Power and Control: A Ministry Norm?

Article by Beth Davis, DMin.


Bernard Mayer (2000) notes that power is present in all communication. “We cannot choose to have no power. Everyone brings power to a conflict.” Power, control, and authority exist in every organization, and are needed for the efficiency and welfare of the organization and its members.

Since power abuse results from envy and jealousy, any person in any culture may try to apply abusive power. To further the personal power of a person, sometimes that person tries to steal the power of others, abusing a desirable organizational quality for the person’s self-serving purpose. Power is needed in every organization. But when people neglect the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Gal. 5:22) to further their power, it becomes abusive.

Power-based abuse is defined as any act that increases the status, dominance, authority, or identity of a person or organization at the expense of the status, dominance, authority, or identity of others. Most often, the abuse starts secretly without the input or permission of the victim. Thus, power-based abuse always happens at the expense of others, and usually without their permission or input.

The permission and input condition seems crucial. By joining an organization, I automatically give management permission to make many decisions that affect me without my input or consent. So an acceptable use of power always includes a potential for abuse.

Common signs that indicate a culture of power-based abuse in a church organization include:

  1. Hidden or secretive meetings that neglect to include input or permission of those affected by the meetings
  2. Input requested only as a means to gain acceptance from the members (the final decision has already been made)
  3. Bullying—acts that neglect justice or kindness in the pursuit of dominance and control
  4. Acts that ruin the reputation of others, steal credit, or spread rumors or gossip
  5. Acts that socially or financially isolate others
  6. Acts of manipulation instead of dialog
  7. Large amounts of energy spent on protecting or advancing the status of a person
  8. A wake of hurt peers and assistants (a lack of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, Gal. 5:22)
  9. Dismantling—instead of building on the prior accomplishments of others, the power-based Christian systematically dismantles the achievements and organizational structures of those he or she replaces.
  10. Cronyism—acts in which the incoming pastor or authority figure automatically replaces previous staff members with personal friends

During uncomfortable communication, you might ask yourself, “Who is in control and power? Do I feel controlled? Is someone trying to take control or power away from me?” Often a sense of powerlessness drives miscommunication which eventually leads to conflict.

The issue of power and control served as a central issue affecting the religious leaders of Jesus’ day. John 11: 47-48, 53(NIV) describes the following:

Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” So from that day on they plotted to take his life.

Thus, the religious leaders seemed even willing to take an innocent man’s life to keep their base of power and control.

John 12:42 shows an obvious power play by the leaders, Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue.” When direct threats failed to slow His ministry, the religious leaders eventually decided to bribe someone and make false accusations in their effort to keep power and control.

A threat to quit almost always represents the issue of power and control. That is, a person intimidates through a threat to quit. The threat destroys any need for discussion or rational thinking. They would rather sacrifice the relationship than lose the argument. These threats show a breakdown in the relationship, including a lack of basic discussion skills. A threat to resign or quit represents one of the more common threats of some ministers. When threatened with this option, this author almost always accepts the offer rather than living under repeated threats.

When inequality strains a relationship, look for the iceberg of power and control. Some organizations try to openly eliminate this iceberg by requiring equality across the staff. Bernard Mayer (2000), however, suggests that the issue of power and control remains present regardless any requirement. Until we deal with the issue of power and control, the iceberg continues to undermine relationships. For instance, all ministers in one ministry agency received apparent equality by receiving equal pay. Since they received equal pay, power and control provided one of the few remaining means to show the status between each minister. In that agency, ministers fought more battles over power and control issues than fought by most military commanders. Possibly, more church fights happen over power and control issues than any other issue. Almost all financial disagreements result from a power and control issue. That is, who controls the money usually represents a bigger issue than the amount spent or the object purchased. In some churches, the entire tithe is paid directly to the pastor. This gives the pastor almost all the power.

The following myths sometimes result in power-based abuse in a church organization:

  1. Myth—Since power-based abuse represents normal behavior for business in secular culture, it represents acceptable behavior in the church. Truth—Christians look to the Bible to determine acceptable behavior, not culture or business norms. The Bible invites us to servanthood rather than ladder climbing. Jesus avoided power even when people in secular society wanted to make Him king. Instead, He modeled washing the feet of others, including the feet of the person soon to betray Him. Instead of abuse and insensitivity, the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10: 30-37) invites us to mercy and kindness.
  2. Myth—If God allows power-based abuse, it must represent His will in that instance. Truth—God allows Satan to rule the earth and allows all types of sin in the world. The sin and carnality in this world never represent God’s will. Just as He allowed the tribes of Israel to worship idols, He allows men today to worship the idols of power and control, even as He grieves over their choice.
  3. Myth—Trying to argue against a power-based leader is unchristian. Truth—The Apostle Paul argued against the Apostle Peter’s position on dietary laws for Gentiles. Thus, the biblical example encourages discussion during a disagreement, not automatic surrender to someone in a position of power. Man-made rules which expect or require surrender ignore the example of the Apostle Paul. Paul showed that dialog often identifies a more godly solution. When a culture commands automatic surrender, the culture remains secular, and based in keeping the existing power structure. A position of power or authority rarely over-rules the need for dialog.
  4. Myth—It is acceptable for a leader to hurt others with power-based behavior because God placed the leader in a position of power. Truth—A leadership position may or may not represent God’s blessing. God allows carnal and sinful behaviors and goals, even by His followers. So some Christian leaders reach positions of power through carnal goals, and some reach positions of power due to God’s will. The pursuit of carnality never represents His will, but represents what He allows Christians to choose. Just as God allowed the children of Israel to worship false gods, God also allows carnal Christians to worship power.
  5. Myth—If a power-based person is doing good work, hurting others is acceptable. Truth—The behavior of the priest or Levite in the Good Samaritan story is a sin regardless of their good work or religious status. Matthew 23:23 sums up God’s desire, “But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy, and faithfulness.” Thus, working for God never justifies hurting others by neglecting justice and mercy.

The following suggestions give some practical ways to reduce power and control abuse in your ministry setting.

To reduce cronyism, consider the following strategies:

  • Limit the number and length of terms for officials.
  • Develop position papers that define cronyism as unethical, and provide common examples of cronyism.
  • Define cronyism as unethical in the denomination standard of conduct rules.
  • Teach continuation pastoral training courses that focus on ethics (and cronyism) in the secular and church culture.

To reduce power-based behavior at the organizational level, consider the following strategies:

  • Require newly elected leaders to participate in an introductory leadership course within their first two-weeks of office. The course would help elected leaders to set up moral and ethical boundaries related to their leadership role (e.g., handling of funds, gender boundaries, cronyism, property titles, fraternization, etc.) and help them replace secular leadership styles with biblical leadership styles appropriate to their office.
  • Develop position papers that clearly define power-based behaviors, and provide common examples of the behaviors.

To read more about Power and Control in the Church and in ministry settings, please see either of the following books:

1. Transforming Conflict: Relationship Skills for Ministers. Available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/1475231350/. This book helps ministers prevent church discord even while enhancing relationships. This book helps people learn:

  • How to prevent and eliminate relationship obstacles
  • How to cultivate research-proven relationship skills
  • How to adapt each relationship skill to their ministry

2. Abusive Power: When Christians Hurt Other Christians. Available at http://www.amazon.com/dp/1499386923/. This book helps Christians recover from abusive power-based behaviors.