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Forty-Two Power Plays
And How To Address Them
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
- Have you ever been a victim of power plays?
- Certainly every pastor and congregation has experienced them. Some of it occurs at
almost every level of ministry. Sometimes, power plays can dominate a congregation. Power
plays can cause a great deal of disruption in congregational ministry. When this occurs,
one really wonders whether there is any room left for God's control!
- What are some of these power plays? The following listing, adapted from Brenda
Schaeffer's discussion found in Talk, Trust and Feel by Melody Beattie (Hazelden,
1991), helps identify them.
- Giving advice without taking it.
- Unable to ask for help.
- Difficulty in asking for support, acceptance and love.
- Overly-demanding behaviors.
- Giving orders.
- Expecting too much from others.
- Vengeance and "getting even"-related behaviors.
- Actions and words designed to diminish the value of others and their accomplishments.
- Attacks on others self-esteem via putdowns, persecution, and punishment.
- Judgmentalism and fault-finding.
- "Withholding" behaviors, i.e. not giving what others want or need (e.g.
resources, approval, encouragement, ministry support, etc.).
- Stubborn-ness and "holding out" tactics.
- Smothering and over-nurturing so as to "guarantee" others' success.
- Stifling normal growth of others by not allowing them to make mistakes, learn, and gain
- Hindering the celebration of each individual's uniqueness.
- Condescending behaviors, i.e. treating others as inferior to self.
- Intimidation and fear tactics.
- Wresting decisions away from others.
- Denying that others have the ability to solve problems.
- Inability to say, "I'm sorry."
- Can't admit mistakes.
- Giving indirect and evasive answers to direct questions.
- Putting others in "no-win" situations.
- Victimization, i.e. destroying others who present the truth.
- Driven to change others but not one's self.
- "I told you so"
- Pouring salt into fresh and old wounds.
- Attacking others when they're most vulnerable.
- Anti-dependent attitudes (e.g. "I don't need you." "I can do it by
- Bullying, bribing, and threatening.
- Showing bitterness.
- Holding on to unresolved grudges.
- Tendencies to self-righteous anger ("After all, I'm always right! How dare they
do that to ME!").
- Verbal and/or physical abuse.
- Using "aggression" (defined as "being assertive" or "giving a
needed push" by the user).
- Always needing to win.
- Always needing be right.
- Always needing to feel powerful.
- Stubbornly resistant and set in their own ways.
- Defending any of the above behaviors.
- Denying any of the other above behaviors.
- Attacking others who lovingly and without motivation for power, point out these
How many of these describe people in your congregation? How many describe you?
- On Power Plays
- Power plays are characteristic of unhealthy dependencies. Sometimes we may find
ourselves in such relationships. Other times, we may find ourselves creating or
perpetuating these relationships.
- The most hideous thing about power plays, however, is that they are not usually in our
awareness. Individuals may be so used to them that they may not recognize them. Indeed,
the dependence on power plays may be such an integral part of one's life that their lives
are run by an incessant stream and combination of power plays.
- Power plays are not easily recognized or given up. Individuals tend to habituate power
plays, i.e., they practice them almost "instinctively." Because of their
frequent use, power play-oriented individuals will be known and identified by their most
easily identified power play. "He's judgmental." "She's pushy."
"He's manipulative." "She's a control freak," etc.
- Power Plays--The Mask Of Fear
- Power plays are not easily given up because they are a cover-up. They are masks which
hide conscious, unconscious or suppressed fears. Often those with a need to control others
have a tendency toward multiple goal confusion. What is multiple goal confusion?
- Simply stated, healthy individuals have three main goals.
- First, to feel they can love themselves (i.e. have a healthy
sense of self-esteem;
- Second, to feel loved and accepted socially by others (i.e. to
have friends, respect, etc); and
- Third, to feel competent in their environment (i.e. to be able
to complete tasks acceptably, etc).
- Healthy individuals are able to differentiate their self-esteem from the perception of
others. If, for example, a healthy individual fails at a task or makes a mistake, they
recognize it does not mean they are a "bad" person. For them, it is not a
self-esteem issue. They can fix the mistake without having to unhealthily involve
themselves in self-esteem issues.
- Instead, a mistake made is a mistake needing to be fixed. Address the problem, develop a
solution, and implement it. Healthy individuals recognize that mistakes are not cause for
unhealthy self-condemnation but for growth and self-awareness. Because they understand
they are God's children, they know that for every mistake there is more than enough
forgiveness available to them.
- Zero-Tolerance Perfectionism
- Power-seeking and controlling types, however, have no tolerance for mistakes. In their
minds, each and every mistake made--whether in tasks or relationships--is a direct assault
on their self-esteem. Everything they do, everything they say, everything they experience
and the consequences which may result is a potential threat to their self-esteem.
- The only "safe" way for such individuals to live and the only way they can
avoid the fearful shattering self-esteem is to control others. The degree they must
control others is the degree to which they fear the loss of self. Whenever multiple goal
confused "power players" perceived or actually realize loss of control in
any area of their lives (e.g. relationships, tasks, prestige, et al.) they may act
aggressively toward the one they feel is most responsible for having taken away their
power and assaulted their self-esteem.
- Driven To Survive
- These control-driven hyper-vigilantes are largely driven by their intuition and
subjective interpretation of reality. On the basis of their intuitive understanding of the
facts, they control, shape and manipulate their world to guarantee their own survival
at any price. What doesn't attack them is accepted. What, in their perception,
attacks or threatens them they reject with a relentless, merciless abandon.
- If hyper-vigilantes make a mistake, they will not admit it nor will they voluntarily
take actions to address or rebuild what they've destroyed. Once they have followed their
hypersensitive, misguided intuitions to distrust an individual, trust--even if
deserved--will usually never be given to that individual again. It's just too fearful and
painful for them. They'd rather live in the pattern and pain of broken relationships
instead of learning the joy of God's grace in confession and absolution.
- That is why these hyper-vigilant types tend to prefer being alone, independent and
aloof. They have difficulty in almost all relationships...except those which they control
and those of a most superficial nature.
- The truth, however, is that the relationships they control are superficial and plagued
by many of the same fear-avoidant, relationship-destroying, and
- One-Up-Man-Ship From The Top-Side
- Since it feels better and is safer to be "one up" than "one down,"
control-driven individuals will seek those external circumstances which will give
security. They will be driven to the best appearance of their homes, the best job
performance, the best looks, the best possessions and, in the church, the best appearance
of faith. Indeed, they do everything right...at least in their own minds.
- Unfortunately, being the "best" at all times is not only impossible, it's
mentally unhealthy. The facade, masking insecurity, fear, etc., is simply a way to
reassure themselves that others are "less okay" than they are. As long as there
are others "not as good" as they, they need not fix or change their behaviors.
Instead, the judgmentalism of pointing out others' flaws is one of the most powerful ways
they reinforce their own misguided, pharisaic sense of goodness.
One-Down-Man Ship From The Under-Side
- For every controlling person, there is one being controlled by them. These are the
"victims." Fearing criticism, rejection or displays of uncontrolled anger, they
comply--albeit unhappily--to the controlling one's every whim. Though they may recognize
that the relationship is unhealthy and that the control is demeaning, they will persist in
these behaviors which, as children, they learned gave momentary relief and a false sense
- How To Deal With Power Plays
- Since power plays in the church are both personal and organizational issues, any
personal response by the pastor and other leaders will affect the entire organization.
Thus, pastors and leaders must be aware that dealing with power plays has far greater
ramifications for ministry than would a simple inter-personal exchange.
- The impact of dealing with the power plays can have potentially dramatic effects on
every aspect of congregational life including: values, goals, directions, objectives,
visions, finances, and types of lay involvement. If you are dealing with power plays,
consider the following steps.
- 1) Based on the listing of power plays, take an inventory of power plays that
you and others in your church use most often.
Which do you participate in? What is your role in them? Are you a controller or a
victim? Do you confront them or avoid them? Do they hinder your ministry or help them? Who
benefits? Who is hurt? What ministry possibilities do they prevent? Which do they promote?
- 2) Deal with your own issues.
- Before implementing a control shift in your ministry, it is important to know your
issue. Controlling individuals know others' hot buttons only all too well. After all,
their behaviors are driven by unhealthy reactions to their own hot buttons. Are you scared
of rejection? Can you handle failure? Are you prone to guilt or anger? How do you handle
fear and deprivation? For more insight see Ministry Health article #83 "Knives: The Things That Hurt Us Most."
- 3) Choose the role which you wish to take over against the power play.
Do you wish to be controlled or in control? How do you wish to be perceived? As a
dictator? As being in control? Non-anxious? An one judgmentally pointing the finger at a
A serious character self-analysis is very helpful before dealing with power plays. To
help overcome blind spots and your own tendency to denial, seek out a confidant to clarify
Perhaps the most important for the congregation and for yourself is, "What is the
best, healthiest, and more Scriptural way to uphold the Office of the Ministry in
that congregation?" When power plays have been active a long time, it can take just
as long to re-establish the respect and authority of the pastoral office. Be patient, but
be persistent. Don't look for immediate results. Re-establishment of the pastoral office
is a learning process. It takes time. But it also takes a patient and persistent teacher.
Expecting too much too soon, albeit well-intended, may do more harm than good.
- 4) Define a healthy sense of your use of power relative to the Office of
Ministry (or, if not a pastor, to your ministry position).
What essential power does the office or position have? What is not essential but
enjoyable? Am I a controlling person? A careful study, shared with your leaders and
members in a variety of ways, can be renewing. Carefully planned and coordinated sermon
series, Bible classes, leadership retreats, newsletter articles can be very helpful to
communicate the proper understanding.
Avoid getting "stuck" in just upholding the ministry solely as some sort of
doctrinal premise to serve your own desire for one-up-man-ship. More than one pastor bent
on this sort of self-serving "super-orthodoxy" has discredited the proper
scriptural understanding of ministry.
With each mention of the ministerial office, connect it to God's larger vision for the
office: to raise up and equip the entire Body of Christ toward the realization of God's
plan for worldwide discipleship (cf. Ephesians 4, et al.).
- 5) Count the cost.
This is a most critical element prior to beginning any change process. Are you willing
to pay the price? Is the congregation willing to pay the price? Are key leaders ready to
pay the price? What price are you--and they--willing to pay?
Every worthwhile ministry goal comes at a price. The greater the goal, the greater the
price. The greater the price, the greater the faith necessary. Resource the Word of God
heavily to help you and your congregation draw on those items which will build faith in
the face of the formidable.
- 6) Redefine/re-establish lines of control and power in your life and
Simply to wrest the unhealthy controlling power from one to take it all for yourself
does not solve the problem. It merely substitutes the players in the power play and merely
perpetuates unhealthy dynamics of control. Work with leaders to re-define the optimum role
of everyone in the church. Denominational assistance can be of great help.
Most important is to teach and project a healthy, Scripturally-based understanding of
the pastoral office. Until this office is understood by all members and a scriptural basis
for it respected and implemented, control issues will continue to proliferate.
- 7) Open up the power base.
There are two ways to shift control and power in a church with a big fish in a little
pond. The first is to make the pond bigger. Create more opportunities for ministry.
Challenge maintenance ministries which form the impermeable shoreline of the pond. Create
and expand a vigorous vision for ministry to know no limits...indeed, to the ends of the
The second is to get more fish and help them grow bigger. Of course, new members are
the key to "more fish." But, in conflicted churches, new fish may tend to swim
where the pond is not dominated by narrow, restrictive control issues. Initially, existing
members may have to be energized to "make a difference" in the ministry. With
God's blessing, a sense of exciting change and ministry can occur as the pond enlarges and
multiple schools of fish--and big fish--develop.
- 8) Expect conflict.
Maintenance ministry is the security blanket of controlling types. Whatever they do
will always be done in the same way for the same reasons with largely the same result.
Since this is their greatest organizational value, they will challenge any attempts to
change those organizational values.
Control types will predictably respond with control tactics so maintain personal power.
Since they are driven by denial and delusion, they may not fight fair though they may be
experts at giving the impression of fairness.
- 9) Move forward in faith.
- Know and trust God's "Three-Step Plan" for victory repeatedly found
- Step 1: Celebrate the victory to which God has called you as if it
already has occurred. Celebrate!!!
- Step 2: Fight the victory as God directs... short-handed,
under-supplied, and as an under-dog--remembering that is it God's battle. Let Him do the
fighting. You simply represent Him with the unquestioned energy, faithfulness, and
relentless resolve to go into the fire and let God fight. Notice that in each battle,
God's specially called individual led the way upholding the very highest standards of
Christian character including patience, perseverance and hope.
- Step 3: Celebrate the victory! God is faithful! Rejoice!
- 10) Mourn the losses, celebrate the faithful, and consider the God-given
- Battlefields are seldom pretty sights. Neither are churches which have inflicted heavy
membership casualties. Losses do occur. Some of them significant. Virtually all of them
- Even in the most war-torn battle zone, the faithful still remain. These faithful are the
ones God has faithfully chosen, guided, guarded and empowered. They are the ones He has
chosen to re-build the ministry.
- The pastor's greatest calling is to be God's agent to minister to these people and watch
God breathe life into what may seem to be an Ezekielian valley of dry bones.
- 11 ) Celebrate Renewal.
- The battle having been won, transformation is just around the corner. Remember that
transformation is seldom instant. Instead, congregational transformation is the result of
new shoots coming out of the stumps. Seek them, nurture them, and watch God work
powerfully to bring unprecedented and unimaginable renewal in your ministry!
- Move Forward
- Many congregations and pastoral ministries, plagued by a long and hurtful history of
power plays, have been renewed by addressing power plays. Those who, under the patient,
steady and faith-driven leadership of a pastor, were willing to pay the price have
experienced God's remarkable transformation. The healing difference which God can make
once control issues are settled in a congregation is nothing less than miraculous!
- When control issues are settled, pastors and people both minister in a healthy
relationship of unbridled joy at what God has done to transform their church and
themselves. Indeed, when God is placed back into control, and each serves under the Head
of the Church, Jesus Christ, the Body of Christ is energized and emboldened into and
unprecedented an energetic pursuit of God's calling for them. Go for it!
- Thomas F. Fischer
Note: John Simpson's Ministry
Health Article "Pastoring
the Powerful" (145) is another must read for dealing with power plays.
Index Articles 1-49
Articles 50-99 Articles
100-149 Articles 150-199
200-249 Articles 250-299
Articles 300-349 Articles
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was revised on:
Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:03:08 PM