How to Manage Church Politics

The Church Revitalization Podcast – Episode 114

Politics is not just about republicans and democrats, the Senate and House, or even your local mayor. At its basest level, politics is about the complex interactions that govern human behavior. It’s about how people interact together to make decisions, navigate power dynamics, and get things done. When you understand politics through this lens, you can see that politics in the church aren’t just possible—they’re inevitable.

A lot of pastors leave the ministry because they claim to despise church politics. But church politics are a necessary aspect of leading in the church. The politics, in and of themselves, are not good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. They’re merely a reality that church leaders must navigate. When pastors say they hate church politics, they’re actually referring to unhealthy politics. 

Toxic politics in the church aren’t inevitable. But the way to get more unity in your church and a better climate in your church’s politics isn’t to act like the politics don’t exist. Instead, it’s important to learn how to manage and lead through the politics in ways that are constructive and ultimately God-honoring.

Below are five key action points that empower church leaders to manage church politics in a healthy way.

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Discern God‘s Vision and Direction for Your Church

To be an effective and godly leader, you must first submit yourself to the divine direction of God. If you want to lead and influence people in a particular direction, that direction must be rooted in Scripture and the perceived unique vision God has for your church.

Managing the politics in your church must start with a firm conviction about who you are as a congregation and where God is calling you to go. If you find yourself at odds with the church or its leaders, first be certain that you aren’t chasing your own ego or ideas. Some leaders fall victim to their own personal vision rather than discerning God’s vision for the church within the context of a group of leaders. This discernment process, like the one we do in Strategic Envisioning, can be a unifying experience and immediately generate consensus on major directional decisions.

Determine Which Stakeholders are Essential for Driving a Ministry Forward

Pastors are guilty of falling victim to two extremes. Some leaders chase their vision and make decisions with little regard for whether or not they have support within the church. They’ll bulldoze people in pursuit of the vision. While it’s important to keep moving forward in the face of opposition, little good comes from burning bridges in the process.

On the other extreme, some pastors feel they must win over everyone before making a decision or moving forward in a key initiative. This is a fool’s errand. It’s nearly impossible to get everyone to agree to anything—even something small like the best local restaurant for pizza. If a pastor tries to get everyone on the bus, the bus will never leave the parking lot.

A key to managing church politics is understanding precisely who you need to have on the bus in order to get things moving forward. Without certain stakeholders having ownership (rather than buy-in) of a decision, the church will almost inevitably experience disunity or conflict. When you take the time to build consensus with the right people, you are able to engender broader support and mitigate any future criticism.

Be Winsome

If you want to build consensus with key stakeholders, you’ll need to master the art of being winsome. This isn’t a word that we commonly use, but it’s a good one for this use. It can mean to be charming in a childlike way, but it can also mean being positive, enthusiastic, and optimistic.

There is no need to manipulate people. Being winsome isn’t about tricking people into thinking something good about you or your ideas. People see right through that. Learn the skill of being genuinely enthusiastic, positive, and encouraging. 

You don’t build a good relationship with your spouse for the explicit purpose of being able to influence them when making decisions about where to eat out. But a natural consequence of a positive and winsome relationship is the ability to influence decisions. Likewise, your demeanor is not a tool to manipulate relationships (that’s narcissism embodied). Developing a winsome attitude and healthy relationship with stakeholders will enable your ability to win others over in key decisions.

The central role that being winsome plays in leadership should be a given, but I’m often astounded at the negativity, critical spirit, or downright apathy I see in some leaders. If you aren’t excited about God’s future for the church, why would you expect anyone else to be?

Do Not Tolerate Sinful Behavior

In your quest to win over key stakeholders, it is critical that you not excuse sinful behavior. While you can and should be gracious when dealing with people, you cannot permit sinful behavior to fuel divisions in the church. 

Merely look to Jesus’ example. The Lord allowed the Disciples to ask questions, give input, and participate in difficult ministry. He even allowed them to debate one another—James and John were the Sons of Thunder! But when their behavior became sinful and impeded the mission, Jesus was aggressive in addressing it—even calling Peter a devil. 

Likewise, it’s important to recognize that not all conflict is unhealthy. Disagreement in service of a shared vision can be helpful and constructive. But deceit, division, and emotional outbursts of anger must be addressed to maintain unity in the church. 

Be Flexible on Process but Unrelenting on Principle

As a leader, you must be intractable on the God-given direction but humble in its execution. Everyone has blind spots, and your ideas are not necessarily always the best ones. Therefore, navigating church politics requires that you be humble and flexible. 

Listen to others, especially those with a different vantage point than you. While it’s critical to be winsome in gathering that critical cohort for the vision, it’s equally important that you be open-handed about the process. You may miss out on the best ideas if you’re only interested in pursuing your own. 

Additionally, your humble and servant-hearted attitude gives greater weight to the moments when you must stand firm. If you fight on everything, you are more likely to be seen as stubborn rather than passionate. Learn the right moments to push a strategic initiative forward in the face of opposition and when to make concessions, adjustments, or compromises to engender more support. 

Church politics are inevitable, but church conflict is not. Reframe church politics as developing healthy and collaborative relationships. Consider the need to build support and enthusiasm for the mission and vision of your church. Never lose sight of the great things God wants to do through you, your congregation, and your leaders for His glory and for His kingdom.

BONUS: Get a free Team Discussion Guide in the video description on YouTube.

Scott Ball is the Vice President and a Lead Guide with The Malphurs Group. He lives in East Tennessee with his wife and two children. (Email Scott).

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