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TRIPPING ON POWER

imagesThe feature article in this months CT (Christianity Today) is about pastoral power in the local church.  The author, Andy Crouch, does a very fine job of discussing the differences and similarities between high power churches (think Roman Catholic or megachurches) and low power churches (think Quaker, congregational Baptists) and how power is neutral–it can be either good or bad depending on the user.  The best paragraph in the whole article, though, is almost lost because it is buried in the deep middle.  We all know that most people just skim these things–but they might miss this:

One prescription for power’s right use in high power distance communities is vulnerability and accountability.  If your church is one where the pastor dwells in unapproachable, sanctified splendor, it becomes all the more crucial that known elders and friends hold your pastor accountable.

This, sadly is about all Crouch says about the prevention of pastoral power abuse and that is a shame because abuse of power is a terrible situation that occurs far too often because what passes for church more often than not is merely a cult of personality.  As individuals, pastors should not matter that much–they are only servants doing their job.  Should they be respected?  Yes.  Should they be heeded as experts?  Yes.  Should they be revered as special?  No, absolutely not.  Should they be out of reach of the people they lead?  Never.

I wish Crouch would have said something like “pastors should not dwell in unapproachable, sanctified splendor,” but he didn’t.  I also wish he would have spilled more ink about how abuse of power can be prevented.  Since he didn’t I will.

1.  Ultimate financial power should be vested in a team of people whom the pastor must plead with to get funding.  For me it was the finance team in our church.  Often I would go round-and-round with them about how I wanted to spend money only to have them deny me again and again.  It was frustrating, but it kept my power in check and that was a good thing.

2.  Elders are all the rage now, but I still believe in congregational polity.  However, it is impossible for a congregation to keep a pastor in check.  My deacons always did this for me.  There was always one or two deacons in this small group who despised me, and that was actually a good thing.  Too many churches that have elders as their main body of decision makers have elders hand picked by the pastor.  This is very bad.  Deacons, by contrast, accumulate over the years and gather independent of a pastor’s selection so it provides a good balance.

3.  Money is a great temptation, but the greatest abuse of power in a church is sexual.  No pastor is beyond the realm of temptation and sin.  That is why the greatest tools for the prevention of abuse of power are simple things like windows and agreed upon protocols.  A window in every door is a must.  Again, my property people often did not understand this, but it is vital to have windows and see through glass.  If I could have, I would have made every wall for every room in the church (except bathrooms!) see through glass.  Protocols help to.  I once had a person ask me to pick up their 17 year old daughter from school because their car broke down.  No way.  It is just not negotiable.  I’d rather give her cab money or be judged uncaring.  By the way, things like this are a great reason why female pastors and deacons are not only biblical but sociologically necessary.

It is the church’s responsibility to keep the pastor’s power in check.  I do not mean to torment the pastor or to make life unbearable but I do mean that that the polity and the culture of a congregation should be such that abuse of power, though not impossible, would be difficult.

6 replies »

  1. Actually I disagree. The congregation is no more dependable as a weilder of power than a pastor acting alone, and when power struggles happen in churches it is God’s name that suffers. I have been involved in the whole range: congregational, presbyterian, and now episcopal and there is no guarantee in any of them, and none seems safer than another. All three have shown me abuses of power in their own styles. I think the fact that we have to think in terms of power is a symptom that our churches are not what they are supposed to be.
    My wife being a priest, I naturally agree about the necessity and biblical-ness of women pastors. Especially in our culture I doubt a man is capable of exercising pastoral oversight over the women in the church, and vice versa. It would be better if each congregation had at least one man and one woman responsible for pastoral oversight, though that is impossible in many cases and has its own potential abuses. You just can’t hedge against every temptation…

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    • carroll,
      so true–it is impossible to legislate or guard against all abuses–be it by the leadership or the group.

      i too have seen congregations en masse abuse power and treat their pastor(s) very badly so i agree with your disagreement. power, and the hunger for it, is an evidence of sin and evil, and i think that is where you and i would agree. spiritual health and spiritual disciplines keep power at check because it keeps the soul and heart in check. perhaps the greatest protector against abuse of power is confession of sin.

      thanks for reading and commenting.

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  2. I can’t tell you how much I agree and hate this blog post, Jamie. Your council is like an itchy wool sweater. It is ugly, scratchy and smells funny. But it is necessary against the coldness of my fallen nature and the wiles of the evil one.

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  3. I was a pastor for 16 years. Currently, I am not serving in this role, but I hope to again one day.

    One thing I learned is we pastors should ask for and submit to accountability. That may sound strange. I wish I had allowed guys to get more involved with what was really going on underneath the surface of my life. If I get back into pastoral ministry, I will certainly do that.

    I guess it was tough for me to sometimes to admit my struggles and fears. I feared how they would react to my transparency. But now I realize that was foolish of me to think like that. I did not think less of them for their struggles, so if they were reasonable people (which they were), they would have extended me the same courtesy. So I now feel and look at that very differently. I welcome accountability now.

    Great blog post, Jamie. An important topic. Thanx!

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