Are You Too Controlling? Three More Lessons for Church Leaders from Machiavelli

Sept. 8, 2010 | by Margaret Marcuson
Even Machiavelli thought that leaders could be too rigid and harsh. He questioned whether it was better for a leader to be loved than feared, and his conclusion was that it is better to be feared. But he didn’t stop there. Machiavelli went on to say: “Still, a prince should make himself feared in such a way that, though he does not gain love, he escapes hatred, too.” Sometimes church leaders are too authoritarian and controlling. Here are three lessons on how to avoid dictatorial leadership:

1, Give people space. Overly controlling leaders are invasive. Just as leaders who are too concerned with being loved by their followers may not have enough distance from them, leaders who wind up being hated or resented by their followers are also too close. Even apparently kind leaders who hover and can’t let go may find their followers resentful.

The autocratic and dictatorial pastor is no more effective in the long run than the pastor who is unable to take a stand for fear of losing his or her followers’ love. Both kinds of leaders operate without a sound sense of self, without an awareness of where they end and their followers begin. Leaders who are autocratic take advantage of others and are invasive of their space, time and energy.

2. Don’t get willful. Church leaders can easily get caught up in trying to impose their will on their followers. Mennonite Conference Minister Chuck Neufeld recently sent a message to his pastors focused on Deuteronomy 30:15-30: Moses says, “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity.” Neufeld says, “Each of you as pastors are in a very real sense weekly participants in ‘setting before’ your people the choice of life and death — that which is life-giving and that which is life-robbing. Isn’t that exactly what pastoring is about? To persistently — with patience — ‘set before’ the congregation the choices available to them. Instead of being willful, even coercive, in trying to get the congregation to make the choice ‘we know’ they should make, how ‘bout we just do what God did? ‘Set before’— clarify with great care — the options before them and remember not to take charge of the choices they have to make.”

3. Focus on yourself. Machiavelli suggests in order to avoid hatred a leader “must strive to make everyone recognize in his [the leader’s] actions greatness, spirit, dignity and strength….and he should maintain himself in such a way that no man could imagine that he can deceive or cheat him.” Nearly 500 years later, those words still ring true. When we make sure our actions in leadership are Spirit-led, honest, dignified (which doesn’t mean formal) and strong, people will respond. This focus on self is not at all selfish, but in the service of Christ. What can help you come closer to “greatness, spirit, dignity and strength” in your own leadership?

Rev. Margaret Marcuson works with churches that want to create a ministry that lasts and clergy who want more impact on the people they serve best. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry (Seabury, 2009). She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Massachusetts for thirteen years. Get the free mini-course, "Five Ways to Avoid Burnout in Ministry" at

Topics: Administration , Leadership , Ministry

Margaret Marcuson / Rev. Margaret Marcuson helps clergy make their lives easier. She is the author of Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry and Money and Your Ministry. She served as pastor of the First Baptist Church of Gardner, Mass. for 13 years.
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