Discipleship Matrix

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Control vs. Release

Moving Your Church Through Growth Barriers (3)

We all like to be in charge, in control of our lives and even our own destiny.   Desire for control is buried deep in the DNA of human beings.   We insist on being in the driver’s seat of our lives.   To give up control is difficult.   We all know of some people that might be called “control freaks” – they not only like to control their own lives; they also like to control the lives of others.   In every church I have served it did not take me long to figure out who these people who were hungry for control.  My induction into this back story of control in churches began when I was interviewed at a church which was looking to hire their next pastor.   After preaching in their morning service my wife Jeannie and I were invited to one of the couples of the church for lunch.   Whilst Jeannie and the lady of the house put way the lunch dishes, I sat down for coffee and dessert with the man of the house.   In no uncertain terms he instructed me that if I were to become their next pastor that every decision and every change I would want to make in that church first had to be discussed with and vetoed by him.      He made me aware that this church had its new building because of the large donations he had made.    Perhaps it was my youthful inexperience and lack of tact, but being clearly offended by his comments, I told him:  “If that is your attitude, then please do not call me to become your new pastor, because if you do, I will not come.”

Now not all churches have individuals who are so blatant and vocal with their control, but most every church has a small group of people who hold enormous sway over the life, operation, and direction of the church.   They might not serve on a committee or be on church council and their meetings are not posted on the church calendar, but they still meet – in the foyer of the church, the parking lot, at a restaurant, or in a home … wherever they can talk privately.   For the most part these people have the best interests of the church at heart (as they see it) but they are controlling the direction of the church.   They might speak up at congregational meetings and at times they even use the giving or withholding of their money as a way to leverage control.

Some people in the church insist on having control but others are given control by the position they hold in the church.   Ministers, elders and certain paid staff have positional control – that is, through the power of their position they control the direction of the church as well.   You cannot underestimate the power of positional control.   Just by virtue of the position they hold, these people will set the course of the day to day ministry of the church.   But whether or not control is earned, taken, or granted, control as a huge effect on what the church is and does.   Control regulates the flow of congregational energy, the expenditure of financial resources, and the response to opportunities and possibilities.  

And this is where holding on to control sets up a growth barrier in the church.   Capable people are held at arm’s length by leaders who will not share responsibility or performance with them.   I have seen this happen again and again in the churches I have surveyed or worked with.    When you have up and coming leaders held back because of those who wield control, these people often drop out of church or find a church where their gifts, abilities, and leadership can be utilized.   Where control is tightly held, people new in the church are forced to wait a long time before they are trusted with responsibility and often are not fully accepted.   So instead of releasing control and allowing new leaders to emerge, control is retained by a select few.    What results is that instead of allowing growth efforts to flourish, these efforts are restricted and undervalued.   And the church settles into the size level and ministry breadth consistent with the controllers’ preferences and capabilities.

To move through this growth barrier church leaders need to release control rather than maintain control.    As the church grows larger, the pastoral role held by the senior and/or other pastors must change from that of a shepherd to a rancher.    Instead of providing all the shepherding care to one flock, the pastor must provide the ranching oversight to multiple flocks.     This demands a different sort of behaviour.  Look at the chart below:

Behaviour of Shepherds                                   Behaviour of Ranchers

  1. Personally provide all the caring                     1.  Make sure pastoral care is done
  2. Attempt to meet all expectations                     2.  Set expectations
  3. Work to the limit of abilities                             3.  See the church organisationally
  4. Keep work close to them                                4.  Delegate and involve others
  5. Responds to present demands                      5.  Develop management skills

In fact, all churches regardless of size must make this shift in their journey if they desire to see church growth and ministry multiplication.   Read the story of Moses and the confrontation he had with his father in law Jethro in Exodus 18.  Here Moses learned a very important lesson.  Jethro told Moses that if was to effectively lead God’s people he needed to become a rancher rather than continue to behave like a shepherd (his default and learned behaviour).

This is also the advice that the apostle Paul taught the church in Ephesus.  He described the ministry of the church in these words: 

“It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”  (Ephesians 4:11-13)

Paul teaches that the task of leaders in the church is to equip the saints for the work of ministry.   Most pastors would teach this, that is, that ministry is the role of all believers.   As Reformed Christians we have long emphasized the priesthood of all believers.   But the task of the pastor and other church leaders is not simply to inform believers that ministry is their responsibility.    Pastors are also to inspire and equip the people to do the work of ministry.   And as they release people into ministry, they need to also release control.    Responsibility is delegated and shared.   More and more people are involved in ministry decisions.   All of the day to day decisions are not made from the top, but by those who are engaged in ministry.    Control is released to those having ministry responsibilities.  People engaged in ministry are empowered to complete their respective roles.   If a pastor is unable to release control and empower people to engage in the work of ministry, then he does not have the capability to be a rancher.    He will either need to learn to become a rancher or he ought to find a (different) flock to shepherd.   Otherwise a huge growth barrier will remain.

This movement from control to release will also require an organisational shift.   There needs to be a movement from being a single-cell group where people preserve social intimacy, remain comfortable, and conserve/preserve the memories of the past to multiple groups, multiple cells, where not everybody knows everybody.    There is less concern about talking about how things were to setting direction how things can be.    Churches need to create systems to ensure that proper pastoral care and people discipleship happens – but the members of the church, not just the leaders, take responsibility for doing the work of ministry.  

There will also be a need to take on additional staff – either paid or voluntary for ministry assignments and for the training of lay leaders.   Leaders will focus on raising up and training leaders.   And the majority of day-to-day decisions will not be made by church council/session but by the ministry staff.   Church council will set direction, provide advice, but will leave operational decisions to be made by the pastors and other key ministry leaders.    Remember, it is not about retaining control, but empowering leaders to make decisions and oversee ministries.   For this to happen will require the implementation of clear structures, positions, job descriptions, and ministry policies.   If these are not in place, they need to be created.   In my last congregation, one of the growth barriers that existed was an unclear understanding of ministry expectations and pathways of accountability.   When these were put into place by the creation of a “Policies and Procedures Manual” (I prefer calling it a “Ministry Playbook”) leaders became empowered to do their ministries and we saw ministries and leaders being multiplied.  

Ultimately churches need to affirm that the church and its ministry does not belong to people or church members but to Christ.    The church is the “body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) and Jesus himself reminds us:  “… I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)    The church belongs to Christ.   Affirming this truth, church leaders and members will be encouraged to release control and empower one another to be the body of Christ, engaging in ministry, multiplying disciples and leaders, and making the most of every opportunity for the expansion of the gospel.

Resources for your Growth Needs

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  • The Vitality of the CRCA

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