The Politics of Ministry (Review)

The word “politics” often has a negative connotation. It conjures up images of manipulation, brazen self-interest, hunger for power, and outright contempt for any who might disagree or get in the way. Even if you think it’s necessary in certain circumstances, if your soul has not been damaged beyond repair you can’t help but regard it as kind of icky. And the thought of politics in ministry—well, then you can add an element of hypocrisy to the whole sordid picture.

It may therefore seem strange to title a book The Politics of Ministry. But the authors of this book—Bob Burns, Tasha D. Chapman, and Donald C. Guthrie— want people to see politics as not necessarily a negative thing. Instead, they define politics broadly as “the art of getting things done with others” (5). Working with people inevitably involves navigating interests, and navigating interests is what politics is all about. In ministry, whether it’s a church or a nonprofit, leaders do themselves and their organizations a disservice if they choose to remain ignorant about how people function in groups, because we are always navigating different interests and always negotiating using differing degrees of power. The good news is that “the political process can be respectful, unifying, and fruitful, just as much as it can be competitive, selfish, and destructive” (18).

The authors describe the political process as consisting of four activities:

  1. Perceiving power dynamics between people and groups
  2. Understanding and navigating various interests
  3. Engaging in negotiation between stakeholders
  4. Considering the ethical implications of decisions and actions

Power

Like politics, power is everywhere—even cheesy cartoons from the ’80s. But also like politics, power is not necessarily bad. It is merely “the capacity to act and to influence others” (19). Therefore, everyone has some level of power, which can be used for helpful or harmful purposes. In situations where there is unequal power in ministry, the authors say, “it is important to consider carefully whether these asymmetries are legitimate or illegitimate, just or unjust, healthy or abusive” (51).

There are broadly two types of power: formal, which people possess by virtue of the positions they hold; and relational, which comes from interpersonal associations a person has. While formal power plays an important role in determining what things get done and what things are left undone, the authors argue that relational power is always more significant in the long run. Over time, it develops into relationship capital, which is “the strength of trust and respect that a relationship has built over time” (23). You can be chair of the board at your church, but if you lack relationship capital, you will be unable to have significant influence. People just won’t listen to you.

Interests

Navigating interests is the second element in the political process. The authors write, “To gain understanding of interests, we need to grow in our capacity to perceive them, to name them, to empathize with them, and to manage them, both for ourselves and for others” (56).

People’s interests come from a variety of sources and are often hidden. They can be rooted in people’s personal uniqueness, like their family of origin or their personality profile. They could be rooted in the culture of the organization, like whether it tends to be more collaborative or controlling, or results focused versus relationship focused. In a church, this extends to how people spend their time, and what ministry plans and programs are or are not happening. And finally, people’s interests can be rooted in the culture of the broader society, like which generation they are in, where they live, how their culture tends to communicate, and whether the power distance in that culture tends to be low or high (in the United States, where equality is a value, it tends to be low).

Negotiations

Negotiations are always happening in any organization. The authors define negotiation as “the process of promoting one’s interests in relational contexts through the use of power” (111). Whenever you have to get together with someone else who has common or conflicting interests to reach an agreement on future action, you’re negotiating. Negotiation involves four distinct actions:

  1. People bring their own specific, complex, and often hidden interests.
  2. People promote their interests between each other.
  3. People consciously or unconsciously choose how to use the power available to them.
  4. People’s actions during and after the negotiation process will either strengthen or diminish the ongoing interests and power of those involved (115).

All negotiation strategies can be placed into one of four quadrants. In cell 1, you have shared interests and equal power, so you collaborate. In cell 2, you have shared interests and unequal power, so you network. In cell 3, you have conflicting interests and equal power, so you bargain. And in cell 4, you have conflicting interests and unequal power, so you can do a number of things depending on whether you have more or less power in the negotiation. Situations like this are complex enough that they warrant their own chapter in the book.

Ethical Implications

The fourth and final aspect of the political process is considering the ethical implications of actions taken throughout the process. Reflection throughout the political process is key; this enables you to step back and act deliberately out of what you value instead of reacting instinctively out of interests. To reflect on ethical implications, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie urge their readers to ask four questions, particularly in complicated situations where there are conflicting interests and unequal power:

  1. Who are the stakeholders in this situation? Who has something to gain or lose?
  2. What are the probable interests of each stakeholder? What do I fear, and what might others be afraid of in this situation?
  3. How will those interests be represented during the negotiation process? How will the right people be brought into the room where the decisions are made?
  4. To what degree are we serving the welfare of God’s church and the redemption of his world over our selfish interests?

Conclusion

As you can probably guess from the fact that I’ve spent almost this entire review summarizing the book, I think it is incredibly valuable. I am currently the chair of my church’s leadership team while we are in the midst of a pastoral transition, and this book came along at just the right time for me. After the departure of a long-tenured lead pastor, there are many things that are open for negotiation (or that some want to be open for negotiation) that seemed closed previously, and there is greater uncertainty about who holds the power to act in various situations. The four-activity process of politics outlined in The Politics of Ministry has been helpful to me as I seek to identify different interests and power dynamics and try to navigate them with integrity. In fact, I’m probably going to read it again soon and share some of what I’ve learned with the rest of our leadership team.

Oh, and one more thing. In spite of the somewhat dry tone of my summary, Burns, Chapman, and Guthrie do a good job of livening things up by including case studies that they return to throughout the book. I highly recommend it to anyone in ministry leadership, especially young pastors who may have gotten great theological training in seminary but may be unprepared for the political realities of leading in a complex organization. Reading this book may not solve all of the problems ministry leaders face, but it should pull back the curtain to help them know more about how organizations function—and help them know that politics is not necessarily a bad thing.

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