Women’s Ministry Leader Survival Guide Tool #5: Leading Difficult Women

The Church suffers when women who love Jesus and desire to serve Him cannot get along. While we know conflict and control is a natural by-product of ministering alongside fallen sinners, Scripture compels leaders to actively pursue peace. Meet my friend Shannon Popkin, who invites us to take the first step by surrendering our own tendency to control.

Is the Women’s Ministry Leader Survival Guide series helping you thrive in ministry? Tell us how! Start a conversation right here on the blog, or let’s connect in the Women’s Ministry Leader Facebook Group. I’m praying for you as you gear up for fall ministry! —Leslie Bennett, Women’s Ministry Initiatives

Jane loves serving on her church’s worship team, but lately she has become frustrated. Her new pastor seems to unravel all of their efforts to cultivate a worshipful tone by spending the first half of his sermon telling silly jokes and stories. So now whenever he launches into a second or third joke, Jane rises from her usual spot in the third row and walks out.

Her exits have not gone unnoticed. Several friends have come to her with their concerns. They have begun meeting in the prayer room during the sermons to pray for spiritual awakening.

* * *

Jacqueline has been doing “Susie Smith” Bible studies for years now and loves them. She’s seen firsthand how impactful these studies can be. So when her church’s leadership announces that they will no longer be using Susie Smith’s studies, Jacqueline is outraged. Why would her church revoke resources that have been such a catalyst for such spiritual growth?

Jacqueline contacts several friends to see if they would like to start an “underground” Bible study group at her house instead of at the church.

* * *

Cindy has hosted a table at her church’s Christmas tea outreach for the past eight years. It’s a highlight for Cindy to use her grandmother’s china to decorate her table. But this year, the director has said that no china will be allowed. Everyone must use paper plates, so that the tables can be cleared more quickly after the event.

Cindy is horrified! Paper plates? She can’t even fathom it. She bypasses the director and takes her complaint straight to the pastor (who happens to be her son-in-law).

Control Girls at Church

Men and women can both be controlling; we just go about it differently. Men tend to be more openly confrontational and direct. They are generally more overt about conflict. Controlling men might belittle, intimidate, or become dismissive. But not controlling women.

Women tend to be more subtle. We gossip, recruit supporters, and use emotion to get our way. We might become stiffly resistant or keep hidden agendas—not because we intend to be divisive or create conflict. We’re just trying to make everything turn out “right”! Especially at church.

At church, we’re not merely contributing to an organization. We’re serving God! These are our spiritual gifts we’re pouring on the altar. So our investment is deeply personal and meaningful. It’s costly, also. No one pays us to sing, lead, organize, or help. We do these things because we love Jesus!

So when someone sends the message that we’re “doing it wrong,” or that our contributions are not needed or valued, it’s personal. We take offense. We become turf-oriented and defensive. We dig in our heels, cross our arms, and tighten our grip. We act like “Control Girls,” even as we’re trying to serve the Lord.

Leading Control Girls

Division and conflict naturally arise when committed but flawed believers try to minister together. Conflict is common. Control Girls are common. Even among leaders.

When I encounter a difficult, controlling woman, my first inclination is to yank control back. I’m the leader! I think. It’s up to me to set things straight! Fueled by conviction, I become dogmatic, guarded, and firm. It feels good and right to snatch control back from that other “Control Girl.” But is it?

Over the past decade, God has been opening my eyes to the fact that I’m a Control Girl, too. I see the problem in myself, and I see it as a current running beneath many of the conflicts that arise. Oh, what havoc we women (whether leaders or not) wreak on the peace and unity of the Church when we try to wrench control out of each other’s hands.

As leaders, we can’t make others’ choices for them, but we can use our influence. We can break the cycle by laying down our own burden of control, which invites others to do the same.

Control vs. Surrender

Jesus lived the epitome of a surrendered life. At the point of greatest conflict, instead of taking control, He said, “Not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42). Do you hear the sweet surrender in those words? Surrender is the antidote to control.

Both control and surrender are catching. When we’re around controlling people, we’re compelled to become controlling. And when we’re around people who are deeply surrendered to God, we are compelled to surrender our hearts as well.

Here are three ways you can influence the Control Girls you serve toward surrender:

1. Identify similarities.

It’s easy for me to focus on the other difficult women in my church or ministry and be blind to my own tendency to clamp down or dig in my heels. Often when someone else is provoking me, it’s because she wants the same thing I do: control.

Once, I was frustrated by a conflict with a ministry sister named “Sonia.” I felt that Sonia was being so controlling! When I called a friend to get help and clarity, she said, “I want you to list all of the similarities between you and Sonia. Then pray through your list, and ask God to work in you both.”

The result was remarkable. I realized that Sonia and I were very alike! When I prayed, I pictured both Sonia and myself at the foot of the cross with our shared weaknesses. I sobbed with fresh grief over my sense of superiority and surrendered my burden of trying to control Sonia. What freedom this brought!

When conflicts arise, I am always the first person I must invite to surrender. How easy it is to relapse and begin trying to control the situations and people that trouble me. God wants me to remember that He’s already in control so I don’t have to be.

Is there another Control Girl who gets under your skin? Make a list of shared weaknesses. Pray earnestly that God will transform you both.

2. Affirm good intentions.

Often the women who struggle most with control are also the most invested. They care deeply about the ministry. They have history. Ultimately, they want to serve God! But over time, they’ve made God’s ministry into their ministry.

When conflict arises, it’s so helpful to begin by affirming my sister’s good intentions. I might say, “I know that this matters to you because you’re devoted to spreading the gospel.” Or “I appreciate your passion for God and your deep love for the women of our church.”

I can’t expect that my Control Girl sister will immediately see her sin. God must open her eyes, and often that takes time. My goal should be that she walks away from a conversation with me knowing she is heard, valued, and loved.

Do you have a woman who is overstepping or undermining? How can you affirm her intentions? By doing so, you clear obstacles that might keep her from surrendering to God.

3. Strive for unity, not uniformity.

Uniformity is when everything is the same, with no deviation or variety. But God designed the Church to be unified, not uniform! Unity wouldn’t even be necessary if we were all the same.

Unity happens when people who are very, very different—in perspectives, passions, gifts, and callings—become single-minded. Unity is not the result of one person taking control. That’s uniformity! Unity is the result of everyone giving up a measure of control. As leaders, we should go first.

Do you have a Control Girl in your church or group contending for her perspective? Instead of saying, “She needs to do it the right way!” consider, “How has God designed her to do it a different way?” Ask God to show you what you should give in on. Anything without a Bible verse to back it up is fair game.

Leading by example, though, is not enough. Your Control Girl sister might need to be challenged and invited to surrender for the sake of the ministry. Oh, how you’ll need to prepare your heart for this conversation. Be careful to overcome an attitude of reluctance or begrudging irritation you may be harboring. Instead, eagerly pursue unity!

Read these verses aloud, filling in the blanks as appropriate:

“I, __________, am to walk in a manner worthy of my calling to serve as _____________. In my relationship with _____________, I must be humble, gentle, and patient. I must bear with ________________’s weaknesses in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Taken from Ephesians 4:1–3.)

Control Girls can cause angst, strife, and division. But as we surrender ourselves first and invite others to join us, we can be leaders who are willing to do everything within our power to live at peace with everyone (Rom. 12:18).

About the Author

Shannon Popkin

Shannon Popkin is happy to be sharing life with her husband, Ken, and together they have the joy of watching their three young-adult kids become the amazing people God created them to be. From the platform, page, and podcast mic, Shannon invites women to drink deeply of God’s story and live like it’s true. Her books include Comparison Girl and Control Girl, and she hosts the Live Like It’s True Bible podcast.