Politics: the art/science concerned with guiding or influencing policy. Add the additional concept of "guiding or influencing people" and we've got a good working definition. In any organization, government or church, there are people and policies that need to be led. Politics is the art through which this is done. Politics is a reality of life, one we can't overlook.
What makes politics so inherently tricky is the presence of power.
Politics is all about influence and influence is all about power. Power is the lever that makes influence happen. But power within the church is a paradox. On one hand we're called to be servant leaders, to give up our rights, and lay down our lives for others. On the other hand, we're called to lead people. You can't lead without influence, and you can't influence without power.
In most churches, there are three groups of people who have significant power in shaping the politics of that church. And, in the majority of cases, these people have more power and influence than us youth pastors do. For us to thrive in our ministry context, we must recognize this and work hard to work alongside these individuals.
Who are these people? Glad you asked . . .
Your pastor is in on one hand a colleague and a partner, someone who is excited to share a calling to reach your community for Christ. But on the other hand, your pastor is the head of staff, your boss, the one at whose desk the buck stops. If your pastor doesn’t trust you or have a strong relationship with you, your tenure serving at your church may not be as assured as you might hope. But if you have a relationship with your pastor, and there is trust, you gain an advocate and ally. This relationship is vital.
This is a group that represents a relationship that can sometimes be difficult for youth workers to manage. For many parents,they have the biggest stake in the student ministry going well at your church. They want their children to be cared for and to be poured into. When parents don’t trust youth workers and don’t feel respected and supported by them, it's common for parents to make moves that might precipitate a change of scenery for a youth worker. We've all heard of or seen it happen. But when you do the work to earn parents' trust, the can be an amazing ally and source of support. When this happens, you greatly improved your chances to impact their children, and their children's circle of influence with the Gospel.
This is a little more tricky. Every church has people who hold an enormous amount of political power. Most of the time they're hidden from the common youth worker. But even though you can’t see them or are unaware of them, it's important to find them out and win them over. We might be talking about the secretary, a legacy family, the head of the building committee, or the pastor’s best friend. They are different in every church and their needs and desires are different. But no matter, their voices hold enormous weight. It's wise, as much as it is up to you, to build bridges to these people, making sure they know you and your motivations and philosophy. If you can bring them on board your ministry through painting a picture of focus and vision, their voices will be among the loudest in your cheering section.
Politics has a bad name for a reason. It can be dirty and gross. It often centers on power and pride. And while I wish that politics had no place in the church, that is simply just not a reality.
The church is an organization with goals. There are people that have to be led and ministries that have to happen. All of this is accomplished through the art of influencing people. I have seen friends, some of whom are now working at Starbucks, come and go in student ministry because they were “above” politics. They had their own convictions, and saw themselves as equal to their lead pastor. We must learn to live our ideals and lean into the heavenly picture of the church while also living effectively in the reality of its current state.
We have an opportunity to model the love, grace, and humility of Christ as we give up our rights and serve those who have power.
And in the process of serving them we actually become masters at the art of guiding and influencing church policy.
“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” Matthew 10:16