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How Your Control Freak Tendencies Stunt Your Church’s Growth

So you might have a love hate relationship with control: you love controlling things, but you hate being controlled.

It’s not surprising. People who like control seem to have a natural ability to get into leadership positions. Or sometimes they create positions, start things and build their own organizations.

For years, I resisted the control freak label.

I wasn’t a control freak. I was…

Passionate.

Detail oriented (of course, only very selectively about the things for which I had the most passion).

Good at what I did (okay, you don’t say that one out loud…but control freaks, you know what happens when you delegate to other people who just can’t get the job done, right?).

Control freaks, after all, usually get things done.

Our church grew rapidly when I was in my undiagnosed control freak days. So you would think, well, the sky’s the limit, right?

Wrong.

There’s a lid that comes with your control freak tendencies. You will eventually hit a wall in which the size of your church shrinks back to the size of your personal span of care. Until you let go.

In other words, if you want to limit your church’s growth, attempt to control everything.

Apparently, Jesus didn’t model control freakishness very well for those of us who want to follow in his footsteps.

He only ministered for three years, building into some questionable characters he called disciples. He poured his life into them and then left the planet and put them in charge.

A number of years ago I finally admitted I have a problem (only after about 1,282 other people had gently hinted that I might). And I began to let go.

Don’t get me wrong, the impulses still surface from time to time. But over the years it’s gotten so much better. Fortunately for all of us, learned behaviour has a wonderful way of compensating for bad impulses that no leader should act on.

Here are 5 insights that help me remember that controlling everything means you will eventually end up leading nothing significant.

control freak

1. Control is often a substitute for a lack of clear strategy or alignment

Poor leaders substitute control for clarity.

Here’s why. If you don’t know with absolute clarity what your organization is, where it’s going and how it’s going to get there (in other words, if you’re fuzzy about your mission, vision and strategy), you can never truly align a team. And as a result, you will always want to control it.

You will default to control because, in the absence of clarity, you worry that leaders will take your church or organization to places you don’t believe it should go. And the truth is, they will. Because you haven’t been clear.

In so many cases, the real reason you can’t ‘trust’ people of even stellar character is not because they aren’t trustworthy, it’s because you haven’t stated the mission, vision and strategy clearly enough that it’s repeatable and reproducible for anybody other than you. In the absence of clarity, well-intentioned team members end up going rogue, not because they’re trying to be disloyal, but because you never clearly defined the destination.

Healthy people usually only run in the wrong direction when their leader never made it clear what the right direction is.

The more clarity you have as a leader, the less you will feel a need to control anything.

2. Control rarely delegates

One of the reasons many leaders becoming controlling is because they gave the job to someone else and, well, that person just didn’t do a good job.

So is it that they didn’t do a good job, or is it that you didn’t set them up to win?

The more you control, the less you will delegate. The less you delegate, the fewer leaders you will raise up. The fewer leaders you raise up, the weaker your church becomes.

It’s a domino effect.

The clearer you are, the better you train others, the more razor sharp your strategy is, the more your team will scale, grow and begin to truly advance.

When you grow your team, you grow your mission.

3. Your need to control and the size of your organization are inversely proportional

Of all the reasons, this one haunts me most. Your need to control and the size of your organization are inversely proportional.

The more controlling you are, the smaller your church will be.

We grew to about 500 before I really had to come to terms with my desire to know everything and be involved in everything.

Now, we see almost triple that number join our church in person and online every weekend, and far more than that call our church home.  In addition, the blog, podcasts, and books I write are all deeply supported by an exceptional team of highly skilled people.

If everything needs to flow through you, you will not only bottleneck your organization, you’ll kill your mission. The more you can release (around a crystal clear mission, vision, and strategy), the more it has a chance to finally grow.

4. Control repels great leaders

If you want great leaders to flee your organization, control them. They’ll leave.

If you want to attract great leaders, release them with a clear mission, vision, and strategy (and give them input to shape it). As long as you micromanage everything, you will only have do-ers in your organization, not leaders.

Enough said.

5. The more you let go, the more amazing your church will be

There was a day where I initiated and led almost everything our church did.

Then as we grew the team and the mission, there was a season where I was involved in virtually everything our church did.

That morphed into a season in which I was aware of everything our church did.

Then, as more leaders were raised up, we moved into a season where I wasn’t even aware of everything that was happening. I couldn’t be. It would have slowed everyone down. But again, there was no worry attached to the lack of knowledge. I was still responsible as the leader, but because a capable, empowered, aligned team was in place, they could take new ground without my involvement or even blessing.

It’s a strange feeling as a leader to not know everything that’s happening. But it’s also a tremendous sign of progress. It’s not that you don’t care. You care passionately. But you’ve released a team to do what God has called them to do.

Last year we moved into a new building. I always joke that I’m the worst tour guide because people ask me many questions to which I simply have to answer, “I don’t know.” My job was to raise vision, raise money and steer the overall scope and mission of the project, but everything else was left to our team.

I’ve learned this in leadership: the more I get out of the way, the stronger our team and organization get.

Sure, you play a role as a senior leader, but you shouldn’t play every role.

In the meantime, what about you? What are you learning about control?  Scroll down and leave a comment.

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  • [Note from Guy Gifford: His major premise is primarily accurate, but he is missing the major key, which is typical of this type of advice, especially by “visionaries”. They learn one thing and think they know it all, as they don’t perceive that there is more than one controlling truth balancing the success. The key is: if the second and third tier leaders are not very capable, they must be trained, taught and guided until they are fully capable, which some will never reach; but if they are skilled and leaders, they will do better by not being micro-managed by a less skilled pastor. One pastor quickly built a Bible study into a 5,000 person church of Microsoft’s leaders, but in his next church, he has to micro-manage to keep alive his current poor community church. Another pastor raised up the largest church in Saudi Arabia, but his American church in a big city is only 25 and unlikely to grow much. Likewise, many American military chaplains lament that their services overseas were full and vibrant, but in America, they are empty. We know it is more complicated than simply not micro-managing, as the yearly hundreds of closing churches show. I suggest that you read my book, coming out in 2017: The Meaning of Life.]

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  • Sam Rima

    This is absolutely true. However there are leaders who give the appearance of delegating and entrusting leadership to others until something happens that is not exactly what they want, then they swoop in and put the kibosh on the entire enterprise. Actually, their apparent “delegation” is more of a “disengagement” in order to pursue more important objectives such as writing their books and speaking broadly outside of their church. So, make sure your leader is truly delegating and not simply disengaged otherwise you will become extremely frustrated.

  • Tim Lee

    This is so good…and so me!
    In my church I am realizing that I have a team that is excited about our destination (vision), but we are foggy on how we are going to get there together (strategy).

    The question I’m left with after reading this is, how do you develop and share a clear strategy for your team without still being controlling?
    I want to get the steps out of my head for our team, but I don’t want to end us just creating a more controlled environment.

    • Matt Winslow

      Give them the overall vision, say your events need to be outreach oriented, hang on to only that and release the rest. You can also give strategy vision witch must be given upfront. “we put people before programs” or “we challenge not guilt people into serving” these should be given ahead of time and controlled, all else is free. Help them succeed as part of the team, if you see they need more detail suggest that or a person who can help them add that. Don’t be the team captain be the team cheer leader and suggester and only the referee of playing by . the rules when you need to, up front, in Biblical and principle form. Example: we do our best for God. (let them decide how that is done though)! The goal is not always the end result if the journey is done forming a team and with love you will learn from mistakes next time and have people wanting to be part of the team in the future.
      Hope this helps!