When Jesus Freaks Are Control Freaks
There’s just no way around it. If you’ve been part of a small church, you’ve likely experienced those individuals or families who just can’t help themselves—they have to control things.
They might not be in leadership—in fact, they’re often not—but they still seem to steer the organization.
Most of the time they have the best of intentions. Sometimes the influence they wield moves the church in positive directions, but most of the people I’ve talked to have experienced more than one major upheaval or church split based on the impact of these people.
Survey on Church Controllers
Curious about how universal my experiences were, I did a quick survey for others who have experienced this phenomenon. I only received about 50 responses, so it’s definitely not scientific. But I thought the feedback was still pretty interesting.
Here are the questions and the responses:
In the church where you’ve experienced a family(s) or individual(s) jockeying for control or position, what would you say was the approximate average attendance?
This was not surprising to me—except for the people who had experienced this in the 1,000+ member church. It only makes sense that the smaller the church is, the more influence a person or small group is going to have.
It would seem that the power would be defused in a larger community. I’m curious about how this would manifest itself in a larger congregation. Control in small groups? The swaying of leadership?
If you’re one of the people who answered 1,000+, I’d love to hear about your experience!
What kind of history did this group or individual have with the church?
One thing I was curious about was the correlation between time spent at a church and control. It makes sense that if a person invests years somewhere, they’re definitely going to feel a sense of responsibility in the decisions that are made.
It also makes sense that people would naturally defer to someone who has a history in their church.
20+ years: 52%
15–20 years: 18%
10–15 years: 6%
5–10 years: 15%
1–5 years: 9%
This is exactly what I expected. Control is often in the hands of the people with the longest history.
When you think of this group/person, you tend to think they:
Were intentionally manipulative and power hungry: 56%
Had the best of intentions and a good heart(s): 32%
Had no idea how much influence they wielded. 12%
This one actually surprised me. I tend to think that even the worst stuff is done by people who believe they’re doing the best thing. The large number of people who see this behavior as manipulative and power hungry is important to recognize.
It really doesn’t matter how righteous and well-intentioned you are—in the end, people might not be giving you the benefit of the doubt. When someone’s agenda is continually getting railroaded through, people start feeling wary and resentful.
What gives this group/individual their influence?
When it comes to church, people generally have the influence that others give them. So what is it about these individuals that makes others acquiesce?
Their history with the church: 36%
The size of their financial contribution: 12%
Their relationship with leadership: 21%
Their charm: 0%
Their forceful personality: 31%
The longer someone is with a church, the more others tend to bestow on them the role of patriarch. This is an easy thing to manipulate and take advantage of. People will defer to the patriarch when he/she tells them, “This will never work because . . .¨ Often the patriarch can carry more influence than the clergy.
Another third of the people surveyed said that controllers tend to use their forceful personality to get their way—I’ve seen this many times. Nice people tend to show their throat pretty quickly to the strong-willed, outspoken, and forceful individual. Most of the time it feels like it’s just not worth the trouble to stand your ground, and face it, aggressive people can be intimidating.
What kind of fallout did your church experience because of this group/individual?
This was the only question I allowed people to give multiple answers to.
People were strong-armed into ministries and giving: 35%
Staff or leadership were forced out: 41%
People left: 85%
The influential person/people left: 8%
Ministries, purchases, or tasks were railroaded through: 47%
Church split: 15%
Nearly every person surveyed had experienced people leaving their church because of these controlling individuals, but in only 8% of the churches did the controller leave. It’s a a sad truth that I can confirm from my own experience. People will rollover pretty easily for a forceful personality, but they won’t stick around for it. An aggressive person might get their way in the short term, but the long term damage to the organization hurts.
Also, it’s interesting that nearly half of those surveyed experienced the leadership being forced out. This seems to be one of the major church power plays.
True or false: Gossip played a huge part in how this person/group centralized power.
I’d be surprised if most of the “unsures” and a few of the “false” answers weren’t actually “true.” From my experience a lot of these situations look like this:
Something irks the controller, and he/she comes home and confides in their spouse. This goes on for a while and builds in intensity until the day when they’re having a BBQ and let it slip with a family member or friend at the church . . . and then another . . .and then another.
The exact moment they’re doing wrong is kind of opaque. Is it wrong to talk to your husband or wife about your frustrations? Is it wrong to share it with someone close to you? Eventually the controllers have people campaigning for their opinions or desires. Centralized power in churches often begins with whispers.
Some closing thoughts
Obviously this little survey is more about the perceptions people had about their experiences more than it is about cold, hard facts. But it’s still important to consider. I know a lot of people who’d be considered controllers, and they have really good hearts. It’s their passion that will make them go through the church directory and phone every. single. person to ensure that their program succeeds.
And every controller would probably read this and think of someone else it applies to.
If you’re a controller, you might want to think through how your behavior is perceived. A lot of people leave and churches split because how they perceive behavior rather than the intention behind it.
I’ve seen some of the biggest servants I know get labeled with the “control freak” tag simply because they were always the first person to offer to help.
It’s important for patriarchs and servants to hang back and enable others to step up, even when no one will. The more you step up, the more you train others to hang back and let you—at the same time they’re resenting you.
Lastly, I would say that it doesn’t do anyone any good to let forceful, aggressive people get their way all the time. They probably don’t realize they’re being pushy, and even if they do, reigning that aspect of their personality in might be a struggle for them.
Sometimes it’s our desire to avoid conflict that enables controllers to fill the vacuum. We need to be more committed to each other and more willing to go to the mattresses over some issues.
Now I want to hear your thoughts. Have you experienced the control freaks? Are you one? Tell me your stories!
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