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  • Ed Moll

Politics, Power, and Christian Ministry

I want to offer a different take on two subjects that occupy the minds of many at the moment: politics and power. Politics need not refer only to what happens at Westminster or in Washington DC if politics with a small ‘p’ is what happens when people do things together. Because people in churches do things together, there is politics in Christian ministry. Power too need not be naked or elitist because everyone has power to act in line with their interests. When people with agency of any kind come together they can behave in different ways according to the balance of power and the degree to which their interests are aligned or not.

In The Politics of Ministry* Burns, Chapman and Guthrie set out a very helpful tool for mapping these different behaviours. The relationships of power (equal or unequal) and interests (aligned or conflicting) can be set out in a simple table with four cells (p 120).

Parties of equal power and shared interest get on and collaborate (Cell1); those with shared interest but unequal power need to form alliances or network (Cell 2). When power is equal but interests conflict, the parties will bargain (Cell 3), which can range from a business-like negotiation to mercenary horse-trading.

Cell 4 is where the interesting stuff happens because both the more powerful and less powerful parties each have a range of possible behaviours. Those with more power can use their power to dominate, can give away their power, or occupy any positions in between. Those with less power can act on a scale from resistance to surrender. Some combinations are uglier than others: this ethical dimension can guide our own behaviour, whichever side of the table we find ourselves.

The best course of action, according to the authors, is to try to get out of Cell 4 into one of the others. For those with greater power this would mean using their advantage ethically, either to reduce the power gap and move towards Cell3, or to align interests and move towards Cell 2. Those will less power can use different strategies also to move towards Cells 2 or 3.

Application to Pastoral Practice

I think the model is patient of wide application. In this post I want to see what it says about pastoral practice. Many healthy pastoral relationships have unequal power:

It is important to distinguish healthy social influence from manipulation. Healthy social influence occurs between most people, and is part of the give and take of constructive relationships. In manipulation, one person is used for the benefit of another. The manipulator deliberately creates an imbalance of power, and exploits the victim to serve his or her own agenda. (Preston Ni, in Burns et al p 156)

If one is conscious of a power imbalance in a pastoral relationship, the grid above suggests ways that to reduce the vulnerable person’s vulnerability and move them out of Cell 4: giving the weaker partner a voice or agency allows a move towards Cell 3; working to align interests encourages a move towards Cell 2. Either may be a helpful safeguard for both parties to ensure the relationship remains one of healthy social influence.

The Latimer Trust

At this point that the blogs editor habitually urges us to point towards a related helpful Latimer Trust resource. Unfortunately, apart from a very brief mention in my Anglican Elders (p42-46), I am not aware of anything we have on this subject - yet! If you have an idea or a draft of 10,000 words on power in pastoral ministry do get in touch via the website.

Ed Moll is Vicar of Wembdon and Trustee of the Latimer Trust.


Bob Burns, Tasha Chapman, Donald Guthrie The Politics of Ministry: Navigating Power Dynamics and Negotiating Interests (Downers Grove: IVP, 2019)

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