Powerbrokers Use Intimidation – Part 1

By John Kimball, D.Min.

Let’s face it, powerbrokers are bullies. They are the congregational equivalent of that kid on the playground who loved intimidating the smaller kids. Their need for control may be a personality flaw, driven by fear, a mental health issue or maybe even the result of a past wound. But regardless of it’s source, that controlling personality often rules by intimidation. To deal well with the intimidating tactics of a powerbroker really requires a two-fold approach: 1) Address the intimidating behavior directly, and 2) Address the intimidation felt by members of the congregation.

Let’s start with the congregation. Why do so many people react with fear when a powerful personality walks into the room? Some psychologists believe that our bodies are actually designed to react more readily to negative stimuli than positive (think “fight or flight”). This appears to be the case. At least my experience would lead me to believe that folks “learn” from negative stimuli better. When it comes to congregational responses to powerbrokers in the church, I have found there are a number of different reasons why people surrender to them.

  1. They have learned a posture of surrender – Unfortunately, a large number of church members today have grown up in unhealthy homes. In addition, some have experienced the fallout of unhealthy relationships (e.g., bad marriages, difficult bosses, etc.). Bombarded over time with anger, depression, and other negative responses, these folks learn to cope by just giving in. It’s easier. It seems less painful. And carried to its extreme, it becomes co-dependancy.
  2. They are shocked by the powerbroker’s behavior – This may border on a form of denial, but when relatively healthy people meet a dysfunctional person for the first time, there is often complete disbelief regarding their behavior. New members who are very much in love with their new church family might experience this when they see the first demonstration of a powerbroker meltdown. This was not what they expected. If that denial becomes a pattern, they will often just accept the powerbroker’s control and tantrums as the norm, not really knowing what to do about them.
  3. They feel the powerbroker’s pressure in areas of personal vulnerability – Powerbrokers have an innate ability to discern what I call a person’s “pressure points.” They can sense where you or I feel weak. They can read body language (perhaps without even realizing it). And once they have sized a person up, they know just how to apply emotional pressure to those “chinks in our armor” to move us.
  4. They are deceived by their perceptions – Powerbrokers control the “story” when it comes to their own agenda. It amazes me how often I find that church members assume or believe things that simply are not true. Powerbrokers operate in the realm of perceptions and not fact. Perceptions can be manipulated for the greatest impact (i.e., through fear or anxiety).
  5. They have not been discipled – This point is both it’s own reason for surrender and guides us to the solution for all five! Churches do not do a good job of disciple making any more. As a result, several areas of personal growth are left unaddressed. The church does not help people to overcome and even address their unhealthy relationships. The church does not teach people how to properly respond to emotional manipulation. The church doesn’t work to strengthen people where they feel vulnerable. The church does not practice good communication to continuously operate in the realm of truth over perception. And all of these can be developed through good, biblical disciple-making relationships.

Because churches do not address these issues well, they tend to be heavily weighted toward a population of surrender. In most cases, the majority of a congregation will be comprised of people who default to appeasing powerbrokers and those who simply don’t care. When a powerbroker crisis erupts (and they always do), such congregations will always look to the small percentage of people who are strong and who intuitively respond to the powerbroker’s antics. In some cases, there may be only a handful of truly healthy, spiritual mature adults present who can enter into the fray.

Discipleship is the primary answer to fix this part of the powerbroker problem. As the number of emotionally healthy, spiritually mature people increases in a congregation, the less impact the powerbroker has. When the diminishing impact is coupled with a concerted effort to directly address their intimidating tactics, the church can be set free. More on that in my next post.