Eight-Types-of-Power-Groups-in-Churches

This topic will cause some discomfort for many of you. The very thought of the presence of power groups seems contrary to the spirit and grace of the gospel. But power groups are very real in churches.

Perhaps our comfort level can increase a bit by calling the groups “influencers” rather than power groups. Choose your label. The fact of the matter is that most churches have a clearly known group that carries the most influence in the church. And it is not unusual for that group to have a clearly known leader.

It is common to assume that power groups are inherently bad. That is not necessarily the case. Some of them can be a part of the formal structure of the church; church polity requires them. But even some informal groups can be healthy for the church. Don’t assume a power group per se is negative. Here are eight types of groups. While a church may have more than one kind of group, only one of the groups will be the dominant power in the church.

  1. Family owned and operated. Thousands of churches are dominated by a family and its extensions. I once served in a church where half of the deacons had the same last name. It is not unusual that the church was founded by a member of the family. And the family tends to stick together when they want things to go their way.
  2. Work-around warriors. This group forms when there is a power or ministry void. Its formation is typically an indication of lack of confidence in the current leadership. They align themselves to get a job done they feel is not taking place otherwise. But the group rarely disbands after the perceived need or task is accomplished. They become an ongoing power group.
  3. Benevolent dictators. These individuals or groups garner their power in the church from a variety of possibilities. But they really don’t want the power for themselves. Their desire is to use their influence for the good of the church as they can best discern.
  4. Formal alliances. Often the power group in the church is the group who has formal authority in the church. They may be elders, members of the finance committee, deacons, or some other body of authority in the church.
  5. Money managers. Because they have a position related to money in the church, this group sometimes uses their financial power to gain greater power in the church. The group may be called a finance committee, a stewardship committee, or a budget committee. But their authority to call the financial shots can result in significant other sources of power in the church.
  6. Past-is-present protectors. The goal of this group is clear: fiercely defend the status quo. The group typically has a clear leader and numbers of eager followers. I recently heard one pastor talk about the problems he encountered when he changed the time of the worship service from 10:55 to 11:00. This group’s motto is “don’t mess with the way we’ve always done it.”
  7. Ministry militia. This power group is known for its fierce devotion to a particular ministry in the church. Anything done to diminish the value of that ministry or to bring change that will impact that ministry will be met with stiff opposition.
  8. Network systems. There are one or more people in the church that have uncanny networking skills. They intentionally connect to many people in the church. So when the leadership of the church wants to make a change, this group is critical for success because they are connected to so many other members.

What types of power groups would you add? What groups have you experienced in your church?

On Monday, I’ll address the issue of dealing with power groups.

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Comments

  1. Allen Calkins says

    What an insightful list! It is idealistic and naïve to suppose any church exists (or any other human organization) without some kind of power group to contend with. One I would add is ‘The Hometown Hero’s fan club’. Someone who has gone from that church to do something significant in the secular or ministry world will likely have a fan base in the church that will not want to go against the perceived or expressed wishes of that individual.

  2. Jim says

    Interesting post: who do I want to step on first? Perhaps I should use a pseudo . . . My first step in understanding ‘power groups’ would be in categorizing the members of the church in regards to their contribution to the church. Are they active or passive members? Staff or volunteer? Young or old? Mature or otherwise? What relationships benefit? Spiritual or worldly? In other words, there is a real need to know the inner workings and drivers of the congregation in order to assess who is in power and how their group is defined. Well, I wrote myself into a circle – go figure! I’ll just have to read others’ responses to learn more! jd

  3. Kevin says

    You might add the “terrorist” group. This is a small and typically not influential. But when there is about to be action in the church they disagree with, they threaten to leave. They don’t usually leave, but they threaten to. Even though they are a small group, they tend to get their way.

  4. Mitch says

    Interesting to consider many people occupy multiple camps. The most important questions I would ask in following up would be:
    1. How are we able to Christ through their passions or actions.
    2. (I know this would be for a book instead of a blog post, but…) how then do leaders respond and engage them in ministry?

  5. Apologies for Remaining Anonymous says

    Let me begin by saying this stuff is way too close to home for me to use my real name.

    “The Wednesday Night Crowd”
    I am a firm believer in and an ardent defender of Baptist polity. I believe the church functions best when operated according to democratic processes under the lordship of Christ according to the leadership of the Holy Spirit. That’s the way Baptists do things, and that’s more or less the way we’ve been doing them since the early 17th century.

    That said, many Baptist churches operate by a “de facto” elder system. Allow me to explain. The monthly business meeting is held once each month, on a Wednesday night, after prayer meeting. Each church member is entitled to one voice and one vote, but here’s what happens.

    The same (small) crowd of folks shows up for prayer meeting every week, including the week on which the business meeting is held. We’ll have 100+ in worship on Sunday mornings, but only 30-35 in business meetings. Many of the members simply choose not to come, for whatever reason. So, they obviously don’t have a voice. The vast majority of our middle-age, younger-middle-age, and younger adults who do show up on Wednesday nights are working with our children and youth. (Last time, there were at least a dozen working with children and youth.) They don’t get a voice, either. I can only think of one person under the age of 50, other than myself, who was present in our last business meeting. Yet, decisions are made in the business meeting that impact the entire congregation. The same held true in my previous pastorate.

    Could folks come if they wanted to? Sure, they could. It’s their right and responsibility as church members to show up, speak up, and vote, but they do not come. Yet, we say, “The congregation voted on it,” or “The congregation decided to do thus and such.” Well, that’s not entirely true. The middle-age, younger-middle-age, younger adult, youth, and children’s age groups are severely underrepresented when important decisions are made. So, it’s not really “the congregation.” It’s really a subgroup within the congregation comprised of upper-middle-age and older adults.

    In this way, there is a “de facto” elder system. They’ve not been appointed or elected, but it is the same principle. A small group of people is making decisions on behalf of the whole congregation, and that small group of people is the “Wednesday night crowd.”

    I’m not bitter or resentful about it; I’m simply making an observation. Our “Wednesday night crowd” has been pretty faithful with the task, and I really do believe they’ve been making decisions thus far with the entire congregation in mind. That didn’t always happen in my previous pastorate, so I’m very grateful that it’s happening in my current pastorate.

    • Allen Calkins says

      AFRA,
      I remember hearing this little dittie a few decades which reflects the sentiment your comment share:
      Those who Love the church come Sunday Morning
      Those who love the pastor com back Sunday Night
      Those who love the Lord come Wednesday Nights to pray…

    • JohnM says

      AFRA,

      Actually the de facto elder system you describe doesn’t strike me as bad at all. After all the people you are talking about meet the ordinary definition of “elder”. Let the “council” of older, more experienced folks in the church be the primary decision maker.

    • AStev says

      I think your observation hinges on this assumption: “Many of the members simply choose not to come, for whatever reason. So, they obviously don’t have a voice.” But I’m not sure the assumption is entirely correct. The non-attendees have chosen to “abstain from the vote”, so to speak. Which is really just a different sort of vote. If you have a decision and 10 people vote and the other 90 abstain, it’s still correct to say that the whole body decided, even though only 10% actively took a position.

      • says

        Having experienced this first-hand, I will say that it’s very difficult to tell if this absence is motivated by apathy or trust. If it’s trust, you can run with tacit approval indefinitely, and if something goes wrong, people will speak up. If it’s apathy however, you can’t count on people to be assertive if changes are made that counter their needs or objectives. They will likely just drift away.

        I believe that the onus falls on the leadership to not only make its business meetings timely and efficient, but also meaningful and engaging. (As a leader, to my great astonishment, I have been strongly resisted on that point!) It’s critical to tell select stories of the varying ministries, of the things that the congregation is actively supporting, and whatever challenging realities the church is facing as well.

        If you’re really keen on people being aware and participating, make a report of the meeting: with concise bullet-points and lively pictures, and to the leaders’ best ability, ensure that all are made to feel welcome.

        The win is not in either lament or leverage, but in showing the love.

  6. says

    I think asking questions is very critical. What’s the vision? What’s God telling you? Why? How does it benefit the kingdom?

    When we start to understand there viewpoint or angle or what God is telling them and become clear how we can respond.

    We can classify and figure out who’s who, but we need to find the common dominating factor – hopefully it’s Jesus.

    Well written and thoughtful – looking forward to part 2. Blessings.

  7. Mike Routt says

    While power groups are not inherently bad, we must also understand that they do not produce a healthy environment when they lead by their own power rather than the power of the HOLY SPIRIT. They typically inhibit both spiritual and numerical growth.

    With that being said, here are some observations from 30 years of ministry:

    1. As you say, all churches have power groups. Different names. Different faces. Same personality
    traits.
    2. Typically, each power group has one power leader, who exerts his leadership over others, who
    seem to gravitate to his/her power.
    3. Power leaders often over-exaggerate their influence of power (i.e., “many people have come to
    me…”).
    4. Power leaders possess two dominant conflict management styles: 9/1 (win/lose) and 1/1
    (lose/leave).
    5. In many churches, when the pastor/staff person confronts a power person, members support the
    pastor. But, when “push comes to shove,” they gravitate to the power leader.
    6. Any attempt to “de-power” the power leader must be done through much prayer AND the leadership
    of the HOLY SPIRIT.
    7. When GOD leads the pastor/staff to “de-power,” it will be a process, because change is a process
    and not just an event.
    8. When GOD leads the pastor/staff to “depower,” be prepared to spill a lot of blood (figuratively!).

    In one of my very early pastorates, a power leader held 8 official places of leadership in the church, and the 9th unofficial position was “to keep me (the pastor) in my place.” I implemented GOD’s plan to depower. As a result of the process, the power person left the church (1/1 conflict management style). As a result, our church grew dramatically . One member said, “When ________ walked out the doors of the church, the winds of revival blew in.”
    Paul said in Acts 14:22b: “We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of GOD.” We must realize that many of these tribulations will occur inside the “walls” of the church!

  8. Louise says

    I wish topics like this were taught when we were in seminary. So many of the practical pastoral skills needed for effective ministry were never addressed. I know in our own ministry, being aware and knowing how to maximize these groups would have been so beneficial and would have possibly saved some problems.

  9. says

    Thom,

    This is why Pastors need to have excellent skills of influence. Every person comes into the church carrying baggage, problems, pain, dysfunctions and negative patterns. Unless the church becomes a caring, growth community the power groups will dominate the church and its mission will fail and the Pastor falter.

    Unfortunately, Pastors have very little teaching about ways to help these people grew and change. Knowing Greek and great preaching are not enough.

      • says

        Karla, Perhaps so but the giant awakening a Pastor faces if they think churches are filled with sweet angels may knock them off their feet. There are a lot who fail to survive but have nothing else to do.

        To live above
        With the saints we love
        Oh, that will be glory!
        But to iove below with the saints we know
        Now that’s a different story!

  10. says

    I think the ones I’ll mention probably fit into one of your categories and I just don’t know where. But I do believe there’s always a kingpin in a church who stirs up strife. This person is like a little thorn that festers. They usually find fault in just about anything the pastor does or wants to do and are sure to do the opposite. They never cooperate willingly, drag their feet, and complain. In 32 years of ministry there’s always been one. And when one leaves, another person takes their place.

    I also see ministry hoarders. This is a person (probably fits into the ministry militia or work-around warriors group) who only does their particular ministry for what’s in it for themselves or their children or grandchildren. And they don’t take direction well and it’s their way or they get upset and angry and threaten to leave the church. They play on the emotions of the pastor and his wife and use their giving as a club (if we leave the church this church will close its doors without our money). Yes, this happens and has happened to us. And guess what? God has never closed the doors. God is our source.

  11. says

    This may fit in one of your eight categories, but I didn’t see it specifically mentioned. In some churches all power is vested in a single pastor dictator. All decisions are his, though nominally asserting fidelity to congregationalism. He is “God’s anointed” and one does not touch God’s anointed. Unlike your No. 3, most often these are not benevolent dictators. Maybe this doesn’t seem to fit the idea of power groups, but the pastoral dictator does assemble a group under him through which to maintain and wield his power.

    • Timothy McBride says

      Unfortunately, these pastor dictators that are out there are what convince congregation members they need to resist the decisions and proper authority being exercised by their pastor, lest he become too powerful.

        • Timothy McBride says

          I realize that my phrasing is confusing, but What I mean is that pastors, as leaders, are given authority to lead, guide, and direct the church. Abuses of pastoral authority make it seem like a bad thing, and so congregation members will resist the authority exercised by a Pastor who is striving to exercise his God given authority properly.

          Pastoral authority, properly executed, is in the best interests of God’s call and mission for that church and it’s people, even if vocal minorities (or majorities) may disagree for whatever reason.

  12. Charles Mays says

    Thom:
    As a former Pastor for 35 years, I dealt with a man who had previously been head Union Organizer in a factory who had many “gray haired retired union members” whom he called on to vote me out of the Church I had pastored. He was also Chairman of the Deacons in this Church. Tried to find another name for this type of group but finally decided to put it under the “Network System” that you listed. They are a formable group in many churches! Thanks for your wisdom on this very important problem in many of our Southern Baptist Churches throughout America <

    • says

      Yes. Either align with them, or confront them. And if you’re confronting them, you can go either head-on or sideways. Power in church must always face the Bible’s tension of mutual submission. (Unfortunately though, I’ve been called a bully by someone I think was being a textbook bully, and I was told by someone else who I think was exerting too much influence that I wasn’t “submitting enough”, so these conversations don’t always go as easy as we’d like to hope.)

      Being aware of dynamics in these groups comes first, and then making the groups aware of them themselves comes second. Often there needs to be some kind of on-record agreement about where the centre of a church’s power is. When pressed, most will admit that the existing formal structure gets priority (especially the board). When signed-off by all parties (from informal power-holders all the way to the pastor), that agreement is a great starting point for a church’s effectiveness and efficiency.

      In my experience, most people who are irresponsible with power run mostly on instinct, and don’t exercise critical self-analysis. To get to the place where we can ever have a positive impact, we need to be sure of what we’re talking about, and be seeking trust more than we’re seeking change.

  13. mb says

    There is the group that I call the “outlasted.” We’ve been here for 45 years but pastors come and go. I heard someone recently say this is our church and they’re just the pastors, they come and go. This mentality cripples the church.

    • says

      Actually, you can use this. If people think their church is going to last forever without change, they can be shown many examples of churches that had that mentality that no longer exist — change is essential for survival. On the other hand, pastors facing this mentality need to recognise that it is truth borne of experience. Thus their vision and corresponding strategies must come from a conviction that they are for the good of the long-term health of the church (which includes the ability to experiment and risk), not for a temporary, self-directed whim.

  14. Kandace says

    I have one that nobody has mentioned: “The Mom Squad”. As a Christian woman without children, I’ve been the direct (and indirect) recipient of hits taken from the Mom Squad. This group assigns little to no value to women without children, grandchildren or stepchildren. They talk about nothing if it’s not related to children or children’s ministries. Should you indicate there may be other topics to discuss the response can range from incredulousness to hostility. The Squad has inordinate influence regarding where the church spends resources and energy and women who are not current or potential future members of the Squad can look forward to little influence or fellowship. This is one reason women and/or couples without children often are not dynamic church members when, in fact, we often are the ones with the most time and energy to give.

  15. says

    Hi,
    In Scotland’s small towns many evangelical churches are dominated by people who have always lived in the town and have generational family connections with it. These groups are very suspicious of believers from outwith the area who come to live and work in the town there is very real evidence of hostility and spiritual abuse of ‘incomers’. Often these insider groups are characterised by their control of the local church and some have generational links to freemasonry. Such churches are not outward looking and rarely engage in evangelism.
    There is a need for revival and repentance in these churches.

  16. David says

    I would add four more groups that I have seen first-hand:

    1.The “Classic Church Hoppers” – just checking the place out for a couple weeks or months but if they are offended in any way (sermon too short or too long, music too traditional or too contemporary) – they be gone!

    2. The “20 percenters” stemming from the the old adage that “20% of the church folk do all of the work- volunteering while the other 80% are merely spectators.”

    3. The “80 percenters” or the “Permanent Benchwarmers” these people have every excuse in the book as to why they will not get involved in anything outside of coming to church on Sundays….well okay maybe one commitment a year but that’s it. A subset of the “benchwarmers” would be the “have to miss another Sunday for such-and-such sport commitment” group (attendance very spotty during certain times of year).

    4. Jesus said let the “tares grow alongside the wheat” so this last group is hard to spot but they are there and being a former Board president for 7 years, it is an ugly thing to see when the masks come off.

    They would be in my opinion power groups because they can seriously negatively effect the the impact a church can or is making for Christ.

    My two cents!

  17. Vic Christian says

    All – pastors, please do not despair or be discouraged by this list. All organizations have people problems, as we are all sinners. However – follow His Word to the best of the ability and strength given you by our Lord, and His church will prevail. Note that I did not say that your church will necessarily prevail.

  18. Phillip says

    “Power Groups.” Leads one to the descriptive word “control.”
    Pastorally remindful of an attempted, rather significant, power grab leading to an angelic sword.
    The Church may be in need of a reminder of this critical story.

    • says

      It used to surprise me to have sinners, neurotic Deacons, manipulator a, deceivers, angry ragaholics, drunks, etc in the church trying to get their way. Then I read the Bible and saw the same kinds of people. Then I read church history and saw the same thing for 2,000 years. Then I studied psychology and saw that the flesh, the world and the devil are up to no good in every person saved or not.

      The sad part is that so many of us are ill prepared to Pastor cats when we think we should have docile lambs. The fact that there are sinners and that they congregate in core groups to gain power is no shock when we look at Scripture. But that Minsters fall apart cecause they get under our skin is painful. Do we think we should be able to tame these sinners? Impossible!

      We Care!

      He Cures!

  19. MsMac says

    How about the Guilt Trippers? The ones who are there for every event; always inventing ‘new’ events.. (ex. a week of fasting, 24 hour prayer vigils, new meetings or new classes, etc) and pressure others to come to every one of them whether they can find the time or not. Often times, these Guilt Trippers are older, without younger children and/or have the time or extra funds to make all these meetings and seem to want to appear more ‘spiritual than thou’ because they’re at the church every time the doors open….. and “you’re not.”

    • HD says

      I’d love to have a group who wants to pray, fast, and start new classes and new ministries. And who are willing to be at the church every time the doors are open.

    • says

      The guilt trip is a power tactic that can be used by any group or individual.

      However, I want to add that guilt isn’t necessarily the intention behind initiating events/ministries. And even if it is, a guilt trip ignored is a guilt trip defeated. :-)

  20. Jason says

    CHURCH SECRETARIES or ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANTS. Especially the one who fields most of the incoming phone calls. It’s a INFORMATIONAL and RELATIONAL power source within the church.

  21. Nell Parker says

    On the other hand, why would a pastor insist on changing the time of worship by only 5 minutes? It seems to me that there is a bit of power playing on both sides. Consider the hill that you want to die on. Focus on the big stuff. Sometimes giving in on the little things can engender good will.

  22. mike says

    Ugh, having dealt with the nuclear fallout caused by a family operated group, I had hoped that this type of thing was rare enough to not be mentioned here. And it’s #1.

  23. Suzy Womelsdorff says

    I am aware of several churches that are financially driven because of the deep financial commitment they have to their facilities. Sad, because the individuals that have the deepest pockets have their ear. Nickels and noses drive everything that happens in the walls. I don’t know about other followers but I want to follow a follower of Yeshua, who will base all their decisions on the word and stop fearing the congregation. Enough with the ‘leadership’ word and enough with ‘drawing people in.’ Biblical thinking, biblical teaching and biblical application. Fifty individuals whose hearts are pure before The Lord will accomplish more than five thousand who have wandered from Truth. Those who enter the doors for the first time smell the power struggles and if they stay, they try to align themselves with the winning side. If you have a pure heart group, fearlessly promote them!

  24. linda newman says

    Interesting discussion. “power group” sounds negative, but I wonder if this should also be viewed through the different gifts of the body (from I Corinthians), with the Spirit showing power through the different gifts given to teachers, deacons, elders, financial people, outreach people, fellowship people, evangelism people (truly unique and blessed power), encouragement people. If all these “powers” can be used to the same end, what glorious results can happen. It’s our humanity and identification with our small group instead of the larger church that gets in the way. (It would be my guess that if the perceived “power group” spent more time with and in the fellowship, outreach, encouragement, and evangelism groups, a lot of this distortion might naturally disappear.

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