One of the biggest differences between big and small churches is the kinds of people they attract – and the kinds of problems they tend to bring with them. For instance, big churches tend to attract people who want to be passive, anonymous audience members. That’s not a fault of the big church, it’s just that if you want to remain passive and anonymous, you won’t go to a small church, you’ll find the biggest one you can. But what about control freaks? What kind of church will you most likely be attracted to? You got it. The smaller the better. Small pond, meet the big fish.
Where Control Freaks Come From
Sure, there are passive audience members in small churches, too. The less healthy the church, the more there are. But the passive people in small churches usually don’t start out that way. Unlike big churches, no one goes to a small church to be an anonymous audience member. They became passive after years of hurt, boredom, enabling pastors or lowered expectations. Small churches don’t attract passive people, unhealthy churches create them. And then, they often become your biggest control freaks. No participation, but lots of opinions.
Pastors of healthy big churches are aware of that pull towards passivity and anonymity. That’s one of the reasons they work so hard at small groups. As small church pastors, we need to be aware of the opposite problem. Including the fact that, sometimes the biggest control freak in our church is looking at us in the mirror.
So how does a small church pastor deal with 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
Pastors need to earn the right to be heard. The smaller the church, the more listening matters. Take the time to understand the complex inter-weaving of a small church’s relationships, culture and history.
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.
This is why knowing the church’s relationships, culture and history is so important. It gives us the information we need to get the timing right.
5. Assume Honorable 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, as we’ll see in the following point. Sometimes it’s their personality. So 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 Control Freaks 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 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.
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’s church. Control freaks in the pew or the pulpit will never be able to take it from him.
This article on dealing with control freaks is an excerpt from Karl Vaters’ book, Small Church Essentials: Field-Tested Principles for Leading a Healthy Congregation of Under 250 and is used by permission.