Serving Controlling Women in Your Church

Years ago, when it was time to select Bible study materials for the following year, my church’s curriculum committee informed our women’s Bible study team that we were no longer to use Bible studies by a particular author—we’ll call her Susie Smith.

As word spread, this did not sit well with many of our women—me included. We loved Susie Smith Bible studies! God had moved powerfully through these studies, and we saw absolutely nothing wrong with them. Why would our church’s leaders revoke something that had been such a catalyst for such spiritual growth? They certainly hadn’t asked our opinion! We were indignant, to say the least.

Our pastors heard about the complaints rumbling through the church hallways and called a meeting to discuss the issue.

Now, I’m sure that my control-craving heart skewed my perspective, but here is how I remember that meeting. Our pastor walked to the front of a silent room filled with about twenty-five women. He said, “I want you to know that your elders love you and are concerned for you. This is why we have decided that there will be no more Susie Smith Bible studies. The decision is final, but you are welcome to ask questions.”

A few questions were raised (mostly by me). He answered briefly, then turned and walked out. Then twenty-five women burst into tears and began hugging each other. We were frustrated, hurt, and outraged.

One woman bitterly said, “I’m more skeptical of our pastors than I am of Susie Smith. I trust her!” Another woman said, “The church down the street is offering Susie Smith Bible studies. What if we all just went there?” Still another said, “Or maybe I’ll just host a Bible study in my home. I think that we should be able to do whatever Bible study we want to!”

You can imagine the conflict that ensued. Lord, forgive us!

Church Conflict

Conflict can occur in any setting, but in the Church there’s added intensity. At church, we’re not just contributing to an organization. These are our acts of service before God! These are spiritual gifts we’re pouring on the altar.

We’re passionate about what we have to offer, and when somebody refuses to listen or discredits our viewpoint, we naturally feel hurt, offended, and misunderstood. This is true on both sides of the argument.

In the instance I described, my pastor could have said, “Look, I have put myself through seminary. I have worked, studied, and prepared myself for this role. I have served you and prayed for you. I’m making this decision in your best interest, and you’re skeptical of me?”

But the women were saying, “Wait, you’re telling me that I can’t do this ministry (which was going quite well, thank you) the way I see fit? I have poured my gifts and my passion into this! I give hours of my time, each week—and I don’t get a salary. I do this because I love Jesus. And you’re saying that I’m wrong?”

Control Girls at Church

Men and women can both be controlling; we just go about it differently. Most 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 often tend to be more subtle. We gossip, recruit supporters, use emotion, and vote with our feet. Controlling women might become stiffly resistant or keep hidden agendas. In the meeting I described, neither party had wrong intentions. The women weren’t hoping to be divisive. Our pastor wasn’t trying to create tension. But division and conflicts naturally arise when committed but flawed believers try to minister together.

Conflict is common. Control Girls are common.

Back then, I didn’t know I was a Control Girl. The difference now is that I see the problem in myself, and I see it as the current running beneath many of the conflicts that arise. As leaders, we can’t make others’ choices for them, but we can use our influence.

How can we invite the women we serve to join us on the path from Control Girl to Jesus Girl?

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 some ways that you can influence the Control Girls you serve toward surrender.

1. Identify.

It’s easy for me to focus on the other controlling 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 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. 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 we must be leaders who are “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3). As we surrender ourselves first, and invite others to join us, God will permeate our churches and groups with peace, joy, and unity.

Shannon is giving away three copies of her new Bible study, Control Girl: Lessons on Surrendering Your Burden of Control From Seven Women in the Bible. Login to our giveaway widget for a chance to win. We'll randomly select three of you to receive a free copy.* You can get to know Shannon at shannonpopkin.com.

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