Five Dangers of the Church Cartel

The pastor did not see it coming.

Sure, there were some hints and signs, but nothing to prepare him for the meeting on Saturday with the personnel committee.

He was told he needed to resign. There was no explanation given. He had only been given positive reviews to this point. Some of the people on the personnel committee had been his supporters and friends.

He was shocked.

The pastor was leading change in the church. The church was growing and vibrant. But a couple of weak staff members didn’t like the direction and expected accountability. They teamed with the known church bully and went before the personnel committee. They presented their perspectives.

The pastor never was asked his perspective. He could have fought the weak personnel committee and likely won. But he didn’t want to tear apart a church he loved.

He resigned.

For the sake of the church he loved, he resigned.

He was yet another victim of the church cartel.

A church cartel is an alliance of bullies, bully-followers, carnal Christians, and even non-Christians in the church. Its ultimate goal is to get its way. It feeds off of selfish power.

We don’t like to talk about church cartels. After all, it’s not the Christian thing to do. But they exist in too many churches. And if they are not exposed, they will continue to wreak havoc.

Here are five of the very dangerous realities of the church cartel:

  1. When a cartel is allowed power, the church is already unhealthy. The cartel is, by its definition, self-centered and power-driven. A church is already very sick if members remain silent and do not confront this evil directly.
  2. A church cartel leaves carnages of wounded and dying people. If you have any doubts about this danger, please see my post on “Autopsy of a Deceased Pastor.” See the comments. See the pain and questions and defeat the cartel leaves behind.
  3. Church cartels drive away healthy leaders. Some of these leaders are driven away by the cartel. Others leave on their own accord because they want to be in a joyous and healthy church. Their departure exacerbates the problems in these churches.
  4. Church cartels cause church leaders to work from a posture of fear. Instead of moving forward in faith, church leaders often spend more time worrying about how their decisions will impact the cartel. These leaders know the cartel will come after them if they go contrary to the carnal group’s wishes.
  5. We are told in Scripture to manifest the fruit of the Spirit; the church cartel causes the church to do just the opposite. Galatians 5:22-23 is clear about the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, and self-control. Church cartels bring hate, discord, anxiety, impatience, evil, fear, brutality, and chaos.

Churches that have cartels usually know they are present. They know who the bully is. They know who the bully followers are. They see them. They hear them. And they often fear them.

Courageous leaders must confront and stop church cartels. If no one is willing, the church is already on a path toward decline and death.

Posted on November 30, 2016

With nearly 40 years of ministry experience, Thom Rainer has spent a lifetime committed to the growth and health of local churches across North America.
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  • Very interesting post. Thanks, I learned something. Not to just pile on individual experiences, but could there be a blessed “cartel” that seeks the Holy Spirit’s intervention? What if the church leadership (Sr Pastor, Assoc. Pastor and Chair of the Elder Board) with the implicit support of the weak Christians are the collective entity that is holding the church down and ruining volunteer leaders (and their families)? We certainly have the seeds of a cartel (far short of what you describe, but the potential is there), but the slowly-amassing frustration will lead to a cartel. Now that I’ve seen your description, I can see it now. So, is there such as things a “good” cartel?

  • In our church all lay committees have been dissolved (facilities, deacons, personnel, finance, nominating). Only the Elder board remains consisting of 8 Elders and the Senior Pastor. The annual budget was presented to the congregation with no Q & A and no vote. Cartel?

  • Had to leave my leave my church of 20 + years because of this same issue. Heart was broken and was not being healed in the church, therefore my husband and I were forced to look for another place of WORSHIP. So sad! But on the bright side, right decision and finally have stopped crying!

  • I am currently in a church that was dominated by the cartel for the entire history of the church. Our church grew pretty fast right after I came, and the cartel wasn’t happy about it. They have fought against me, lied about me over and over again, and have worked hard to push me out. But our church has continued to grow and their voices have lost most of their power. I’ve been here almost 12 years and it has been very rewarding and very painful all at the same time. The hardest part is that I’ve had lazy staff members who have gone to them for support whenever I tried to hold the staff member accountable. I’ve also had a staff member who wanted to be the pastor and went to the cartel for support. I’ve outlasted all of them and God has used me, but the pain is something I’m afraid will never go away. I’ve tried to put the pain in the past and move on, but the cartel is always there and the former staff members are at other churches in town. Knowing there are people working every day to hurt you is a hard way to live, and it’s hard when you have no one to talk to about it.

    • I paused to pray for you, my friend.

      • Praying for you. It seem that the very thing Jesus taught against is what so many in the church have become. I’ve been there and even with the growth I was force to leave. God however just prepared a bigger table for me in the presence of my enemies. Stay prayed up. The only way I made it.

      • Anonymous (Because I'm still there...) says on

        I couldn’t enjoy a table in the presence of my enemies unless they were sitting down with me, reconciled at last. Anything else feels like gloating. I truly believe that is the meaning of the end of Psalm 23, not celebrating as they look on, but celebrating with them once the darkness is over and enmity behind us.

  • You’re totally leaving out the possibility that the pastor is aligned with a cartel within the church. It’s not just a situation where a cartel is against a pastor. Example, a middle aged pastor aligned with the older folks against the younger families and anybody who wants to move in a more contemporary direction.

    • Yes. That is indeed a possibility.

    • In some ways, that sounds like a smart pastor protecting him/her self. The problem is made worse when the various stakeholders can’t sit down at a table and discuss the issues. Church unfortunately has become a zero-sum game.

    • Yes! I just re-read this post and mine is a similar query (see below).

    • I’ve lived through a variation of this where it was the pastor who was behind a “cartel” lead by one of the staff members bullying targeted church members, including children and teenagers. I left with my family when my wife and children no longer wanted to attend due to the abusiveness and overall church climate. It has been a painful experience to see a once strong missionary minded, caring congregation wither away. But God is good, and he has since led my family to a healthier, caring church which has validated for me what Jesus intended for his community to be.

      • Good for you! Bloom where you are planted. Sometimes our season changes unexpectedly to us, but God already had it planned.

  • Coleman Walsh says on

    I am a lay leader in my church and know how these “dynamics” can play out. When something like this happens the pastor often chooses to leave to “save” the church from a split. In many instances, that is not the best decision. The pastor is responsible for defending that flock that God has entrusted to him. That protection must be to threats both internal and external. It is a fine line and a difficult decision for a pastor to make, but leaving may simply exposes the flock to an internal threat that Satan has propagated. That roaring lion is not just outside the church. Where, as here, the personnel committee and dissatisfied staff took such an unbiblical approach to conflict resolution they should have been called to task for it. God promised us a safe landing but not a calm passage. Often in cases like this the best decision is to confront the “cartel” for the long-term benefit and health of the church. That won’t make for a calm passage, but it may well lead to the best end result.

    • That’s a good perspective. Thanks, Coleman.

      • I agree with Coleman. The easy way out is “out”, but were you called to lead this body or not? I confronted a small cartel, with their bully, at the beginning of my ministry at a church. They would approach me each Sunday morning before service with their complaints. After 2 of these meetings I told them that this would not continue, that God had called me to lead the congregation and it was either me or them that would be leaving, and God appointed me so would they like to go against God? I know this sounds cold and maybe even a little un-Christian but sometimes the best way to confront a bully is to be a bigger bully and stand up and lead. I earned respect and only lost one family of the cartel, (blessed subtraction).

      • ‘The wheat and the tares must grow together’ He said, but my goodness! By the times the harvest comes around you just have battered Christians. Why is it that power struggle continues in the church up to this day, haven’t we learned anything from past experiences?

    • Anonymous (Because I'm still there...) says on

      I took the decision to stay, seeing laying down my life for the sheep not as going (looks like sacrifice, but can just be escape to happier climes) but staying and suffering for it. It made me ill at one point, cost me a fortune in counseling and mediation coaching, and eventually it came to a point where they were making so much fuss people were leaving anyway. But around that time they began to expose themselves.
      I do feel for them, in a church where they have had their way for decades or generations. to see and influx of incomers, and find themselves in the minority is hard. Their anxiety turns to anger and even hatred, they don’t know how to cope with not getting their own way.
      But if they took that fear, that angst, that inner storm to the Lord who loves them they could receive his inner “Peace be still”, his assurance he holds them in his hand, knows them, loves them, understands how they feel, and can help them behave in a Godly way in these new circumstances.
      Sadly they follow the same human patterns we see in conflict in business and families, and schools where we learn to bully.
      If only they would “take it to the Lord in Prayer” rather than take it out on a scapegoat. (See the sociologist Girard on scapegoating)

  • You’ve definitely got your finger on the pulse, Brother. It’s strange that every time you speak of something I recognize it.

  • Although I believe that the majority of these type of problems originate from power groups within the church sans staff involvement, it should be noted that another variation of this problem is the one where the staff member is called in and forced to resign with no legitimate reason given. He (or she) does not have any warning and the pastor does not go to bat for them. Sadly, some pastors even utilize the “cartel” to facilitate the exit so that they are not perceived as the bad guy.

  • Been through this myself. Dealt with a Cartel at a NC Church I pastored. I learned then before going to a Church to read the Constitution and Bylaws and if I did not like what I saw, RUN. The Search Committee agreed to change their C&B once I came to the Church but refused to once I moved, and the C&B gave all power to the “Deacon Board” or Cartel. This is what – after three years – caused the demise of my assignment there. The Bible gives the Pastor servant-leadership, but if the C&B does not reflect this it is nearly impossible to get anywhere – the Cartels will rule.

    • Thom S Rainer says on

      Thanks, David.

    • We just left a church where the Board of Deacons controlled everything. The C&B gave too much control to the board. Anything the pastor wanted to do had to be approved by the board. This included hiring staff down to what color to paint the walls (I’m not kidding). The board micromanaged and controlled everything. They called the shots and wanted a puppet for a pastor. They wanted a good speaker and someone that could increase attendance. What they finally got was a man of God that stood up to them. Unfortunately, battles ensued and the board called for a vote of confidence on the pastor and he was ousted. The funny thing is that according to our churches C&B you can not vote a board member of the board, but you can vote the pastor out. That says a lot. Had we read the C&B before joining the church, we would have gone elsewhere. We have discovered that this has been going on for years and former pastors have left because of the bullies on the board. It is no surprise that this church, that once had an attendance of 1200, is down to 200. God is not going to bless a church when there is sin in the camp.

  • This was me–almost two years ago. The only upside was that I negotiated a good severance package and found a healthier church some months later. The church is now in the hands of that cartel–and many have left. The remaining ones are cautiously hopeful that something good will come out of it, but the church really isn’t much of a church anymore.

    • I am thankful you are in a good place now, John.

      • I was in John’s church when this happened. I had attended for almost 70….yes…70 years but when the few people in charge fired John they did it without most of us being asked. The church now has an evil feel and I am one of the many that left. None of us saw this coming and none of us were listened to. We have all found church homes now and are happy except for losing a wonderful friend. Thank you for publishing this article. Very meaningful. Bless you.

  • I pastored a church for 11 months that voted 5 years prior to my arrival that they were not going to be pastor-led but congregationally-led. I asked the chairman of deacons who has served in that capacity for 30 years if they ever defined it. They had not. It was obvious that each person was a congregation unto himself and could do as he pleased without consulting anyone. It was chaos. I, and pastors before me, tried to establish order. We made baby steps, but they made it clear that they wanted a pastor who played the “good ole boy” game. The pastor who followed me served as an associate 9 miles from the church. His arrival brought about a lot of transfer growth. Others who were disillusioned from past experiences returned, and the cartel could be losing power. Sometimes it takes several years of leadership with a strong leader with staying power along with a few funerals.

    • Well said, Matthew.

      • James Cantrell says on

        I don’t believe saying that it might take “a few funerals” is “well said” or said with good intent. This post as well as the vast majority of comments makes me feel that pastors care as little for the “cartel” as the post implies the “cartel” care for their pastors. I know your use of cartel is based on ill intent but intent is subjective and even pastors can misinterpret intent. I just find this whole thing to be adversarial and gives voice to even those pastors who would misuse and abuse their God-granted position. For the record I love my pastor and serve along side him in my church.

      • James,

        As a reader of this thread and many others by Dr. Rainer, he asks difficult questions that trouble pastors and church staff in their daily lives. He has never promoted the death of a church member as an effective method of church growth. What he has mentioned elsewhere and indicated here by affirming the overall essence of someone’s comment is that God does move people to other congregations; and sometimes those people are used to divide rather than unify congregations. I am grateful for men like you with a willingness to walk alongside their pastor. We pastors need more men just like you.

      • Sounds like You may be part of the cartel.

      • James – my “cartel” came 4 years into my first ministry. They were people I deeply love and invested in and who had invested in me. All that though was nothing when they luldnt control how a large gift was to be used. The church has still not recovered 27 years and four pastors later. To your point, there was a constant need to guard my heart not to be “against” them but the spirit behind them.

      • Sounds like your a member of a cartell

    • You are so right Mathew. Sometimes, we just need to ask God to move the hinderances to the gospel’s growth, out of the way.

    • Donna Crotty says on

      Wonderfully said…

  • I have found that most churches have an unofficial power structure but that group is usually aligned with, and whose input is sought in advance by, the official leadership. Sometimes this group operates in the shadows but can be large donors. Sometimes are they are not people you would expect. I have suggested lobbying them at times when official leadership did not want to hear from and were not concerned about a group of unwanted people.

    Now the bullies can be a group of people that church leadership knows but doesn’t like but isn’t willing to confront. The fear of the potential damage that can be inflicted by them is enough to get leadership to cave to their demands. This is a failure of leadership IMHO.

      • Anonymous in Texas says on

        Thom- Please don’t leave lay staff off the list. As a financial lay staff person I was bullied by an elder chair because I disagreed with his choice of an architect for a very large construction project. His choice was in church leadership and wanted to charge over $1M more than the next highest bidder. He crucified me at an Elders retreat that I did not attend. I left for a weekend to bury my mom and I was let go on Monday. Damaged my career and ruined my marriage. I couldn’t recover from the depression of losing my “calling.”

      • I was a missionary and for a long time the national leadership wouldn’t make the area I was serving a “legal” church…long story. I rarely attend church anymore…I can barley sit there and watch the “church” destroy one person at a time. People tell me I’ve been hurt by the church and so I must be “healed” by the church. I find that almost nobody truly understands what Jesus did by the foot washing of his disciples. The entire church is upside down for the most part. I’m just sad about it all…and I don’t know what to do about all this disfunction and plain old sin. So….I wait….

      • Brother, you can never lose your calling. “Your gifting S are God given and without repentance”. They can stall it, but never take it away. Recalculate and let the spirit lead you into your next season. Blessings!

      • Donna Crotty says on

        What wonder wisdom and love from God that you posted to will…..

    • Thanks Thom for shining the light of truth upon the dark side of church power struggles. I pray that the wisdom you share will be embraced and that church leaders will practice the Philippians 2:1-16 mandate.!!

      • Donna Crotty says on

        Thank you for posting something that needs to be addressed in the church. The word of God and healing need to be demonstrated for the broken and discouraged and boldness to stand and speak God’s thoughts on what has been destructively at work dividing the people of God and keeping the church from growing up…..

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