When you hear the word “power,” what comes to mind? The exercise of power is a daily reality in congregational life; yet rarely does it get discussed. As leaders we may want power or fear it, but all too often we fail to understand the nature of power and the challenges it poses for effective ministry.

Many well-meaning congregational leaders, pastors included, seem to assume that power is something bad. It means forcing or asserting one’s will against others; it boils down to trying to get one’s own way. From this view, power becomes a “win-lose” prospect, which leaves one party victorious and all the others suffering the agonies of defeat.

People who do not transcend such an either/or conception of power—people who never come to appreciate the complexity of power—are liable either to become its victim or its exploiter. There is a third way to approach power, however—as a phenomenon that “is what it is” and thus is capable of both great good and terrific evil. With this in mind, it is important to recognize several things:

  • Power exists.
  • Power is easier to recognize than it is to define.
  • Power needs to be understood in terms both of individual and community.
  • Most religious people confuse power with authority.

The actual practice of power in human life operates in, around, and beyond every human being every single day. This kind of power often hurts our churches and their leaders because no one is willing to admit that it is present, much less that it might have benefits as well as liabilities.

Discussion of the subject of power can easily take on a somber, moralistic, even fatalistic tone. In our book, Alligators in the Swamp, we have adopted a rather whimsical metaphor of a journey into a swamp, the swamp of real life in the church and its world. In that world, we find a constant ebb and flow of power, leadership, and ministry. Images of swamps and alligators conjure up common stereotypes of this unique ecosystem and its most infamous inhabitants. Yet these stereotypical images have the potential to help us make a needed paradigm shift.

In large part because we are not familiar with them, alligators and swamps seem to be very threatening to us humans. In the same way, when someone feels powerless, it is easy to suppose that images of large eyes gliding through deceptively still water aptly apply—to someone else. Yet in any given circumstance, at any point, anyone could be an alligator and any congregation could exhibit the more threatening features of a swamp. Pastors, deacons, music directors, Sunday school superintendents, district superintendents, school principals, city council representatives, company presidents, mayors, governors—all can be perceived by others as dangerous and demanding. Likewise, not only your congregation but your neighborhood, town, county, city, country club, service organization, or state could look to certain others as a veritable swamp.

Alligators and swamps are in the eye of the beholder. The shifting capacity of this metaphor suggests that the perception of power—especially in menacing forms—can and does move as well. As former U.S. Ambassador Andrew Young said in the foreword to our book: “There are alligators in every swamp. Once you know how to handle that one inside of you, you are ready to help make your swamp a blessed place for all of its creatures.” We might not be able to change the swamp, but we can help it to fulfill its vocation within God’s wider creation.

This article is based on the book Alligators in the Swamp, published by the Pilgrim Press and available from Amazon athttp://www.amazon.com/Alligators-Swamp-Power-Ministry-Leadership/.



AL324_SMLeadership in Congregations edited by Richard Bass

This new book in Alban’s Harvesting the Learnings Series gathers the collected wisdom of over 10 years of Alban research and reflection on what it means to be a leader in a congregation, how our perceptions of leadership are changing, and exciting new directions for leadership in the future. This volume gathers in one place a variety of essays that approach the leadership task and challenge with insight, depth, humor, and imagination.

AL223_SM Congregational Fitness: Healthy Practices for Layfolk by Denise W. Goodman

Congregational Fitness explores why congregations are prone to conflict and describes healthy behaviors lay people can practice to manage conflict constructively. Goodman argues that it is important for members of the congregation to know and practice positive behaviors continually, rather than reacting out of emotion and anxiety to an unexpected situation. Designed for use by individuals, study groups, and retreat participants.

Power Analysis of a Congregation—Revised and Updated Edition by Roy M. Oswald

This update of Roy Oswald’s long-popular report on understanding and becoming more comfortable with power and authority in congregations makes it a more user-friendly piece for both Christian churches and Jewish synagogues. The concise study guides clergy and lay leaders in analyzing personal and corporate power and helps them come to grips with their personal theology of power.