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Why Control Freaks Rarely Lead Large Churches or Organizations

So you’re a bit of a control freak. And you’re a leader.

That’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?


There’s a lid that comes with your control freak tendencies.

In fact, control freaks rarely lead large churches or organizations.

I hear the pushback already. You’ve heard that some leaders of large churches or organizations are control freaks.

Well, that may the case. But they’ve learned to put those tendencies in a box. They’ve self-regulated. They’ve forced themselves to stop controlling everything (especially people) so that their mission can thrive.

Being highly controlling and highly effective are mutually exclusive.

If you insist on controlling everything, you will eventually hit a wall in which the size of your church or organization 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.

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, I learned.

But over the years it’s gotten so much better. Fortunately for all of us, learned behavior 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.

 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 Stronger 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.


You know what keeps churches with attendance under 1000 from growing most of the time?

Artificial barriers.

If you resonate with this post, I do a much more detailed training on how to overcome the personal barriers to growing a church (how to handle pastoral care, and how to stop being the pastor who does everything) and other barriers that keep churches and leaders from reaching their potential.

The Church Growth Masterclass is everything I wish I knew about church growth when I got into ministry more than 20 years ago.

I can’t make a church grow. You can’t make a church grow. Only God can do that. But I believe you can position your church to grow. You can knock down the barriers that keep you from growing. You can eliminate the things that keep your church from growing and implement some strategies that will help you reach far more people. That’s what I’d love to help you do in the Church Growth Masterclass.

In the Church Growth Masterclass I’ll show you:

  • The 10 reasons your church isn’t growing
  • Why even committed church-goers aren’t attending as often as before
  • How to tell if your church leaders are getting burned out
  • The five keys to your church better impacting millennials.
  • What to do when a church wants to grow … but not change

You can learn more and gain instant access to the course today.


What Are You Experiencing?

For those of you who have control freak tendencies, what’s it costing you? How have you gotten better?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

Why Control Freaks Rarely Lead Large Churches or Organizations


  1. Rebecca Lehde on November 25, 2018 at 10:20 am

    So glad you’re learning to not be a control freak – that’s awesome! The next thing to tackle is the notion that a church should be big. If we’re looking to Jesus and the disciples for cues of church planting and disciple making, then we need to do it in every way, and they didn’t aim to grow congregations into the thousands. Massive congregations are where people hide, they get forgotten, and they’re not molded into disciples or leaders; if this were untrue, they would be out there planting churches and making more disciples because they would be known, loved, and poured into. So, basically, you’re still hanging on to those control freak tendencies because you’re saying the most important thing is to keep fannies in seats and get more of them. I would think twice about the statement that there are thousands more who call your church home but never turn up on Sundays or get involved; you’ve just pointed out that you have people hiding in anonymity, forgotten, and disinterested in completing the Great Commission. That, not getting more people packed in, is what’s most important.

  2. ronnie barnes on October 20, 2018 at 10:26 pm

    It is obedience to God more than anything which is what must be our pinnacle definition for success.
    It can absolutely be stated from the Biblical record that there have been people who have done their very best for God and never seen the fruit of their lifetime of good works. Quite frankly, Jeremiah was a failure by this standard you’ve presented.
    My point is simple: you have to hang success on something much higher than outcomes and results if you’re going to finish the race well. It has to be obedience to God and nothing else.
    And that is certainly the reason why stubborn micro-managers can still manage to build great organizations. It isn’t as simple as they having learned to compartmentalize or subdue natural urges; it is more a matter of what they have been choosing to do right out of their obedient and love-filled souls. Love covers a multitude of sins, even such as you have described here.

  3. Abby Murphy on October 20, 2018 at 12:55 pm

    The past few days when I have tried to look at free training or a pdf file I get an error message saying it is a bad gateway. Don’t know if I’m doing something wrong, but do you know how to fix this so I can see too?

  4. Karin on October 19, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    Really like the emphasis on letting go. A question: who gets to determine the mission? The team? Lead pastor? Congregation? Of course it’s God as Adam wrote, and I really liked that comment, but I see a good leader as involving as many as possible in the continuing process of knowing God’s will. How does that fit in here?

  5. Eric on October 19, 2018 at 9:40 am


    Any tips to diagnose if someone’s control is part of a larger issue of toxic behaviour?

  6. theartist on October 19, 2018 at 8:56 am

    Thanks Carey. Truth is always ABSOLUTE.

  7. Cody Wilson on October 15, 2017 at 12:55 pm

    Thanks for these words Carey, this is me. I feel like I am hitting the letting go point but am concerned it will lead to leaving altogether since it feels so strange and ineffective. I appreciate your foresight and experience which encourages towards a better future.

  8. Chris on September 23, 2017 at 6:04 pm

    This is dead on, and I totally know that this is a key issue in my life and church. Carey, do you or anyone else know of any resources that might help not just diagnose this but help to give steps to wipe it out?

  9. Adam palmer on September 22, 2017 at 2:49 am

    Hallelujah. Spirit wisdom straight to my heart. Stern, practical tips on letting go and letting God. It really is jesus who is building His church, of which we are merely living stones.

    Jesus is The head,

    Thank you.

  10. Teresa on September 19, 2017 at 4:56 pm

    Challenging but full of great wisdom! Thanks

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