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Controllers in the Church

By Dr. Dennis Bickers, Area Minister for ABC-Indiana/Kentucky

In every workshop I lead, regardless of the topic, at some point the problem of controllers in the church is raised. Sometimes, dealing with controllers is part of the presentation, but even if not someone in the audience will ask about how to handle them. Controllers are those people who see the church existing for their own benefit. They may or may not hold official positions in the church, but they wield a great amount of power and influence. They are great at organizing "parking lot meetings" where they spread their opinons like a virus.  Many prefer working in the shadows and letting others do their dirty work in public.

Tom Bandy, in his book Fragile Hope (Convergence Ebook Series), suggests controllers make up only about 20 percent of the congregation, although in declining churches the numbers may be higher. The reason they can exercise such influence is because most people in the church won't stand up to them. Most of our congregations consists of "nice" people who don't enjoy confrontations, so we allow 2-3 people in the church to have veto power over every suggestion made. The vast majority of a congregation may believe the suggestion is a good one, but no wants to say so until they find out how "Brother Joe feels about it." If he's against it, others will be too because they don't want any problems in their church.  The result is the church remains stuck and dying.

After explaining this to my workshop attendees someone usually asks what can be done with the controllers. Here is where I sometimes upset a few folks when I tell them that church controllers are a cancer. They are cancerous cells attacking healthy cells in the body of Christ. I remind them that cancer can't be cured without drastic steps. A bandaid won't cure a cancer. Neither will ignoring it.  In most cancer cases, difficult measures must be taken to stop the cancer or the body will die.  It's no different for a church.

The first thing that must happen is the leaders of the church must develop a backbone and lead.  That will often require confronting the controller(s). They will not like such confrontation and may strike back. At the very least, they will often threaten to leave.  So what!  Churches with controller issues usually tell me of the numbers of people who have left their churches due to the actions of these controllers.  Let me ask you a simple question: would you rather the controllers leave or the people they are running off? You WILL lose people either way, so who are you willing to give up? If you are in leadership you get to make that choice, so which will it be? In the same book mentioned above Bandy asks

Is it more important to keep controlling clergy, matriarchs, patriarchs, wealthy trustees, or domineering institutional managers, rather than welcome your own teenagers, parents, and immediate loved ones into the community of faith?...For most people it is as simple as "Controller or my teenager."  If one must go so the other can belong, what will be your preference?

If this post seems a little harsh, it probably is.  I recently received another e-mail from a church that decided to not move forward in order to appease a controller. The persons who wrote me are tired of doing everything they know how to help their church develop a more effective ministry only to see it overturned by a handful of people. I'm tired, too. I'm tired of churches being held hostage by small-minded, selfish individuals who are able to manipulate the workings of the church because no one in leadership is willing to confront them. I'm tired of people dying and going to hell because the church is so weak it can't move past one or two people determined to control everything the church does. I'm tired of churches wasting years of ministry trying to appease the small number of controllers that make up their congregation. I'm tired of seeing churches trying to play nice with people who are not nice while forfeiting their very reason for existence.  You should be too.  Do churches really love their controllers more than their own teenagers?  It often seems so. 

Additional information about Dennis:

Dr. Dennis Bickers became a bivocational pastor in 1981 when he accepted the call to serve Hebron Baptist Church in southeast Indiana. He served that church for 20 years while working in a factory for most of that time. During those years he also graduated from a Bible school and earned a bachelor's degree.

In 2001 Dr. Bickers became an Area Minister with the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky and remained bivocational even in this role. More information about his work with bi-vocational pastors and churches is available at his web site and his blog Dr. Bickers is also the author of four books on bivocational ministry. These are available through Amazon or Judson Press.