwork, or even some of his professional duties.
Shame on You!
Most healthy people are willing to admit their own imperfections, and when told they are in the wrong, they thoughtfully consider the criticism. Manipulators take advantage of this, by causing you to be ashamed of your criticism of him or of your lack of cooperation with his dictates. You may be told your "heart is not right" on this or that your intentions are bad. Are you feeling guilty for things you shouldn't? Are you feeling vaguely guilty, but unable to say exactly what it is you are doing wrong?
I think it is important, when faced with inappropriate feelings of shame, to remember the difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is an actual judgment for something that is objectively sinful. I can be guilty of theft or bearing false witness. Shame, however, is a feeling of being condemned by God or by others. If you find yourself feeling shame, ask yourself if there is a sin you need to confess and repent of. If so, do so, and know that Christ forgives repentant sinners and put away your shame and put on his grace. If however, you are feeling shame for something that is not sinful, ask yourself if someone is manipulating you into feeling that way. Again, turn to Christ and put away the bondage of men and put on the freedom that is bond service to Christ.
Beware especially when you find yourself feeling guilty for something simply because your leader would not like it. If you feel guilty for maintaining your friendship with Suzy and look around the restaurant where you are meeting for lunch, hoping that the wrong people don't see you, then perhaps you are being manipulated by shaming. Likewise if you tuck away that book you've been reading or can't let anyone know what curriculum you have chosen for you homeschooling.
Manipulators will also bring up your past sins to keep you in a place of shame, unwilling to assert yourself as an equal or consider yourself worthy of criticizing your manipulator or refusing his demands. Again, if proper repentance has been made before God and men, Christ has removed that sin from you. Christ's forgiveness separates us from our sins like the east is separated from the west. It does not remind us again and again of our unworthiness. A Christian man who leads with the authority of Christ ought to be like Christ and forgive in this way. (Read more on forgiveness here and here.)
It's Not My Fault!
The manipulator will blame you or others for his bad behaviors. Perhaps you drove him to it by your bad behavior. Each person is responsible for his or her own actions, whether others are sinning or not.
Like shaming, this blame-shifting may cause you to begin to focus on your own real or alleged weaknesses and be diverted from expressing your concerns about the church or your leader. Probably the best response to this kind of diversion is to agree to discuss that after you discuss what it is you came to talk about. You can even start a list of these these diversions as they come up, and promise to discuss them later.
I Don't Love You Anymore
A narcissistic person is convinced that his attention, approval and love are things to be coveted by all. Sometimes he manages to convince others of this, too. Once a person becomes dependent upon the approval and love of the manipulator, (which is generally accomplished through flattery and elitism), it can be selectively withdrawn in order to encourage compliance. As Christians, we must remember that it is our Father in heaven whom we should desire to please, and be willing, when necessary, to bear the disapproval of men.
In group form, this technique takes the form of shunning. It may be
understood that people leaving the church, even those who are not the
subject of any discipline, are at fault and in sin, and must not be
contacted or socialized with any longer. In one church parents were
pressured not to even allow their children to play with their friends
from families that had left the church or families that were still in
the church, but out of the favor of the controlling person.
Oh, Yeah? Well Your Mother's Ugly!
Another tool of the manipulator is when being confronted or questioned, he will turn the tables or divert the conversation away from your concerns. Very often the diversion will be in the form of an accusation against you. Sometimes he will divert you with a pity play. As in the case of blame-shifting, probably the most effective defense against this is to say, "Okay, we can get back to that in a minute, but I came here to talk to you about this subject."
Don't Listen to Him, He's a Such-and-such!
Labeling is another technique used by a controlling person to shut down debate. It can be surprisingly effective. Perhaps you are quoting a book or the opinion of a well-known person who differs from the manipulator. "He's a dispensationalist (theonomist/evidentialist/Arminian/six-day creationist), you know."
With one label the discussion is shut down. Sometimes a person's position on another issue does impact his views on another, but let it be explained why the given label is relevant to the discussion at hand. Surely a such-and-such can have some good thoughts, can he not? Rather than accept a label, insist that the labeler respond to the ideas.
The person expressing concerns may also be labeled as a means of
deflecting those concerns. Again, rather than focus on the label, focus
on the ideas being expressed.
Of Course, That Doesn't Apply in My Case!
Manipulators apply a different standard to others than what they apply to themselves. You must submit to church authorities, but he will not because the authorities over him are corrupt. You may not share bad information about him, because to do so violates Matthew 18, however, he must share bad information about others because he is "defending himself" or "holding people accountable". You share gossip; he shares "prayer concerns".
A controlling personality will justify every action by twisting Scriptures, often absurd rationalizations, and by explaining why his circumstances are so different than any other. Often the convolutions of his logic will be impossible to follow. Perhaps the best response is to attempt to restate his case. "So you are saying that because James allegedly told Peter that you lied about him, you are now required by the Scriptures to defend your reputation by telling me bad reports about James' past? Do I have that right?"
Everybody's Talking About It!
A manipulator may suggest that several unnamed people agree with them. Perhaps they join him in his criticism of you, or perhaps they agree that a certain course of action should be taken. Sometimes these alleged supporters are respected or well-known people with whom the controlling person claims to have consulted. If names are given, let your controller know you will check with that person to hear his point of view first hand. If the people are unnamed, tell him you cannot regard any secondhand statements of what other people's opinions are. In my own experience, I found that every time I attempted to verify this kind of claim, the person quoted had no recollection of any such conversation and refused to identify themselves with the opinion expressed. You must either totally disregard any such claims or check them out to clear up the doubts they create. Otherwise, this sort of claim can distance you from people who have really done nothing to offend you.
Join My Crusade!
One of the ugliest and most destructive aspects of an abusive or controlling church situation are when these manipulative techniques all come together in covertly-aggressive and well-orchestrated attacks on people who are perceived as a threat to the abuser. First, the manipulator uses gossip to invite people to take up his personal offenses and turn people against his target(s). He uses flattery and pity plays to build a team and to keep his followers loyal. He encourages his loyal followers to pressure, rebuke, and speak out against the targets. He may claim that the aggression is actually being perpetrated against him by his targets. Well away from the eyes of his loyal followers, he uses threats and intimidation, accusations and shaming to bully his target into compliance or silence. He sets traps for the target that he then publicly walks into, and in the eyes of those who have listened to the gossip, his behavior seems to confirm the truth of it. The target is eventually put out of the group and shunned. I lampooned this sort of attack in my post, The Church Demolition Game, but it is not at all funny. The targets of such aggression suffer from the trauma it causes. The situation may result in depression, symptoms of extreme anxiety, or even suicidal thoughts or actions.
The best defense against a manipulating person is always to get away from him or her. But when that is not possible the next best option is to be alert and recognize these manipulation techniques as they come at you. You can then resist them either verbally--by challenging the manipulator--or mentally, by not allowing them to have the desired effect. For example, if someone is attempting to make you feel ashamed for no good reason, you could state that. "You are just trying to get me to feel guilty rather than deal with the concerns I have." Or, you can mentally recognize the technique and thereby minimize its effect on you.
It is wise, however, to choose your battles carefully. There is no need to engage a controlling person on every point. In fact, ignoring him may be the most effective thing you can do to get him to leave you alone. Meeting an accusation with a blank stare rather than a spirited defense renders the accusation ineffective for his purposes. Nasty or intrusive emails do not require a response. Some psychologists believe that a narcissistic person enjoys getting an emotional response from others, and it does not matter to him whether that is a positive reaction, such as adoration or pity, or a negative reaction such as anxiety, fear or anger. If this is true, then a calm, reasoned response is very important. Body language that suggests that you know his game may also be helpful. A roll of the eyes or a slight knowing smile may cause him to back off. I once rolled my eyes, unconsciously, at a flatterer, and the look on his face told me he knew that his flattery would no longer be effective with me. He never tried it again. What a happy accident!
Asking the person to repeat what he has just said or restate his argument will give you time to analyze what is being said and formulate a response. "Would you repeat that, please?" You may also find that he softens or changes his statements the second time around. This can also be used to expose the fallacies of his arguments. "So you are saying that because Bob lied about you, you are right to do what?"
Realizing that the manipulator is trying to get you to do what he wants you to do, you can ask him straight out what that is. As he starts in with gossip about Dan, interrupt him and ask, "What is it you want me to do?" Then you can decide whether or not you want to do what he wants and state so plainly. He may deny that he wants you to do something. Then ask, "Why are you telling me this about Dan?" Simply asking why he is saying or doing something makes it clear that you understand he is acting purposefully.
It is important, also, to decide ahead of time what things you are not willing to do and set those boundaries and be ready to stick to them, even under pressure. You can even state them plainly and, if necessary, repeatedly. "I will not listen to bad reports about others. If you continue, I will leave." "I will not be alone with a member of the opposite sex other than my spouse."
One important boundary to maintain is not to respond to intrusive questions. Perhaps he wants to know whose house you were dining at last night, and who else was there. Perhaps he wants to know who your children play with or why you weren't home when he called. Prepare ahead of time a response to shut down these kinds of questions. Sometimes another question is effective and yet not confrontational. Smile curiously and ask, "Why do you need to know that?" Sometimes a more blunt response is needed. "If my friends wish to fill you in on what they were doing and when, I will leave it to them to do so," or "I don't feel compelled to answer questions about private matters, so please don't ask them." Expect a defensive response, but remain calm and firm.
Another important boundary is to never agree to keep secrets, especially about things that should not, if all was well, have to be kept secret. For example, the church's financial transactions should be open to scrutiny by the congregation, and it would be inappropriate for you to be asked to keep a secret of them. Likewise, while there is a place for discretion, you should not be told private information or inflammatory information about someone and then be given no means to verify the information. Hearing that kind of information and agreeing to talk to no one about it would result in just such a situation. Again, state your boundary plainly, "If I hear a bad report about someone, I will go to them and check it out, so don't tell me anything you want me to keep secret."
Have a purpose in view when you meet with the controlling person, and keep that goal foremost in your mind. Do not let the conversation go far afield. If he attempts to divert the discussion by bringing up charges against you or others, express a willingness to discuss that issue after you have discussed the one you came to talk about.
Whatever you do, do not try to beat the manipulator at his game or stoop to his level. Don't engage in detailed logical arguments. He has no compulsion to remain logical and will weave and bob until you are dizzy. Do not try to belittle him or bully him. Maintain your integrity and when necessary, walk away and disengage.
There are two things a narcissist worries about that may be tools in your arsenal. First, he is aware that his mind works differently than other people's, and he is sensitive to the fact that you might think he has a mental illness. Also, he is well aware that his emotions are not like yours. He does not understand your emotions, but he knows he lacks them. Therefore comments that indicate that what he is saying or doing, "seems crazy" or that he seems to lack normal affections may put him off balance and stop, at least temporarily, his aggression. He does not want to come off as mentally unstable or heartless, so he may stop to plan a different approach. "Do you have a heart?" you might ask as he goes after someone with his gossip. "Do you know how crazy that sounds?" you might ask as he tries to convince you that there are conspirators arrayed against him. If such comments fluster him, it will then be easier to end the conversation and disengage.
Another tool to your advantage is an awareness of this type of person's tendency to paranoia and to project. That is, he is afraid that others may do what he is doing. Therefore if he is having meetings with supporters and gossiping against the targets of his aggression, he is afraid that his targets are doing the same to him. This motivates him to investigate whether or not this is happening, ask intrusive questions, and make assumptions and accusations about others. When he hears that someone had a dinner party, he is sure it was a meeting to plan against him. In his grandiosity he assumes that he is the topic of conversation at every gathering.
Listening carefully to the paranoid statements and projected accusations, therefore, can give you a lot of insight into how a controlling person is thinking, and even give clues to what he may be doing. When the manipulator is accusing others of meeting or plotting against him, you may put him off balance by asking things like, "So people shouldn't gather together and spread gossip about others. You would never do that, right? It's not what we're doing right now, is it? Maybe we should stop now." Again, the goal is to disengage.
Unless you have a matter that has to be dealt with, your goal with interactions with a controlling person is not to win, it is to escape the manipulation and to resist being drawn into playing his games. Check your heart and ask for God's Spirit to restrain any desire on your part to get back, put down, or embarrass. Remember the instructions we are given in Titus 3:10-11 "As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned."
Another good source for understanding manipulation techniques is this article.