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Big churches tend to attract passive, anonymous audience members.

Small churches tend to attract control freaks.

Big church pastors are aware of the problem of anonymity, so healthy big churches work very hard at small groups.

It’s hard to be an anonymous audience member in a small church. But it’s much easier to exert your influence – sometimes in unhealthy ways. Often on governing boards, but not always.

No, that's not a fair assessment of most small church members (or big ones). The control freaks are probably less than one percent. But if a control freak is going to attend a church, they're more likely to pick a small one than a big one.

Small pond, meet the big fish.

So what does the small church pastor do when we feel hindered by control freaks?

Here are eight principles that have helped our church get past those petty squabbles:

1. Don’t Try to Out-Control Them

Trying to control a control freak is like fighting over the steering wheel in a moving car. No one wins and everyone gets hurt. Including the innocent passengers.

2. Don’t Use the Position of Pastor to Shut People Down

"Because I'm the pastor!" is one of the worst things you can ever say.

By the time you feel the need to say it, you’ve already lost more than you realize. Saying it may make you feel better. It may even help you reach an immediate goal. But it will be a big step away from long-term goals. Battle won, war lost.

3. Don’t Move Too Fast

In a big church, leaders need to master systems and methods. The advantage of systems and methods is that they can be implemented quickly.

Systems and methods matter in small churches too, but they take a back seat to relationships, culture and history.

Pastors need to earn the right to be heard. The smaller the church, the more listening matters. Understanding the complex inter-weaving of a small church’s relationships, culture and history takes some time.

4. Don’t Move Too Slow

There’s a window of opportunity in every leadership situation. Move too early and they're not ready. Move too late and you’ve lost momentum.

How to find the sweet spot? There’s no universal rule, because every small church is unique. That’s why knowing the church’s relationships, culture and history is so important. It gives us the information we need to time it right.

5. Assume Right Motives Until Proven Otherwise.

It's easy to assume that people with control issues have wrong motivations. I’ve seldom found that to be true.

Control freaks usually have good motives, but are going about it the wrong way. Sometimes their need for control is the result of past hurts and distrust (see point 6). Sometimes it's their personality.

Be careful not to assign evil intention to people without ample evidence.

Don't worry that this will make you a doormat. If you assume good intentions, then discover bad ones, it's always easy to ramp up the confrontation. But if you assume wrong intentions, it's very hard to back off from a confrontational footing if you're wrong.

6. Deal With Problems Before They Do

When I was a young pastor, our church did a much-needed facility upgrade. Every Sunday before church, one of the members came early to give the project a going-over. Then, just as the service was about to start, he brought me the list of problems, demanding to know how I was going to fix them.

After a few weeks, I decided to beat him to the punch. When he arrived I said “I’m glad you’re here! There are some things you need to see.” Then I led him on a tour of all the problems and how I was working to fix them. I did it to inform and reassure him, not to rub his nose in it.

At the end of the second week’s tour he told me, “it seems like you have a handle on this. I won’t need to see any more. Thanks.”

That was it.

I later discovered he had been through a previous facilities upgrade in which the pastor hadn’t been properly diligent, costing the church thousands of dollars extra. Once I had proven that I had the issues in hand, he let it go.

Some control freaks are concerned members who’ve been burned before. Earn their trust and you can win them back.

7. Outlove Them and Outlive Them

Sometimes the answer to dealing with control freaks is simple endurance. I’m going to hang in here longer than they are. Either until they leave (hopefully not) or until I earn their trust.

None of these points are magic bullets. Sometimes the control freaks are so embedded, they make pastoring the church impossible. That happened in a previous church, which I had to leave. They outlived me.

But even if that happens, we need to love them. Really and truly love them. Even if they never let go of control, we need to rise above the battle.

8. Realize Who’s Really In Control

The hardest thing about control freaks is when we think they’re taking control that rightly belongs to us, the pastor.

But control of the church never belongs to us. Or to them.

It’s Jesus’ church. And no control freak in the pew or the pulpit will ever be able to take it from him.

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Buddy Sipe

commented on Jan 21, 2016

Karl, I am about to end my 50 year ministry and your article is a classic. Thank you for sharing with us.

Leonard Davis

commented on Jan 21, 2016

It would be good for a future article to examine the other side of this coin and provide some helpful ideas of how to deal with a pastor who is the "control freak." Some pastors do seem to think they should use the position of the pastor to shut people up and their unstated operating methodology is that "control rightly belongs to the pastor."

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