Spiritually Controlling Leadership

I wrote this piece several months ago, and have been sitting on it until now. It is with fear and trepidation that I share it, because I don’t want to inadvertently mislead anyone. I wrote it in response to something happening in my life, and I wasn’t sure if it was just a way of dealing with my situation, or if God would ever lead me to share it.

I had an awesome conversation with a friend recently, who had been a close confidant for many years. We had both been under controlling leadership. When I left the situation, I explained why, but she wasn’t ready to hear it. Our relationship drifted, and although we always loved each other deeply, we just couldn’t be close anymore.

Years later, she finally called me, and we got together over lunch. God had opened her eyes to some of the things that were happening, and she had finally left. She asked me to lunch to rekindle our friendship, and be open about how she had felt. It was so incredible to be reunited with my dear friend, and I realized that I needed to share. Especially after reading The Black Cloister, I needed to share – just in case there is one person who is dealing with this issue. One person who has come out of it, but still feels guilty for leaving, like I did.

I’ve been in controlling leadership situations twice now, and I just don’t think it’s a coincidence. I sought guidance from my wonderful pastors, and I’m convinced it wasn’t just in my mind. I want to share some of the things you may feel as God begins to open your eyes and lead you away, just so you know you’re not alone.

If you’ve ever been subject to a spiritually controlling authority, it can be one of the most hurtful experiences as a Christian. Many times, a leader may not intentionally move to control. For a variety of reasons, he/she may believe it is the right thing, even denying that it is happening, perhaps subconsciously. Many times a leader, who feels out-of-control in his/her personal life, will begin to make up for it by “over-spiritualizing” and complicating a true life in Christ.

As you begin to feel more and more uncomfortable, you may be told that you are being “divisive” and are not in “unity” with the group. All the while, told not to discuss it with others, so as not to gossip. You may be made to feel as if you are the only one feeling uncomfortable with the direction the leadership is taking.

A word about unity: While I am all for supporting and respecting authority, Jesus is the ultimate authority in the life of a Christian. Unity without Truth is useless. The Heaven’s Gate cult was in complete unity. Did they get picked up by the mothership? No.

A Controlling Leader:

* Presents their opinion as “God’s view,” and often rejects concerns because “I prayed about it” or “God spoke to me.” They may find a Scripture that could be construed as supporting them.

* Assigns outward requirements for “spiritual” growth and expresses disappointment when these criteria are not met. ie: Church attendance, “super-spiritual talk,” Bible Studies, spiritual gifts. (All wonderful things, but not necessary to “earn approval” from God or man) Matt 15:9 “And in vain they worship Me, Teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”

* Moves to a more exclusive group of insiders, who are perceived to be spiritually superior. Asks other leaders who have misgivings to step down for “personal differences” or vague issues of “sin in their life.”

* Consciously or unconsciously pushes away people who may disagree with decisions. Begins to share plans with only a select group of supporters.

* Puts more works-based programs in place to project their vision of the spiritual growth of others. Begins to believe that if others do not line up with this thinking, they are just turning away from what God wants. Acts 15:10-11 “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

* My former pastors used to use the word, “Divine Subtraction” to describe loss of members. It wasn’t his/her lack of Biblical leadership, it was the people’s refusal to follow “what God had shown the leader.” He/She promises the re-building of the group with more devoted followers. Periods of growth usually happen, but are usually followed by another split.

* Deflects the charge of being controlling by assigning duties to others, while keeping spiritual control. Thus, they can deny that they are trying to control. Duties will mostly go to those who are wholeheartedly on-board with the leader.

Most controlling leaders are very dynamic, popular, and very intuitive into others’ thoughts and motives.

So, the question then becomes: What to do if you are under a spiritually controlling leader?

I do not know the answer to that question. I think it is different in each situation, and has to be a subject of great prayer. First, of course, is the hardest part:

· Share your concerns in a respectful, but knowledgeable way. Search the whole scripture (in context) for God’s Truth, and share it.

· Cite specific examples, and stick with “I messages:” “When you…I feel….”

· Try to work with the leader and have mercy on him/her, because he/she truly may not realize the effect of his/her actions.

· Realize that you may be wrong, as well, and ask God to open your heart to that possibility.

· Leave the group only as a last resort, and in the case of your local church, DO NOT forsake going to church altogether. “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:25) Find another place to get plugged in and serve.

This exposition is not meant as absolute advice or a substitute for sound spiritual guidance, but is based on my own experiences. I have seen it happen several times as mankind substitutes his “good” for God’s “best.” Please consult many knowledgeable people before making any judgments or decisions. And above all else, listen to God’s voice, through the Scripture, and His leading in your heart.

Anyway, what do you think? I know this is the longest post in history, but let’s make it longer by adding your comments.


About Sarah Pinnix

I'm a mom, blogger, vlogger, libertarian. I love Jesus, and my husband, too. Social Media Strategist for a Non-Profit (All statements here are solely my own)


  1. Lisa @ Stop and Smell the Chocolates says:

    I think it’s wonderful that you’re sharing this. We need to be praying for the leaders of all churches. And we need to be in the Word as much as possible to protect us from being deceived or misled.

    Sadly, things like this won’t be going away, because we are all sinners! Pastors struggle with sin just like the people attending their churches.

    I’m sure some people will be encouraged by your post. Good job!


  2. First of all… I’m so sorry if I ever did any of that to you when we were college pastors. It was what we had learned and inadvertently passed on. I have since learned better. 🙂 One thing to remember is that type of control is either based in pride or insecurity. I think of the balding pastor, who was relatively young and had no formal training whatsoever. He was incredibly insecure and out of touch with the real world. The other guy was more prideful.

    My husband always says, “Beware of a pastor who walks without a limp.” and we have definitely seen that to be true! Those that have wrestled with God and their calling tend to be much better leaders and pastors.


  3. Yes, Jan, it is human nature to want to control things, and I have to fight it all the time, too.

    I never felt any of this from you guys! The time that I lived with you was really refreshing, because you were not controlling. I felt like I could talk to you about whatever was going on, and you wouldn’t freak out! I was scared of what everyone would say about me and Judd, and you calmed that! I think it really took off after you left.

    I also think many of us went through a time when we sort of “shunned” formal learning and training, which was dangerous.
    Anyway, I just think it’s important not to blame anyone, but to move on with where God leads.

    I love you!


  4. Thanks for sharing.


  5. Sarah,

    Thanks for the blog. This is Michael, Ben’s Dad. I’ve now been in ministry for over thirty years, and I think I have seen all the symptoms of control you’ve listed. In fact, I can add a few more!

    Saul, being jealous of David, tries to pin him to the wall with a spear. Saul’s soul was filled with insecurity. Remember when it was time to install Saul as king, he was hiding behind the baggage. No one could find him. That initial insecurity and fear was the root the caused him to hate David. David avoided being controlled, but Jonathan, Saul’s son couldn’t, and ended up dying with Saul.
    Controllers cause administrative bottlenecks — everything has to be approved by him/her. The money is controlled. (The pastor who would never — never! — let his people see the bank statements.)
    All plans and p[rograms have to be approved.Only the controller pastor can perform marriages and do the counseling.
    New ideas are resisted – unless they come from the controller. This person is not really a team player even though words like “team”, “unity” are used quite often. There is the constant fear that someone will do something inappropriate, so innovation is quenched. There is a slowness to release people, possessive of their loyalty — suspicious of disciples with anointing or charisma — wants to control where his sheep draw from – “no voice but mine.”
    Values “loyalty” over integrity
    and surrounded by “yes men.” – differences of opinion are viewed as opposition and disloyalty

    Well, that’s a few extra I’ve seen.

    And this scripture — Therefore, I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory. You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. ” (1 Peter 5:1-7, NASB95)



  6. Now that we are all much older, I believe those leaders of whom you speak would probably agree with your assessment, Sarah, on many points.
    When we all get to the other side, the Lord will probably, first thing, issue us onto his back porch where we’ll sit in rocking chairs with iced tea and talk about how it all unfolded. . . how we were all so young and inexperienced (just like in raising children.) We had to start somewhere.
    Think about this. The principle couple who birthed the work (in the late 70s) and set the tone for its restrictive atmosphere, are now in a third-world country among people who appreciate them. Our daughter is co-laboring with them, as we speak, as she travels with a group of world-traveling missionaries.
    Rest assured in knowing this: Our great Lord will be glorified in the end, because of, and in spite of our vain efforts as prideful, overzealous vessels of his love and holiness.
    When we get to His back porch, we’ll all have a good laugh about it, and forgive each other, for in so doing, we cover a multitude of sins, including our own.


  7. After writing a long drawn out essay in response to your post and then deleting it, I will say two things (since this is a comment area):

    1. You have hit the nail on the head.

    2. Run, don’t walk away from such situations. People only see what they want to see—controling leaders don’t see they are and won’t be convinced by your humbleness or sincerity.


  8. As a person who bears the scars of such a situation, I whole-heartedly concur with your description. It’s easy to be swept up by the dynamic controlling leader and the thrill of feeling like you are “on the inside”. But, truth is truth.

    It’s so important, especially if others around you are starting to see things they question, to take a look at it through the truth of scripture – even if you don’t immediately see or agree with what they are questioning.

    Surround yourself with people whom you trust and to whom you’ve given permission to tell you when they see you being sucked in or heading down a road that looks questionable. Trust me on this.

    Thank you for being brave enough and obedient in the posting of this. I agree with Lisa @ stop and smell the chocolate – we MUST pray for our leaders, as they are subject to deception and self-righteousness, just like the rest of us! The difference is that they are in a position to affect so many others.



  9. Thanks for posting on this Sarah. You did a wonderful job. I think the biggest thing to remember in all of this (which has already been said) is that no one is perfect. The danger comes when we put ministers on a pedastal and expect them to in a way go to God for us and feed us. Our relationship with God is always our responsibility. If we are in connection with Him, then he will be faithful to point it out when something goes awry.


  10. LAUREN at Faith Fuel says:

    Excellent points you make, but let me make a suggestion about one point. Sometimes it is not helpful to share your concerns. Especially if you have not been asked why you are in disagreement about something.

    Often when we share our concerns, the controlling leader will use it to substantiate that you are a trouble maker, not submissive, critical. This is where I learn the principle about not casting your pearls before swine. Your constructive criticism is a valuable pearl. It often costs something to declare your conviction. Your wisdom, perspective, advice IS valuable. And if it is not wanted, or respected, it is often not wise to share it.

    Sometimes it is better to quietly leave, with your conviction, with dignity, and their future in God’s hand. And then pray, because it is so easy to forget that we have planks in our own eye!


  11. wow- does this post bring up some painful memories for me….Perhaps it is because I just watched a documentary of Jonestown on tv…and wonder if in my preliminary years in a certain authoritarian church, if I would have also drank the Kool-aide if offered to me? I understand extending grace as people (leaders) mature but when I ponder all the ways I yielded to MAN and not Christ in my early college years, it makes me tremble and get a little angry… (My husband had some head butting sessions with some of the leaders there as he questioned things, and became a “marked” man pretty early on.) I have been able to look back on that time and learn some valuable life lessons from it, which I will be sharing with my daughter who leaves for college in a year! Bless you for sharing your heart/wisdom on this. I am sure it was not easy. Wish I could have known you there.


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