Bob Burns, co-author with Tasha Chapman and Donald Guthrie of “The Politics of Ministry: Navigating Power Dynamics and Negotiating Interests,” tells the story of a seminary graduate whose first call was to serve as a solo pastor for a small congregation. Shortly after he arrived, the pastor was invited to go fishing with a ruling elder. During their outing, the pastor asked if the session had ever considered rotating the elders on session. “No,” the elder replied, “we don’t rotate elders. We rotate pastors.”
“The pastor suddenly felt that his power to act and influence the church was very different than he expected,” Chapman observed. Stories like this aren’t unusual, Guthrie added.
With the assistance of Lilly Endowment funding, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie spent years studying pastoral sustainability and ministry leadership at Covenant Theological Seminary’s Center for Ministry Leadership. In 2013, they published their first findings in “Resilient Ministry: What Pastors Told Us About Surviving and Thriving.” Their second book, “The Politics of Ministry,” was published in 2019.
By helping people identify and name their interests — rather than naively believing everyone will just get along — pastors can help their congregations grow and thrive.
“Politics” and “ministry” rarely appear in the same sentence, and when they do, someone is likely bemoaning that ministry has become too political. But Guthrie, Burns, and Chapman believe that all of life is political, and they aren’t thinking about civic government.
By “politics” they mean just what the book’s subtitle says — navigating power dynamics and negotiating interests. By helping people identify and name their interests — rather than naively believing everyone will just get along — pastors can help their congregations grow and thrive, even when people disagree.
And if pastors don’t learn to wisely assess and respond to the political constraints of ministry, the resulting conflict may lead them to call it quits.
In a 2015 LifeWay Research survey of pastors who had left the ministry, 57% said that in their last churches they experienced conflict over changes they proposed, 47% reported conflict with lay leaders, and 45% had conflict with a church matriarch or patriarch.
Chapman said that when pastors fail to understand all the factors at play in a given situation, “It sets everyone up to be injured even worse and for the politics to be even more hurtful and damaging to the church because [expectations are] just not realistic.”
When pastors lament that church work has gotten “too political,” they often mean it is an unhealthy political environment where people are not being honest about their desires or negotiating interests candidly.
Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie identify four themes that appear in political situations: power, interests, negotiation, and ethical challenges. By exploring these themes and illustrating them with case studies, they demonstrate how political situations can damage both relationships and the church’s witness in a community — or how, alternatively, they can strengthen relationships and build trust.
As they teach their research findings to pastors, seminarians, and international church leaders, the response is encouraging. Guthrie and Burns led a seminar based on their research at the 2019 General Assembly, and Chapman and Guthrie both teach these concepts to seminarians and in international contexts. Whenever the researchers share their findings, students thank them for naming realities that no one has ever discussed with them.
Their work has implications for the ways that sessions, presbyteries, and General Assembly committees operate. If elders can name the interests they represent in any of these settings, and leaders can identify all the parties represented in a discussion, the decision-making process becomes more transparent and less driven by fear.
“It was life-changing for all of us to learn and grow in these things, and we’ve seen it really help others to take a completely different approach to their leadership in the business world and ministry.”
The process is easier to implement with smaller groups such as a session or a presbytery meeting, but it could also work when a committee of commissioners meets. If parties can name their interests and what concerns they have regarding any given decision, they can create understanding and even find commonality among different groups.
The researchers also find receptive audiences because they ground their research in Scripture. They begin every session by looking at Jesus and how He used the power available to Him to negotiate His own interests, His Father’s interests, and the interests of those around Him.
“Jesus perfectly negotiates the interests of the Father,” Guthrie said. And when pastors learn to navigate wisely through political situations, it transforms the way they view all of life.
The authors have seen these concepts transform ministry leadership dynamics for pastors, but the ideas have impacted their lives, too. “It helped us name things so we could heal, helped us be much more grace-based, truthful, pursuing trust and love in our own ministry leadership,” Chapman said. “It was life-changing for all of us to learn and grow in these things, and we’ve seen it really help others to take a completely different approach to their leadership in the business world and ministry.”
And so a ruling elder’s comment about rotating pastors doesn’t mean the young pastor should start looking for his next job. The pastor can learn to discern the power and interests at play in the church and negotiate them wisely. He can work with the session to identify its interests and have honest conversations about what they want. If a pastor can learn to navigate power dynamics and negotiate interests, he can grow and adapt while helping others do the same.
The process is always work and never perfectly mastered, but it’s never too late to start, the authors point out.