Strong Pastor vs. Democracy in Christian Church Groups

E. Forrest Christian Overachievers 1 Comment

Church near Junction City, Kansas. c 1942. Vachon, John, photographer. US Library of Congress collection.

The church growth industry has led to the highly effective Mega-church model in the United States but has embraced the (actually) new model of Strong Pastor which has led to absolutist authoritarian leadership within the evangelical church growth movement. An examination by focusing on the Christian Base Communities in the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America. Part of a series on Church Organizational Structure and Democracy.

In 2004, theNational Catholic Reporter published an article on Christian Base Communities as part of their series on Latin America. (They are also known as “Ecclesiastical base communities” and “Comunidades eclesiales de base”, even in English.) The article, “Base communities, once hope of church, now in disarray” by Barbara Fraser, (also at bnet’s FindArticles) describes the CEB and the continuing controversy they engender in the Roman Catholic Church.

The article describes many of the conflicts inherent in organizing Christian churches. Perhaps because they have such a strong hierarchy, and the CEB were such a democratic idea, these problems are easier to see in the Catholic Church. They certainly appear in Protestant churches, including Evangelicals who eschew hierarchy. Even the Emergent Church Movement’s house churches can’t escape these problems.

These small group mini-churches can be effective leadership development forums because they allow unlikely people who have been overlooked (whether purposefully or not) by the current church leadership to try on leadership roles.

Jose Oscar Beozzo, a historian who heads the Center for Evangelization and Popular Education in Sao Paulo, recalls the identity confusion of the ’80s. “…They finally arrived at a difficult moment for the base communities when there was confusion about leadership, because everyone was in everything. People began to leave the communities because of so many other commitments. Many base community leaders left to become mayors and city council members and union leaders”….

The problem in Emergent house churches, as it was in Catholic CEBs, is that the current clerical hierarchy does not have control over who will emerge as a leader nor what they will do once they emerge. Emergent processes (as differing from Emergent Church groups) are uncontrollable because they must emerge rather than be forced into existence. You can argue that all of the church life in the U.S. is emergent, since so many people change religions throughout their life. (I’m guessing that the rise in religious changing corresponds to the rise in location changing and career changing.)

This can go both ways. The “democratic” group can be seduced by a sociopath who does away with the democratic part and takes over as an authoritarian leader. Or the group can progressively get farther and farther away, saying that God is someone who the clergy don’t think He is, effectively talking trash about God.

Not that the clergy don’t work to eliminate these grassroots, democratic movements that threaten their power. TheNational Catholic Reporter asked Madeleine Cousineau, a professor of Sociology at Mount Ida College in Massachusetts and a long-time observer of Christian base communities in Brazil for years, why she thought the Catholic church hierarchy feared them:

You said the word: hierarchy. The base communities are very democratic. Yet the Catholic church is still stuck in the Middle Ages. The Vatican doesn’t favor capitalism. It would like to have feudalism again. The bishops are lords of their dioceses. It’s all very well and good if you have ladies making altar clothes and people going to Mass every Sunday and doing what their priest tells them to do, but the difficulty with the base communities is that when you develop lay leadership, people start to feel that the bishop is their equal. And while there are some bishops who are quite comfortable with that, many bishops don’t like the idea that the lay people think they are equal.

Cousineau is unfair to the Catholic hierarchy; for all its problems, the Vatican is more advanced and less uniform than she makes it out to be. But the ideas are correct. These types of community expressions threaten power that is mysteriously given by devolving power to the local community. The Catholic Church has enjoyed State Church status and now confronts challenges to its hegemony from Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Baptists, Pentecostals and others. So for some bishops, it must feel like a time to bunker and tighten control.

Of course, Protestant leaders often feel and act similarly. Most new Protestant churches follow the Church Growth model that the Emergents formed around rejecting. This model requires a single leader, the One who receives all prophecy from God about the community.

(No matter that this model has no basis in scripture — the Old Testament High Priests had to contend with the randomness of the Prophets, which they were never considered, even Ezra — and Paul is clear in his letters to Corinth that many different people in the congregation would have words to speak as “prophecy”.)

The Great Man form of leadership is very efficient which is why Hitler used it.

Most Church Growth pastors, if coming into an existing congregation, get rid of all dissenters through a variety of ways, many of which would be suspect in the business world. Ridicule and sarcasm are often deployed, as are structural blocks. These pastors choose their own boards of elders (or whatever the governing board of officers is called) so that no one on it can successfully challenge their authority.

This is seen in the CEB, too. Pablo Richard, a priest in Costa Rica, told NCR:

In many parishes there’s a tendency to expel the laity from the administrative councils, get them out of the decision making process. There’s a strong hierarchical centralization going on. You hear all over: ‘I’m the priest here!’ Although it’s a bit of a caricature, many would say, ‘The pope in Rome, the bishop in his diocese, and the priest in his parish.’ And it ends there. That’s all there is to the church. Laity are leftovers, especially the laity who are poor. The only laity who can participate are the ones who are totally submissive to the priest.

The power of the office of priest or pastor is strong. The office-holder has many options for getting rid of undesirable lay leaders, if he has consolidated power sufficiently. Sometimes these will backfire on him and he will find himself embroiled in a battle and ultimately out of a job. Almost impossible in the Catholic church, but it does happen. Much more likely in Protestant churches that have constitutional procedures for removing the pastor.

The problem that they run into is that they need committed people. Charisma can often get mindless followers, and this is the most successful route. Others can use shame and public confrontation. In Evangelical churches this often takes place within the adult Sunday School class or a home-based small group. The smaller setting, along with Evangelical’s culture of obeying authority (but only that defined by their pastor), lets the clergy or their representatives use subtle and not-so-subtle methods to marginalize the troublemaker.

Paul, of course, uses these techniques. They do work.

My guess is that some (but by no means all) of this is tied to differing Work Levels. Because the Church Growth model requires a single Great Man leader, all people in the church must be lower stratum than the head pastor.

Here’s where we bring in the brilliant democratic ideas of CEO and Chairman of the Board, UK Minister of State, scratch golfer and a great Scot — Wilfred Brown. That’s for later.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

Comments 1

  1. I love that phrase, “…the randomness of the prophets…”

    I’m self-marginalized when it comes to my faith community. Saves time.

    There’s an old joke about the laity’s role: “pray, pay and obey”.

    Looking forward to Wilfred Brown and the next installment.

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