Book Review

How does ministry involve politics?

Learning to steward power and interests

Jun 7, 2019

"Ugh," was the grimacing response of someone in my church when I told her the book I was reading is titled The Politics of Ministry: Navigating Power Dynamics and Negotiating Interests. Politics is not pretty, and we'd prefer not to put such a tainted concept together with the noble enterprise of ministry.

In a positive light, the three authors of The Politics of Ministry point out that politics is simply the art of getting things done with others—and that we are all always doing it whenever we do life in community.  Nevertheless, some of the negative connotations are inescapable because, as they acknowledge, people-work is messy because people are sinful. This reality goes for God's redeemed people as well.

The already-not-yet polis of God

If you are starting in ministry, you will struggle to avoid a naïve, over-realized eschatology that is unprepared for the disagreements and disillusionment you will face. It's true: everyone in Christ should have the "same mind" (1Cor. 1:10; Phil. 2:2), but Paul had to write to Christians appealing for them to agree—because they didn't. Church or parachurch team members won't always have the mind of Christ and put others’ interests above their own. Can you accept that?

On the other hand, if you have been in the trenches long enough to have battle scars, your challenge will be different. You will naturally get jaded, want to insulate yourself from being hurt, and either quit or become a mere religious professional. The term ‘politics’ comes from the Greek word polis, which means city.  A new, perfect city is on the way (Heb. 11:10, 13:14; Rev. 21:2), but it is also already present in the church (Mt. 5:14; Eph. 2:19). The church is a colony of heaven here and now, and we shouldn’t withdraw.  Can you believe that in light of the difficulties you’ll face?

Navigating the difficulties of ministry

Recognizing that sin still plagues the church, and at the same time, that it is a present, supernatural reality empowered by the Spirit provides guardrails against idealism and cynicism. Within this lane, a pastor or ministry leader can navigate the sometimes bumpy roads in the already-not-yet city of God. Here are a few areas that the authors cover:

Power: Leaders must first identify all the different stakeholders in their ministry and understand the power dynamics involved between them. The authors, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie, distinguish between formal power (e.g., holding an office like elder) and relational power, which can be had by those without official roles.

An effective leader will not rely on his or her formal title but will work hard to develop relational capital, like a bank account balance that he or she can withdraw from in times of conflict or when faced with a difficult decision. Power itself is not evil but can either be misused or stewarded for the flourishing of all.

Interests: After surveying the key players and their levels of power, a careful assessment of everyone’s interests is crucial. We all have interests (motivations, values, goals, etc.), and these interests regularly conflict with those of others. We may be unaware of the interests we bring to the table from our personality or experiences. And ministry leaders are often oblivious to fault lines like cultural differences that are present within their organizations. Such ignorance can exacerbate conflict.

Time and intentionality are required to study the underlying interests of those you are working with and not just rush ahead, assuming everyone is on the same page. The authors assist with this by sharing helpful tools for unearthing personal, organizational, and societal interests.

Negotiation: Negotiation is what happens at the planning table among the different stakeholders. When everyone at the table has shared interests, accomplishing things together is fun and relatively easy. When such decisions are made among people with equal power, the authors call it “Cell 1 collaboration.” If there are shared interests, yet power differentials, then networking is what takes place (“Cell 2”).

However, because we’re not in the New Jerusalem yet, we will often find ourselves in quagmires of competing interests. If this occurs among colleagues with equal power, then bargaining takes place (“Cell 3”). But if there is unequal power, then we venture into the explosive realm of negotiation (“Cell 4”,) which receives its own chapter in the book. In that chapter, the authors walk through a continuum of possible responses from those with less or more power. Cell 4 represents the dreaded politics most people are trying to avoid and from which wise leaders will seek to lead the group away from. Even these experiences of conflict can turn out for our sanctification.

Ethical considerations: Lastly, the authors provide theological guidance for thinking about the pitfalls of church politics. They end with a hopeful picture of what mature, Christ-like leadership can look like amid conflict. They challenge and equip the reader to listen well and to be willing to let go of control, not lording one’s power over those entrusted to the leader, but truly loving them.

Conclusion

Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie carefully and methodically unpack their thesis that all ministry is political, and this means leaders must perceive the dynamics of power at play, understand the different interests people hold, and engage in negotiation while considering ethical implications. The Politics of Ministry adeptly interacts with secular literature, but it still relates the material to real ministry stories while throwing in many helpful leadership tips.

This book could be an excellent addition to a seminary curriculum, although no class can thoroughly prepare someone for what he or she will face in working with people. But if you are leading God's people in any way, reading this book will enable you to see what's going on. And it will push you to learn from reflection-in-action, reflection-on-action, mentors and models, and your inevitable negative experiences.

This timely read gave me helpful categories for better comprehending conflicts I’m currently dealing with in my setting. Most importantly, The Politics of Ministry stirred me as a pastor to pray and preach so that God’s glory in the gospel would increasingly become the overriding shared interest of everyone in our church. I feel Paul’s heart for the people of God—that we would let our political life be worthy of the gospel of Christ (Phil. 1:27), since our political bonds come from heaven, and from there we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ (Phil. 3:20).