Confronting the Toxic Power in Me
I (Jamin) can still see their faces. Every Wednesday night we gathered in a living room, and about 40 high school students fixed their attention on me as I taught on a passage of Scripture. I was in seminary at the time, so my teaching was infused with a unique brand of arrogance that comes from the rare opportunity to immediately speak authoritatively about things you just learned for the first time yourself. It wasn’t a church sanctuary filled with 3,000 people, but it might as well have been. I can remember feeling powerful in that room. As I wielded my gifts and abilities, I received adoration and respect. The constant affirmations by well-meaning brothers and sisters in Christ didn’t help curb the pride growing within me. Each affirmation was like a puff of air stoking the flames of the early embers of grandiosity smoldering in my heart. I can still remember them: “You’re wise beyond your years,” “You’re a uniquely gifted communicator,” “You’re going to be a senior pastor one day.”
These stories often go unreported. Only the pastors with notoriety and status make headlines. In recent months, the primary story making headlines regards Bill Hybels, the former senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church. I (Kyle) became a Christian at Willow Creek, and my young faith was fostered in that place. The stories of sexual misconduct are painful and grievous to me in a very personal way. As I witness the resignation of the elder board and the exodus of senior leadership, I can only pray and grieve for the people of Willow Creek for the days ahead. But this is not a new story. We’re all well aware of other high-profile pastors who, in recent years, have made headlines for the wrong reasons.
For many years, when stories like this surfaced we would often respond with swift judgment. Not just judgment of the individuals caught in sin, but judgment of the megachurch model. It was an easy turn to make. We decried the vices of pastoral celebrity and dictatorial authority that seemed so endemic in ecclesial settings. To be sure, pastoral idolatry and totalitarian forms of leadership have no place in the church of Jesus Christ. Yet this move to judgment was especially easy because it allowed us to avoid the caldron of toxic power brewing in our own souls.
In our early years of ministry, the Lord began to show us the problem of power wasn’t just “out there,” at those megachurches and in those celebrity pastors. It was “in here,” within our own hearts. It turned out I (Jamin) was just as tempted to wield my talents and abilities to wow the crowd in my youth group of 40 students as a celebrity pastor on video screens at multiple venues.
Toxic power is not bigoted; it cuts across all socioeconomic, racial, and denominational lines. It does not focus its attention only on obviously powerful pastors. It is an equal opportunist. It crouches at the door of every church, regardless of Sunday morning attendance. If you are a pastor, you will be tempted to embrace toxic forms of power in ministry.
You might fall prey to the false belief that the solution to this problem is to eschew power altogether. But this would be a rejection of our vocation. The Christian life is a call to power (2 Cor. 12:9–10), and more specifically, God has vested the pastoral office with authority. Power isn’t the problem, but not all power is created equal. The problem in the church concerns toxic forms of power. Toxic power is power in strength for the sake of control. It is power grounded in pride and autonomy, and wielded for the sake of control, coercion, or domination. Toxic power is the way of the world, the flesh, and the devil (James 3:13–18), and as such is opposed to the power of the cross.
While toxic power is surely a dangerous and corrosive agent in the church, there is another form of power we are called to embrace. Kingdom power is power in weakness for the sake of love. It is power grounded in humble dependence upon God and wielded in service and blessing. This is the power modeled by Christ. Therefore the cross defines kingdom power, and as such the world deems it foolish and weak (1 Cor. 1:18).
It is easy to point fingers at “fallen pastors” as icons of toxic power, but the story is far more complex and nuanced than the salacious headlines suggest. Toxic power isn’t only at work through explicit and demonstrative forms of failure or abuse in ministry. More often toxic power is content to be the hidden leaven in the lump of bread (Luke 12:1). It shows up in a myriad of subtle, yet destructive ways in pastoral life. Toxic power shows up when we leverage our personality or intelligence in preaching to generate an artificial response in our congregants. It shows up in our vision casting, when guilt and shame are the primary motivators we appeal to in order to get people engaged. We see toxic power at work when we relate to people in our congregation as resources to use in accomplishing our goals, rather than as people to love. It is on display when we tailor our ministerial vocation to our personal strengths in order to hide areas of weakness from congregants. Toxic power is at work when our evangelism strategy is to reach the powerful, influential, and wealthy in the community, rather than the weak, marginalized, and poor. We see it when our tools for ministry are not primarily Scripture, prayer, and faithful presence, but are instead worldly business practices and techniques.
I (Kyle) have seen in my own heart the temptation to craft my preaching style as a way to cover my weaknesses and play to my strengths, fearing to show any element of vulnerability. I did this not because I thought God was calling me to do so, but because it was an assumed cultural norm. People need an example to look up to, I thought, so it’s my duty to appear as polished as possible. Preaching style can become akin to choosing the best possible photo for your profile picture on Twitter, meant to highlight what you want highlighted and to hide everything else. I was using the pulpit to wield a kind of power that was antithetical to the gospel, yet in my mind it was all being done to the glory of God. I liked the idea of “power in weakness for the sake of love,” but at the end of the day, I preached in the hope that power was ultimately found in my strength to control my destiny.
These are the stories that must be told. We must be wary of the temptation to gather around the bonfire of social media outrage over the most recent celebrity pastor to fall from grace, as a means of minimizing or avoiding the fire ablaze in our own hearts. To be sure, the headline stories of power mongers who domineer and abuse in the church are deeply troubling and ought to be lamented. Yet they should also serve as occasions to open our hearts to the truth of our own temptations toward power. Perhaps we have not committed the obvious “pastoral sins” of adultery or stealing money, but we all, at times, have wielded power in strength for the sake of control. Therefore in recognizing our desire to embrace toxic power, our first response should be repentance. As Peter told Simon the Magician, who sought the power of the Holy Spirit for his own purposes, “Repent, therefore, of this wickedness of yours, and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you” (Acts 8:22, ESV).
If we desire to become the kind of pastors who seek the way from above, the way of power in weakness for the sake of love, there are a few practices that can help us participate in the Spirit’s work.
First, we must cultivate the habit of honesty in prayer. Repentance of toxic power is not a one-time prayer, but must be an ongoing conversation with God throughout our lives. For those in a position of leadership or influence, the temptation toward toxic power will always lurk right around the corner.
Second, we must commit to practicing honesty with others in regards to our temptations with power. Real vulnerability is required. It is imperative that we not only have conversations about power fellow pastors, but that we also do so in appropriate ways with people in our congregations. Power in strength for control is a temptation faced by the whole body of Christ. When we are vulnerable and speak honestly about our temptations with power it will pave the way for a much-needed ongoing conversation between pastors and congregations.
We need to be known by God and others in truth. As we open our hearts before God and in relationship with others, we are invited to stay present to our weakness and frailty. It is here that we come to know kingdom power in our vocation as pastors. It is here that Christ declares, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:9).
Jamin Goggin is a pastor at Mission Hills Church in San Marcos, California.
Kyle Strobel teaches spiritual theology for Talbot’s Institute for Spiritual Formation and is on the preaching team at Redeemer Church, La Mirada, California.
Jamin and Kyle’s journey to understand pastors’ temptations to embrace worldly power can be found in The Way of the Dragon or the Way of the Lamb (Thomas Nelson, 2017).