There is no nice way to say it. It is a phrase that causes the young to run, the old to cringe, pastors to wince and everyone in between to simply guffaw. It’s a universal phrase that is whispered from pew-to-pew across this nation. It’s two unlovely words, that, when connected can wreak havoc in the church. It’s the phrase, “church politics.”
No other expression in the western world can conger up such thoughts of backstabbing, gossiping, manipulation and misguided power quite like it. It can be compared to a high school clique—meeting in dark corridors for called business meetings and ad-hock information sessions. It is the gathering of the holy elite: be they Sunday school teachers, deacons, elders, choir members or pastoral staff. The idea of church politics is so universal that it need not even be defined—it’s known by all.
It’s also known for what it can do to a gathering community of Christians.
Being an ordained minister, a former pastor and a Southern Baptist to-boot, I have witnessed first-hand the effects of church politics. We sometimes refer to those involved as “the old guard” or the “pillars of the church”—they are the church politic at large, the unspoken governing committee. This group can make or break a spirit with a pointed finger or a false accusation. When I was working full time at one particular church I remember thinking to myself how wonderful and friendly and loving the people were. They were so welcoming and accepting … if you were one of them.
I guess it slipped my mind on more than one occasion that the church I was serving was also the very church I grew up in. It wasn’t until I had left this church that I realized what had been staring me in the face all that time. I was one of them.
Church leadership in the twenty-first century is often misguided. When leadership is based on power and numbers and community-clout, it doesn’t meet the expectations of Christ. In my eyes, it is not too far from the idolatry shown so vividly in Babel. Just as the Babylonians set out to claim their own glory, so does the modern church politic. Thankfully, we are not beyond repair. With a healthy balance of reflection, reverence, reconstruction and patience, God can transform us.
Our first priority ought to be to dissect the leadership structure we currently have. No pastor should view himself as CEO. No church member ought to feel like a majority shareholder. Simply put, Christ calls us to be servants, not figureheads put on pedestals. Jesus gave us a guideline that in order to be a leader—we must first be servants. I have seen many scriptures engraved on pulpits across the country, but what I haven’t seen is Mark 9:35, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and servant of all” (TNIV).
We also need to revise the constitutions and by-laws and maybe even get rid of them. I am not calling for holy-anarchy; I am simply suggesting that we need to create a new structure for leadership that allows the church to be a movement again. We need to follow a model of community that embraces relationships over programs and paperwork. We need to waste less time discussing our campuses, buildings, buses, sound equipment, tech equipment, insurance policies or whatever else we find most amusing at the time. We should spend more time including and less time incorporating. As long as we model our church after corporate standards we will nurture the institutional mentality.
Next, and perhaps most important, we need to realize that we are all transformed in and through Christ. Leadership is not about “lording over people” but coming under Christ for His glory. The older I get the more I realize just how flawed I am, and my need for continual transformation. We need to live beyond our humanity. Our churches need to embrace life-transformation over structural details. The truth is the church exists for Christ’s glory—not for man’s.