She left the Church and came out as a lesbian, all at age nineteen.
I didn’t meet Rachel Gleason until years after this point, when her poetry group performed at my son’s school. But if I had met Rachel as a middle schooler, I’m guessing I would have considered her to be an exceptional Christian kid with a bright future of following God.
Rachel grew up in church. And not on the fringe; her family was deeply invested. She participated heavily in the various youth programs her church offered, learning Bible verses and participating in worship arts.
But when Rachel reflects and considers her childhood, she calls her church a “cult.” And she says that the home in which she was raised—where passing faith to the next generation was a priority—was a controlling environment.
Since I struggle with control, both at home and at church, Rachel’s story caught my attention.
The first time I listened to Rachel’s TED talk, I was killing time in a parking lot and had googled Rachel’s poetry group, which was scheduled to visit my son’s school. There in my car, I watched Rachel perform her poem and my heart broke. Tears streamed down my face. I grieved for Rachel, but I also grieved for myself, because Rachel’s background is where I live.
I know what it’s like to be a controlling mom who longs for her kids to walk with Jesus. I know what it’s like to be a church leader, who is passionate for truth. I also know how my attempts to control have hurt people I love, both at home and at church.
Rachel’s poem stuck with me. The day I met her at the school, I took the chance of asking her if we could talk. I was delighted when she said “yes.”
My Goal for This Interview
Rachel kindly agreed to let me interview her, not because she and I agree about God, the Church, sin, or homosexuality. She agreed because she is a caring, passionate young woman who wants the same thing I do: reconciliation and peace between Control Girls like me, their kids, and the Church.
I told Rachel that I hope we can have an ongoing friendship. In this post, I want to represent her accurately, while still maintaining my conviction that God is who decides whether we’re male or female and that surrendering to Him is how we find lasting satisfaction and joy.
I also want to be respectful of Rachel’s family members, whom she loves very much, and the church she was part of. It would be very hypocritical for me to cast judgment on anyone in Rachel’s past, since as a mom and church leader, I’ve struggled in these exact same ways.
My goal is to invite dedicated, Christian women to trust God more and surrender to Him rather than placing the burden of control on their own shoulders. Both in our churches and homes, I want to remind women that God is in control, which means we don’t have to be.
The Corrosiveness of Control
Controlling moms and controlling church leaders can produce some of the godliest looking families in the church. But when we use Scripture like a whip and cause young people to squirm under our condemning glare, when we poke and prod them to cave into our pressure, have we produced anything genuine and true?
According to Barna Group’s research, six in ten Millennials are leaving their church roots behind. Galatians 5:1 says, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” but somehow these young people have become convinced that there’s more freedom outside the church than inside it. Could it be that we—the controlling moms and other women in their lives—have played a part in making the church seem like jail instead of freedom?
Rachel’s story illustrates this quandary well. She describes both her mom and her church as very controlling and says, “I think that shapes most of what I do and who I am.”
When we talk about control, we always need to hold two things in balance. First, God tells us that He is ultimately in control. Even on our worst days, His arm is not shortened and His purposes will be accomplished—both in our lives and others’ (Isa. 59:1, 46:10).
But God also tells us that we are responsible. Joshua 24:15 says, “Choose this day whom you will serve.” Later in that same verse Joshua says, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD,” which calls out the influence we have—especially at home.
We must steward our influence well and hold ourselves responsible for the messages we communicate to the children in our lives. With that in mind, based on Rachel’s insight, I’d like to present five control tactics we need to stop using in our homes and churches.
But first, a word of caution. If you approach this list with the same control-craving heart, you’ll only reformulate these into new tactics. Instead, ask God to help you surrender control to Him in the following ways.
5 Control Tactics to Stop Using
1. Sharing hopes for the future.
When Rachel receives birthday cards from the Christians in her family, they often include handwritten messages, communicating the hope that Rachel will one day return to the church and bring a harvest of people with her. To Rachel, these cards seem aimed at trying to change her rather than celebrating her life.
As moms, sisters, and friends of those who are pulling away from their faith roots, we long for opportunities to draw them back in—both to God and ourselves. But sharing our hopes for what God will do can sometimes be a subtle control tactic.
Before you speak to your loved one about some promise you’re claiming or hope you have, ask yourself, “Am I truly trusting God to shape the future? Or am I trusting in my own words?”
2. Saying, “I failed.”
“Growing up, my church taught that being gay was pretty much the worst thing,” says Rachel. So it’s no surprise that when she came out as a young adult, Rachel’s mom, especially, felt like a “failure.” But Rachel, who already felt burdened by her same-sex attraction, perceived this as more judgment. Rachel says, “If she feels that she has failed because I’m gay, that’s a condemnation on me.”
As moms, it’s hard when our adult kids aren’t becoming who we dreamed of. There’s even a sense of betrayal. We think, You’re my own child . . . I thought I knew you! Often we’re tempted—in our own insecurity and fear—to turn to our kids and say, “I’ve failed.”
But what if we turned to God instead? The security we crave is found in God, not in our children or our ability to shape the future. Check your heart, and ask yourself, “What is my motivation for telling my loved one that I’ve failed? What am I saying about God and about myself when I claim this?”
God never burdened us, as parents or as churches, with the task of producing people who meet certain standards. Instead Jesus reminds us that we can do nothing apart from Him (John 15:5)! And He assures us that He is working all things—even the things we wouldn’t have chosen for our loved ones—together for our good (Rom. 8:28).
3. Using prayer as a tactic.
When Rachel receives the message, “I’ll pray for you,” what she hears is, “You are not okay the way you are, and God will fix it.”
Now, as moms and church members we are absolutely called to pray for people and influence them toward godliness. But do we sometimes use prayer as a way of adding God to our “side” of an issue?
Prayer is meant to admit our dependence on God, not a tactic to gain control over others.
If you are in a strained relationship with someone, before you say you’ll pray for them, ask yourself, “Am I using the mention of prayer as a control tactic? How can I live in dependence on God rather than depending on myself?”
Perhaps your motives are genuinely pure, but even so, you might consider praying “in secret” (Matt. 6:6) and simply letting your loved one know that you care in other ways.
4. Invading privacy.
In Rachel’s poem, she describes the way she screamed when she found pages ripped from her diary, which had been shared with the pastors at her church. My heart aches with Rachel. But my heart also aches over the way I also have invaded the privacy of my loved ones, telling myself that my goal is to protect.
Oh, how our desire for control can deceive us! As we listen in, rummage through, hack into, or fish around, are we truly trusting the Lord with all our hearts and leaning not on our own understanding (Prov. 3:5–6)?
Now, the younger the child, the more protective we must be. But as our children age, we must weigh our motives more carefully. As moms or church leaders, we have concerns. But are we also driven to gain control?
Before you extract private information, ask yourself, “Am I prying because I want control?” Consider softly asking for information. Or asking God—who sees every hidden thing—to reveal what is necessary for you to know. Rather than destroying the trust in your relationships, trust God with your concerns.
5. Divulging information.
If invading privacy provides one measure of control, sharing what you found doubles it.
In that last illustration, Rachel’s diary pages were shared with her pastors. Another time, deeply personal information was shared with her middle school church leader. Rachel also remembers her church being a place where gossip was disguised as “prayer requests.” People would tattle on each other to the leaders.
Obviously, in cases of abuse or serious undisclosed sin, it’s right to get either legal or church authorities involved. But some churches and families develop a culture where information is used against people or to exact power over them. God, on the other hand, never uses our sin against us. He removes our sin from as, as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12)!
Before you share hidden information about someone in your family or church, ask yourself, “What is my desired outcome? Am I trying to gain control?” Consider how you might softly and privately invite someone into repentance rather than trying to force it by disclosing information.
As Rachel Gleason’s story illustrates, we—the moms and women in the Church who struggle with control—have an impact on those we influence, whether we recognize it or not. How can we be more gentle, kind, and understanding toward our daughters, friends, and sisters?
God never asked us to take control. Yes, we are to be faithful and stand for truth, but by trying to clamp down and grip onto the people we love, we only become anxious, angry, overwhelmed, stressed out, perfectionistic women who sabotage our own efforts to draw others to God.
Whether we’ve done it all right or done it all wrong, we are not the founder or perfecter of anyone else’s faith; Jesus is (Heb. 12:1)! This, dear sisters, is our hope. Won’t you take the burden of control off your own shoulders? Surrender the people you love to Him! Place control back where it belongs—into the wise, strong, faithful, loving hands of God.