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When I first received a review copy of The Politics of Ministry by Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald Guthrie, I knew I needed to read this book. Why? Because I have become convinced that so much of the conflict, the pain that exists in the church is the result of unrealistic expectations concerning the way in which we, as members of the body of Christ relate to one another.

We assume because we are new creations in Christ that conflict will simply fade away and we should be able to simply “get along” when we are in church together. How much church hopping can be boiled down to this dynamic: Christian looks for church, Christian finds church she/he likes. Christian gets involved, bringing their naïve expectations of perfect unity to bear, and then, shockingly, conflict ensues and Christian begins looking for another church. Or, even worse, swears off “organized religion” because it’s “too political.”

The process repeats itself not because the church isn’t worthy of our time and effort, but because we bring assumptions about the way the church ought to function and expectations that are unrealistic. The problem, it seems to me, is that both pastors and church members don’t know how to handle the conflict. “If I’m experiencing conflict in the church, there must be something wrong with the church!”

It is against this backdrop that The Politics of Ministry can be so helpful to church leaders committed to reconciliation, even when things get messy. It provides hope for leaders who have fought in the trenches of ministry for years and need more of a birds-eye view to how people interact in the sphere of church life.

And it starts by re-defining politics, not simply as the “ugly” side of church-life, but something much more holistic and real:

 “All of life is political-incorporating the themes of power, interests, negotiation, and ethics.” (17)

The rest of the book explains how these themes emerge in the life of the church. And while the content would not necessarily be described as a page-turner, the authors incorporate case-studies throughout that bring the material out of the conceptual and into real-life scenarios.

A couple points I found particularly helpful were the distinction between formal and relational power. That is to say, that all churches are comprised of power centers, some of which are formal (elders, deacons, trustees, etc.) and informal power centers.

For example, someone like an “Aunt Roberta” who helped plant the church and has advised on every major decision the church has made in its 70-year existence. Roberta has never served on a board, but any pastor of that church would be remiss if he/she didn’t check in with Roberta before bringing a final decision to the church.

A new pastor ought to be looking for these relational power brokers and recognize their importance if they want their decisions to receive relatively full support from the congregation.

Everyone comes to ministry with a set of interests, which, the authors argue, are “often tied to our very identities.” We all are in some ways guilty of assuming everyone thinks the same way we do. “If Susan wants to be an elder, it must be for the same reasons I wanted to be a pastor: to bring the lost to a saving faith in Christ.”

This may even be Susan’s explicit reason for becoming an elder, but, as the authors also state, “we rarely know and articulate our own interests well, let alone perceive those of others” (56).

One of the difficulties is how that interests reflect the ideals and assumptions of a person’s worldview. If they believe things “should be this way,” it will be very difficult to change the minds of those with whom we are working.

When conflict emerges, the fleshly side of us is quick to judge intent, to lack grace and assume the worst. Instead, we ought to discern the interests of those with whom we are doing ministry. Understanding church leaders’ interests can help us practice empathy, and perhaps, in the right circumstances, open a conversation as to why he or she is pursuing a particular course of action.

Sermon Illustrations on Searching  

A perceptive leader ought to ask probing questions if he or she is unsure of where another leader is coming from. If done with appropriate sensitivity, this type of conversation has the ability to untangle the various interests that leaders bring to the table and resolution is possible.

In the remaining chapters, The Politics of Ministry discusses organizational and societal forces that influence our corporate life, as well as how healthy negotiation can occur in church contexts. 

Each adds another layer of complexity that explains why new and seasoned pastors often find themselves struggling to adjust to the multi-faceted reality of church ministry. At the very end of the book, the authors present a case-study that brings out all the major themes of the book. It serves as a great capstone to the material presented throughout the book.

Quotes from the Book

Here are a couple of quotes I found especially helpful:

“Every ministry context-whether in the family, a church, or another organization-has a complicated structure of relationships. The capacity to act and to influence others is largely a result of the history, strength, and health of these social webs.” (38)

“We have heard many stories about people causing great harm to their ministry organizations upon suddenly gaining a formal title and formal power. At one church a couple of highly dissatisfied congregants remained silent about their interests until they were elected to the church board. Only after they had been selected, trained, and installed as church officers did they assert their critical viewpoints. At the next board meeting they abruptly attempted to fire the pastor. Their sudden change in behavior left others feeling deceived, and the church exploded in conflict as a result.” (41)

“Most people entering ministry- are idealistic about their own and others’ capacities to act and to influence others. Our wishful thinking compels us to expect all the adults involved in our ministries to act with the same power for the same mission with the same compassion. That is, we hope to be playing on a level field and in a loving manner. Unfortunately, this often is not the case. Power is rarely equal between people, and power is easily used for selfishness and evil.” (47)

“All of us in ministry need to grow in biblical wisdom and realistic awareness of human uses of power. Unjust and unloving power dynamics exist in every social system due to human sinfulness. If we refuse to face the facts of unequal power use in ourselves and our organizations, we will not be able to function responsibly or redemptively” (49).

“Unhealthy leaders usually do not recognize how much power they have compared to others. It is far too easy to assume that others have the same capacity to act and to influence as we do. Those with more power can easily dictate who is involved in planning decision making and change, as well as what people accomplish once they are invited to participate. Those with less power tend to be most aware of the in any given context Therefore, we should seek them out to learn from their perspectives.” (52)

“A third, distinctive feature of interests is that, like the proverbial birds of a. feather, people with similar interests flock together. We even gather around common interests unconsciously. Why do we do this? To build power and emotional support for our interests. Joined together, we have the same interests as rivals, as long as it appears the rivals will promote some of our more important interests in return. Look at the coalitions that formed in each of our stories. The collective power of the group furthers the chances of success with the shared interests.” (59)

“It is not unusual for us to assume our interests are appropriate without considering whether they reflect God’s point of view. The apostle Paul even faced this challenge…At one point he shared with his friends at Philippi that many “seek their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 2:21)…It is important for all of our interests, and especially our moral interests, to be under the review and critique of Scripture.”(76)

 

“Both the ability to accomplish tasks and relationships are important for success in most endeavors. But because of natural personalities and family of origin patterns, people tend to be hardwired to have a greater capacity and interest in pursuing either results or relationships.” (82)

After identifying the main stakeholders, the next step in analyzing the politics of a situation is to observe the power dynamics between the stakeholders.” (168)

Identifying interests requires looking beyond the immediate surface issues and seeking to name the deeper convictions supporting the more easily observable interests.” (171)

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Grace and Peace,

Stu

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