Who’s the Boss? Perceived Power vs. Real Power in the Midst of Change

October 6th, 2009

I knew I shouldn't do it. Everyone warned me. I even told myself to let it go. But with a broken youth program in front of me and the permission of my new boss behind me, I led a charge to end the stagnant youth Sunday school program and revitalize the Sunday night youth group. What I learned over the next year couldn't be taught in a classroom. Only in the trenches of transition could I experience how the perceived power structures of the church clash with the real power players when major decisions have to be made.

When I took over as interim youth pastor, I had serious doubts about sustaining any of the existing programs. Many kids had meandered away. Authority was absent. Chaos was everywhere. The successful ministry of the former youth pastor was broken. If it weren't, I wouldn't have been there. Something needed to change and fast.

By the end of my four-month summer stint the church still hadn't found a permanent youth pastor. With a time extension and a green light from the church leadership, I set out to implement the best purpose-driven, seeker-sensitive, Bible-based, process-oriented, discipleship-focused, cutting-edge, postmodern model of youth ministry known to humanity. We'd start by canceling senior high Sunday school. It couldn't fail!

For the next several months I systematically cast this vision and created buy-in within the existing power structures of the church. Although I was only an interim pastor, the opportunity to introduce purposeful change in the midst of chaos was too good to pass up.

Supreme Students

I first cast the vision to the student leadership team. A weekend retreat appeared to be the perfect setting to unify the upperclassmen. So after a sleepless night of removing ice shavings from my bed, I launched the big sell to 22 drowsy eyes. I was certain this team of influencers would jump on board when they heard the benefits of change. In addition, I was the leader. They had to follow me, right?

They hated it. All my answers to all their questions were met with, “That'll never work!” I almost started to believe them until one of the adult chaperones spoke up. She'd been working with the youth group for over a year and the kids loved her. She passionately called the students to consider what they were throwing away if they missed this opportunity for change.

Her powerful words produced an awkward silence. Then one student yelled, “She's right. Let's do it!” Another followed. Then another. The momentum turned and excitement grew for this new vision. We were at the crossroads of change and everyone knew it. It was scary. It was dangerous. But after seeking God's face together, all eleven student leaders were committed.

I'd expected that my leadership position would carry enough power to create buy-in with the student leaders. But my perceived power was no match for the real power of invested relationships with an adult volunteer. With their new ownership of the vision, these supreme student leaders became a powerful voice for change in the coming weeks.

Authoritative Adults

The team of adult volunteers was my next target. This leadership structure had the power to prevent or propel change since they'd been working with the kids for years. I gathered them together soon after the student retreat to cast the vision and explain the new excitement coming from the students.

The proposal was hit head-on with the same objections, fears, and concerns that were expressed by the students. I repeatedly reinforced the vision saying, “We want to move away from the Sunday school format and reenergize the Sunday night youth group to reach more unchurched kids and connect our current students with the rest of the church.”

Their continued resistance surprised me. I'd again assumed they'd jump on board because of the influence of my leadership position. But my position didn't matter. What eventually changed their minds was the fact that all the student leaders were on board. My perceived power was no match for the real power of collective vision owned by the students. Real ownership of vision cultivated real power to change. This propelled the adult leaders to embrace the vision.

These authoritative adults were more intimately connected to the kids than I was at this point. The rest of the church would trust them. With their support and that of the student leaders, we now had 20 individuals who embraced the vision. We were ready to move forward.

Powerful Pastors

With the student ministry leadership on board, I next focused on the pastoral staff. This team of pastors and directors was responsible for carrying out the weekly operations of the church. Since ending senior high Sunday school would affect other members and ministries, it was vital that this team buy into the vision if it was to succeed.

I presented the vision through a series of weekly staff meetings. Each week I brought back more information and we discussed how the change in student ministries would affect the overall church. Some were excited about the potential free space on Sunday mornings. Others were thrilled about reaching more kids in the community. But everyone was energized by the prospect of students getting more connected with the overall life of the church.

Because there were no major problems with the other ministries and because the student ministry leadership supported the idea, the pastoral staff gave their approval on one condition: the elder board must give the final consent for the change. This request only seemed fair. Ending Sunday school was a big deal. These powerful pastors were simply passing the final decision up the power ladder.

Although this team made weighty decisions on a weekly basis, the perceived guidelines of the church's power structure ultimately led them to hand their power up to those with more authority. Nonetheless, the conditional support of another power structure added weight to the cause. With so much support building, I was sure elder approval would quickly advance the transition.

Entitled Elders

The final approval to move ahead with the change now rested with the elders. This group represented the final authority figures in our church. If the plan was to go forward, the elders had to buy into the vision.

Information passed between the pastoral staff and elder board for several weeks, and again the same questions were raised. The elders were eager to see us reach more kids with Sunday night youth group. They were ecstatic to see us connect current students with the “adult church” through multigenerational worship and service on Sunday mornings.

The long awaited response finally came: “We like the idea as long as the search committee affirms it.” Surprisingly, this “final” authority structure within the church chose to share its power with a subordinate committee. This entitled elder board revealed their perceived power by ultimately delegating the decision to others who were more intimately connected with the life of student ministries. The string of power structures had now grown to be quite long.

Decisive power was now expected by collective adult affirmation. The conditional support of the elders was invaluable as momentum continued to grow. So I set out to convince this one last power structure in order to see the vision take off.

A Commanding Committee

Power to progress with the vision now rested with the search committee. Comprised of lay leaders and parents, this team had been given power to choose the next youth pastor. With such a connection to the youth program they were in a good position to appropriately judge the wisdom of initiating change at this time. They sought the answer to one question: Were the students being coerced into this change, or did they really embrace this vision?

I passively observed the open forum where the student leaders were drilled about the desired changes. Their answers clearly proved that their passion was real and their ownership was sincere. The mouths of those who first owned the vision were again affirming that which had started to take root so many months earlier.

With their fears resolved, the search committee granted their approval. As long as the students truly owned this vision, the search committee bought into it as well. This commanding committee passed their perceived power back down to the students. What started with the student leaders and progressed through the entire perceived power structure of the church ended up right back where it had started. The unified students had the real power to create change.

What a long journey it had been through all the official power structures of the church. But what did it matter? The student leaders, adult volunteers, pastoral staff, elders, and search committee had all affirmed the vision. There was nothing stopping us now…or so I thought.

Persuasive Parents

The weekly countdown to Transition Sunday commenced. The dream had started to become a reality. I'd followed all the right steps in casting vision and creating buy-in with all the church power structures. My patience and perseverance had paid off and I was sure this would now be a great season of ministry with the students.

Then it hit. An onslaught of emails, voice mails, and letters quickly filled all my boxes with complaints. The real power players in the church revealed themselves as a group of persuasive parents mobilized into an unstoppable force. This hidden (but very real) source of power—one which hadn't shown much interest before—suddenly resisted any change in the Sunday school program. Apparently they considered this one program off limits to change.

I disregarded the personal attacks and stood my ground. The heated confrontations hurt, but I was confident in the church's decision. Multiple power structures had discussed, debated, and decided on the direction of student ministries, and we were now moving forward. Multiple parents had been involved in the process from the beginning, and this storm would soon blow over. Oh, how wrong I was!

By the end of the week I received an order from the elders that we must continue Sunday school. I had tried to change the system but had underestimated the force of the real power players. What took months to build up was destroyed in a matter of days. Although the perceived power structures within the church had all given approval, the real power players asserted themselves to control the fate of student ministries when real change was being considered.

Poor Pastor

I should have been aware of the real power players from the beginning. Had I been there longer, had I looked more closely, had I been less aggressive, then perhaps I would've noticed them. Everyone believed we had the parents' support as represented through the various power structures, but that wasn't the case.

Real power players come in all situations, sites, and sanctuaries. Their identities and positions constantly change as they wait to exert their influence on the next proposed change. The battle between perceived power structures and real power players left this poor pastor asking, “Who's the boss?”

I suppose I'm stronger for learning these lessons with a lifetime of ministry still ahead. Perhaps the most effective power isn't witnessed in authority structures or influential individuals but in the one who perseveres in ministry through a lifetime of power conflicts.

Soon I'll transition out of my interim role and the permanent youth pastor will continue this journey. But as I reminisce over the lessons I've learned since that first vision-casting retreat, I can't help but wish I would've learned these tips earlier: First, I must effectively work with both the power structures and the hidden power players when initiating change. Second, I must never give my hotel keys to students—icy-wet beds make for bad retreats.


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