Lessons Learned by a Recovering Controlaholic

by Mar 15, 2007

img_0414_thumbnail.jpgYesterday, someone was telling me a story about a friend at another church. She had a great outreach idea, and went to the church board to get permission to start a new ministry. She was crushed by their answer: “Here’s how it works. First we decide if we want our church to have a ministry like that. Then we decide who should lead it. Then after all that, you can get involved if you want to.”

The experience made her want to leave the church. The only thing holding her back is that she’s married to one of the pastors.

Many church leaders have a tough time balancing oversight with empowerment, and too often we end up overcontrolling things. I have to confess that I can identify with the leaders at that church because I’m a recovering controlaholic (sober for 7 years). It’s easy for leaders like us to find biblical rationale for our domineering ways, because after all, one of our main responsibilities as shepherds is to protect the flock, and most of the time that means protecting them from themselves. Paul charged the elders of the church in Ephesus with this:

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. (Acts 20)

It’s clear that church leaders need to have extreme discerment, constantly guarding the flock from wolves disguised as sheep along with the even-more-common wolves who think they’re sheep and are blind to their own true nature. But something struck me in the passage of John that I’ll be teaching from this Sunday: Jesus did nothing about the wolf in his own tight-knit flock of disciples. According to John 6, he knew that Judas was a devil (literally, a “slanderer”), yet Jesus still mentored him like all the others. He still sent him out with the others to preach and heal on streetcorners. He even entrusted him with the church checkbook.

Obviously, there was some divine foreknowledge happening, as Jesus knew that Judas would be the linchpin of his plan to die on the cross. But his approach to Judas was also pretty typical of his laidback management style. Remember when the disciples tried to squash the guy who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he didn’t follow them? They had come to believe they had a copyright on the name of Jesus, and they were enraged that this guy was using the name without their permission. Even worse, he was succeeding at it.

When the disciples told Jesus about the situation, the person who got in trouble wasn’t the rogue excorcist. Jesus took them behind the woodshed and said:

Do not stop him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. For the one who is not against us is for us. For truly, I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you belong to Christ will by no means lose his reward. (Mark 9)

Most of us like to see things in black and white, but Jesus brings a bit more gray into the picture here: “If someone’s not against us, he must be for us.” I don’t think this is so much a theological statement as a relational statement. Jesus is telling the disciples and all the other future leaders of his church that if we see someone honestly trying to serve God, we need to try giving him a pat on the back before we throw him down with a Hulk Hogan running leg drop. Yes, I’m a proud product of the 80’s.

Jesus gets even more serious about it in the next verse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble , it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea.” Here’s my paraphrase: “If you stop humble servants like this demon-healer from doing ministry, then you might as well tie a rope to the bumper of a schoolbus, tie the other end around your neck, then roll the bus off a pier, because even that gruesome fate would be better than what God has in store for you.”

Church leaders have a responsibility to diligently oversee the flock, but the lesson of the millstone is that we should be more dedicated to freeing people for ministry than we are to enforcing our own ideas of what their ministry should look like. At Harbor, we’re still learning how to do this well in our young church, but there are a few lessons we as leaders have learned along the way:

Recognize that Jesus is the visionary, not us.
Of course, he most often uses us to set a course of action before the body, but there are also times when we’ve set aside our goals because we recognized that someone else’s idea or strategy “seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15). It takes some painful pride-swallowing to admit that your original plan wasn’t the best one (or, gulp, that maybe you weren’t listening to the Holy Spirit), but in the end we’ve never regretted it.

Invest more time in people than in plans.
I can’t tell you how many mission statements and 5-year-plans I’ve seen that made absolutely no difference in how a church actually operates. But purposeful time spent with people always has some kind of impact. The difference might not be immediate, and it might not be in the way we expected, but it’s always noticeable as long as we…

Emphasize personal more than professional accountability
As leaders in an accomplishment-oriented society, it’s easy to focus on results: “How many leaders volunteered? How many people showed up? How close did you come to the budget?” But another striking thing in John 6 about Jesus’ ministry is that he focused only on one thing: doing the will of the Father. He did what he was asked to do, and left the results up to the Father. As we work with people to dream up and implement ministries, we’ve learned to ask questions like, “What do you see God doing through this ministry? Are you using your gifts to their full extent? What’s God teaching you through this experience?”

Foster an atmosphere that embraces change.
A church-planter friend of mine was proposing a new idea, and he got the standard response from a key leader: “We’ve never done things that way before.” The church was only 6 months old at the time. In a church of any age, it’s easy to fall into a way of doing ministry and stick with it just because it works. This is a guaranteed way to freeze people out of involvement and stifle new ideas, so we’ve learned to mix things up on purpose from time to time. For example, we really like the way our Sunday service flows but we’ll do a totally different service once every few months, just to keep ourselves flexible and free.

Expect missteps and failures along the way.
God does, and he lets us keep working for him anyway. Besides, mistakes are how most of us learn best. By God’s grace, we haven’t made too many major mistakes in our church so far (at least not that we’re aware of yet), but we’ve gained very valuable lessons from the ones we have made. Not everything can be learned in a ministry training seminar (according to this fiery post, almost nothing worthwhile can be), so when we send people out into ministry we expect them to fall a few times as part of the education process.