We are dedicated to assisting religious and non-profit organizations
​achieve optimum health and peak performance through leadership development, vision casting and systems understandings.

Consultants: Dr. Bob Perry
​and Dr. Marilyn Nelson

UNDERSTANDING HOW CHURCH POWER CAN STEAMROLL THE PASTOR

Dr. Robert L. Perry

A few years ago I wrote a book entitled, Pass the Power, Please. The book attempts to describe the ways in which power persons and groups in a congregation impact the ways in which decisions are made, and ultimately, the health or dysfunction of the church.

As I did research into church life with particular attention to issues of power, influence and control, it became clear that every congregation has two levels of power at work: formal and informal. The formal power consists of the elected and called leadership of the church, the committees and boards chosen by the church, and all of the structures documented by the constitution and bylaws. These are the “official” power elements of the church.

Formal power in the church makes its decisions and takes its actions in duly scheduled or called meetings. Orderly processes and public discussion generally characterize the work of the formal power groups and individuals. Their decisions are often deliberate, predictable and reasonable.​

The informal power structures in a church are much more mysterious and covert. Informal power has its “meetings” over the phone, on the parking lot after church or at the coffee shop downtown. They are not elected to their positions of power. They may be matriarchs or patriarchs of the church, wealthy benefactors of church projects, or persons with strong natural leadership gifts.

If the formal and the informal power structures of a given church are represented by two intersecting circles, problems often occur when the two circles do not intersect enough. That is, if there is a great difference between the membership, opinions and values of the two, the stage is set for conflict. In this circumstance, the formal power will make decisions that the informal power will veto or delay. The informal power will express preferences that the formal will resist or refuse to implement.

Very often the pastor is caught in a vice between the two competing power structures. Many forcible terminations of ministers take place under the pressure of this vice. The pastor is necessarily associated with the formal power, and because it is more visible and obvious, the pastor may believe that the best hope for effectiveness in leadership rests with the ability to work with the formal power. But the fact is, most often the informal power is the stronger of the two.

​​​​​Some of the errors made by ministers in their effort to work with church power are:
The failure to know the leaders and understand the culture of the informal power.
The mistake of under-estimating the power of the informal power persons and groups.
The assumption that if one takes care of the needs and meets the expectations of the formal power, one is secure as a leader.

The failure to “keep in touch with” and get advance endorsement from the informal power before working decisions through the formal power structures of the church.
The unwillingness to back off when a decision made by the formal power is vetoed or frustrated by the informal. Patience and slow, cautious progress are often necessary. One should not try to sprint through a minefield.

Chjurches and ministers often need help pick up the pieces of broken lives after these power dynamics have played themselves out. Sometimes ministers and their families have been unknowingly caught in the squeeze between competing forces in the church that existed long before they arrived and that will continue to joust long after they are gone. The tragedy is the human wreckage and pain that often results.

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