Powerful Leaders? (Book Review)
Marcus Honeysett’s important book on church leadership abuse is challenging, humbling, and full of insights to help you serve others, and Christ, better.
Marcus has done us all a great service in humbly, courageously, and wisely opening up the knotty issue of power and its abuse in the church.
An important issue
I think this is such an important issue for Christian leaders:
Abuse of power has happened
There have been some painful, tragic and deeply sad examples of the abuse of power in churches which have left deep wounds in people’s lives. What has gone wrong?
Was it simply ‘rogue operators’ that might be found in any organisation made up of fallen, marred human beings? Or were there ‘system errors’ in the organisation’s checks and balances? Were alternative voices and counterpoints of view subtly marginalised by a false use of power?
This book is important because if it could happen to ‘them and there’, what about ‘us and here’? We have to face that.
We need to ask questions about how we minister to victims and perpetrators. How do we help those who either noticed a problem but didn’t feel they could do anything and are now guilt-racked, or didn’t notice anything amiss at all and are now struggling to come to terms with all the fall-out?
Marcus’ book helps us to set a better pattern of power use, and reduce the risk of harm happening again.
We need to respond to institutional factors
The book raises the question of whether there is an institutional problem inherent in the exercise of power in churches. Such episodes have caused a rethink about the nature of church power as it is taught and practised in evangelical churches.
Is there an endemic problem? Is it an inevitable outworking of a flawed theology or misunderstanding of Biblical teaching, say on the atonement or complementarianism for example? Some would vehemently assert so. What response should be given?
We are living in a culture where any ‘speech act’ is understood as a ‘power play’. ‘Micro-aggression’ may be read into almost any words once armed with a theory of human interaction which stems more from the thinking of Nietzsche and Derrida, than the Lord Jesus.
We are all becoming adept at weaponising our own feelings when being challenged by another’s words. It becomes normal to take offence, feel hurt, and experience victimhood. But what in that is legitimate, and what is so socially constructed that anyone could take offence at anything if they chose to do so?
Armed by critical theory, we might end up in a situation where we create barriers to any human interaction, and any speech may be termed abusive. How can we keep a sense of perspective? How can we keep our own reaction from being just ‘power playing against power’?
We need to serve younger leaders
Marcus’ book is also important because, it seems to me, younger church leaders are feeling utterly nervous about the uses and abuses of church power.
This is not just because in the long history of the church, Christians have fiercely debated in-depth about the matter. Think of the serious differences of outlook and practice ranging from the Roman Catholic hierarchy, the Anglican episcopacy, the Presbyterian eldership, and the congregational voting procedures - just some of the ‘systems of power’ in church life.
This is also because today there is the added pressure that no one wants to go anywhere near the accusation of being an abuser. This could create a power vacuum that can suck in all kinds of other users and potential abusers of power in church life.
My reflection is that of the three great temptations of the world - dodgy sex, dodgy money, and dodgy power - it is the last that often seduces Christians. We can get so used to exercising power (often legitimately) that we begin to feel entitled to it, and we can ‘silo’ our own ministry.
This means we gain our sense of identity and wellbeing from it, and we can feel threatened by any who may want to ‘muscle in’ on our role. That can happen to international Christian ‘celebrities’ but it can as easily describe the tussle over who is playing the piano at church this week.
Young leaders are facing choices, but have lost their confidence in how those decisions should be made. Some of the written works from the past on church power are not easy to wade through1 and some resources suggest a ‘counsel of perfection’ (by that I mean that the picture of the use of power painted by well-intended authors may reflect the pure, humble, servant-hearted power of the Lord Jesus, but it just seems so hard to live out in a messed-up world).
The real world has some very daunting problems and people to serve and lead, and also to challenge2. I think young leaders may retreat into passivity.
A biblical and helpful response
So, into all this, Marcus has come with his timely book.
Yes, it will be a challenge to you. It will search you and it should humble you. It may uncover some areas in your own practice of power that calls for repentance and change.
But it isn’t a ‘downer’ against church leaders, already struggling to take the church into greater faithfulness to Christ. It is full of things that will help you serve others, and Christ, better.
First, he sets out Biblical patterns of healthy leadership, emphasising that servant leadership is for the good of others. He also describes what healthy authority looks and feels like. He wisely shows that power is a good gift, not a necessary evil. There are lots of great insights in this section.
Second, he introduces a really useful overview of a ‘power continuum’ and then describes the slippery slope, where power morphs from good to twisted. He argues that we should first be clear about the nature of delegated formal power in church life, whatever our polity. Formal constitutions, methods of transparency, procedures of accountability are all part of this.
There is a super emphasis on the Bible, through which the Lord rules his people. Ideally, leaders have ‘instrumental power’ in that they have the privilege of teaching the word to the family of God. Everyone has ‘an open Bible’ and leaders should both respect the right of private judgement, and encourage all to be convinced in their own minds, not cajoled by heavy-handedness.
The leaders have the privilege of being the guardians of what the particular church believes the scriptures say - it is not a chaotic free for all of private interpretations all vying for supremacy. That formal role of authoritative explanation is given to the leaders of the church. Leaders should realise that, as they faithfully teach, they are exercising the servant power entrusted to them by the Lord Jesus. Their power isn’t foremost because they are ‘leader types’.
Formal and informal power
He also describes informal power: the kind of relational currency and credibility a servant leader can build up as his reputation, character, and experience enable his expressions of wisdom to significantly contribute to leading the people of God. This is both natural, good, and biblical.
But where Marcus is so helpful is when he describes how both formal and informal power become illegitimate, corrupted, and then abusive. This is penetrating stuff.
He describes the ways in which coercive power begins to be exercised, whether the pretext is ‘serving the cause/the ends justifying the means’ or, more crudely, ‘this will satisfy my leader ego needs’. He shows how we can all too adeptly move from serving others to serving self.
Finally, in this section, he describes how the most serious abuses of power and position develop.
His laser-like analysis of how any of these traits manifest themselves will search and challenge any leader. It should lead to repentance if we have misrepresented the altogether lovely Lord Jesus we represent (Song of Songs 5:16).
His final section, entitled ‘What Next?’, points to ways forward for various groups: victims and survivors; whistle-blowers; leaders; churches; cultures; tribes. He is so helpful on establishing a healthy culture, where “examined and transparent leadership and church life” is the norm.
Personally, I would have liked some more help in the area of ‘conflict resolution’, not only in the one-to-one situations but in the difficult zones when godly people don’t agree (see Acts 15:35-41) or when internal threats have to be dealt with by leaders who are, essentially, men of peace. I am thinking of the challenges facing Titus for example (Titus 1:10-16; 3:9-11). Those problems and their ilk haven’t gone away.
Situations like this often raise painful dilemmas around the proper use of power. The failure to act can be just as much an abuse of power (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-5), as acting in an overtly bullying manner. We need more help thinking through how to deal wisely with ‘Mr and Mrs Awkward’.
Too many leaders also struggle with the sometimes highly-charged atmosphere of a members’ meeting. Although the agenda comment ‘AOB = Any Other Bombs’ may get a chuckle at a conference, it is tragically many people’s experience of meetings when church members discuss things.
Negotiating these well is a tough demand for leaders. Few are taught ‘best practice’ or coached into how to have necessary and often difficult conversations in a Christ-like way. In today’s climate, leaders may just as likely be paralysed in these situations. They can bring a sensitive leader an early grave. I think help is needed here.
The book is not ‘an easy read’, not because it is long, technical, or jargon-loaded, but because it will give you, your leadership team, and your church a lot to think about, and then act upon.
This cannot and must not be rushed. Only careful reading, discussion, and Spirit-guided change will help everyone move forward into a much better place.
I said it is an important book. It really is.
2 I guess it was ever thus. 3 John and its description of Diotrephes who loved to be first, was quite a headache for even the apostle John to deal with!