Tipping the Balance of Power: Navigating the Mine Field of Church Power Brokers

October 6th, 2009

“You'll never be able to please the senior pastor, the church board, the parents, your teens, and God all at the same time.” I often said this line to fellow youth workers after almost burning myself out in youth ministry. I was tired and doing too much, but what burned me out was the political battles I never expected to find in church work. It's easy to say we'll steer clear of church politics and we'll only work to please God, but it's not always that simple. The truth is you can serve God with all your heart and still find yourself in the middle of a power struggle (just think about what happened to Paul and Stephen when they faced the church powers of their day). Back when I was in the thick of a political mine field, what I needed most was to learn how to keep my focus on God while living in wisdom among God's people. I wanted to be able to love God and have the street smarts to miss the landmines that'd keep me from doing all that God might ask me to do.

The hidden truth just under the surface of church ministry is that there are power structures in the church just like in any other organization. Sometimes we have to take off our spiritual glasses and put on the glasses of a sociologist to see the church as it really is—made up of people who are loved, fallen, and sometimes operating from a motivation of power.

The Landscape—A Minefield

If you're in youth ministry, you've been placed in a minefield whether you realize it or not. All around you are mines of power; if you step in the wrong place, one can blow up underneath you and you won't know what hit you.

“It can't be that bad, can it?” If you don't think so, you haven't stepped on one yet. It doesn't always have to be you stepping in the wrong place either. It can be someone near you stepping on one and setting off an explosion of power in the church.

I was fresh out of college when I took my first youth ministry job as a youth intern. At the time, the church didn't have a senior pastor. When I arrived to work with the teens, all of the feedback was positive. The people loved having me there. They told me I was like a breath of fresh air. As the weeks went by, the church board got closer and closer to selecting a senior pastor. When the new pastor finally arrived the strangest thing happened. I became a battlefield of power. Several board members began to make complaints about the youth ministry and me as the youth leader. I didn't know what was happening. Fortunately, the senior pastor was wise and knew how to handle it. Of course, there were some things I needed to learn and improve upon (“Get the events calendar to the parents before all the events are over? What a novel idea!”), but what was really happening was that some board members were trying to show the new pastor how much power they had by attacking another power base, the youth pastor. It was a matter of people being people, and it would've blown up in my face had my senior pastor not stepped in and pulled me to safety.

Other of you may have faced conflict with your senior pastor. I've heard stories of youth workers who did a great job, only to be run out of town by a an insecure pastor who felt threatened by the congregant's affirmation to the “rival” youth minister.

Whatever the landscape of power in your church, you must realize that youth ministry is a lightning rod for power struggles. It's a unique position of leadership that touches and overlaps with several groups who have different values and bases of power—you have contact with teenagers, parents in the church, the pastoral staff, and the community. And they all border one another like countries, each with its own interests, borders, and claims to power. The balance between them can be precarious, so how do you navigate your way through the minefield of power in church ministry?

Step One: Seeing What's Buried Beneath the Surface—Hidden Power Lines

One of the first things you can do to avoid an explosive encounter is to be aware of the hidden power lines in the church. Every organization has two lines of communication—the official channels, formal direct communication according to areas of responsibility and job title, and the underground communication network, the communication in your church built through relationship connections. Suppose Suzie is a teen in your youth group. Her grandfather is a long-time business associate of Tom, a prominent elder in the church. When Suzie is teased by the boys at the all-nighter, her grandfather mentions it to his friend and before you know it you're having a sit down in the pastor's office about the out-of-control youth group. You wish Suzie or her parents would've called you or dropped by to talk to you, but communication is more likely to flow through those underground channels.

There are two things to remember about this underground power line. First, word travels fast underground. People feel freer with their communication when they're talking about someone than when they're talking to that someone. Word is more likely to get to others in power in the church first than it is to get to you first.

Second, if you're a pastor, on staff, or hold a volunteer position, you're automatically out of the loop. You're the last person people want to go to, for multiple reasons. When people want to see something change, they almost intuitively know to go through the underground power line of communication to get their message heard. It's usually through friends, contacts, or others they've observed who hold power. These are much more comfortable for them than to go to a pastor or someone official. Be aware that when you do something others disagree with, or you make a mistake, the word will travel to the opinion leaders and power brokers in the church. It's important to know who these people are and stay close to them. If you can find out through them who is discussing the ministry underground, you might be able to go to them and get the communication above-ground and into the light where it can be discussed openly and resolved.

Step Two: Recognizing the Many Faces of the Power Brokers

Opinion Leader

When something happens and word starts to spread, the people you want to go to are the opinion leaders. Opinion leaders are the first power brokers worth mentioning. The opinion leaders in your church are the gate keepers of influence. They subtly lead those around them, guiding them in favor of or in resistance to change. Identifying and understanding who these people are will help you navigate the mine field of power.

Which people in the church hold a great deal of credibility and respect? Who are like E. F. Hutton—when they talk everyone listens? When a tough question is asked at a church committee meeting, who does everyone look to? Chances are these people are the opinion leaders in your church.

How do you relate to an opinion leader? You do it through communication. If you need to ask the church for something, run it by them first. If you have big plans and want to see them succeed, talk to the opinion leaders and don't move ahead until they're on board.

The opinion leaders are the hubs of power, but there are other power brokers in the church. Being able to identify and know how to respond to them will help save you much heartache. Here's a short list of the most common types of power brokers, with some suggested ways to approach and even minister to each of them:

The Impostors

Their power is from position and title only. They have power assigned to them from their roles, but they have little real power. Ironically, they're often more likely to try to exercise power, because they feel powerless. They will try to use their position and throw their weight around, until someone with a title above theirs puts them in their place. As a minister, you can come alongside this person and help them build the character and passion that others will follow regardless of their title.

The Junk Yard Dog

Bottom of the totem pole at work, the church is their chance to be top dog. Be careful that they don't turn on the youth ministry as a way to feel more powerful. You can minister to this type by giving them the affirmation and acceptance for which they long. A kind word will go a long way to help them realize they're loved and accepted, and don't have to use power to feel important.

The Peter Principle Poster Child

They're in over their heads and abuse power to keep their heads above water. This type is usually harmless, unless they're given a big responsibility that affects your ministry area. If your senior pastor or head leadership falls into this category, you may find yourself frustrated often. You can be a true minister to this person by helping them surround themselves with great helpers. With the right help, they may find that they can accomplish more through community than coercion.

The Silent Partner

Unheard and unseen, they freely exercise power undercover. If this person is not walking with the Spirit, they can be a dangerous time bomb in any church. If they operate with a Christ-like heart, their subtle influence will lead to sound kingdom work. Your best approach, as with the opinion leader, is to try to identify them and communicate with them.

The Senator

This type of power broker is politically gifted. They have power because they know how to work with people and through people. Be careful that they don't take up verbal criticism of your ministry. If they do, people will quickly side with them. As another opinion leader, meet with them and ask their advice on how to approach trouble spots in your ministry. Seek their counsel on who should be helping in ministry, and invite them to assist you as you recruit others to support the youth.

The True Blue

They have power through respect they've earned over time. Talk with this person about your passion for youth ministry. Share with them your heart. Ask them to become a vocal supporter of the youth ministry.

These aren't the only types of people out there, nor do people fit neatly into categories. However, being able to quickly identify power brokers in your church will help you lead with confidence. Obviously, you'd never want to go up to a person and say, “You're a Silent Partner, aren't you?” But your ministry will benefit from knowing that different people have different needs, different skills, different motivations, and often require different responses when dealing with them.

Step Three: Stepping Where Others Have Stepped

The third step to walking through the power grid without stepping on something explosive is learning to walk in the footsteps of others. What's the best way to walk safely through a mine field?—Step where others have stepped! Follow the paths of those who have avoided explosive encounters, and you'll find your way through the corridors of power safely.

How did others make it through their minefields? Let's take a quick look at four Biblical paths to follow:

The Footsteps of Moses

Moses faced powerful opposition through illuminating power. His power base came from spending time with God until his faced glowed. This pure respect that comes from a vibrant spiritual life serves as a Teflon shield for any minister. The catch is that you can never seek God in order to get more power. Seek first the kingdom…

The Footsteps of Elijah

Facing opposition, God gave Elijah warfare power. He received all of the power he needed to oppose evil. From the powers on the top of Mt. Carmel to standing in the king's chamber and telling him the truth, Elijah was equipped by God to face the tasks given him. The key to this kind of power is to pray like a prophet—get before God sincerely and honestly call out for your church and nation.

The Footsteps of Nehemiah

Charged with the task of rebuilding the temple, Nehemiah led with goal-oriented power. With a single-minded passion and purpose, Nehemiah led the people against opposing forces. Read the story and you'll see that he wept over his ministry burden. With this passion he convinced people to join with him taking on a difficult task in the face of opposing powers. By sharing with people his passion and the goal, they willingly sacrificed for the cause.

The Footsteps of Jesus

Jesus used a unique type of power, called powerless power. This kind of power comes from selfless desires. In other words, what power can others hold over you if you have no desire but to love them? By giving up all desire to serve himself, Jesus gave up anything the powerful could use to have a hold on him. He turned the power structures upside-down by being the servant of all. When we walk in Jesus' footsteps and become like him—powerless, empty of ourselves, and full only of love—there's little that the powerful can do but watch us go about the kingdom work.

Whenever I complained about the dangers of the power structures in the church, the response I heard most often was, “Ministry would be easy if it didn't involve people.” The truth is that ministry is people—the weak, the powerful, and the beautiful fallen creations in need of our Savior. To navigate the minefield of the powerful we must put our ears to the ground to hear the communication vibrations flowing underground. Learn to identify the power brokers around us and how to respond to them. Step where others stepped in order to find our way through the minefield. By doing these things, we don't have to worry about getting caught in a power trap that can damage our ministry, and we can focus on the ministry that God has given us to do—care for people, the weak and the powerful alike.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.