Dan Reiland: Church Politics, Part 2

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Church politics
Church politics, especially when it comes to money, can get dicey. (Lightstock)

The pastor, board, staff and building committee wanted chairs in the new sanctuary. Bob wanted pews. Easy, right? Wrong.

Bob was a founding member, influential and rich. The pastor met with him on several occasions, pleading his case in favor of chairs in the new worship auditorium. If you are wondering “What about Bob?” caused all the fuss, he threatened to pull his huge commitment to the building fund if they didn’t put pews in the new church.

Before you say this is an easy one and assert that the pastor should buck up and tell Bob to take a hike, you know it’s not that easy. Under the intense financial pressure of a new building, the leaders needed and wanted Bob’s check.

Bob had dozens of people convinced this was a critical issue and central to the future success of the church. The church was about 50 years old and always had pews. People had come to Christ in pews—hundreds of them. God cared about pews. Pews represented unity and chairs individualism.

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Don’t laugh. If I came to your church, I’ll bet I could find a sacred cow or two! Before long, Bob had made it a theological issue of passionate proportion. And it didn’t matter that pews were more expensive than chairs and seated less people.

This caused a division in the church. Soon, as is often the case, the issue wasn’t the issue. The case of pews vs. chairs began to fade into church politics without a clear direction. It turned into more of a “Whose side are you on?” issue.

An example sounded like this: “I don’t really care about pews and chairs, but I’m Bob’s friend, so I guess I want pews.” Bob’s grandson was the youth pastor at the church—and there you have church politics in full bloom.

This is not the subtle variety, but nonetheless common. Most political issues start slow, quiet and subtle and then turn into a “crazy” story like this one. This story was modified (only slightly) and the person’s name changed to protect the church and the individual.

The next several paragraphs comprise a summary review of the central thoughts in Part 1 of this article on church politics. I encourage you to read Part 1 in its entirety if you haven’t.

Church politics has taken on its own contemporary definition, pertaining specifically to the local church. We instinctively know what we’re talking about when someone says “church politics.”

Politics is agenda driven. Somebody wants something. The major complication is that the agendas are often personal and sometimes selfish, and they get communicated as if they are purely about 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.

So, what can you do?

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

1. Refuse to engage with petty people and petty matters on a petty level. Good people who have lost perspective or who are hurting can create political situations that require leadership. Left untended, they can transition to situations of malice. This requires a very different approach.

2. Hit the big issues head-on, but don’t be political about politics. Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16, NIV), but He never meant for you to fight people’s personal agendas to defend or be in protection of your own personal agenda.

That concludes the brief summary. Now let’s jump back into Part 2.

If things are good but you want to be proactive:

1. Never allow yourself to be put up for sale. Don’t let anyone put a price tag on your leadership, no matter how much pressure you are under. Every leader has at least one significant decision to make, usually early in their ministry, whether or not to receive a check and thereby sell his or her time and influence. Don’t misread this. I‘m not referring to a back-room type of unethical deal. I’m talking about a subjective situation in which anyone might have difficulty making the decision. Far too many good men and women on a mission for God have fallen prey to unwise decisions because of the financial pressures to fund their ministry dreams.

In the opening story, the pastor did take Bob’s check. Ultimately, it cost him his job. Too much influence slid into the wrong people’s hands, and he lost leadership of the church. The story is a sad one, but it doesn’t have to be for you. Just say “Thanks, but keep the check.”

2. Develop a culture where character matters. Kevin Myers, the senior pastor at 12Stone Church, where I serve, has done an outstanding job keeping the church nearly free from politics. I do my best to carry on what he has established as I lead the staff.

I believe the central thing that Kevin did over the years to make this a reality is to insist on a culture of no pretense and character that is above reproach. The courage to confront and truth-telling is non-negotiable. We’re far from perfect. In fact, the staff is pretty sure that sarcasm is a spiritual gift! We well recognize our flaws and laugh a lot because we don’t take ourselves too seriously. But we take God seriously and deeply believe that character matters.

One example is Chris Morgan, the worship pastor at our central campus. Chris is a good friend and amazing worship leader. He’s a killer guitar player, can sing like James Taylor, and will take you out on a basketball court.

But here is where the story really gets really exciting. When it comes to musicians and singers, Chris will never allow competence to override character. Chris always says no to that check, no matter how big it is. Further, he works with his team to keep ego in line, hearts set toward God and worship as the genuine objective. He will confront pride and coach for godliness. All the while, he and his team have a blast. If you sneak in to a rehearsal just a little early while they are warming up, you might hear them busting out with a hot rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama.”

3. Refuse to engage in or allow gossip. Church leaders can get caught up in gossip. Of course leaders talk about people, but only for the purpose of developing their spiritual life or overall welfare. Leaders should never talk about someone for the purpose of tearing them down or to make them the blunt end of a hurtful joke. More often than not, the person becomes aware of the conversation.

The difficulty in this process is that it’s easy for noble purposes to descend into purposeless or even hurtful gossip. Negative things get said about people, and then they get repeated. No harm was intended, but it was said. It takes so much time and effort to repair the relationship, and trust still remains at risk. When trust is at risk, destructive politics is nearby.

Keep it real. Stay positive. Speak well of everyone. And when you need to have a conversation about someone, then speak with that person face to face and make it solely for the purpose of that person’s best interest and personal growth.

4. Practice generosity. Let me close with a simple thought. Generosity is the opposite of politics. I know that if you consult Webster’s Dictionary, you won’t find them to be linguistic opposites. But consider that if political people in political environments are about getting something they want, then the act of generosity and giving yourself away will do much to deflate the air out of political tires. Can people take advantage of you? Yes. But do it anyway. Jesus would, and I believe it will come back around for God’s favor in the end.

Church politics is likely here to stay, but you have the opportunity to reduce it substantially in your church, if not nearly eliminate it. Whether you need to hit it head-on or you proactively keep politics to a minimum, my prayer for you is that God would help you in this process so you can invest your time in the things that really matter.

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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