Leading a Church When the Wrong People Hold Power


Can you lead a church without proper authority? Yes, but it is more challenging and complex. 

I’m assuming most church leaders would rather not step into a situation where they have the responsibility to shepherd without the corresponding authority. But there are churches with misaligned power structures in desperate need of good pastors. What if you end up in such a situation? Leading without power requires informal authority.

Informal authority is earned through social skills, emotional intelligence, and expertise. Unlike being at the top of a chain of command, those with informal authority do not have coercive power. How might informal authority look in a church? When everyone in the business meeting waits on a nod from the matriarch in the back of the room before voting, that’s informal authority.

While much power comes from formal positions with legitimate authority, a different kind of power is found in leadership roles with informal authority. How is this power exhibited?

Informal authority allows leaders to raise difficult questions. Leaders without titles and positions can vocalize the questions everyone is thinking but will not say out loud. Some questions are so difficult that if top leaders began posing them, people might question the organization’s viability. For instance, imagine the media reaction if our president openly began asking about what’s really going on at Area 51.

Informal authority allows leaders to focus on one issue. Top leaders typically deal with a number of issues within an organization. Such is the nature of positions with formal authority. For example, a CEO must be concerned about human resources, cash flow, marketing, and public relations. An individual with informal authority, however, is free to focus on more nuanced and narrow issues, or even a particular issue. If you are a pastor without formal authority, you are more free to focus on one or two issues while letting others continue to lead.

Informal authority allows leaders to break through formal hierarchies, policies, and protocols. Formal authority, by design, has a hierarchy with an expected protocol. A leader with informal authority, however, is not bound by the structure of a formal authority system. A school superintendent, for example, must follow certain protocols in dealing with problems. An informal leader at the school, however, has more flexibility in breaking through these formalities and can deal with the problem in a way the superintendent cannot.

Informal authority allows leaders the flexibility not to be a figurehead for all people in the organization. Top leaders with formal authority must act on behalf of everyone within an organization. They represent the people. They speak on behalf of the people. Leaders with informal authority do not have to act as figureheads. Unlike formal leaders, informal leaders can offend some and favor others to accomplish a goal.

Ambitious leaders often pursue positions with formal authority. It makes sense. Those who desire to lead want the official capacity to do so. Positions with titles imply a legitimate endorsement to lead. But there are some advantages to leading with informal authority. Informal leaders have no official titles and no authoritative positions, yet they can wield much influence.

Informal authority has its limits, certainly, but also its advantages. And organizations need both informal and formal leaders to balance power and authority.


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Posted on February 22, 2023

As President of Church Answers, Sam Rainer wears many hats. From podcast co-host to full-time Pastor at West Bradenton Baptist Church, Sam’s heart for ministry and revitalization are evident in all he does.
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  • I’ve struggled with the term “wrong” in the title and post. You talk about being a pastor when the pastor doesn’t hold power in the church. As you highlight, authority is what is important for a leader with leadership power.

    In my past career in the military, a lot of the real work happened at levels below the top of the organization. The Commanding Officer was always responsible for what happened but the experts in the different functions in the command were able to do their work to achieve the desired goal. That allowed people to exercise their gifts and not have to do things that were not their expertise.

    The challenge of power is having someone who tries to exert power in ways they aren’t suited for. The problem, just like the 1st comment points out, when someone who is poorly suited for their position of power – regardless the level – there can be difficulties with the proper function of the church/institution.

  • Mitchell Givens says on

    I was a bivocational youth minister for a few years as well as a worship leader. I had this post military family who did everything in their power to control me. They pushed a mentally unstable lady who was married to another post military individual on me. She had no children in my youth ministry. They also joined up with others just like them. I always felt torn between them, the ones that were my friends from childhood, my youth, and pastor. By the end I was an emotional train wreck and was FORCED to resign. I served in a church about six months later and that was also hard,LOL! Then a super sweet church I grew up in from childhood, but left in November of 2020 because of not being able to make ends meet.

    Today, I’m extremely happy delivering food for Uber Eats, and work for an amazing school system full-time where I work with children with Autism and learning disabilities. I don’t wish those churches who have me difficulties on any of you! Today, the big rich one doesn’t have a youth minister and dealt with the meanest of youth! They need God to get a hold of their calloused hearts and turn them into humble servants!

    I’m finally in a place that feels right, and get to preach for local congregations when the opportunities arise! To all of you ministers struggling right now my heart goes out to you! May the Lord bind up your wounds, and put the right people to help you plow paths that could only bring Him Glory!