Leading a Church When the Wrong People Hold Power

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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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