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Moving Away from Coercive Power in Ministry Leadership

Power-based leadership has no place in the church.

I (Marko) believe that at a theological level. But I have also seen it at a pragmatic, cultural level. The reality is that while coercive hierarchical power is still a dominant expression of leadership power (all over the world), power-based leadership is a culturally waning paradigm in all contexts, because we live in a wiki, prosumer culture. What I mean by that is that increasingly, people want to contribute to whatever they are a part of (including what they consume). And, increasingly, organizations of every stripe are decreasing hierarchies and moving toward flat organizational structures and the power of teams.

Sure, we can argue semantics and reframe power in positive ways (like the power of servant leadership). But, for our purposes here, let’s just stick with the more commonly understood (and exercised) concept of power: the ability and practice of exerting influence over others whether they want it or not. That’s the kind of power I’d like to see (mostly) excised from church leadership. (I concede with a little “mostly” there, because if I were the executive pastor or senior pastor of a church today or if I were overseeing a number of paid staff in my current role, I’m sure there would be times when I would “exert influence over others when they didn’t want it”—whether I’d be right or wrong is a separate conversation.)

A Paradigmatic Shift

Back in 2010, I read a wordy and exhausting book about teenagers that was, despite its weaknesses, full of diamonds (if one had the patience to look for them). That book was Teen 2.0, written by the former managing editor of Psychology Today, Dr. Robert Epstein.

I had the very first cohort of our Youth Ministry Coaching Program read the book, and we had wonderfully lively conversations about some of those diamonds. I posted a review of the book on my blog, and the author commented! I took a little risk, and sent him a message at the email address he’d used with his blog comment. To my pleasant surprise, he responded quickly, and I discovered that he lived a short distance from my home.

I asked Epstein if there was any chance he’d be willing to meet with my cohort of youth workers to talk about his book, and he invited our whole group up to his home.

Somewhere in the midst of a freewheeling conversation about the infantilization and isolation of teenagers, Epstein’s elementary-aged children arrived home from school and stomped through the house. I’d known that he had adult sons and realized this brood must be a second lap around the parenting track with a second marriage. I asked him: “With your current understanding of teenagers and how we tend to disempower them by treating them as children and isolating them, how has your parenting changed with this second set of children?”

Epstein didn’t even blink. He responded: “I have tried to shift from parenting by control to parenting by facilitation.” Then, after a short pause, he added, “And by facilitation, I mean identifying and nurturing competencies.”

Bam.

Our little band of merry youth workers had some amazing fodder for dialogue out of those two lines. We began by reflecting on and talking about our own approaches to parenting (for those of us who were parents). But we quickly shifted to a conversation about what the implications of this idea would be/could be for our youth ministries.

My wife and I had multiple conversations about these ideas and our own parenting—our two kids were in junior high and high school at that time. Jeannie and I were already committed to a counter-cultural approach to parenting teenagers that prioritized:

  • Giving meaningful responsibility and expectation
  • Providing a combination of support and freedom
  • Not removing natural consequences to choices made

In short, we were already trying our hardest to not parent by control (the dominant approach to parenting these days, at least in middle-class and upper-middle-class contexts). And we regularly received overt and covert messages from other parents that we were not doing this thing right.

Epstein’s words gave us a clearer agenda.

And I continued to have conversations with groups of youth workers about what it would look like to shift from control to facilitation in our approaches to youth ministry. Really, if we’re fully honest, so much of what we do in youth ministry these days is about control:

  • We try to control student behaviors.
  • We try to control student beliefs.
  • We try to control their media choices and language use and clothing preferences and so much more.

After a couple years of thinking about this idea of shifting from control to facilitation, it struck me that the same should be true for business and church leadership. And quickly on the heels of that realization, I had a moment of clarity: The notion of moving from a paradigm of control to a paradigm of facilitation resonates in parenting and youth ministry and business and church because all of those are functions of leadership.

Ultimately, this paradigmatic shift is a leadership principle, and it’s very tied to the issue of power.

Let me state this clearly: Church leadership needs to move from a paradigm of control to one of facilitation. In this context: Facilitation means identifying and nurturing competencies.

———–

My new book, Leading Without Power: 9 Paths Toward Non-Coercive Ministry Leadership is now officially available for pre-order. We’re offering a special pre-order discount price of $10.99 until the release date of January 31. Just enter the discount code getlwp at check-out in our store. OH, and ALL Cartel store orders have free shipping until the end of this month, so you’ll get that also!

My hope, by the way, is that teams (church staff, youth ministry teams) will read this book together and consider how to share the nine non-coercive roles I unpack in the book.

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