The struggle to be in control is a kind of addiction that is part of our fallen human nature. Even the most passionate lovers of God must deal with layer upon layer of what spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, called the “False Self.” This is the self that is always protecting and building up ourselves. It is part of our fallen nature to always be taking care of those systems, people, and things that give us what we want, that make us feel comfortable and happy.

When we stubbornly insist on our own way it is obvious that we are not centered on God. But a deeper truth is that even when we spend our time, energy, and money on the needs and wants of others, our False Self is ready to see what’s in it for us. Many psychologists can tell stories of people who on the outside seemed to be selfless servants of others, but on the inside were driven by desperate needs to manipulate, please, and control. When we believe we are in control of things, we feel safe. When we face the reality that God is really in control, we are thrown into the realm of faith. We must trust in what we cannot yet see. In God’s realm, if we do not stand by faith, we do not stand at all.

God cannot give our churches everything God wants us to have until we leaders are willing to let go of our need to be in control of the church and through faith let God take charge. Actually, it is a great relief when we are able to let God take God’s rightful place as head of the church and we take our places as junior partners in God’s work. Leaders who always have to be in control, always carry the church on their shoulders, are at serious risk for burnout.

As long as we are charting the course, God cannot take us where God wants us to go. If we are pursuing self-generated agendas that seem good to us, God has little room to work God’s agenda out among us. The bottom line is that God is meant to lead and we are meant to follow in the dance we call church. If we begin to practice this in humble faith, our life with God both in the church and outside the church will become a holy adventure!

A Spiritual Exercise
Take your Bible and sit down in a quiet place with pen and paper. Turn to Genesis 3:1–19 and read the passage through several times, silently and then aloud. Meditate on these questions:

  • Adam and Eve lived in paradise with everything available to them except the fruit of one tree. Why do you imagine they felt a need to eat from the one forbidden tree?
  • As creatures of a sovereign God, we live within certain boundaries. Where do you experience your False Self wanting to be in control and to go beyond the boundaries?

After reflecting on these questions, remain in an attitude of prayer asking God to show you where you may have gone your own way rather than allowing God to lead you. Claim the promise of Jesus that if we ask we will receive and ask God to redeem and heal any injuries to others, damaged relationships, missed opportunities, or brokenness of any kind that may have resulted from this behavior. Ask the Holy Spirit to enable you to hunger and thirst for God’s will and open yourself to be led on an adventure with God!

Questions for thought and discussion

  • In what areas of the life of the church do you find yourself wanting to be firmly in control and have your way? Why do you think this is so?
  • Can you imagine what it would look like to hold these areas of the church’s life more lightly? To hold these things with open hands instead of clutching them? What gets in your way of doing this?


Joan S. Gray has served as teaching elder in twelve congregations. She is the co-author of Presbyterian Polity for Church Leaders, and the author of Spiritual Leadership for Church Officers and Sailboat Church, all published by Westminster/John Knox Press. Joan concluded a two-year term as Moderator of the 217th General Assembly (2006) of the PC(USA) and lives in midtown Atlanta.

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