Surviving and Thriving in Church Politics

Beware the people who meet you at the airport.”

I’m not sure where we first heard this phrase in our ministry lives, but that advice from others who have walked the ministry leadership road before us has given my husband and me pause over the years. The premise of this statement is that the people who first meet you when you are visiting a church that is considering you as their pastor are usually the ones who are most invested in the ministry. These are also most likely the ones who have the greatest desire to influence the church, and thus you, as the possible new leaders of the church. 

There is no question that as humans we all desire to exert influence over one another. This is not always a bad thing. For example, parents exert their authority over their children to influence their behavior and character. These are God-given rights and responsibilities. The desire to bring about positive change in another through friendship or counseling or medical help—all of those things can be good, too.

So, why is it that so much power and influence in the church end up having negative effects?

It helps to answer this question if we first look at what politics really is. When I searched up the definition of the term, these are the descriptions I found on Google.

  1. Politics: the activities associated with the governance of a country or other area, especially the debate or conflict among individuals or parties having or hoping to achieve power.
  2. Politics is the set of activities that are associated with the governance of a country, state or area. It involves making decisions that apply to groups of members and achieving and exercising positions of governance—organized control over a human community.

When I read these definitions two phrases stuck out the most for me: “the debate or conflict among individuals..hoping to achieve power” and “organized control over a human community”.

Now..why is it that I noticed those phrases? Why not the “governance of a country” or “making decisions that apply to groups”?

Unfortunately, our associations with the word politics are rarely positive, are they? After all, the history of the world has confirmed again and again that when an individual or group exercises control over another it usually is achieved through manipulative–and too often–violent means.

So…what does that mean for the church? As ministers of the gospel we are in a position of making decisions that apply to groups of people. It is our responsibility to have organized control over our community of believers. Isn’t it?

If you’ve been in church leadership for any length of time you know what it means to be in the middle of a debate among people trying to have power in your church. How in the world do we survive and even thrive as pastor’s wives in the midst of the fallout that inevitably comes from these responsibilities?

To survive and even thrive in church politics we need to connect to the True Source of Power and let His rules define our actions and relationships with others.

Rule One: God calls us to maturity

We were privileged to have a live interview in April on our Community Facebook Group with Joanna Weaver, an author and pastor’s wife who shared wisdom and encouragement with us as fellow pastor’s wives. One thing she said as she chuckled was that in ministry we have to remember that “we have to be the grown ups!”

It sounds funny, but it’s so true. Ephesians 4:11-13 lines out that God “gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood”..and I would add womanhood!

We are all called to become mature in our walk with Christ. That means that whether we are the ones God has called to lead or not, the calling for every believer is to become mature. The measure of that maturity is nothing less than the fruit of the Spirit Whom our Lord gave us as a gift.

So, when the deacon whose personality constantly rubs your husband the wrong way does something else to irritate him, and you want to complain right along with him…be loving…be kind. When the ministry leader pushes for a certain change in the schedule or is especially resistant to a new idea you have to improve the ministry…be patient…have self-control.

God is helping us to grow; we need to be committed to that process in our own life and bear with that process in our people as God bears with us.

Rule Two: God calls us to humility

People wanting to exercise control over one another is nothing new. The leaders in Jesus’ day were the same—religious and political. And yet, though He is the Only True Ruler He condemned the attitude of the rulers of His day and hit on the real problem. Power and influence in the church turns for evil sometimes because people love the approval of men rather than the approval of God (see John 12:42-43).

We are subject to the same temptations and need to heed these warnings ourselves, using these experiences of others trying to control us as a reminder to humbly check our own motives for leadership.

Jesus repeatedly condemned the Pharisees and religious leaders for their wrong concept of leadership (see Matthew 23:1-12). Their problem: they liked their influence a little too much. And therein lies the answer to why power and influence in the church turn to evil.

Those people who met you at the airport; who offer to babysit your children before everyone else; who are the first ones to invite you over for a meal; who always manage to find time to talk to you about something every Sunday morning, are likely the ones who most desire to influence you and the church. 

Certainly, not all of the people who do these things have ulterior motives, God has given us many wonderful true friends in our churches who do these things out of love for us and for God. But for some who seek to get close to us when our ideas on what the church should look like begin to conflict with theirs…well, suddenly we become their enemy rather than their friend, though they may not even realize it or mean to do it. Many times these people are being used by Satan because they have given him a foothold without knowing it. “Politics” takes over. Hurt ensues, and we have to decide, how will we respond? With maturity? With humility?

Only by the grace of God.

Rule Three: God calls us to forgiveness

And yes; that is the only way we can survive and thrive in the ministry, by entrusting all of the conflicts and messy relationships to Him. After all, we are human. As my husband has said many times to others when he has become the target of their anger, “I bleed, too”.

So did our Great Leader. Someone within His closest group of followers exerted power and control over Him. He tried, at least, and Jesus allowed it! In fact, it was a part of His plan. Why? He knew that He had to enter every form of human suffering in order to become like us, and that included being manipulated and abused and used and betrayed (see Hebrews 2:14-18).

And yet…how did He respond? As we must. To survive, and yes, even thrive, in church politics we are called to forgive as He has forgiven us.

An experience in our ministry lives comes sharply into focus as I type this. One church in which we ministered held an experience of very real betrayal for us. Those who hurt us took advantage of our vulnerability with them and eventually sought to push us out of the church. The emotions that wreaked havoc on our lives for many years over this left us spent and weary. The only way we survived was to keep remembering who our true enemy was and to not hold the sin of these people against them. We knew they were hurting inside, and we needed to show compassion.

Often we would think about the fact that these people meant well, that they loved the church, too, and it was that love that pushed them to seek that influence. Even if their motives weren’t that pure, neither were ours always. God would judge both of us, and we could trust Him for our vindication if they were truly in the wrong (see Isaiah 54:16-17).

In time, that happened. Not right away, and not fully until years had passed and we were no longer ministering in leadership at the church.

We wrestled with doubts, hurt, anger, even bitterness at times; but we always kept hearing Jesus’ words “Father, forgive them; they know not what they do” (see Luke 23:34). So we would pray for those who persecuted us, and our hearts were at peace (see Matthew 5:44).

And, by God’s grace, years later we sat down for a meal with those very ones who had hurt us, and God gave reconciliation and peace. He’d already gifted that to us in our spirits, and now He was gifting it to us in a restored relationship.

We need to play by God’s rules when facing church politics–the rules of maturity, humility, and God-empowered forgiveness. If we do, we can not only survive in ministry, but thrive despite the political game Satan plays in and among God’s people.

By His grace I don’t need to be afraid of those who meet us at the airport. I know the Pilot of the plane.

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Wendy McCready

About Wendy McCready

Wendy lives in Alma, Ontario, Canada with her husband Mark and two daughters where Mark has been the senior pastor of Alma Bible Church since the summer of 2010. Together they have served for over 15 years in rural and small-town ministry. Their previous small-town pastoral work included a church in the mountains of Colorado while Mark was in seminary, and then in northern Ontario “cottage” country upon graduation. Wendy works as an Educational Assistant in the local schools where she enjoys making community connections in order to share Christ and helping children with special challenges learn new things. She also enjoys participating in music ministry in their church and hosting people in their home.

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