Dan Reiland: Church Politics

Church staff meeting
Is church politics getting in the way of God's will for your church? (Lightstock)

What do Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Katherine Parr have in common? In addition to being wives of King Henry VIII, they were all part of church politics on steroids.

We could drop in on church history at any point and find political issues. In the case of King Henry (1491-1547), church politics were out of control at best. Henry wed his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, through an arranged marriage to help secure strong political relations with King Ferdinand II and Spain, forming a strategic alliance against France.

King Henry became impatient with Catherine’s inability to bear him a son, and things got worse when he became attracted to a young courtier in the queen’s entourage, Anne Boleyn.  He sought the pope for an annulment. This, however, was problematic because Henry had been a strong supporter of the Catholic Church, even writing against Martin Luther. The Catholic Church could not support the divorce, and debate over consummation and/or lack of consummation ensued. As you can imagine, this was church politics at its finest.

Nonetheless, with the help of Thomas Cranmer, who became the archbishop of Canterbury, Henry abolished papal supremacy and declared himself head of the Church of England—the Anglican Church. The Pope reacted by moving to excommunicate Henry (a little like trying to discipline an angry church member who left to start their own church—as if they’re going to listen to you or care!). This obviously led to tremendous religious upheaval.

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Anyone who opposed Henry’s religious policies was quickly suppressed. Several monks who stood against him were actually tortured and executed.

Today, church politics has taken on a more contemporary definition, pertaining specifically to the local church. It may not be as dramatic as the history I just recounted, but it’s often still devastating. It’s a sad truth, don’t you think, that whatever the definition, we instinctively grasp the meaning of the term. And it’s easy to make a list of potential places such politics can take root:

  • How decisions are made
  • Who’s on the church board
  • Sacred cows
  • Annual business meetings
  • Worship style
  • The pastor’s resignation
  • Hiring staff
  • Staff feuds
  • Building programs
  • Church budgets

Politics is agenda-driven. Somebody wants something. The major complication is that the agenda is often personal and sometimes selfish, and it gets communicated as if it is purely for the cause of Christ. This is not new. Holy wars have been fought with the same dynamics in play.

This is further complicated because it’s rarely malice that drives the personal agenda. It’s more often good people who really believe that what they are doing—what they want—is right. The problem is that good people who are attempting to do good things can lose sight of the big picture and begin to justify their part of the mission as the mission.

When the situation reaches the state where it becomes ugly, all perspective is lost, sides are taken and battles begin. I know of dozens of examples of this, from screaming matches in church business meetings to tithe checks withheld because “we don’t like how things are going around here.” (Loosely translated, this means "I’m not getting what I want.") Alliances are formed between peoples and groups (déjà vu, like King Henry and Ferdinand with Spain and England against France) and the church is tremendously wounded. God’s heart is crushed and Christianity gets another black eye.

So, what can you do?

If politics is a problem and clean-up is needed:

1. Refuse to engage in pettiness. It’s difficult to ignore petty people, even though sometimes it’s the wise leadership thing to do. What about the petty issues that you’re convinced you should not ignore? For starters, don’t allow yourself to be drawn down into the smallness of the issue, but commit yourself to raise the person, or persons, and the conversation up to a higher level. The aligning point is the overall vision and good of the church.

Most local church politics is about small things that don’t matter. It is often driven by good people who have lost a reasonable perspective. People who fall into this group have, in a way, forgotten the purpose of the church or have become impassioned to believe that their way is the only way to accomplish the church’s purpose.

For these individuals, offer wisdom and guidance. Appeal to their sense of the larger kingdom, and help them remember why they fell in love with your church in the first place. Talk about what really changed. Is it the church or them? Listen carefully and then speak candidly.

Sometimes the petty things are driven by good people who are hurt about something. These usually shouldn’t be ignored. They represent a level more complex than the first. The issue may still be petty, but as John Maxwell says, “Hurting people hurt people.” It’s important at this stage to help the person understand the real underlying issue. It usually has little to do with the church. The church just becomes the lightning rod for their pain. If you are part of the hurt, apologize and move forward. If not, do what you can do for their healing process. If the person’s situation is deep and complex, I recommend that you refer them to a professional counselor and that you remain their encourager in the process.

Loss of a healthy perspective and/or hurting people can transition into situations of malice. This requires a very different approach.

2. Hit the big issues head-on. Don’t be political about politics. Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16), but He never meant for you to fight people’s personal agendas to defend, or be in protection of, your own personal agenda. That’s how it is in Washington, D.C. We live in the greatest country in the world, but the political back-scratching and backbiting is so complex that it’s nearly impossible to know who really stands for what. In the midst of that complexity, it is nearly impossible to get anything done.

It’s important to consistently ask God to help you keep your perspective clear and your motives pure. This is not easy when you are under attack.

The place to start is to name the elephant in the room. If it’s not already obvious, everyone involved must stop the gripe sessions and own their issues personally. It’s imperative that each person take ownership of their own stuff. Do everything you can to break down the “angry mob” group mindset by meeting with key people one to one and insist that they take responsibility for their opinions and behaviors, on their own.

3. Find the source. In 30 years of church leadership, I’ve never found a problem in a local church, especially those of political nature, that didn’t have a source. The source is always a person. I’m not saying it’s a bad person, but good people can do really dumb things. Meet one to one with this person. If it is a tight-knit group of two or three people, then meet with them. Start by discovering what they really want, and go from there.

If things are more subtle, meaning it’s not a good old-fashioned church brouhaha, thank the Lord for the reduced heat, but beware of the dangers of passive-aggressive behavior. 

Again, insist that all key influencers are open and honest about what really think and feel.

This is complicated. You might ask at this point, What’s the difference between church conflict and church politics? Sometimes nothing. However, with pure conflict, people can be upfront, honest, agree to disagree and seek a common solution. But politics involves agendas, positioning, maneuvering—and usually with a sense of a righteous cause (subtle or not).

You may need to bring in outside help. A church consultant with a good reputation could be of great help to you.

4. Be prepared to lose people. Jesus did. Again, don’t get sucked into your own personal holy war. (Yes, most politics are softer and more subtle than all-out war, but skirmishes that are left untended can result in pretty big battle). Be willing to lovingly let people leave your church who ultimately believe that their mission is more important than the mission of the church—or, more commonly, that their way of accomplishing the mission is the way the rest of church should go.

The bottom line is that you must act. Churches that have a political bent don’t get better if left to their own natural course. They get worse. Politics feeds politics. Further, you must address the big, blatant issues head on. You can’t do this halfway and survive. Be prepared to engage for a long period of time. This is a process that is not solved overnight, but with prayer, wisdom and a steady leadership vision, you effect the changes you need to make.

As you seek to build a different culture—one of trust, honesty, alignment and support—politics slowly gets choked out and great teamwork takes it place!

Dan Reiland is executive pastor at 12Stone Church in Lawrenceville, Ga. He previously partnered with John Maxwell for 20 years, first as executive pastor at Skyline Wesleyan Church in San Diego, then as vice president of leadership and church development at INJOY.

For the original article, visit danreiland.com.

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