Book Review

How does ministry involve politics?

Learning to steward power and interests

June 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.


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).

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24