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 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.

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?

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About the author


ChristianWeek Columnist

Carey Nieuwhof is founding pastor of Connexus Church north of Toronto and is author of several books, including his latest #1 best-selling work, Lasting Impact: 7 Powerful Conversations That Will Help Your Church Grow. Carey speaks to church leaders around the world about leadership, change and personal growth. He writes one of today’s most widely read church leadership blogs at careynieuwhof.com and hosts the top-rated Carey Nieuwhof Leadership Podcast where he interviews some of today’s best leaders.