In 2012 I visited the U.S. to attend several conferences including Catalyst and The Resurgence. I also spent a day at Mars Hill Church – including sitting in on an excellent training session on power dynamics. Sadly, abuse of power would be at the heart of this church's demise 2 years later.
Mars Hill Church might be a prominent example, but it's not the only example. Abuse of power is a reality in other churches, and it is enabled and exacerbated by certain imbalances.
As a result of recent reflections and conversations about bad leadership, I have noted 7 imbalances that can exist between Senior Ministers and their staff (referred to below as “Assistants”).
- A power imbalance. In most contexts it is much easier for the Senior Minister to remove an Assistant than it is for the the Senior Minister to be removed by anyone. Assistants can be asked to leave for any number of reasons, but the Senior Minister must either commit heresy or serious moral failure.
- A relational imbalance. Senior Ministers are often (and often justifiably) held in high regard with their word taken seriously. Therefore, public criticisms of Assistants are heard with considerable weight. And if an Assistant leaves, the Senior Minister is able to continue to shape the narrative about what happened to people who are highly likely to believe them.
- A cost imbalance. When Assistants are required to leave their jobs they often pay a high price. They must then find not only a new job, but a new home, a new church, and a new school/s. The Senior Minister would also experience these costs if they were to leave, but when they leave it is more likely to be on their terms and in their preferred timeframe.
- A support imbalance. In the Sydney Anglican Diocese (the system I am most familiar with) there is a Clergy Assistance Program to assist clergy and their spouses who are “struggling with the pressures of parish ministry.” There is no such program for Assistants who aren't ordained. Supporting struggling clergy is vital, but it is no less necessary for others in church leadership teams.
- A structural imbalance. The structures where change can be made can be geared against Assistants. For example, Synod, the place where systemic improvements can be legislated in my context, is dominated by Senior Ministers and their appointed representatives. The very people who would be held accountable by policies to protect Assistants are a significant contingent of those who must vote to approve them. I have no doubt that most Senior Ministers would be more than willing to adopt whatever guidelines are necessary to help them lead and serve well, but giving others the opportunity to reject this accountability is far from ideal.
- A (perceived) submission imbalance. Those who serve as assistants may feel the pressure of Biblical commands to “submit to their leaders” (Hebrews 13:17) and not “stir up conflict” (Proverbs 6:19). I say “perceived” because of course, these commands never justify overbearing or abusive leadership. And while these commands still apply to Senior Ministers, but aren’t necessarily felt by them or imposed on them to the same degree.
- An opportunity imbalance. When an Assistant Minister starts looking for a new job (especially if they remain in the same city), it is likely that his or her potential employers (other Senior Ministers) will know their current “boss” and seek their input. This gives the Senior Minister the opportunity to shape the narrative – unfairly impacting the Assistant’s prospects.
Thankfully, the problems arising from these imbalances are by far the exception than the norm. There are of course many, many humble, godly leaders who are daily demonstrating what leadership looks like according to Jesus:
“…“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.” Luke 22:25-26
But it would be naive to believe that all leaders are like this. These problems do exist and their existence must be acknowledged to protect those who are vulnerable, and to honour the name of the glorious Lord Jesus.