The pastor and power

The author discusses five kinds of power. How should a church leader relate to the phenomenon of power?

Steve Walikonis, DMin, is associate pastor, College Place Village Seventh-day Adventist Church, College Place, Washington, United States.

An intangible phenomenon permeates the atmosphere of this world. It is called “power.” As individuals and nations, the quest for power characterizes our culture, and the desire for power, as a general rule, dominates the masses whether economic, political, social, or technological. Familiar phrases attest to the many ramifications of power in daily life and experience: power politics, balance of power, power of the media, or people power. In the church, phrases such as “the power of the laity” or “the power of prayer” suggest a concern about power. Each of these phrases would indicate powerlessness as undesirable. As Robert Greene observes, “the feeling of having no power over people and events is generally unbearable to us—when we feel helpless we feel miserable. No one wants less power; everyone wants more.”1

How should we as pastors relate to this phenomenon?

 Five kinds of power

Whenever a group of people organizes to accomplish a given objective, the phenomenon of power is at work. A whole organization becomes affected by how its leader relates to power, along with a range of options for applying it. At one extreme, church leaders may impose power forcefully and autocratically, resulting in power struggles, rivalry, even rebellion. On the other end of the spectrum, leaders may not apply power at all to address needed change, thus accomplishing nothing. As a contestant, every leader plays in the game of power—no one can opt out.

Almost any church member can relate stories of congregations wounded by a pastor or leading church member who misused power resulting in discontent and lowered morale. Either leaders feel dejected because few wish to follow their lead, or the members in the pew feel unproductive and discouraged. In one seminary class the teacher, Dr. Arnold Kurtz2—commenting that low morale in the congregation is often attributed to the so-called Laodicean condition—said that the real cause may be how the pastor leads the congregation. Indeed, the pastor’s use of power may be creating the very condition they lament.

How should a church leader relate to the phenomenon of power? J. R. P. French and B. Raven3 identified five kinds of power:

1. Expert power: based on B’s perception of A’s competence.
2. Referent power: based on B’s identifi cation with or liking for A.
3. Reward power: based on A’s ability to provide rewards for B.
4. Coercive power: based on B’s perception that A can provide penalties for failure to comply with A.
5. Legitimate power: based on the internalization of common norms or values.

Expert power

In our age of specialized knowledge, we have come to rely on experts in every field with the increase of knowledge skyrocketing in every branch of learning. Because expert power lies behind effective leadership, the leader may be renowned for good decisions, sound judgment, or accurate perceptions of reality. These are qualities that seem to cause an individual to rise in power naturally.

Followers are persuaded that the reformer is right, and a reform movement is born. This scenario is regularly played out in the political world as well as the religious world. When one observes the power of revolutionaries or reformers, it appears that their power begins with the perception of their expertise. They use their knowledge or insight to define the prevailing problems and propose solutions. The ministry of Jesus offers an example of expert power for “He taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Matt. 7:29, NKJV). In His words there was a credibility that impressed His listeners with the fact that He knew what He was talking about.

In this day of technological revolution, the spread of knowledge and the ease with which individuals share information quickly determines who has a position of influence. With regard to the church, many members have knowledge about theology and administration at a level that may surpass the minister. Leadership seeks to fill a vacuum. Where the minister may be deficient, others may be regarded as more informed or experienced, thus shifting power away from the church leader. Applied to ministers, this form of power demonstrates the reason why a seminary education is considered so important. The extra equipping one receives through continuing education allows students to capitalize on the abundance of information available to effectively do the work of ministry.

Referent power

Based on the desire of followers to identify with their leaders and to be accepted by them, referent power serves as a model and an agent of influence by which the targets evaluate their behavior and beliefs. Within an organization referent power can be profound, for in every congregation names, whether pastors’ or church members’, will certainly be heard and remembered with great fondness and respect. One might ask, What was so notable about those people? Why is their memory so revered? Why do people hold them in such high regard? Why were they so powerful? With the answer comes the attraction of referent power. The leader, known for the charisma of a loving and kind manner, manifests this power. Within most organizations some individuals seem to motivate others merely from the respect they possess for they are well-liked and others wish to be identified with them.

Servant-leaders tend to grow in referent power. In Richard J. Foster’s view, “Leadership is an office of servant-hood. Those who take up the mantle of leadership do so for the sake of others, not for their own sake. Their concern is to meet the needs of people, not to advance their own reputations.”4 Note, therefore, how referent power creates loyalty and teamwork in an organization.

Two main streams of power seem to exist. With multitudes of books and articles that focus on achievement, status, how to “make it to the top,” and success, many examples exist of this type of power. We can name political, business, and military leaders who climbed the ranks and rose in prominence.

Other literature highlights those who have impacted the world in another way. Their power was not due to their strength, position, or outward advantage but rather to their character, service, integrity, humility, and concern for others. This brings to view the paradox of power that has been modeled at various times throughout history. Pat Williams refers to Mahatma Gandhi who influenced his entire nation even though he had no position of authority. He says,

One of the great keys to the transforming power of the leadership of Gandhi was his humility, rooted in a desire to be completely identified and one with the poor and oppressed people he served. When he traveled, he traveled by third-class passage on trains. Third class was roughly equivalent of being treated as human freight. Third-class passengers were crammed together with farm animals in miserable conditions of heat, filth, and stench. Asked why he traveled third class, Gandhi replied, “Because there is no fourth class.”5

The optimal example of referent power would be the ministry of Christ. Scripture tells us that the multitudes crowded about Him and followed Him. Public attraction and demand were so great that He could hardly find reprieve. Ministers today should examine their own lives and ministries to determine whether or not they attract or repel people, since working with people can be classed as a daily duty of ministry.

Reward power

Control of valued resources determines the base of reward power. For example, church leaders possess a great deal of reward power since they determine whether or not or how much their employees are paid. In an attempt to motivate, leaders may also reward workers who perform well and withhold rewards from those who don’t.

In most congregations, the actual power to give raises and bonuses comes through the church board. However, the only way the board knows what goes on in the office from day to day comes through the pastor making himself a key link to the source of rewards. Often only the pastor’s recommendation provides any rewards or financial benefits for meritorious service.

Another example of reward power is the minister’s use of public recognition. Many individuals who serve the church are volunteers, and the ability to reward their dedication and service before the entire church body can be a tremendous boost to morale and the quality of the services that the church provides.

Reward power has its dangers, however. Alfie Kohn6 concludes that reward power has motivational effects but that over the long term it leads to a mind-set that actually prevents performance from individuals unless they are rewarded. He suggests several reasons why reward power may lead to problems: Rewards actually punish, rewards rupture relationships, rewards ignore reasons, rewards discourage risk taking, rewards reduce intrinsic motivation, and rewards in the form of praise are controlling and ultimately ineffective. Reward power in the hands of the leader must be used with great caution and with awareness of its potential drawbacks.

Coercive power

The leader who uses coercive power controls the granting or denying of valued rewards or feared penalties. As a form of power, coercion is apparent in government, business, family, and church life. Blaine Lee describes its nature:

Coercive power relies on the premise of control and uses fear as its instrument. When we use coercive power, we do it not to influence others, but to force them to obey. We achieve compliance through threats, cajolery, bullying, or physical force—whatever is necessary to cause fear in those we are seeking to control.7

When one considers how effectively fear has held much of the world’s population under suppression and harsh rule, one does not wonder why coercion has become regarded as “the kind of power that most people understand best.”8 As Celia Hahn observes, “The Control culture provides a comfortable haven for the Authoritarian Personality. In a world structured by control and ranking, the Authoritarian Personality feels secure. Within the hierarchy of power, he has his own niche. While he must submit to those above him, he can tell those below him what to do.”9

Research reveals that coercive power has an obvious impact, for it affects the morale of a congregation in a way exactly opposite to the expert, referent, and reward power bases. Responses to a research survey reflect the anguish of church members who have pastors high in coercive power.10 One respondent said, “Things go his way or else. We have lost several members. I’m trying to hang in there.” Another said, “Our local church has become his ‘kingdom.’ We are being directed rather than allowed to have a democracy.” One respondent commented sadly, “Due to ‘pastoral power,’ there are ‘body bags.’ ” Comments such as these were never made when the pastor was rated high in expert or referent power.

Legitimate power

Legitimate power is based on norms and expectations that members of a group hold regarding behaviors appropriate in a given role or position. In other words, members will more likely accept leaders and their influence when the leaders hold attitudes that conform to the norms of the group or organization.

One example of legitimate power is the United States presidential election. E. P. Hollander11has pointed out that winning an election establishes a much higher degree of legitimate acceptance of the elected president—as leader of the nation, head of the political party, and commander-in-chief of the military—than would be expected from the president’s initial support from the voters. Only about half of the registered electorate actually casts a vote, yet presidents benefit from the belief that once legitimized, by even a slim victory, each then holds the highest place in the nation.

Try as we might to avoid it, the church can be compared to a political organization. Leaders receive legitimization through a process of search committees, votes, and installation into office. Efforts harmonize the needs of the organization with the skills of the leader, and screening determines qualifications. Often, some kind of official ceremony takes place when the new leader assumes the position. In the minds of the members, this process gives legitimacy to the one who leads. If it turns out that the leader’s skills are insufficient, or if the process for selection is suspect, or if the leader’s values vary from the organization’s, gaining legitimate power becomes evident and difficult.


Jesus’ ministry was a harmonious blend of all five power bases. He gave leadership with the credibility and legitimacy of One sent by God. He confronted error and proclaimed truth in love with the authority of Divinity. Through His power, brokenness was transformed to wholeness.

God has given leaders today the privilege of using His power to improve our world as well. We see brokenness, fracture, and disarray all around us. Wise leaders will be aware of the power in their hands that is useful to restore and renew those things that have become ruined. In this way, power can be described as a phenomenon that glorifies God.

1 Robert Greene, The 48 Laws of Power (NY: Viking, 1998), xvii.
2 Retired professor, Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan, United States.
3 J. R. P. French and B. Raven, “The Bases of Social Power,” in Studies in Social Power, ed. Dorwin Cartwright (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research, 1959), 150–167.
4 Richard J. Foster, Money, Sex, and Power (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1985), 235.
5 Pat Williams, The Paradox of Power (NY: Warner Books, 2002), 207.
6 Alfi e Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes (Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1993), 49–116.
7 Blaine Lee, The Power Principle (NY: Simon and Schuster, 1997), 52.
8 Michael Korda, Power! How to Get It, How to Use It (NY: Random House, 1975), 34.
9 Celia Allison Hahn, Growing in Authority, Relinquishing Control: A New Approach to Faithful Leadership (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 1994), 23.
10 Steven R. Walikonis, “The Phenomenon of Power in the Church: An Investigation and Analysis of the Relational Dynamics Experienced in the Context of the Assertion of Authority” (DMin diss., Andrews University, 2004).
11 E. P. Hollander, “Leadership and Power,” in The Handbook of Social Psychology, ed. Gardner Lindzey and Elliot Aronson (NY: Random House, 1985), 2:509–511.




Advertisement - Digital Discipleship (300x250)

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Steve Walikonis, DMin, is associate pastor, College Place Village Seventh-day Adventist Church, College Place, Washington, United States.

November 2007

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

A Politics-free zone

Is it possible that we as religious leaders are being seduced by the idea that the state can do for us what we should be doing for ourselves?

Churches and political endorsements

Before your church gets involved in politics, you'll want to read this article.

Letters to the seven churches: historical or prophetic?

Does the historicist interpretation that the seven churches of Revelation represent the entire sweep of church history over seven historic periods really make sense?

God and nature: a biblical approach to origins

Could chance indicate a sufficient causal explanation for the origin of the universe and life?

Leadership principles from Proverbs

Solomon gives wise counsel to those who wish to guide others who are within their circles of influence.

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up
Advertisement - Southern Adv Univ 180x150 - Animated

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - NAD Stewardship (160x600)