When the Door Closes – The Power System

Power games nest in church leaderships everywhere. Considering we all follow the Great Servant, Jesus Christ, this shouldn’t be the case. Nevertheless, it is the case in many churches.

Which power games get played is determined by several factors. Three of the most significant are the age of the church, the polity of the congregation, and denominational norms.

  • Denominational Norms. Here, the key questions are: “How is a minister typically called to a church?” and “How does a minister typically leave a church?” These questions will play a significant role in determining how power games are played, when they’re played. All churches may not be part of a formal denomination, but we all have traditional practices. For instance, if you are in a “free church” tradition, the Board (elders, etc.) often calls and dismisses the Senior Minister. When that happens, how specifically is it done? Is it quiet? Public? How will they replace that person? These all shape the games that are played when the door closes.
  • Age of the Church. The older the church, the longer leaders will likely have been at the church and feel a more significant sense of ownership or “turf.” Influence has been accumulated over time. In the right hands, this can be a good thing. In the wrong hands, it’s disastrous. Older churches also tend to have older board members (age 70 and up). This often changes the social dynamic in the room. This too can be a plus, when elders take a posture of mentoring or recognize new opportunities to learn from new or emerging leaders. When this social dynamic takes a turn toward condescension, paternalism, or power-brokering based on “tenure,” it negatively impacts church health. Generally, younger or newer preachers have a more difficult time in these environments. They can certainly work, but from a use of power standpoint, the odds are on the house. So, it’s vital this be understood by a minister going in.
  • Polity of the Congregation. Pastor or staff-led churches tend to have less staff turnover than Board or Elder-led churches but are vulnerable to pastor-failure collapse. Congregationally-led churches (those with a high frequency of congregational voting) move much slower, and tend to have a higher degree of in-fighting because the power games are now not quarantined to behind the closed door. Strictly elder-led churches are vulnerable to perennial corruption and abuse of power because there is no one present in meeting that can hold them accountable. If the elders having “firing authority” over the minister and the minister is not an elder, this can birth some intense and dysfunctional use of power. It creates a marriage in which one party holds the threat of divorce over another. Thus, it’s more difficult for a healthy marriage to exist. My heritage (Churches of Christ) tend to be strictly elder-led, so I am most familiar with that model. There are some churches in which it works well. However, our leadership model is mostly in desperate need of reform. I have some thoughts on this, but I don’t have room for them here.

Here’s the bottom line: Among other things, the church is an emotional system. It’s comprised of people shaped by different people, anxieties, and positions in play within the church system. So, it’s vital we understand that power games come from somewhere. Certainly they come from the Evil One and must be confronted with spiritual formation of those in leadership. However, they are often sustained and enabled by social and systemic realities within the church. In order to make the church less vulnerable to power games, some people will need to be changed. But, so will some ways of doing leadership.

Thoughts? How have you seen church age, polity, and denominational norms lead to health or unhealth where you are?

Dr. Tim Spivey is Lead Planter of New Vintage Church in San Diego, California. He is the author of numerous articles and one book, "Jesus: The Powerful Servant." A sought after speaker for events, Tim also serves as Adjunct Professor of Religion at Pepperdine University. Tim serves as a church consultant, and his writings are featured on ChurchLeaders.com, Church Executive magazine, Faith Village, Sermon Central, and Giving Rocket.

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