Starting well: managing expectations in ministry (issues of power)

The issue of power is fraught with difficulties in congregations. Let’s begin with the fact that we are in denial that power is actually at work in congregations. Many Christians think power is a bad word, especially at church. And certain forms or kinds of power are certainly bad and antithetical to the gospel. But power is simply the ability to accomplish things. No less a Christian thinker than Paul can even say, “the Kingdom of God is not about talk, but about power.” In fact, I think Paul might say that the real issue that distinguishes the Kingdom of God from other principalities and powers is the right understanding and use of power. For Paul, the “word of the cross” is the power of God. We might say that God’s power is cruciform, or cross shaped. Instead of thinking of power as the ability to control others or outcomes, Christian power is expressed as enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.

Configuring a congregation’s life around “enduring love in patterns of mutual submissiom” is easier said than done. This is because, I think, we value control above all else. And we feel more in control if we think someone is in charge. In my tradition, Churches of Christ, this is played out often between elders and ministers. We are elder led congregations. They can hire and fire the minister. They can state direction and veto other directions. This is their prerogative even though few of them have theological or ministerial training. Ministers, in this sytem, possess borrowed or personal authority. That is, they can accomplish things because they have been given permission from the elders, who have real authrotiy, and/or they possess the ability to get things done because they are seen as competent or personally trustworthy.

So, we have elders who have lots of official authority and relatively low training which would make them competent in their field of endeavor. And we have ministers, who have low levels of official authority, but training that would make them competant in the field of endeavor. In this environment, elders often feel inadequate and threatened by the training of the ministry staff who serve “under their authority,” and who naturally act defensively in such a circumstance. Or, they borrow forms of power and authority from their jobs where many of them are managers or executives. Here, they feel competent and are sometimes unaware of how Christian leadership should be different than GM or Intel. Ministers feel frustrated that their expertise doesn’t count for more. They are being held accountable for performance according to standards that may or may not be Christian and with limited ability to do the things that would actually make a difference. Anyone recognize this?

Look, I feel for both groups here. I have a special place in my heart for elders who carry the heavy responsibility of authority with very little practical training. And I feel for ministers whose gifts of leadership are often frustrated and underutilized. Too often the result of this arrangement is similar to my golf swing. I swing too hard, losing all my power somewhere in the air, with too little at the point of impact. 

The solution here, in my opinion, is not to flip the power differential, giving the senior pastor or minister ultimate authority. The solution, rather, is to find forms, relationships, and types of engagements that would embody “enduring love in patterns of mutual submission.” After all, the one we call “Lord” is the one who gives himself up for us.

Few ministers inherit well thought out notions of power in a new congregation. So, the candidate interview is the first place that these issues can be raised and signaled as important. So, I have two questions that might reveal the practical use of power in a congregation.

1. How do big decisions get made around here? Can you tell me about how you made the last one? How satisfied were you with the process and outcomes? Actually, a candidate might already have a pretty good idea based on selection process in which they are involved. In my experience, however, congregations tend to be more deliberate and collaborative in a minister search than they are in other decisions. 

Congregations often have stated beliefs that are contradicted by their practices that embody deeper, often unspoken beliefs or assumptions. No set of practices, in my opinion, reveal more about these deeper practices than processes of decision making. First, what constitutes a big issue? Are processes regular or ad hoc (ad hoc favoring those in positions of recognized authority)? Who has voice? Who is excluded? Are risks minimized for the sake of maintaining the status quo? Do leaders express decisions as the wisdom of the leadership or as the discernment of the leading of the Spirit among the whole people of God? All the functional elements of power are on display in decision making.

2. How does this congregation handle conflict? Can you give me examples? A lot of congregations are in denial about conflict and will tell you they have none. The results of this kind of denial are typically two-fold. The congregation lacks the kind of energy needed to make significant changes. Conflict is not necessarily bad, and transformative change rarely comes apart from it. Conflict produces energy, clarifies values, provides opportunity for greater mutual understanding and respect, etc.  Second, denial about conflict produces a slow boil around unresolved issues. A really big one might be on the horizon and might very well get attached to the hiring of a new minister. Tick, tick, tick.

Conflict denial might also be a sign of autocratis leadership that values control and can’t abide controversy. So, you want them to admit to conflict. And you want stories where conflict provided clarity, reconciliation, mutual understanding. These kinds of stories indicate patterns of leadership that trust the movement of the Spirit of God. These kinds of stories indicate that people are shown respect and feel adequately listened to, which may be signs of mutuality around enduring love. 

Conflict with less stellar results might still have been handled in responsible ways. You can’t control the responses of all involved in conflict. But it is certainly important to know what issues produced enough heat for members to have left. And it is important to ask what the congregation thinks they learned from this painful episode.

Decision making and conflict resolution are two signficant places where the congregation’s deepest values are put into practice. It is good to know going in if they have Christian practices. As I tell my ministry students, it is better to have no ministry job than to have a bad one.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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