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July 20, 2011

Trouble with Authority

You're bound to be tested

It didn’t take long to face opposition once I started a career in ministry. Of course, I had a lot of strikes against me from the start. First of all, I was young, fresh out of college, and in my first-ever paid ministry role. On top of that, I was a woman, the only woman serving with the pastoral staff. And, probably most significant, I was hired to launch a brand new ministry—church-wide adult small groups, a ministry most in the church knew nothing about and had no interest in.

After working at the church for a few years, our team decided on a new approach for small groups. I began training new leaders for small groups so that I, then, could serve as their "coach" in the fall instead of leading groups myself. I spent the summer meeting with a group of potential leaders—training them, laying out expectations, and modeling how to lead a small group.

As fall approached, I met with each of the potential leaders to get a feel for whether or not they wanted to lead a group. Most of the meetings over coffee went smoothly—some individuals expressed a desire to move into leadership, while others felt they weren't quite suited for the position. All, though, affirmed their trust in me and were grateful for the time and effort I had put forth that summer. All, that is, except one.

Although she expressed excitement about leading a small group for our church, one woman said she didn’t want to follow our church's plan for small groups.It became apparent that she wanted to have complete control over her group and didn't want to answer to anyone, even me, her coach. At first I was shocked. What does she mean she wants to do her own thing? I just spent nearly three months training her! After processing my anger and uncertainty over how to handle the situation, I finally decided to stick to my guns: the only way she could lead a group was if she was willing to follow our church's plan.

Then the bomb fell. "Why should I follow you? I've been in small groups longer than you've been alive." Ouch. It hurt most because it was true. She was at least 30 years my senior, and she did have quite a bit of experience in small groups at a different church. The trouble was that they ran their small groups much differently than ours.

Our interaction left me reeling, and it prompted a lot of questions and doubts. Why should she follow me? Do I really know what I'm doing? Do I have the authority to lead other leaders, even if they're older than me? Faster than I knew possible, I turned from a confident woman, rarely afraid of conflict or confrontation, to a scared girl, afraid to make my case at all.

To make matters worse, even after she was confronted by the church staff as a whole, she went on to start her own group, pulling several people from our new small groups. As her new group met, a few members of the church began to wonder why I was even needed if people could simply start their own groups, which only served to further question my authority and leadership.

In the Gifted for Leadership download When Your Authority Is Challenged, Gordon MacDonald describes conflict as “the energetic search for a better idea…or for personal insight…or for a more effective way of achieving something." Instead of seeing the opportunity to handle this woman's affront to my authority, I allowed the conflict to tear me down personally, leaving me unsure of myself and my position as a leader. And I reaped the bitter fruit for years after.

I've learned that conflict is inevitable while serving in ministry, and opposition to our authority can come from lots of different people for different reasons. While my age was a factor in this interaction, I have also faced challenges to my authority because I am a woman, because I wanted to try something new, and because I didn’t give in to every request.

Have you experienced similar challenges to your authority in ministry? If so, how did you handle it?

Amy Jackson is a former small groups ministry leader, a graduate student at Wheaton College, and a freelance writer.

Related Tags: Authority, conflict, failure, ministry, Relationships


Amy, you are an amazing woman and friend! Love you!

Boy, have I faced challenges. In my last church, I served as an elder. I'm a single, African-American, seminary-educated woman. At the time, I was in a predominantly white, suburban, largely conservative evangelical church. One of the things that is hard for me, is that I'm the type of person that's interested in something, I'll get involved, regardless of the leader. I'm not into cliques. Unfortunately, there was a small band of people at the church who ran things and they determined who got to sit at the table to be part of the decision-making process. It's a wonder I was even able to become an elder. But during my last year with the church, I served with two of the longstanding members, and boy was my leadership undermined. Things that clearly fell into my area of leadership, one elder decided I shouldn't handle (one was a sensitive topic having to do with a male in our congregation). However, when this individual first fell into sin, I was the one who suggested an accountability group for him and I was one of the people to greet him and welcome him back to church. In another instance, when I headed up a search committee, one of the elders slandered me in an e-mail to another longtime member about my handliing of the process. That was too much for me and I stepped down and gave the reins of the committee over to another longtime member who this elder approved of. The new chairman did things I didn't do because I knew they would be problematic. Yet because of who he was, he got his way. I could go on and on about the disrespect I was shown, some of which was a result of my race, gender or the fact that I wasn't part of the clique. After 12 years at this church, I chose to leave. It was better, I felt to remove myself from such a hurtful environment. It would help me to heal if I weren't there, rather than stay and continue to endure the hurtful actions of the entrenched. I became of the opinion that the church belonged to them and not to Christ. But this experience has also taught me a lot about myself and dealing with people. When I find my next place, I hope to be much more patient and tolerant as I know these types of individuals are everywhere and I have to trust the work of Christ in their lives. But it saddens me to see how much goes undone, how slow we are in reaching people for Christ, etc. because of our hangups, biases and prejudices.

When I first started as a children's minister, I ran into some opposition, just like you did—and for what I believe are the same reasons. I wish I had come across this blog post when I was first getting started. I know that it would have helped me get through those initial rough times. Thanks so much for sharing!!

Great post. This is something I struggle with as a young woman on staff at a church.

I actually have this same situation that I am trying to deal with right now, almost exactly! A woman at the church, who is older than my mother, refuses to see me as a leader and is leading a small group in the way she wants to, not the way the church has instructed and empowered me to implement. She is doing her own thing and is influencing others to disregard my leadership as well, which is damaging the overall health and success of the ministry. I pride myself in being able to resolve conflicts boldly and maturely but I am struggling with this one. She has daughters older than I am and has this knack for making me feel like a little girl when I try to talk to her, which I know is my own fault for letting her so then I am frustrated with myself.

How did you end up handling the situation or how would you deal with this now? I would appreciate some wisdom.

One thing that comes through this article is that during the process of being hired by a church, a leader should talk in detail with the church's board about how they deal with conflict and the degree to which they'll stand behind the new leader when (not if) some church members disagree. Secondly, never introduce a new program or way of doing things without getting board buy-in and support. And once they do buy in to the program, provide them with the tools (talking points, for example) to support it in formal and informal settings. These tactics won't stop conflict, but they'll certainly help you avoid churches where the potential for conflict is greater, and help to minimize the conflicts that do happen. And finally, if conflict happens and the board ignores it or refuses to deal with it, then it's a clear sign that's not a church you want to be associated with.

"As her new group met, a few members of the church began to wonder why I was even needed if people could simply start their own groups, which only served to further question my authority and leadership."

So how was this situation resolved? You ought not leave us hanging...

I can so relate to this so thank you! Sometimes you feel totally on your own when you face these situations...then you realise, as it says in Eccelsiastes, there is nothing new under the sun!!

I am a 26 year old, female, single assistant pastor!! I have just been appointed to this position after working in the church for the past 4 years in various roles....I thought 'it will be fine, people know me' but boy oh boy was I wrong!! As you step into new levels of authority it is inevitable there will be challenge! I am now in the process of training to become a pastor with the AOG, one of few women and definately one of the determined to break the ground though for those who come after me!!

God bless you and your ministry!!

It would be so nice if we could find that "perfect place" where there is no conflict! But since we are dealing with people, we ALL bring junk to the table that invades our ability to lead without having issues with one another. I too have been undermined by leadership's lack of support and undermined by those I was leading. But I try to press in to ask "God, what are You trying to work out in me through this crisis?", and I find that what I struggle with most is my expectation of what I perceive the result should be. i.e., successful small group ministry. Makes me wonder what God is looking for; success? results? Or Christlikeness? Vulnerability? Grace?
My leadership style has changed greatly over the years because I try to hold loosely to my own expectations and look more to Paul's goals in Phil. 2:1-11. "Preferring one another, in love" is the hardest thing for me to do; much harder than leading! And it seems to be the one thing that I keep having to work on! Dying to my self, as a leader, is the cup I struggle to drink from, but it is the one set before me.

Well written Claire! God is very concerned about our inner motives and Christlike development as well as our achievements.

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