Does Your Church Have a Power Problem?

The American church universe and Twitter-verse buzzed loudly this past week over the “dismissal” (i.e., “firing”) of Rev. Amy Butler as pastor of the historic Riverside Baptist in New York City. This happened without a vote of the church, and amid ongoing controversy.

I absolutely grieve for Rev. Amy Butler and the people of her church. But I grieve just as much for ministers who endure equally harsh treatment with much less fanfare and consideration.

Butler’s case is getting intense publicity because of Riverside’s history and her well-known status in Progressive Christianity—which tends to mean that people either love or despise her. But the situation points out a greater problem, particularly for churches that govern themselves.

Many Baptist, Pentecostal, and non-denominational churches make their own decisions, without direct oversight from any denomination or organization. This includes decisions on who is hired and fired.

Those of us who minister in these traditions rarely get anything like the five-year contract that Butler originally had, or the severance package she will receive. Many a pastor can get a pink slip without notice, severance, or even the due process that is prescribed in by-laws or other church documents.

And it happens a lot more often than people realize.

Church leaders and behind-the-scenes power brokers push pastors out the door in any number of ways, including (but not limited to) simply making their life and ministry miserable. This often happens in the dark, with parking lot meetings after the meeting or lunch table discussions after church.

Unfortunately, those things done in secret cause tremendous pain when they inevitably find the light of day. These behind-the-scenes battles leave a brutal trail of collateral damage in their wake

People become disillusioned. They lose friends. They may lose their church. And some even lose their faith. Quite often, the initial wounds of these “power plays” leaves lasting scars. From all of the articles I have read so far, it seems that all manner of issues with power and control were at work behind the scenes at Riverside, and the congregation was none the wiser until someone got fired.

At that point, the damage is already done and a church must move to repair and recovery.

My long-time friend Craig Tackett, pastor of Nicholasville Baptist Church in Kentucky, narrows the source of these problems with power and control to the basic sins of greed and pride.

Greed is not a sin that involves only money. We can be greedy for prestige, power, or the ever-present false god of control. Pride causes us to point the finger at others while failing to see our own faults. Once these get into the wiring of the leadership and/or a congregation, you have a power problem.

How do we know when a church has a power problem, and how do we avoid that? This is not a comprehensive list, but these are some steps you can take and signs you can read to determine if a church needs some serious re-wiring.

1. Demand Transparency: Does the church submit regular financial reporting of some kind? Do ministers and/or boards submit information about programs, ministries, ideas, and vision for the future?

The church should not have to vote every time someone has to buy a pack of pens or a roll of toilet paper. But if the leadership cannot (or will not) give you information about the finances or the future of the church, then you may have uncovered a major problem.

2. Know your documents: Do not be afraid to ask for copies of church budgets, by-laws, constitution, etc…and read them! These should be easily accessible and obtainable in a healthy church.

The by-laws and constitution quite often serve as a de facto contract for church boards, ministers, and members. Know them, and fearlessly insist that the church follows these Spirit-driven covenants in making decisions. And if they need to be changed to meet the current situation, bring that up as well.

3. Absolute power corrupts absolutely: If anything suggests that any person or group within the church has complete authority, it should raise serious questions.

If you ask questions about the church and get told that “everything is alright” or “you don’t need to worry about it” or “it’s all good” without any specifics, you need to raise your eyebrows.

If you hear ongoing references to submission, control, authority, or absolute power, then you may want to take a hard look at what’s happening in that church.

Or run in the other direction. Fast.

In Christianity and God’s church, accountability is necessary for all human beings involved. And you cannot have accountability without transparency. If you do not have it for everyone, INCLUDING the pastor, then you have a recipe for trouble.

4. Look for a Culture of Forgiveness: Does the church seek to empower people to be and do better, rather than determining who is and is not “worthy?”Does your church have a track record of resolving conflict and restoring peace; or does it assign blame in an attempt to eliminate conflict? Do leaders acknowledge fault and make amends, and do they seek to help others do the same?

A pastor is only a human being who is called of God to a particular purpose. She or he is fully human, prone to mistakes and needing forgiveness. Church leaders and members need to recall that same principle. If the church has a culture of both accountability AND forgiveness for all people (pastors, leaders, and congregation), the goal should be restoration rather than condemnation.

Make sure that forgiveness is a much stronger ethic than judgement in your congregation. And make sure that no one person or group is the final word on who is or is not worthy of such forgiveness. Or what sins can or cannot be forgiven.

For the record, this does not mean that a minister or leader will never be dismissed. It simply means that the church seeks to challenge people to be better and do better, rather than simply eliminating them.

5. The Church instills “Restorative Discipline”: True CHURCH discipline is intended to HELP those who are out of bounds to recognize a problem, repent, receive forgiveness, and return to the fellowship.

Once again, this includes your ministers and church leaders.

All of us make mistakes, sometimes terrible mistakes. Why should not both the leadership and the membership receive an opportunity to renew their commitment to the Body of Christ?

As sad as I am for Amy Butler and the controversy at Riverside, the news articles should make us pay closer attention to what happens in our own congregations. It should also make us take note of the way that some pastors are treated by their fellow church leaders.

These other pastors may not make the New York Times, but that doesn’t make it any less painful for them to lose their jobs.

My suggestions will not put an end to the pride and greed and undercover plots (how ridiculous does that sound in reference to the church?) that often wreck the people of God. In fact, my thoughts may make church a little harder, and a bit less enjoyable. They call on us to be attentive, informed, and engaged.

But that extra effort and commitment might spare your church and your pastor the pain of becoming a headline or gossip topic.

If that isn’t worth the extra effort, then why are we in this in the first place?