Power tripping

Posted: November 11, 2014 by J in General

We evangelicals have a robust view of human depravity. We all tend to go wrong. Watchdogs like ICAC are needed because humans can’t be trusted with power and money. Our solution to child abuse? – don’t let adults be alone in a room with a child who is not family. Wise. Sin hides itself in the heart and comes out when no one is looking. No one is exempt. People love the feeling of getting power over others, it so easily goes to the head and intoxicates. It’s so very sweet. Power-tripping comes naturally to humans everywhere, no matter our politics or religion, our sex or age. Power makes monsters of us. Our evangelical doctrine of depravity gives us a big head start in facing these issues realistically.

Except when it comes to church leadership.

There our doctrine and its wisdom tends to get thrown out the window. Most church leaders operate largely unseen and are accountable to no one. That is, there is no one who can effectively call them to account. I’ve been in Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican churches, and seen the same thing in all three. Power is concentrated in the hands of ‘the minister’ or the ‘staff team’, and they answer to no one. Individuals in the congregation are at their mercy, they can promote or shut down, they can build up or destroy reputations. They pretty much do as they see fit.

That may be bearable as long as the leader is acting with integrity and has the best interests of the people at heart. But here’s the thing: what happened to our doctrine of depravity? Did we forget to apply it to our church leaders? Surely the Royal Commission going on in Australia at present should make us think again?

What would we say about church leaders if we applied this wisdom to them? We’d say that ministers, left to themselves, will be corrupted by power and money, and tend to become abusive. We’d say that unless they are accountable to someone, they will very likely become abusive.

And then we would say, but they aren’t accountable at the moment.

Does that ring alarm bells for you? Does for me.

Here’s what happens. Many people in the congregation know that they need to be in the minister’s good books, so they tend to suck up to him a bit. Give him (or her) special treatment. He gets to like it. He starts to really believe he’s someone special, that he is the church’s repository of wisdom. To feel that he is entitled to be revered. The bigger the church, the more this functions. In big churches the minister can keep himself distant from the people, deal with them by remote control, through secretaries and underlings. The feeling of power increases.

Power-tripping ministers are hyper-sensitive to criticism. Anyone who questions what they are doing is probably motivated by evil intentions. Or just doesn’t understand. Who are they to question the leader? People should respect authority and know their place.

This happens all the time in churches. Necessarily so, because our leaders are depraved like the rest of us. But when leaders go wrong, the effects are much greater than they would be for a rank-and-file church member.

Baptist churches have no week to week accountability structure in their leadership model. Only, the congregation can pull the plug on the leader at any time. Short of that they can do nothing. It’s all or nothing. Day to day power, long term insecurity. This is the worst possible combination, encouraging the minister to feel defensive, anxious and secretive, as well as the immediate feeling of power and privilege.

Presbyterians have a system where the minister is accountable to other ministers who don’t get to see what he does. A group of remote buddies. Weak as water.

Anglicans in Sydney diocese have the least accountability of all. Rectors are deliberately classed as ‘not needing supervision’, i.e. no accountability. There is no one in the whole world who can call a rector to account. Even the bishop can only step in if there is serious misconduct. By then of course it’s too late, and the damage is all done. At least the Baptist and Pressies have a go at this: Sydney Anglicans deliberately don’t try.

In my view we have engineered a situation where the temptation for our church leaders to go power-tripping is almost overwhelming. And of course sexual abuse is just a form of power-trip.

I’d be surprised if most people in c.21st Australia will feel comfortable with our leadership structures. People have become sensitised to these issues, and know where these things lead. Judging by the Royal Commission, we may need the world to educate us on this issue.

What a shame. Literally shame. Surely we should be the experts in dealing with sin and temptation. Shouldn’t we should be able to get our own house in order?


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