From The Servant, Volume 4, Issue 1, January 1999
The Power Structure within a Church Can Steamroll the Minister
Robert L. Perry
A few years ago, I wrote a book entitled, Pass the Power, Please. The book describes the ways power persons and groups in a congregation impact decisions and, ultimately, the health or dysfunction of a church.
My research into church life paid 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 structure includes all of the structures documented by the church’s construction and bylaws. These are the ‘official’ power elements of the church.
Formal power in the church makes its decisions and takes its actions in scheduled or called meetings. Orderly processes and public discussion characterize the work of the formal power groups and individuals. Their decisions tend to be deliberate, predictable and reasonable.
The informal power in a church is mysterious and covert. Informal power is centered in individuals and has its ‘meetings’ over the phone, on the parking lot after church or at the coffee shop downtown. These individuals are not elected to their positions of power. They may be matriarchs or patriarchs, wealthy benefactors or simply church members with strong natural leadership gifts.
Graphically, two intersecting circles can represent the formal and the informal power structures. Problems occur when the two circles do not intersect enough. That is, if there is a great difference between the opinions and values of the two groups, the stage is set for conflict. In this circumstance, the formal power will make decisions that the informal power will express preferences that the formal group will resist or refuse the implement.
This is dangerous territory for the Senior Pastor! Many forced terminations result from the pressure created by the two competing power structures. The pastor is necessarily associated with the formal power and may believe the best hope for effectiveness in leadership rests with the ability to work within that power. But, the fact is, most often the informal power is the stronger of the two.
Some of the errors made by ministers involved in a church power struggle are:
Failure to learn the leaders and understand the culture of the informal power.
Under-estimating the power of the informal power group.
Assuming that if one takes care of the needs and expectations of the formal power group, one is secure as a leader.
Failure to “keep in touch with” and get endorsement of the informal power while working decisions through the formal power structure.
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 sprint through a minefield.
The work of Ministering to Ministers is an effort to help pick up the pieces of broken lives and wounded churches after a power struggle has played out. Sometimes ministers and their families have been caught in the squeeze between cometing church forces 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.
Dr. Robert Perry was Chair of the Board of Trustees of the Ministering to Ministers Foundation in 1999.