Pastoring the Powerful

Most congregations include a few people who love to exercise their own personal power. They are genuine control freaks. Many a pastor will quietly disclose their own struggles with powerful people (PP) whose special calling appears to be the total unsettlement of the congregation.

Are PP a recent addition to the community of faith?  Hardly!

  • Go no further than the motley crew whom Jesus called to service. After three years of teamwork and affirmations of love and loyalty, Peter cracked under pressure and denied any knowledge of His Lord.
  • Judas let loose destructive forces which led to the death of Jesus while Thomas, acting like a forerunner of the forensic science brigade, demanded tangible proof of the apparently empty tomb.
  • Before all this Mrs Zebedee tried to book special seats for her boys in the new Kingdom
  • Then there was the celebrated in-house argument about who was the greatest.

lf Jesus had to deal with such unbridled humanity, every pastor can count on the same turmoil being part of the church too

The early church soon discovered the presence of PP:

  • Ananias and Sapphira fudged the figures on their land deal
  • The Greek and Hebrew widows scrapped over inequities in the distribution of food
  • Simon the Sorcerer pulled out his wallet to buy up the Holy Spirit
  • Paul was distressed by competing groups
  • Diotrophes turned the church into his own exclusive club

What Produces a Climate of Tension?  There are many variables in the life of a congregation which will lead to tension, unsettlement and the activity of these PP. A sampling:

  • Concern about biblical correctness is the preserve of the powerfully dogmatic. Unhappiness surfaces because an aspect of church life is perceived to be contrary to biblical principles. It could be anything from worship to the conduct of the youth group and everything else in between.
  • Tension arises from the way different views are accommodated. If there is a digging in on a position, this will lead to conflict especially if the Bible is then used as a weapon. Sincere concerns can so easily lead to a tough dogmatism which lacks Christian grace and charity. Such powerfully held opinions are ultimately counter productive.
  • Poor communication within the congregation will prompt the emergence of the powerfully disenchanted. If there is a sense of information being withheld, or of some people being “in” on what is happening and others feeling very “out,” there will be trouble. The sad truth is that, with the exception of confidential pastoral issues, there is no reason why people should be denied ongoing details on most aspects of church life. The suspicion of being left in the dark is one which will give a rallying point for those who might otherwise be helpful and constructive.
  • Superficial relationships based on function alone will lead to devalued people at war with the world. Too often we are guilty of relating to our people on the basis of what they contribute to the church rather than who they are. We confuse function with relationship and pay a high price for so doing. When our people feel that they are only sought after when there is a job needing to be done, we are missing the beauty and the wonder of really enjoying them as people in their own right. If we place programs or tasks ahead of loving care and interest, we should not wonder at the lack of co-operation and support of those who will come across to us as difficult.
  • Without the confidence of our people, there will be those who will have reasonable doubt about all that we do. There is no substitute for trust between pastor and congregation. It does not matter how educated, or articulate, or skilled, or gifted a pastor may be, if there is minimal congregational confidence it will be a hard road. It takes time to build mutual understanding and acceptance but it is worth the effort. PP may have a case if there is reason to believe that the pastor is not worthy of the trust of the church. If a pastor does not recognise this, the seeds of total breakdown are already present.
  • Too much change too fast will bring stress and unhappiness which may even put usually helpful people off side. The effective management of change relies on learning how to find a pace which does not leave too many wondering what may happen next. A commitment to learn, acknowledge mistakes and adjust the speed will be beneficial. But a failure to see this will lead to increasing anxiety and angst which, if not attended to, will see change collapsing in a heap. Usually helpful people will react strongly if concerns which they believe are justified are being ignored.

The Pastor needs to be self aware:

A pastor will do well to reflect on the reasons why certain kinds of people become irritating. It is all too easy to blame others for trouble which descends on the church. The simple fact is that we all have panic buttons which can be unerringly pressed by those who drive us to distraction. We need to ponder our own reactions and be very careful that we are not contributing to the problems. A person may seem to be a classic PP for us simply because they have the knack of getting under our skin. It may not be their fault. There are such things as personality clashes.  Blaming our PP for all that goes wrong shows a lack of maturity, personal insight and grace.

The powerful people brigade has plenty of variety.  They love attention and have endless ways of ensuring that they are noticed:

  • The Proprietor – has made a significant contribution to the church, sometimes through the gift of the keyboard, the communion table or a large financial donation, and who thereby claims influence over the church. They are more likely to be found in older churches where they may hunt in packs.
  • The Disturbed Person – who has deep needs which can only be addressed by an adequately trained counsellor. Their fights with the pastor and the church represent the outworking of unhealed scars of long ago.
  • The White Anters – whose mission is to destabilise the church. They never engage in up front conversation. They are allergic to any suggestion of being less than openly honest about their concerns. But they are politically shrewd, zero in on the gullible and constantly affirm their love for Jesus and the church.
  • The obviously ungifted leader – who vigorously claims the franchise on a particular aspect of ministry for which they show no aptitude of any kind at all. They will support their calling to such a ministry as being God given.  The only problem is that no one else shares this view.  Part of their strategy is to keep others (who are more suitably gifted) at bay.
  • The baggage carrier – who has arrived from the congregation down the road. They arrive spiritually diligent believing of course that the Lord has led them to their new church. They will have an unkind tale or two about the church they have left. They usually bring with them a history of inter church travel along with views of leadership and ministry which are guaranteed to put them on a collision course in their newly found place of worship.

Some situations produce a climate ideal for the powerful to flourish:

  • The arrival of a new pastor is the classic opportunity for trouble. A PP will launch an early comparison with the former pastor with the conclusion that the “new pastor is nice but lacks depth.” A great back hander. They will always find a way to be critical.  Loving affirmation is not their priority.
  • The church which has had only short-term pastoral ministry. There are churches where the history is of pastors coming and going. Often such congregations have underlying issues which have never been adequately identified, addressed and healed. These unresolved crises will haunt every ministry and become part of the heritage of the church. PP always consider they are God’s answer to this pain. They are not.
  • Older and smaller churches may have relied on the guidance and support of long-term families or individuals. Good folks they may be but sharers of influence they are not. In this setting the PP may be closely related. A pastor may do little more than maintain a ministry very clearly defined by the influential old guard. Heaven help him or her if they think about change except in some demented moment of sleep.
  • The lone ranging pastor accountable to no one will almost certainly encourage the appearance of the powerful. “If the leaders can’t keep tabs on him, we will.” And they usually do but all hell will break loose in the process.

Some Basic Underlying Assumptions

Every pastor longs for the perfect church or something at least close to it but keep in mind the following:

  • PP are a fact of congregational life
  • Someone will always be off side with you and you with them
  • You cannot please everyone
  • Not every issue will be resolved no matter how hard you try
  • The future of your church and the Kingdom in general does not rest on your shoulders or the adequate outworking of a given issue.

Some suggested ways and means of caring for your PP:

  • Prayer has to be a priority. This is a primary ministry and will help you adjust your attitude to PP. Enlist close soul mates to pray for you. Be careful with confidences. Believe that the power of prayer will allow Jesus to intervene in ways not open to you. He is the healer, the reconciler and the restorer. Prayer enables us to seek the mind of Christ and with this comes a restored perspective too.
  • Make the effort to get to know your “thorn in the flesh.” If your difficulties are all church related, you will be well rewarded in looking around for a common interest apart from church. It will be worth the effort. It takes time to get to know someone well, especially if there has been a break down. So go for more contact, not less. Hang around. Listen. Relax with your people. There is a place for intentional church fun.
  • There will come a time for confrontation but leave the tank and the AK47 at home. A genuine desire to share your concerns and listen to your PP will often pay off. But avoid this being seen as a spiritual shootout at high noon. Be open and honest about the issues needing attention.  Raise accountability and responsibility if this is needed. No one finds these conversations easy but with grace, strength and wisdom your intentions will usually be regarded as above board.
  • Do not be afraid of your own vulnerability. It does not hurt to let people know that you have been bruised by their behaviour. PP often have no idea of the personal pain they inflict and many would back off if they sensed the real cost of their activity. To deny your own struggle is unrealistic and self-destructive.
  • Don’t run away! Unless there is some very clear reason for you as pastor to leave the church, do not give up! Patience and reflection are crucial when PP are making life difficult for you and the leadership. You will find ways to invest your time and energy. Do not expend it all on the problems and the PP.  There are great people in the congregation who need you too.
  • You do not have to win every battle. Give ground where you can. Express thanks for suggestions and constructive comment and criticism too. Acknowledge your mistakes with humility but stand firm graciously when there is a matter which is important to you. Warmth on your part will allow people to accept your rough edges when the time comes. Remember, if one good idea in ten takes off, you are doing well. Flex, forgive and forget.

Some agenda items for all church leaders to consider

  • In between pastors make good use of interim periods. When a pastor has left the church and before a new pastor arrives, seek the help of experienced pastors who are able to spend time with you to identify and resolve problems, clarify vision and prepare for the new pastor.  Many a congregation has made good headway during an interim period.
  • One of the least practised areas in church life is that of discipline. It is often seen as a last resort and may appear be too difficult or complex to pursue but the Bible makes provision for the exercise of discipline. A person who is knowingly upsetting the church and causing pain to the Body of Christ has to be confronted. It might be wise to seek specialist mediation to help process this.  Gentleness and justice need to be well balanced. In extreme circumstances where reconciliation is not possible, it will be better for everyone (the PP included) for a parting of the ways to take place. A fresh start elsewhere for a PP may lead to new growth (for all concerned including the church). If a person does leave, be genuinely affirming. Bless them on their way (in the best sense).
  • Sometimes a PP will display behaviours which demonstrate deep trauma. Somewhere in their life’s journey, they have encountered serious pain and suffering. The pastor and leaders need to find a way to offer specialist help, guidance and support.  But it may not be welcomed. The PP may react defensively accusing pastor and leaders of being insensitive and intrusive and, besides, it’s all the others who are fault. This is a very difficult situation requiring much wisdom and firmness.
  • Further, if a PP offers to exercise a ministry, be very wise. Whatever responsibility is given to them, it must be of a kind where their gifts are relevant and can be exercised with degrees of effectiveness and joy.  They may want a role for which they are clearly not gifted. You are being kind in simply calling it as it is.  A PP without the right gifts for a given ministry is certain to fail and this is not kind. But affirm the gifts they do have and encourage them to serve in areas which have clear boundaries and accountability.
  • Always insist on effective communication within the congregation. Do not rely on (or hide behind) letters, bulletin notices, emails or text messages. Nothing beats eyeball-to-eyeball exchanges. Encourage reports which lead to prayers of praise and thanksgiving. Give plenty of warning.  PP like to know the “inside” information. Set things up so that everyone is in the know.

A few final reflections for pastors

  • How do you really see your ministry? As spiritual turf to be preserved from intruders? The pastor who worries about others crowding in on them needs a fresh view of what they are about.
  • Ministry is a gift. It is not something which we have worked up for ourselves. The Lord has entrusted to us a small part of His Kingdom strategy. It is our task to serve faithfully and set our brothers and sisters in Christ free to serve Him well too.
  • Yes, we make room for others to share with us in serving Jesus. And we ensure that they receive affirmations which we might otherwise think should be for us. We have not been called to the front row or mid stage to be applauded. We have been called to serve.
  • Aim to be at peace with yourself. Simply be the pastor God has called you to be.  If you are at home doing fulfilling what you believe is your calling, you have the best chance of getting alongside PP and winning their support and confidence. It also puts the focus on stature rather than status.
  • If you are constantly defending your position and insisting that you have the final say, then sorry, you have lost the pastoral plot. We are not here to throw our weight around. We are here to be servants. Yes, even alongside our PP.

Rev John Simpson