I received a call recently from a leader in a small church about an ongoing problem in their church. A controller continued to create problems in the church that resulted in people leaving. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon problem.
We know controllers and their families well. They may be major financial supporters of the church or be highly involved in the life of the congregation. As long as they get their way, they may be some of the most charming individuals in the church.

It’s hard to challenge such people, but if a church wants to be healthy, such confrontation sometimes needs to occur.

In larger churches, controllers can sometimes be minimized simply due to the size of the congregation. In the smaller church, it’s hard to ignore such people. They are often given tremendous power in the smaller church.

Because of the relational nature of smaller churches, many people do not want to jeopardize their relationship with the controllers by calling attention to their behavior, so few people are willing to confront them. 

As the caller finished telling me about the problem, I simply asked him, “So, what are you going to do about it?” I received the usual responses.

â—     “Everybody knows how this person is.”

â—     “Aren’t we supposed to be loving and forgiving?”

â—     “Most of our folks just want to get along.”

â—     “Nobody wants to say anything to the individual because they are afraid the person might get upset and leave the church.”

At that point I responded, “You just told me people are leaving because of this individual. As a leader in the church, you get to choose who stays and who goes. Now, do you prefer to keep people who continually create problems or people who want to do ministry in your church?”

Smaller churches experiencing dysfunction due to controllers need to remember that it’s not a matter of losing people; it’s deciding whom the church will lose. 

Far too many churches decide, because of their inaction, to keep the controllers and sacrifice those who were looking for a place in which they could satisfy their spiritual needs.

Tom Bandy, in his book “Fragile Hope,” really nails it when he asks if we love our controllers more than we do our own teenagers. He asks, “If one must go so the other can belong, what will be your preference?”

This is much easier to write about than to live out in real life because controllers often have been in their church for years.

The leadership team from a small church called me soon after their pastor had resigned and asked to meet with me. During that meeting, they identified two families in the church that were the source of many of the church’s problems.

I asked them what they planned to do about it and was told they didn’t see anything they could do. I explained that until they were willing to address the problem, it would continue to limit their church’s witness in the community.

I left the meeting feeling they would do nothing, but within a few weeks they confronted both families about their behavior.

Both times the families threatened to leave the church, and the leadership gave them permission to do so. They did leave. Since then, that church has doubled its attendance and probably tripled its giving.

We don’t want to ever run people away from our churches, but at the same time we can’t be so afraid of losing people we will not confront bad behavior. Sometimes when people causing dysfunction leave through the back door, it allows others to come in through the front doors.

Dennis Bickers served as the bivocational pastor of Hebron Baptist Church near Madison, Ind., for 20 years before accepting his current position as a resource minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Bivocational Ministry, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @DennisBickers.

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