What Do Pastors Do with Power? Owning and Using the Uncomfortable Gift

How do your pastors handle their power? That’s right, their power. Does that make you cringe to think about pastors having power?

If so, it’s understandable. When we talk about power today, we do so in a particular social climate. Even ordinary folks, unfamiliar with foreign names like Nietzsche and Foucault, have caught the drift, and the negative connotations of power. Which is why it might sound jarring in many ears to hear about pastoral power.

“The question is not whether pastors have power, but what kind, how much, and how they use it.”

Power, however, rightly defined, is first a gift and blessing from God, not an evil to be avoided. Power, writes, Andy Crouch, is “our ability to make something of the world” in fulfillment of the charge God gave our race to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion (Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, 17). To be human is to have power. With brains and hands, minds and muscles — and a voice — God enables us to fulfill his call, and increases our power as we exercise it effectively, especially as we consolidate our human powers by working together.

So, make no mistake, pastors have power — some more, some less — as it relates to their particular context in the local church. The question is not whether they have power, but what kind, how much, and how they use it.

Power of Office

Both in the church and beyond, we might talk of two kinds of power. The first is official power, power that is tied to office.

In the New Testament, the office of apostle drew on the very power of Christ himself, as his official spokesmen. The apostles were a single, irreplaceable generation, the men who Christ himself discipled, plus Paul, to whom Christ appeared on the Damascus Road. In their words and writings, the apostles spoke for the risen Christ. Their living words and office died with them, but their writings remain as our living word of inspired Scripture, for the church to receive, with the Old Testament, as the very word of Christ, our head. The first and greatest authority in the church, which should be unrivaled, is the authority of Christ, through the writings of his apostles.

In addition to apostles, Scripture establishes two ongoing offices in the life of the church: a lead office, called variously pastor (or shepherd, Ephesians 4:11; 1 Peter 2:25; 5:2), elder (Acts 20:17; James 5:14; 1 Peter 5:1), and overseer (Acts 20:28; Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:1–2; Titus 1:7); along with an assisting office, called deacon (Philippians 1:1; 1 Timothy 3:8–13). To be a pastor-elder or deacon today in the church — to hold church office — is to have, in some sense, power as a formal representative of a particular local church.

Depending on the church’s polity, to be a member is to have some real, not-to-be-overlooked power as well. And whatever our polity, we always vote with our dollars and feet. Still, as we all intuit and expect, the officers in the church are entrusted with additional power, at least formally. As officers, they are official.

Power of Influence

But power in the church is not only official, drawing on the power of the institution and office, but also unofficial or informal — what we might call influence. And in healthy churches, teaching is especially influential. Pastors are teachers (Ephesians 4:11), indeed leaders in the church are teachers (Hebrews 13:7), and given the centrality of teaching in the Christian faith, it is fitting that it be so. We’re setting ourselves up for trouble if “the pastors” and “the teachers” are two different groups, and not essentially the same.

Jesus himself, even before his disciples recognized him in his office as Messiah, amassed great influence through his teaching. So too, throughout church history, those who have been most influential in the church, though typically officers, have been so not because they had an office but because they won trust and expanded their influence by proving themselves to be faithful and effective teachers of God’s word.

After all, the gospel itself is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16), coupled in fruitful preaching with the power of the Holy Spirit. Those who preach the gospel, and preach it well, with the Spirit’s help, may gain a significant amount of “power” on Christian terms. To have that power is not evil. The question is what pastors do with such power.

Power of Team

Still, one more dynamic to consider is the pooling (or consolidating) of power — what happens especially when men become friends and work together. This is particularly relevant to a plurality of pastor-elders, working as a team in a local church, which is the focus of Dave Harvey’s new book, The Plurality Principle. Harvey returns again and again to a central thesis: “The quality of your elder plurality determines the health of your church.”

“Good pastors know that God has given them power for serving the church, not self.”

Pastor-elder teams who know and teach the Scriptures well, and genuinely enjoy each other and get along, unavoidably become a formidable center of power in a local church. Not only do they have their office, and in theory are the church’s most able teachers, but their influence is compounded by their unity and industry as a team. That consolidation can be scary for those who feel weak and insecure and carry suspicion of the team’s motives.

The question, though, is not whether such pluralities have power, but what they will do with it. Will they use it to serve the good of the whole church, or use it to serve themselves? Will they give themselves to enrich the flock, or take selfishly for their own private gain? Will they be a force for good, or reinforce their own good?

Acknowledging Power

Good pastors, for good reason, do not gravitate toward talking much in public about their own power. Still, engaging the subject well, at least in private, can serve both them and their people. Harvey writes, “The wise leader acknowledges his power and leverages it wisely” (108). And here the New Testament prescription of a plurality of pastors — a team working together — shines with one of its many bright rays of glory. Wise pastors recognize their power in the context of the team, and remind each other about it. “Wise pluralities have power dynamics as a functional category for how their leadership affects the church” (110). In the team is both more power (to use for good), and simultaneously more safety for the congregation, as individual pastors are held accountable by fellow, mature Christian brothers are not yes-men but stand on their own two feet before God.

Doubtless, you can find some conceited elders and councils, swollen with pride and selfish motives, who think often about the power and influence they have in the church, their little kingdom. They savor it, guard it, and in the end, aren’t as powerful as they think. But I suspect that in most healthy, faithful churches, the elders are relatively humble (“not arrogant,” Titus 1:7; also 1 Timothy 3:6) and often don’t realize how powerful they are (as officers, teachers, and teammates) in the context of that particular local church.

Humble pastors and councils don’t think often about their power, but at times they are real with each other about it. And from time to time, it can be good for one brother to look around the circle and remind the team, “You know, guys, as the elders and teachers of this church, we may have a lot more power and influence than we’re typically aware of.” That should not swell our pride. Rather, it should give us a holy fear, and lead us to regularly hit our knees and ask God to humble us, and keep us humble, that we steward the power we have on loan from him to make much of Christ and serve this church, not make much of ourselves and serve our own comforts and preferences.

Leveraging Power

Leadership in the local church is not a package of conveniences but precisely the opposite. The elders, of all people, should be the most grounded and mature, and most willing to forgo personal conveniences and private comforts for the sake of the good of the whole church. Good elders see leadership not as a reward for their past performance, but as a responsibility, taken up gladly, for the good of the flock. Good pastors know that God has given them power for serving the church, not self. For exalting Christ, not self.

Again and again, pastor-elders stand at this junction as they oversee the church: what’s easiest for us versus what’s best for our people. In overseeing the church, many decisions come down to this key moment for any team of pastors: Will we use our power — whether it’s teaching or decision-making — to serve us or this church?

At such times, good pastors remember that, as John Piper writes,

The path of suffering and sacrifice really does lead to glory. . . . This is [Christ’s] peculiar glory — that he would condescend from such a height of deity, of power, to such a depth of naked, beaten, mocked, spit-upon, crucified humiliation — that he would do that without reviling is unspeakably glorious. (Money, Sex, and Power, 98–99)

Pastors like this leverage power not like the world, but like Christ — and like the apostle Paul who says, “I will most gladly spend and be spent for your souls” (2 Corinthians 12:15). Such leaders “spread power around” (104), says Harvey, and “push the power out” (111) as they embrace the path of love, which is often the harder path.

Giving Without Giving In

Spreading power around, and pushing it out, is very different than giving into grabs. Power, like money, can be acquired justly or unjustly. It can be earned or seized. It can be given or taken, whether outright or through manipulation.

Mature pastors, and congregants, know this. Healthy churches give their pastors space to take proactive steps in spreading power around and pushing it out, rather than clamoring for it. Foolish pastors acquiesce to such lobbying, and in doing so, they set destructive precedents and expectations. They feed an insatiable beast. The effects of rewarding those dynamics will prove devasting for the church (and for those individuals) in the long haul.

“Faithful, healthy pastors, and their churches, handle power differently than the world does.”

Wise pastors sniff out power grabs, and are careful not to give in, but they don’t leave it at that. They do more. They embrace the harder path. They take such efforts as indicators that they have work to do, far beyond holding the lobbyists at bay. We have work to do — work that will require the powers of 2 Timothy 2:24–25: “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”

‘Not So Among You’

Faithful, healthy pastors, and their churches, handle power differently than the world does. Not just in how we teach from the front, but in what we say through our actions in everyday life, and especially in how we lead. We are growing into, not away from, the one who came with unrivaled power not to be served, but to serve:

You know that those who are considered rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mark 10:42–45)

We show our society that, while Nietzsche and Foucault may be right about depraved aspects of humanity, our churches are led and filled with new men, with new hearts, who steward power with selfless grace and humility. The church, then, is a covenant community in which power, both in office and influence, can be received as the gift it is, and leveraged for the joy of the church, to the glory of Christ.

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