The Power Dynamic: A Perspective on Leaders within Christian Organizations Today


What power do leaders have in congregations and other volunteer based religious organizations?

Growing up in small-town Mississippi, I resided in a community that was extremely close-knit (mostly related) and who for the most part, attended the same church. Within our church there were certain rules that applied to all people: (1) No one other than the preacher/pastor was to walk in the pulpit area; (2) whatever the pastor directed the congregation to do was to be followed wholeheartedly and not questioned; and, (3) the pastor was always to be honored and taken care of. There was something significant about revering the individual who proclaimed the word of God or who spoke on God’s behalf.

In most if not all cases, the pastor had an important amount of authority within a congregation and influence within the community. Certainly this authority came with the position of pastor, but there was also an informal authority that was given to the person who occupied this position if they were likable and served like they cared for the people. I have watched this trend slowly fade as I have gotten older–and even as I have become a pastor myself. Perhaps it is due to the rise of pastors and other Christian leaders being exposed of various immoral deeds; or, maybe it is due in part to our congregations aging across the denominational spectrum. Whatever the case, many pastors are asking the same questions that congregants are–“why” and “how do we fix this?”

For many, the Christian leader is the one who is suppose to have the answer or some sort of solution to questions of why and how. Such authority throughout time has been linked to pastors being able to answer these questions and provide solutions even if they were misinformed or did not work. Moreover, there are many definitions and considerations for the word power but here I will simply define this term as “the ability to act or accomplish something that has benefit for the entire organization.” I would contend that some leaders of congregations and volunteer organizations (depending on which one’s) today have less power than they did possibly twenty years ago. I would suggest this for (3) reasons: a lack of knowledge, acceptance, and understanding of the times in which we live; physical, psychological and religious burnout; and an unwillingness to change.

I recall my parents, teachers, and others telling me as I grew up that “knowledge is power” and that I should always stay current to that which is going on in society as a whole and in my immediate context. One common trend I see among leaders within congregations particularly is the lack of knowledge, acceptance, and understanding of the contemporary (or post-modern) age in which we now live. And because of this, the decisions that some leaders make in hopes of benefitting the congregation are made from invalid assumptions or information that eventually have no effect or power. Likewise, if leaders are physically burned out due to a lack of exercise, stress, long hours, etc. their capacity to act or produce powerful results becomes limited. This also affects leaders psychologically; and the religious routines that many congregants expect them to uphold consistently without change or modification places the leader in a spiritually compromising position. How can one attract younger people or reach a different generation if religious routine constantly gets in the way of spiritual versatility?

On the other hand, I do not think all leaders of congregations and volunteer organizations have lost their power. For instance, my personal mentor (who happens to be a retired United Methodist bishop) still has a significant amount of influence within our denomination, the agency he oversees, and abroad because of his willingness to stay knowledgeable of the times in which we live, take care of himself physically, psychologically, and spiritually, and change certain things that will help him better serve God’s purposes above his own. At seventy-four years of age, I would consider him a leader who has power because he accomplishes things that benefit the organization as a whole and there is evidence of it.

Are our leaders less skilled today or are the challenges that they face greater?

Today, leadership calls for more skilled leaders in light of greater challenges. This is not suggesting that leaders today are less skilled; there is just a greater demand for those who are skilled “above and beyond” the norm. I would attribute this expectation not to the increase in challenges (for there have always been great challenges for leaders), but rather to many leaders not staying current with their craft (as it relates to an evolving culture) and growing in their call.

Many years ago, especially in African-American communities, pastors were not afforded the opportunity to have formal education or theological training–but many would contend that they were skilled in their approach to leadership because they got people to follow them and they gave their followers hope through the message of Christ. For many in the African American community today (and perhaps in all communities), because education is afforded to nearly everyone, there is an expectation for the leader to engage social, political, and spiritual issues in a way that reflects their intellect and skill. Additionally, it seems that an element associated with the skill level of a leader is also linked to one’s theological education and one’s experience prior to entering seminary. Carrol suggests, “many students now come from secular institutions with backgrounds in technical studies such as business, communications, computer science, or engineering. Many younger students also have little experience in congregations (Carrol, 226).”

Emerging leaders in our congregations today are not necessarily those who grew up serving or worshipping with a particular community. Their experience with the institutional church is different and they bring a unique yet special skill to ministry that seeks to meet a growing demand in the 21st century–reaching our current generation. They seek to shift the paradigm and challenge the status quo. The skilled leader today has to be comfortable with diversity in an ever–changing/evolving culture and if this is what prompts one to act and do, then I would consider such a leader to have power. In essence, the challenge to congregational and volunteer leadership is making sure one remains up-to-date of societal trends and maintains a willingness to adjust when necessary. When these elements are in place and active, I believe both entities will acknowledge the power of the leader not merely based on their position, but by what they have done to benefit the entire group.