Guilt and Leadership

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I found myself doing something this past Sunday in Bible class that I haven’t done in a long time. I used guilt as a motivator. When I am trying to motivate people to action my view has been to tell them what it is and why it is important and hopefully they will come. We had an event last week to serve at the Ronald McDonald House and we almost had to cancel it due to lack of involvement. It was advertised. It was explained just how important it was but people didn’t come. The next day, Sunday, the thought just kept jumping into my mind during Bible class, “Why didn’t they come?” It just wouldn’t leave me alone. I told myself to not say anything and to not guilt people but I just couldn’t stop thinking about it. I finally spoke up in class and said something like, “Maybe it is time we did some evaluating of where we are at as individuals. We talk about good things to do and serving others but here we had opportunity, 80 people were emailed, and hardly anyone came. We are all busy people. I get that. If you had a legitimate reason not to come then I am not talking to you. But for the rest of our group, what kept you from being there?” It was awkward. I didn’t like saying it. I don’t like guilting people but that’s really what I was doing.

A couple of thoughts in retrospect. First is I think guilt was used for so long and in such an unhealthy manner that we swung over to love and grace as our primary motivators. That is a very good and healthy move. But is there a place for guilt as a motivator? I am really torn on this one. I think God gives us the feeling of guilt and it is a legitimate feeling. But there is a difference between and individual feeling guilty over something and a leader influencing people to feel guilty in order to move them in a particular direction. As leaders, manipulation (by guilt or other means) should not be one of the tools of the trade. There is a healthier route.

Why is guilt so attractive? Guilt is attractive because its results are pretty immediate. It convicts. It calls for change. You can get people to do things way faster and to a much more extreme level through guilt than you can by any other means. That doesn’t mean it is the right way to motivate but it is effective. Here is where I have landed on this one as of right now. Guilt is effective but it is not the best and healthiest way to move people to action. The healthy path takes work. The guilty path is effortless and really a cop-out on the part of the leader. A leader who uses guilt as a motivator is lazy at best because it says they aren’t really willing to do the hard work of changing hearts and maturing the faith of those you influence so that they are willing and ready to move when the opportunity arises.

How do you see guilt in relation to leadership. Is there ever a place for it? If so, when?

0 Responses

  1. i relate to your hesitation–in leadership you can always run the risk of manipulation. But truth is, you can manipulate with love and grace too. The fact is, we do need to realize our guilt sometimes. If someone else doesn’t bring it to our attention, then maybe we wouldn’t ever face ourselves in the matter. So surely sometimes it’s more than appropriate, it’s a blessing. Determining precise which times are “sometimes” won’t always be easy though.


    1. One problem I had with what I said was that our acts of righteousness are not always a very good evaluation of where we are spiritually. Now James does say our faith and works go hand in hand and that you can’t have faith without works. But is that really the spiritual thermometer by which we evaluate our spirituality? If we aren’t careful we lead people back to works righteousness and that is the last thing we want to do. I agree with you that there could be times it is healthy but I don’t really like the way I put it when it came out of my mouth and to their ears. It just could have been said better. Live and learn.

    2. matt, i think i’d agree with your initial reaction — not to use guilt as a motivator necessarily, but that acts of righteousness are indeed a good assessment of our spirituality. [not in every isolated situation, but definitely in the larger picture).

      i don’t want to go back to a works-based righteousness in which my works make me righteous. but i believe we’ve strayed way too far from a righteousness which is manifest through works.

      i think a lot of the problem is that we’ve (for the sake of intellectual study) tried to separate faith and works. with that separation in mind, saying that works are the necessary outcome of true faith is as close to the truth as we’ll ever get. i think the more biblical teaching, though, is not that true faith produces works (works being an outworking of faith), but that good deeds are a necessary and integral part of true faith. i don’t think Jesus, paul, or james intended for us to separate the two.

      there are too many scriptures that address our works as a means of judgment for us to ignore it and say we are judged outside of our deeds and actions.

  2. It really, really makes me angry when people, especially preachers put guilt trips on others.

    It might get people to do what you want in the short term, maybe, but I believe it causes far more harm than good over the long term.

    I’m trying to think if Jesus/God ever lays a guilt trip on people in the Bible. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any.

    1. Jesus I am not sure about. A few things Paul said could sure be seen that way. He does this in Philemon and also in passages referencing the collection for Jerusalem. I will look them up later when I get a chance.

    2. You’re right, Nick. Peter laid a major guilt trip on them. And it worked.

      But I like your analogy of the check engine light. It is supposed to motivate us to fix the engine. It is not supposed to stay on. We are not meant to dwell in guilty misery.

    3. See, that’s one of the many things I love about that brilliant sermon.

      Peter uses guilt precisely as it is intended: to make manifest the desperate need for change.

      Here’s the problem we so often face: we don’t have a good answer ready, so we don’t encourage people to ask for one.

      When the people get Peter’s point and ask him how they need to change, he doesn’t frown and get frustrated and bustle about thinking, “How dare they ask me??? They know what they should do!” (this is TOTALLY not pointed at Matt or anyone else – rather, it is an accurate depiction of how I act when I’ve started using guilt inappropriately).

      Instead, his answer just bursts forth! I can’t hear Acts 2:38 anymore without imagining Peter almost crying for joy that he gets to say these words!

      I’m working on a rule of thumb about using guilt: Try not to use it unless I have a solution to the guilt problem as clear, obvious, and Scriptural as Peter’s.

      Conclusion: Matt, I know you feel guilty about what you did, but I think you used guilt precisely as it is meant to be used – as an occasional tool to jar me out of my complacency and drive me to evaluate where I stand and why.

  3. As leaders we need to speak the truth and ask the hard questions without feeling guilty. Speaking truth may come off as making people feel guilty, but how do we call people to the cross of Christ and sacrifice our desires over what matters?

    This is a good question to wrestle with…thanks for posting Matt.

    1. I think the difference is what is our intention. If we are trying to manipulate people then it is bad. If we are speaking the truth (which is at least what I think I was trying to do, just didn’t do it very well) it can at least be helpful. It takes real skill to do this without coming across as harsh.

  4. The first three chapters of Romans are pretty blunt in laying out the sins of the pagans, the religious people, and the Jews who trusted their heritage.

    And, the last time I read it, Romans is still the book of faith, grace and the Spirit.

    Identifying sin (and pretending to be something you are not is sin, I believe) is often necessary before we can defeat it. I remember once preaching a sermon I called, “Name that Demon” – harking back to the man whom Jesus asked, “What is your name” and the demons within him replied, “Our name is legion, for we are many.” I then proceeded to “name” several “demons” that plague us: pride, materialism, etc.

    Was that “guilting” people? I could be. I hope I came across as pointing to Jesus who casts all such demons from us – but an unrecognized sin is seldom repented of.

    John the Baptist certainly elicited some guilt when he was talking to the Pharisees who came to be baptized – and I think Peter may have as well when he spoke to those who “with wicked hands did crucify and slay” the Son of God.

    This, however, is different from guilt for the sake of guilt. I hope we never return to the days when people did not feel they had heard a good sermon if it did not step on their toes.


  5. I don’t see Paul’s words to Philemon and the churches about giving as putting a guilt trip on people. I suppose it is possible to interpret it that way, but that is based upon certain assumptions about the people involved that I wouldn’t agree with.

    I do not believe convicting people of sin is the same thing as putting a guilt trip on people.

    The problem I have with guilt trips, like the one Matt described, is #1. I believe it is wrong action, regardless of intent, and #2. it is probably rooted in pride. I’m not trying to blast Matt here, I think he raises a good question. I certainly understand where he is coming from. I’ve been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. I wouldn’t be surprised if I put guilt trips on my family members without even realizing it. But what is a “legitimate” reason?

    This reminds me of all those posts across various blogs about Francis Chan and some of the things he has said about being rich and giving to the poor. My impression, anyway, was that some were trying to guilt trip people in to doing X or Y. I think it comes from the spirit of “Well I sacrificed X to do Y, so why can’t you?” I really do think this is Pharisaical.

    Must we spend every waking moment in community service and direct evangelism, or else we are guilty of sin? Must we sell everything we own to give to the poor, or else we are guilty of sin?

    I made a comic on this very subject, as it is something I wrestle with myself:

    1. Guilt trips are often rooted in pride but not always. In this instance the intent was to motivate people to be more involved in serving others. The intent was to make them realize maybe if their priorities were in line that they would have been there and done the right thing. There was nothing prideful about it. There was no, “I am better than you because I went and you didn’t” about it. So there are exceptions.

  6. it sounds as if you’re saying guilt is an effective motivator, but probably not often a good (ethical) one. i think i would disagree. i believe guilt is a poor motivator, and that’s just one of the many reasons we shouldn’t employ it’s use.

    guilt is immediate, but never long-lasting. guilt is effective in attention-getting, but i can’t think of a time (in my life) that guilt produced a true and lasting change. i remember especially my days in college. there were sins i struggled with, and every time i’d feel incredibly guilty (more so than any preacher could ever make me feel). but the next time i was in that situation, i might have hesitated just a bit, but i did eventually wade back into that sin again. i didn’t overcome that sin until i started doing so out of other motivations (and with the Spirit’s power). guilt had the ability to point to another answer, but no power to get me there.

    i think one of the reasons guilt isn’t a good long-term motivator is that it makes ME feel guilty, and urges ME to work harder and do better to fix MY problems. it seems that guilt, in most cases, is a call for us to use our own power to overcome our own inadequacies. and, frankly, i’m not capable. i need help.

    all of that said, it is true that the guilt itself is not what is wrong. it’s the choice to use that motivator (manipulation) by the preacher, teacher, parent, etc, that is wrong. if i feel guilt, because i’m convicted of my sin (whether or not you bring it up), that’s certainly a warranted emotion. but i still don’t believe it’s a good motivator in the long run. best case scenario, it convinces me to change something small in that very moment that triggers in me a desire and other motivations to allow God to change my life. if i don’t move past guilt in the first day or two, i can’t imagine it producing a lasting change.

    1. So the disagreement is on how effective guilt really is. I think guilt can be quite effective in the short term for most people. Again, not saying it is the right or best way to motivate. But long term its results are pretty poor and lead to messed up people.

    2. James, guilt fails to produce longterm change because isn’t intended to produce change. It’s like expecting a flashlight to screw in a lightbulb.

      Guilt is intended to make clear the need for change, and to make clear the hopelessness of changing ourselves. The flashlight will help you find your way to where you keep the lightbulbs, and it’ll even show you if you’re out of lightbulbs, but it won’t produce them or facilitate the change.

      Guilt is, in another sense, like the “Check Engine” light in my car. It isn’t precise, it isn’t perfect, it won’t make me stop driving, and it won’t equip me to fix the problem myself. But I’d still prefer to have it there to warn me when I’m in danger of blowing an engine.

    3. well said, nick. guilt isn’t intended to produce change, as far as human design and function goes. however, it is indeed regularly and often intended to produce change in others, by those who employ it. that’s what i was trying to get at, but you have said it much better.

  7. Guilt is a double-edged sword. It is effective, for sure, but it also can feed the one laying it with something not so good because it feeds our pain. We feel like we need to make others feel remorseful for things. Creating remorse isn’t bad, but using it warrants a self-control that isn’t easy to acquire.

  8. I’m having a hard time distinguishing what Matt did in pointing out a short-coming in the congregation from what Paul did in, say, 1Corinthians 5:2, “And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.”

    Of course, I am not saying that the two problems are exactly alike, but that Paul here is trying to help the Corinthians recognize their sin in such a way that they are motivated to fix it. He wants them to feel guilty so they will act.

    So, Matt says, “You should have served,” and Paul says, “You should have removed him from among you.” In both cases the point is to help Christians admit their guilt and correct it.

    In theory I know what everyone is saying about not jumping to guilt as a motivator, but in practice that is the job of every preacher…indeed every Christian if we take Galatians 6:1 as a practical guide, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” How are we going to do this unless we point out the transgression? And isn’t the point of that to help the brother recognize his guilt so he will be motivated to change?

    I am also thinking of Nathan’s “gotcha” parable for David when he wraps up in 2Sam 12:7 by saying, “You are the man!” That was certainly a guilt trip for David…we know because we see his guilt in Psalm 51.

    And, I am thinking of Jesus’ rebuke of the Jewish leaders in Matthew 23 where He says “Woe” and “hypocrites” over and over again. Did it work? Did they feel guilty? I don’t know, but Jesus hoped they would, and that they would change. We see that at the end of the chapter (vv 37-39).

    Or, there’s Jesus with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4. He specifically turned the conversation to her sin in having five husbands and not being married to the man she had then. Why do that? Didn’t He want her to feel some guilt for her sin so she would be motivated to change? If He just wanted to convince her He knew things He shouldn’t so she would believe He was the Messiah He could have just brought up some story from her childhood no one else knew or something like that….but He brought up her sin so she would recognize and admit her guilt.

    I do think, though, that guilt is not always effective or wise as a motivator. I think that a preacher must use it sparingly. And, I think that every Christian must move past needing guilt to motivate to a deeper motivation rooted in love for God and others. I just also think that the whole point of calling out sin in others is to help them feel guilt……..we call it “conviction” or whatever, but it’s still guilt.

    1. Don’t tempt me 🙂
      I will also add, though, that I know exactly how you feel. I feel horrible about making people feel guilty. I don’t like doing it…especially over specific events. I mean I can preach about the sin of apathy just fine, but having to rebuke over specific examples of apathy is much more difficult.

  9. I read the post and scanned through the comments. What I wonder is if rather than talking about “guilt”, we instead should be asking where is the place for “rebuke” since scripture itself says there is such a place for it in scripture (2 Tim 3.16). That raises the question of what the similarities and disimilarities are between rebuke and guilt.

    And for the record, the story of the rich ruler (Lk 18.18-30) is one of several instances where I believe Jesus employed some level of guilt to teach, convict, and solicit either a response of acceptance or rejection. What Jesus doesn’t do is use the guilt in a manipulative way in order to leave the rich ruler with no real choice. It is that manipulation that I believe has characterized the preaching of fundamentalism/legalism that we – for good reason – are wanting to avoid. But refusing to be manipulative does not necessitate guilt and/or rebuke. When we are guilty of sin, the only way to begin repenting is to become convicted of our guilt and that cannot happen if our guilt is not pointed out to us.

    Grace and peace,


    1. Hank, if you don’t mind my asking. What was your take on Sunday that was referenced in the original post? The reason I wrote this down was to process it and learn from it. So any feedback you have I would love to hear, even if you were more comfortable sending it via email. I am open to it however you want to go about it. It is important we accept feedback, critique, and even criticism at times and I am certainly open to hearing your thoughts.

  10. Great thoughts here, Matt, and I especially appreciate Rex’s comments above. This has been a struggle of mine recently as well, over a situation very similar. I’ve been very burdened by our lack of participation in community outreach events on Wednesday nights this past month. I sense our people needing some strong, mature, full-of-grace leadership, but this flawed wanna-be leader needs a lot of God’s grace in this area to avoid simply lashing out in frustration.

  11. I hate to sound all doom and gloom but as Christianity in North America continues to slide into a consumer driven product and nationalistic outlook, either preacher/pastors learn what it means to speak a word of biblical rebuke or we will just stand by in idle mode as though we are giving such changes our blessings.

    I don’t know exactly what it means to offer a biblical rebuke (one that is redemptively seasoned with both grace and truth) so I am open to suggestions.

    Grace and peace,


  12. Nick, cthoward, convicting people of sin is not the same thing as putting a guilt trip on people. Nor is Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler a guilt trip. A guilt trip is not about sin, but about making people feel bad because they didn’t do things the way YOU wanted them to.

    I just decided that giving X dollars to Y charity is really important. In fact, as soon as you read this, you need to immediately send X dollars to Y charity. What, you didn’t? Well, I guess you really aren’t that devoted to Jesus now, are ya?

    Is that fair?

    I spent $20 the other day to buy a couple of pizzas for my family. Sure, I could have bought a few packages of Ramen noodles, and given the rest of the money to charity, but I didn’t. Did I sin in buying the pizzas?

    Obviously not.

    Matt, who got to decide it was absolutely crucial to their devotion to Jesus that people volunteered at X on Y date? Who gets to decide what is and isn’t a legitimate excuse?

    It is important that we help others, but who says we all have to help the time and place you say? Why not decide for others how much they ought to give, too?

    We all have limitless opportunities to give and volunteer. Is it a sin if we don’t spend every waking moment evangelizing and volunteering? Who gets to decide how much is enough?

    1. Steve,

      Re-read the gist of what I said to the class and then think about your question about how gets to decide that devotion to Jesus is measured by who volunteered.

      “Maybe it is time we did some evaluating of where we are at as individuals. We talk about good things to do and serving others but here we had opportunity, 80 people were emailed, and hardly anyone came. We are all busy people. I get that. If you had a legitimate reason not to come then I am not talking to you. But for the rest of our group, what kept you from being there?”

      First, I am asking them a question so that they could personally reflect. Second, I never said everyone who stayed home isn’t devoted to Jesus. Instead I recognized that there are legitimate reasons not to come. Third, is it wrong to have people evaluate their own hearts? I didn’t then walk around and point fingers that they were all sinful if they didn’t show up or that they didn’t love Jesus if they didn’t show up. But I asked what kept them from being there. They can think for themselves whether the reason they decided to do something other than volunteer was the right thing to do. All I was doing was asking the question that I felt at the time needed to be asked.

      So to answer your question, “Who gets to decide what is and isn’t a legitimate excuse?” my answer is they do. Not me. And I didn’t tell them. I left that up to them to evaluate and decide.

      “Is it a sin if we don’t spend every waking moment evangelizing and volunteering? Who gets to decide how much is enough?”

      Again, I recognized there are legit reasons not to come and there were some people in that camp. I didn’t lay out what was and was not legitimate. I just asked the question. So my question for you is, would you consider it wrong to ask people if their priorities are in line without forcing the answer on them? That is how I see that this all played out. Maybe you read it differently but the difference is, you weren’t there 😉

    2. Steve,
      I agree with Matt here. From the way he presented his comments he left the decisions in the hands of the listeners. Matt didn’t decide they had to be there that day. However, lack of participation in such events, especially evidenced over a period of time, requires that leaders address the congregation with loving rebuke. The “work of the church” must be done by the church (not a few members or the leaders).

      I also agree with what Nick said….that commitment to a local church and that church’s leadership is important. If my leaders recommend it I should strongly consider it.

      But, this brings up another aspect of rebuke and guilt. On an individual level, no single Christian can be expected to be involved in every service project or what have you. So, no single Christian can be called out for not attending X or Y event. However, a church that, in general, is not supporting such activities must be called out as a whole (think the 7 churches of Revelation 2-3…not every individual was unfaithful, but entire churches were rebuked).

      I also agree, though, with what you are getting at about demanding certain works to be done by individuals. You don’t have to be involved in every work, and I shouldn’t expect that or give you a guilt trip for not always being involved. I understand what you are saying, I just think that many situations, including Matt’s, don’t fit this category…..and that churches must be rebuked now and then even if individuals are not specifically accountable or guilty.

  13. A guilt trip is not about sin, but about making people feel bad because they didn’t do things the way YOU wanted them to.

    Everything else you wrote is based on this assertion, which is provided wholly without evidence or support of any kind. That’s hardly a useful way to define something: to just demand that everyone else go by your definition.

    And when people choose to place themselves under authority, even the authority of Jesus Christ mediated through His shepherds and ministers, these matters stop being merely a personal decision. We belong to the household of faith, as well as to local churches. When the leadership of those local churches decides that participating in an activity would be profitable to the mission of God and to members’ discipleship/devotion to Jesus, those leaders should not be ignored just because, “I felt like buying pizza instead of ramen noodles.”

  14. Matt, you wrote:

    “The guilty path is effortless and really a cop-out on the part of the leader. A leader who uses guilt as a motivator is lazy at best because it says they aren’t really willing to do the hard work of changing hearts and maturing the faith of those you influence so that they are willing and ready to move when the opportunity arises.”

    I’m not so sure. First of all, I believe God made Adam and Eve feel pretty guilty by asking them, “where are you guys?”, “who told you you were naked”, “have you eaten from the tree I said not to?”, and “what is this you have done?”. Were not each of these questions specifically designed to produce a feeling of guilt?

    Second, I believe that EVERY loving parent regularly uses guilt as a tool for teaching their children to live and act in accordance with God’s will. I mean, who hasn’t asked their children things like, “Why did you do that?” “You really hurt so and so’s feelings when you did (or said) that.” “How would you feel if somebody called you that?” “Do you think doing (or saying) things like that makes God happy?”

    All of which are designed to produce a feeling of guilt. And to produce a change in them.

    Which was precisely what God did with his children. I think God gave us such feelings to cause us to change when we are wrong. I think that without such feelings, sometimes change will never happen. No guilt = no change sometimes.

    In fact, I think you should continue on making the class feel guilty….lest they stay the same.

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