By Dr. John Kimball, D.Min.
Powerbrokers. Every organization has them — including the church. They have strong opinions backed up by strong personalities. Some are manipulative. Others are intimidating. All wield their agendas and know how to “press in” on those who tend to be more accommodating. Some become powerbrokers by training — learning from a long family line of people who have demanded to be in charge. Others become powerbrokers by protective instinct, guided by some fear or wound in their lives for which they are compensating. All of them have an innate need for control.
In some cases, if a pastor is able to love a powerbroker enough to gain real trust, I’ve seen Jesus do some wonderful things. In my own ministry, one of my biggest congregational nemeses became my most ardent supporter. If the pastor can minister to the fear or pain that is driving the powerbroker’s need for control, they can experience redemption and healing and their heart changes. I’ve seen this in many situations. Alas, my experience tells me this is the exception — but one that is always very worth pursuing!
When a powerbroker meets a personality they cannot control (e.g., a strong, emotionally healthy pastor), it’s a threat. Most cannot not be in control. They will use their typical tactics. When these fail, I have noticed a fairly predictable pattern emerges. The pastor who understands this pattern can be both personally prepared and can help other leaders in the church to see the pattern for what it is — a desperate attempt to gain the upper hand. Once exposed, the powerbroker begins to lose their audience and, thereby, their intense grip on the church. Jesus is once again Lord. What is this pattern?
- They will work to impress – have you ever noticed that powerbrokers are always the first to try to make friends with the new pastor? Powerbrokers usually need to be “important.” They have no problem telling you how long they’ve been in the church, how many generations their family has been in the town, how many positions they have held, etc. The goal: to impress you so that they are elevated in your mind. If this ploy does not work, they will move to the second stage of the pattern.
- They will attempt to threaten/intimidate – powerbrokers are great at making threats so veiled that they accomplish the task without being noticed as threats. “I’ve seen pastors come and go…” (in other words, “I will outlast you”). The intimidation will continue to slowly and methodically increase until they get their way. I once had a person tell me it was time to get a new address! The veil was off. The goal: to corral you into doing what they want. When threats and intimidation don’t work, it’s on to stage three. And please note that stages two and three often overlap.
- They will begin to gossip and undermine – if powerbrokers can’t change your mind, they will work overtime to change your reputation. They are masterful at manipulating the narrative on the “grapevine.” They know how to spin a truth cocktail just enough that people will believe it even though the conclusions drawn are complete falsehoods. They will also diligently research your past to see if they can unearth any morsels from previous ministries to use against you. The goal: to prevent you from having any influence in the church or community. When undermining doesn’t work (usually because the pastor’s character speaks much more loudly than the gossip), the powerbroker will finally declare war.
- They will directly politic to remove – there is nothing secretive at this step. The powerbroker is very public about their disdain for you and they will use all of their resources (“importance,” intimidation, coercion, etc.) to manipulate others who are not so strong to join their cause. The goal: to obtain a voting majority to either force you to resign or to actually vote you out. At this point, there is serious damage being done to the congregation — not just you as the pastor. Those pastors who are able to walk through this vile experience and survive will sometimes see a fifth step.
- If these don’t work, then they will exercise their “flight” option – a powerbroker who cannot control is effectively powerless. This they cannot abide. They will feel “bested” and will remove themselves from the context in which they feel they have been defeated. They stop coming to church. They leave the more public gatherings of the congregation. Sometimes (rarely) they actually leave the church to find another place where they can exercise control; however, this typically only happens in communities where there is an abundance of smaller, unhealthy congregations. In most cases, they do not actually leave. They continue to participate in things like home bible studies where they can spew their poison. They continue the work of undermining (it’s the only tool they have left) and will often have some measure of success among fringe members who are not regular enough in their church participation to actually know the pastor and his character. Things may continue to be frustrating for the pastor, but often a wonderful thing happens at this point — the church experiences a measure of real freedom and Jesus’ loving rule and reign is able to reroot! It’s hard. But the pastor who continues to love the congregation (including the powerbrokers) will overcome this evil and will likely have a growing gospel influence as the powerbrokers continue to marginalize themselves to the point of irrelevance.
Every pastor has to deal with powerbrokers. Pastors who are, themselves, dealing with personal fears or wounds from the past may find powerbrokers particularly difficult. But there are some things pastors and church leaders can do to address the problem. We’ll look at some of these in future posts.