The Politics of Ministry: Back to Square 4

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Do you ever feel like you are going nuts? Like the guys you work for and with in ministry are on a completely different page?

Drs. Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, and Donald Guthrie have produced an exceedingly helpful work for those who wish to know how to effectively engage in the tumultuous relationships of ministry. That the floods not overwhelm the unsuspecting, they provide helpful guidance to church pastors, lay-leaders, and congregant members in the relational work of ministry.

From the start, the authors define their use of the term “politics” in a positive way unlike how most of us use the term in this polorized political climate.

“politics is the art of getting things done with others.”

Politics can mean “manipulation” to many, but the authors argue throughout the book that politics should be a positive approach to ministry.

Project vs. Relationship

Leadership means “getting things done” with and through others.  And, in a broken and tangled world, that can be a difficult task. The failure of relationships create failures in project completion.

And, this in fact can be where the rub is. What is the culture of an organization or ministry? Is it a project-oriented or relationship-oriented culture? Is task completion more important than the daily interactions between people in and out of the organization?

For a toxic organization you can almost bet projects mean more than relationships. For those who are abusive in leadership, relationships mean manipulation. The relationships are a means to an end, not to be nurtured and cared for. As can be expected in God’s economy, organizations are nearly guaranteed to fail if relationships are not at the forefront of the ministry.

Those of us in America would do well to learn from the majority of the cultures in the world where relationships nearly always trump projects.

Back to Square 4

It is in the 9th chaper of the book that the authors begin spending much time speaking to the circumstances that those with relational struggles find themselves: Cell four is where the power between parties is unequal and their interests are opposing. It is the making of the perfect storm.

“Ministry politics is grounded in the way people apply their ethical commitments in daily practice. And nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the negotiation process of cell four, where interests conflict and power is unequal.”

It is in this cell – as opposed to cells 1, 2, or 3 – where relationships can be badly damaged and relational work come to a grinding hault. In cells 2 ad 3 there are conflicts due to unequal power or differing interests, but not both.

Only in cell 4 do you find the clash of power and interests. As the authors note,

“In the other three cells, attitudes and actions at the planning table are more easily optimistic and calm.”  [Loc. 2344]

The authors seek to help those who are having to negotiate their interests in cell 4, not an uncommon experience for the subordinate. The goal is to move that negotiation into one of the other cells where the conflict is not nearly as great and the work can be accomplished in a civil way and God-glorifying way.

Unfortunately, there are toxic leaders and organizations that happily remain in cell 4 and create a living hell for their subordinates. In those cases, the authors recommend, “confronting, seeking justice from those in higher authority, or leaving the organization.”1

Navigating Cell Four as a Subordinate

The authors suggest several ways to navigate in this cell as a subordinate.

  • Counteract: Counteracting is the most direct way of dealing with the problem at hand. It is confronting the issue head-on. The authors caution that it should be the “issue” that is being confronted however, not the person. This response is usually done by bringing information to the table that is contrary to that of the opposing view.
  • Subvert: Subversion is the “process by which the values and principles of a system in place are reversed.” There are times when it is right morally to subvert such as when the wise men “redemptively subverted” King Herod’s evil attempt at subverting them. Rather than return by way of the king and let him know where Jesus was staying, they went home another way after having a dream to do so.
  • Defer: Defering is to “yield to the contrary interests or judgments of another who has more power in the negotiation.” There are times when we are called to, in a sense, compromise for a higher good. Samuel was asked by the people of Israel to give them a king. Though asking for a king was not bad, their motive was. However, God told Samuel to “defer” to their wishes and he gravely warned them what would come of their evil intents. [1 Samuel 8:7]
  • Suffer: “To suffer means to submit to or to be forced to tolerate injury or grief of some sort, including loss, distress, pain, or even death.” There are many examples and warnings in scripture of what it means to follow Christ. We can expect to suffer. The author of Hebrews sums these experiences up:

    “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, and they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated . . . wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” (Hebrews 11:35-37)

  • Surrender: “By surrendering, those with less power choose not to resist but to allow those with more power to have their way.” The early church leader, Polycarp, was hiding from government authorities. However, when he was betrayed by someone in his home, he went to the stake to be burned. He was encouraged by a friend to apostasize, but he refused knowing God had done him no wrong and he said, “How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” He both suffered and surrendered.

A Broken but to be Redeemed World

The authors have much more to say. Following these various methods of handling cell four politics, they discuss how the one in power should use that power redemptively in cell four.

It is really the leader’s handling of that authority that will determine the culture of the organization.

“Ministry takes place in a broken world with and through broken people. But, by God’s grace, Jesus decided to use broken people for his eternal purposes and glory in redeeming his creation. May our understanding of the politics of ministry allow us to speak the truth in love and to further our growth in every way into Christ, while being kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving each other, as God in Christ has forgiven us (Ephesians 4:15, 32).”

The Book

1 The authors refer in this section to the dissertation research by the Pearls And Swine Site editor.

Burns, Bob, Tasha D. Chapman, Donald C. Guthrie, and Steven Garber. The Politics of Ministry: Navigating Power Dynamics and Negotiating Interests. Westmont: IVP Books, 2019.

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