By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments
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.
  1. Giving advice without taking it.
  2. Unable to ask for help.
  3. Difficulty in asking for support, acceptance and love.
  4. Overly-demanding behaviors.
  5. Giving orders.
  6. Expecting too much from others.
  7. Vengeance and “getting even”-related behaviors.
  8. Actions and words designed to diminish the value of others and their accomplishments.
  9. Attacks on others self-esteem via putdowns, persecution, and punishment.
  10. Judgmentalism and fault-finding.
  11. “Withholding” behaviors, i.e. not giving what others want or need (e.g. resources, approval, encouragement, ministry support, etc.).
  12. Stubborn-ness and “holding out” tactics.
  13. Smothering and over-nurturing so as to “guarantee” others’ success.
  14. Stifling normal growth of others by not allowing them to make mistakes, learn, and gain needed insight.
  15. Hindering the celebration of each individual’s uniqueness.
  16. Condescending behaviors, i.e. treating others as inferior to self.
  17. Intimidation and fear tactics.
  18. Wresting decisions away from others.
  19. Denying that others have the ability to solve problems.
  20. Inability to say, “I’m sorry.”
  21. Can’t admit mistakes.
  22. Giving indirect and evasive answers to direct questions.
  23. Putting others in “no-win” situations.
  24. Victimization, i.e. destroying others who present the truth.
  25. Driven to change others but not one’s self.
  26. “I told you so”
  27. Pouring salt into fresh and old wounds.
  28. Attacking others when they’re most vulnerable.
  29. Anti-dependent attitudes (e.g. “I don’t need you.” “I can do it by myself.”, etc.)
  30. Bullying, bribing, and threatening.
  31. Showing bitterness.
  32. Holding on to unresolved grudges.
  33. Tendencies to self-righteous anger (“After all, I’m always right! How dare they   do that to ME!”).
  34. Verbal and/or physical abuse.
  35. Using “aggression” (defined as “being assertive” or “giving a needed push” by the user).
  36. Always needing to win.
  37. Always needing be right.
  38. Always needing to feel powerful.
  39. Stubbornly resistant and set in their own ways.
  40. Defending any of the above behaviors.
  41. Denying any of the other above behaviors.
  42. Attacking others who lovingly and without motivation for power, point out these behaviors.

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.
Firstto 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 multiple-goal-confusion-driven dynamics.
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 of acceptance.
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 “targeted” person?

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 your motivations.

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 congregation.

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 world!

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 in Scriptures.
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 possibilities.
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 painful.
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. FischerNote: John Simpson’s Ministry Health Article “Pastoring the

Powerful”  (145) is another must read for dealing with power plays.

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