Church Politics: Part 1
by Dan Reiland
Church politics is alive and well but you have the opportunity to significantly reduce it, if not nearly eliminate it in your church. Whether it's a big problem or you just need to stay proactive, this two part series will help you!
What do Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr have in common? In addition to being wives of King Henry VIII, they were all part of church politics on steroids.
We could drop in on church history at any point and find political issues. In the case of King Henry (1491-1547), church politics were out of control at best. Henry wed his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, through an arranged marriage to help secure strong political relations with King Ferdinand II and Spain--forming a strategic alliance against France. King Henry became impatient with Catherine's inability to bear him a son, and things got worse when he became attracted to a young courtier in the Queen's entourage, Anne Boleyn. He sought the Pope for an annulment. This, however, was problematic because Henry had been a strong supporter of the Catholic Church even writing against Martin Luther. The Catholic Church could not support the divorce, and debate over consummation and/or lack of consummation ensued. As you can imagine, this was church politics at its finest.
Nonetheless, with the help of Thomas Cranmer, who became the Archbishop of Canterbury, Henry abolished papal supremacy, and declared himself head of the Church of England--The Anglican Church. The Pope reacted by moving to excommunicate Henry (a little like trying to discipline an angry church member who left to start their own church--as if they're going to listen to you or care!). This obviously led to tremendous religious upheaval.
Anyone who opposed Henry's religious policies was quickly suppressed. Several monks who stood against Him were even tortured and executed.
This short romp through church history has gone beyond anything we have experienced. However, most of us are aware of church politics on the local level that are nearly as disheartening and on a personal level just as devastating.
Today, "Church Politics" has taken on a more contemporary definition, pertaining specifically to the local church. It's a sad truth, don't you think, that whatever the definition, we instinctively grasp the meaning of the term. And it's easy to make a list of potential places such politics can take root:
- Decisions made at Church board meetings
- Who's on the Church board
- Annual Business Meetings
- Worship style
- The Pastor's resignation
- A Pastor's hiring
- Staff feuds
- Building programs
- Church Budgets
I'm sure you could double the length of this list including things right down to who gets what room for a Sunday School class!
Understand the origin of politics. Politics is agenda driven. Somebody wants something. The major complication is that the issues at the core (personal and selfish desires), get communicated as if they are the cause of Christ. This is not new. Holy Wars have been fought with the same dynamics in play.
This is further complicated because its rarely malice that drives the personal agenda. It's more often good people who really believe that what they are doing (what they want) is right. The problem is that good people who are attempting to do good things lose sight of the big picture and begin to justify their part of the mission as The Mission. When the situation reaches the state where it does become ugly and wars begin, all perspective is lost and we (after the fact) hear stories of things that happen in local churches that we can hardly believe are true. I know of dozens of examples of this from screaming matches in church business meetings to tithe checks withheld because "we don't like how things are going around here." (Loosely translated this means I'm not getting what I want.) Alliances are formed between peoples and groups (déjà vu King Henry and Ferdinand with Spain and England against France) and the church is tremendously wounded. God's heart is crushed and Christianity gets another black eye.
So, what can you do?
If politics is a problem and clean-up is needed:
- Refuse to engage with petty people and petty matters on a petty level.
It's difficult to ignore petty people, even though sometimes it's the wise leadership thing to do. So what about the petty issues that you are convinced you can't (or shouldn't) ignore? Don't allow yourself to be drawn down into the smallness of the issue, but commit yourself to raise the person(s) up to a higher level. Your goal is to help people see things differently so they think and behave differently.
Most local church politics is about small things that don't matter. It is often driven by good people who have merely lost perspective. People who fall into this group have, in a way, forgotten the purpose of the church, or have become impassioned that their way is the only way to accomplish the church's purpose. For these people, offer wisdom and guidance. Appeal to their sense of the larger Kingdom and help them remember why they fell in love with your church in the first place. Talk about what really changed. Is it the church or them? Talk with them about the condition of their own personal walk with God. Don't accuse, just ask questions. It's highly unlikely that their prayer life is flourishing if they are causing problems, even small problems, in the church. Listen carefully and then speak candidly about how you need them to support the larger vision. Your greatest challenge here is not how much heat you will face, but how much time it takes. This is a relationally time intensive process.
Sometimes the petty things are driven by good people who are hurt about something. These usually shouldn't be ignored. They represent a level more complex than the first. The issue may still be petty but as John Maxwell says--"hurting people hurt people." And things therefore get complicated. It's important at this stage to help people understand the real underlying issue. It usually has little to do with the church. The church just becomes the lightening rod for their pain. If you are part of the hurt, apologize and move forward. If not, do what you can do for their healing process. If the person's situation is deep and complex, I recommend that you refer them to a professional therapist. And that you remain their encourager in the process.
Loss of a healthy perspective, and/or hurting people can transition into situations of malice. This requires a very different approach.
- Hit the big issues head on.
Don't be political about politics. Jesus said: "be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves" (Matthew 10:16), but He never meant for you to fight people's personal agendas to defend, or in protection of, your own personal agenda. That's how it is in Washington DC. We live in the greatest country in the world but the political back-scratching and political back-biting is so complex that it's nearly impossible to know who really stands for what. In the midst of that complexity, it is nearly impossible to get anything done. Sound familiar?
You must remain on your knees and beg God to help you keep your perspective clear and your motives pure. This is not easy when you are under attack.
The place to start is to clearly name the elephant in the room. If it's not already obvious, everyone involved must come out of the corners, back hallways, and Starbucks gripe sessions and own their issues personally. Never allow the phrase "everyone agrees with me." Who's everyone, and do they even go to our church?! It's imperative that each person involved owns their own stuff. Do everything you can to break down the "angry mob" group mindset, by meeting with key people one to one and insist that they take responsibility for their opinions and behaviors, on their own.
Find the source. In 25 years of church leadership, I've never found a problem in a local church, especially those of political nature that didn't have a source. The source is always a person. I'm not saying it's a bad person, but good people can do some really dumb things. Meet one to one with this person. If it is a tight-knit group of two-three people then meet with them. Start by discovering what they really want and go from there.
If things are more subtle, meaning it's not a good old fashioned church brouhaha, thank the Lord for the reduced heat, but beware of the dangers of passive aggressive behavior. Again, force out into the open what the key influencers really think and feel.
This is complicated. You might ask at this point, "What's the difference between church conflict and church politics?" Sometimes nothing. However, with "pure" conflict, people can be upfront, honest, agree to disagree and seek a common solution. But politics involves agendas, positioning, maneuvering--and usually with a sense of a righteous cause (subtle or not).
You may need to bring in outside help. A church consultant with a good reputation could be of great help to you. Make sure you know this consultant well before you hire him. This person must be strong, relational, and have spiritual gifts of wisdom, leadership and exhortation.
Be prepared to lose people. Jesus did. Again, don't get sucked into your own personal Holy War. (Yes, most politics are softer and more subtle than all out war, but skirmishes that are left untended can result in one.) Be willing to lovingly let people leave your church who ultimately believe that their mission is more important than the mission of the church. Or more commonly, that their way of accomplishing the mission is the way the rest of church should go.
The bottom line is that you must act. Churches that have a political bent don't get better if left to their own natural course. They get worse. Politics feeds politics. Further, you must address the big blatant issues head on. You can't do this half way and survive. If you need heart surgery, you can't go in for half now and half later. It's all or nothing, and either way the results are dramatic. Be prepared to engage for a long period of time. This is a process that is not solved overnight, but with prayer, wisdom, and a steady leadership vision, you effect the changes you need to make.
In Part 2 of this article, I will address Church Politics for those of you who lead in a church where things are good, but you want to be proactive in developing or maintaining a politic free church.
Be blessed and thanks for all you do!!
Dan Reiland | Dr. Dan Reiland serves as Executive Pastor at Crossroads Community Church in Lawrenceville, Georgia. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as Executive Pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as Vice President of Leadership and Church Development at INJOY.
This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter The Pastor's Coach available at www.INJOY.com. INJOY'S The Pastor's Coach: Volume 8, Issue 10 (2007).
Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by KenJ