Politics in the Church…It’s Chernobyl all over again

by | Apr 26, 2016 | Church Planting | 1 comment


I am not a saber rattler. Those who regularly read my articles or books know this to be true. Though I do use hyperbole (overstatement) as a means of making a point sometimes, that is all in good fun and is obvious when I do that. (Sometime I will write an article on this site with email responses of seminary professors who have responded critically to my articles that contained hyperbole but they didn’t understand… “The good Rev. Sjogren claims that he has listened to a ‘close to a million sermons at this point in his life…’ I did the math on that and based on his approximate age, that is utterly impossible…” Hey, I don’t make this stuff up. I only wish there was a Church version of Saturday Night Live…)

In spite of my approach to taking the middle road on most issues, the longer I go forward as a leader and observer in the Church in the western world, the more concerned I am of the amazing destructive nature of in-house politics in the local church.

I’ve lived long enough to realize that politics is a way of life in any organization. I was an elementary school teacher before getting into pastoral ministry. Politics abounded in the educational scene. However, the potential losses and gains that lie in the balance in church politics compared to office or politics of the educational scene are quite different from one another.

Dealing With Captivated, Dug In Leaders

May I be frank with you for a bit? Even though I was aware of what I am sharing here as a spiritual reality prior to the planting of my first church (Janie and I are now working on our fifth plant by moving from location to location – yes, we are gluttons for punishment!) we have dealt nearly constantly with the issues contained in this article. That means, simply being aware of these truths is not any sort of guarantee that you or I will bypass wrestling with these issues.

Power Really Does Corrupt Deeply

People change – and quickly at that with a little bit of “authority.” People you would think could never dramatically change in a hundred lifetimes do, in fact, become chameleons over a lunch period. “Gee, at 11:30 A.M. this person was happy-go -ucky. Now it’s 1:00 P.M. and they have the ‘killer’ look in their eyes…” Maybe he or she can’t play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis, but in other ways there are resemblances.

I don’t know about you, but I like to keep surprises to a minimum. There are already lots of surprises that come our way as it is in life without the human “I have a low ego – I think I’ll use this organization as my therapy tool” surprise added in. Among pastors, this grasping for power is very common. Perhaps you have seen it. A much less expensive alternative to this approach is to actually use the psycho-therapy that is available with your insurance and go once a week for a year or two to get things straightened out.

“Can we talk?”

Perhaps you are in the middle of having painted yourself into a corner of a leadership situation where you are on the receiving end of the low ego therapy.

One of my best friends is an attorney, but specifically a litigator. If you aren’t familiar with that term, litigators are the blunt-headed lawyers who are often famous for their arguing skills. Litigators survive by learning to think, unfortunately, about what people are prone to do in their fallen nature. That includes church people.

This friend often reminds me of how I have made a lot of people wealthy over the years in various ways through my writing, speaking, recording, etc. I tell him, “But that’s actually part of my plan – to make others successful.”

His response is, “That’s all fine, but you made church people wealthy when you weren’t intending to – they just took advantage of you time after time after time. Too bad I wasn’t around as your friend when you were signing contracts or when you just took people’s words on various issues…”

I would like to say he is wrong, especially that people who follow Jesus have been changed to the point that there is no darker side to contend with, but truthfully he is exactly correct.

If you have been involved in leadership for some length of time no doubt you can tell your own story of being on the receiving end of an “opportunity” to help others that went south. God ultimately redeems everything. I simply wish for truthful communications and the putting to an end of manipulation in the Church world!

In one case I was involved in a taping that netted a group right at $1 million. I was not informed that this project was going to be marketed and sold. I understood it was a free project. Several years later someone told me of the story of this organization that had “scored” on this project.

Being in the publishing world for some time, I have had my fair share of rip-offs that have happened that go far beyond the above. I know I have financed more than a few beach-front properties of those involved in publishing who were facing bankruptcy. It was either A. Pay the authors-speakers, or B. Buy the condo in Lauderdale. No hints on how that mathematical equation ended.

The great lesson I have learned that has cost me many “pounds of flesh” as they say in England, is “When making an agreement that is of any consequence get the agreement in super clear contractual writing.” No, I am not referring to just publishing. I am referring to your relationship with the church you are currently working for.

When you suggest the notion of getting things in writing, you will get push back from nearly all of the leaders you are currently working with unless you have a large church. Keep in mind, times are changing. Just as good fences make for good neighbors, so also spelling things out clearly (your lawyer and their lawyer as well – DO NOT DEPEND ON THE CHURCH’S LAWYER – BIG MISTAKE – you don’t understand contractual language regardless of what you think a word means…)

Don’t give out titles if at all possible.

I suggest you resist giving titles to those who are functioning as leaders until it is absolutely essential.

I observe that leaders lead very well until they are given a title. From that point forward, things tend to go downhill. When a leader becomes intensely, highly focused upon the clarification of his or her title when you show them their “role sketch” realize this is a warning signal. In all of my years of leading, I have not yet seen such a flashing warning light not turn out to be a fiasco in the end. Those who are hungry for “clarification” as they usually put it, are really hungry for affirmation that you cannot provide. This sort of affirmation they are seeking is a sign they need therapy, that they have a blaming pattern that is long-term but you have not yet discovered it somehow (they have managed to keep it hidden from your view) and they have a shallow relationship with Jesus regardless of what they claim or appear to have going on with God. DON’T HIRE or RECRUIT THEM! All that glitters is not gold in this case.

One of our strong goals at CoastlandTampa is to try like the dickens to see the catalytic atmosphere (that initially ignites nearly all churches) continue as long as possible. We are stating this so boldly as this: We are setting out to see if we can see this catalytic atmosphere exist for the next three decades!

If we succeed in this, we will have nearly made Church history. Numbers of churches have gone as long as 25 years in a state of the catalytic going strong… but 30 years… wow, that seems like a very long time to exist in that state.

Keep in mind that Janie and I have done this for a long time already and have learned much on our journey.

It is the “catalytic culture” that attracts many to a new group like white on rice as they say. Here are a couple of things we are doing to keep that culture running strong as long as possible.

Build as flat an organization as is humanly possible.

All who are a part of Coastland will be called the same thing – “Talent.”

We are indeed an organization, but we are as flat as a pancake in western Kansas (“I can see for mile and miles”). I’m not a big fan of Rush Limbaugh, but one of his now retired lines is fully biblical – “Talent on loan from God.” That is true for each of us. If what you have to offer to the cause, to others you are serving, is not fully 100% talent from God, then you and I are not yet fully engaged with just Jesus’ power. That is our goal – to flow with Jesus’ power – not self-power. Availability is the goal.

We do use the term “pastor” when necessary, but with just two exceptions all pastors are just plain ol “Pastors” including me. The two exceptions to this are the Children’s Pastor and the Youth Pastor. Without clarifying these two roles, things would get confusing. Otherwise, when people who insist upon each person being pigeon-holed we have all agreed (ten of us to begin with) are simply going to say, “I’m a pastor at Coastland. I do the following with my time at this point. We each have role sketches that are subject to change as Coastland evolves, but that’s what I’m doing now.” (We like the term “role sketch” much better than “job description” – the latter sounds very permanent, parental – implying someone at the top of the totem pole with ultimate wisdom has it all figured out. We are a limber organization. Another important descriptor of a long-term catalytic group.)

Jesus had a lot to say about “church politics.” I like the way Eugene Peterson’s Message translates this passage from Matthew 23:

1-3 Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer.

4-7″Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’

8-10″Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them—Christ.

11-12″Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty.

Church Website Hero

Church Website Hero offers a done-for-you service that takes all the stress, hassle and guesswork out of building and managing your church website.