Naive Pastors Don’t Understand Power

I’d like to believe that a majority of people go into pastoral ministry with sincerity to help people and good intentions. Many of them with a sense of calling from God as far as they understand.

The reality with pastoring involves a ton more than sincerity. Seminary doesn’t prepare you for it. Even life itself doesn’t prepare most people for it.

When you’re in a profession or career of any kind that involves people as the main thing, there’s going to be politics. The word “politics” is typically defined and used in the governmental context, but it applies to any context that involves groups and individuals with its complexities of inter-relationships.

To avoid confusion, I’ll avoid the term “church politics” and replace it with the term, “power dynamics.”

One caveat before I get into this. I don’t have a political science degree. I’m politically apathetic, meaning that I don’t follow politics and current events like many others who read the news everyday. I do vote as an American citizen. Which is to say, I have a distaste for politics, but recognize the reality of its existence.

The Powers that Be in Churches

The power dynamics in a church can be both formal and informal. When a church is started by a pastor, the power by default will belong to the founding pastor. When a church is launched by a small group of lay people, then the power defaults to this group, the founding members. As a church grows its membership, the power shift can shift. Some of that shift comes with dominant personalities, some from respect for spiritual maturity, some from social status because of wealth. (that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another day—money, pastoring, and church.)

Some naive pastors will be clueless about these power dynamics. Those who don’t know about power are likely the ones without power, certainly much less than those who do understand and have power.

And for those who are in power or have power, by seniority, by organizational position, or by social clout, it is to their advantage to not talk and educate others about power. This allows the powerful to keep their power. And, it also allows the powerful that have bad motives to abuse and misuse and manipulate; when this kind of pastor get exposed, their scandal taints the testimony and witness of the whole Christian church, sadly, terribly tragically.

Understanding Power Dynamics

The best Christian book I’ve come across that actually talks about power is Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power by Andy Crouch. (Christian books about power are rare; one could concoct this as being a conspiracy to keep the powerful in power, but I won’t go there.)

What this book insightfully noted is that all of us have a measure of power, so none of us are entirely powerless. Thanks to the internet and social media, that power is becoming a little bit more democratized. And that’s why it matters for each and every one of us to use the power that is available, to blog, to tweet, to voice our perspectives and concerns, because silence is what keeps people powerless.

How does power actually work in the context of your church, ministry, life group, or family? That’s something a savvy mentor can exegete for you, naive pastor, if you’re willing to recognize that power dynamics exist, especially when it is informal and invisible. Learning to navigate those power dynamics will be the path of growing out of naïveté towards maturity.

* Part 2 of the Naive Pastors blog series