May the Force Be with You: When Can I use Power to Create Organizational Change?



One of the common challenges that are facing the church today is the matter of leading change. The biggest issue is that many elder and leadership teams understanding that  their church needs change become more absorbed with “conflict prevention” rather than remain focused in creating organizational vitality – in helping the congregation develop, healthy, effective relational systems within which the church can flourish. When it comes to leading change in congregations the seeds of decline are found in a churches successes.[1] This axiom applies to people as well as to congregations. We pay a price to discover what work in our lives. When we place ourselves outside of our comfort zone we learn and we grow.  The challenge is after our success the tendency is culture settles quickly and people begin to homestead in which they no longer see the need of change because their previous success has become the lid that clouds the need for a vision that would take them to the next level.

Homesteading Meme

There are three common ways in which churches homestead:

  • First, in the context of citing their history and previous successes churches and organizations avoid making difficult decisions by being in a constant state of reinvention or re-imagining their desired future. This cycle distorts reality that hinders a church to not take steps toward real change. This tends to be a constant investigation of diagnosis that almost feels like movement forward but in fact it becomes a way that churches can avoid conflict, thereby keeping them from transformational change.
  • Second, churches can begin to make technical fixes to adaptive issues which vaccinates a church with a mild dose of change while protecting them from the real thing. Technical problems are the very-day problems that do not need any expertise or standard operating procedure to resolve. Adaptive challenges are different in that they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community. Without learning new ways-changing attitudes, values, and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in the new environment.[2] Once again, this is a process that avoids the need for adaptive process because the journey into the new adaptive reality is perceived to be painful. When people have to confront loss they will tend to avoid painful adjustments even when the changes lead to a preferable future.
  • Third, there are times that churches and organizations will choose to “zero-point” an element of their doctrine or practice which resurrects a past belief or practiced behavior that has not been emphasized and by rallying around this it feels like an organization is making change. Often, the belief or practice that is resurrected is not the answer to a church or organizations real need for change. This can be everything from a church saying they need to more community pot-lucks to we need to celebrate the Eucharist more often on Sunday mornings. Good ideas and practices but very rarely are they answer to an adaptive issue.

luke jedi knight

I have observed many a young pastor ask the question going into a new pastorate and asking a more seasoned leader when is it should they initiate change in a church? I have heard the full spectrum of answers given by seasoned pastors from a Spiritual Yoda statement such as, “You will just know when it is right.”  This is right up there with the force is with you young Jedi Pastor. By the way -this answer never served me well! The other extreme is the standard you should just wait one year before you make any changes. Great answer makes sense but can we be a little bit clearer because a static standard answer does not fit in every cultural context that a particular church may find itself in nor does it take into account crisis level issues that are threat to a church that a new pastor may face.

It is important to be clear about this truth: Leadership is risky business and it is worth the risk because the goals extend beyond material gain or personal advancement. The difficult decisions that make the lives of the people and the community you serve better that emancipates both men and women to pursue goals that they would have never considered by themselves but in pursuing these goals will positively impact generations that follow – “IS WORTH THE RISK!”

Appearing Dangerous

Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky when discussing the risk of leaders who communicate change state, “A leader can appear dangerous to people when a leader questions the values, beliefs, or habits of church or organization that has practiced over a lifetime. A leader will place himself or herself on the line when that leader tell people what they need to hear rather than what they want to hear.[3] A leader may have the passion and the clarity of vision of what changes need to occur that would benefit the people they serve but the people will see with equal passion the losses you are asking them to sustain. Thus the hope of leadership lies in the capacity for a leader to deliver disturbing news and raise the difficult questions in a way that people can absorb, prodding them to take up the message rather than ignore it or kill the messenger.[4] One of the key ways a leader can accomplish this task is for him or her to show people within their community that they really care for them and that you as a leader are out for their success. It is important to remember that people give us permission to pastor them.

Servant Leaders Understand the Right Use of Power


Power is not bad but it is morally neutral. Power is the capacity that a leader has to influence.  Susan Beaumont states every leader has some access to three forms of organizational power: “Granted Power, Assigned power, and Attributed power.” She defines these type of power as follows:[5]

Granted power is the agency assigned to you by an authorizing party, usually outside of your specific context.   We all have some granted power in a congregation by virtue of our baptism; we are co-creators with God, of the kingdom of God.  However, some have more granted power than others by virtue of institutional affiliation. Your denomination grants power to certain leaders by ordaining them. Educational institutions grant power in the form of degrees. Generally, a Ph.D. supplies more power than a Bachelor’s degree. Certification from a nationally recognized institution grants more power than one from a local agency.

Assigned power comes from the specific organization you are leading. The defined role you play carries the legitimate right to do things on behalf of the organization. You may have been assigned the authority to hire and fire others, to spend money on behalf of the congregation, or to start or retire programs.  Assigned power also grows from your centrality in the organization, your access to information and decision making.  An office administrator may not have much legitimate authority, but his central control in disseminating information, and his ability to place himself in decision making moments can result in great power.

Attributed power comes from two sources. First, it comes from your expertise in a valued subject area.  A music director has attributed power from her skill base in choral direction or in organ performance.  A bookkeeper carries attributed power because of the twenty years of institutional memory at her disposal, and because she is the only person in the congregation who understands the financial records.

Second, attributed power also comes from personal charisma. People are drawn to certain individuals over others by virtue of personal energy, endurance, focus, flexibility, likeability and trustworthiness.  People are willing to submit to the agency of another whom they admire and want to be around.

These are very similar to emotional buckets that a leader must keep full but even this is not enough to influence change.

Servant Leaders use the Force Wisely

My use of the term “Servant Leader” is ascribing to Robert K. Greenleaf’s theory of Servant Leadership. This theory is a transformational theory that is very much congruent with biblical principles of leadership found in Scripture. A servant leader leads by serving others. In other words, servant leaders place the interests and needs of their followers ahead of their own self-interests and needs. Generally, they value the development of their followers, building their communities, acting authentically, and sharing power.[6]

Therefore, using this theory here are some practical principles that can help a Pastor on when and how to use power to lead change:

  • Stop, Look, and Listen


It is important for servant leaders to exercise patience. Adaptive leaders continually study and learn from the influence dynamics of their congregations. Three key principles of servant leadership under-gird this step:


  • Active listening. Servant leaders actively listen to their followers. Active listening is a communication method where the listener listens and provides feedback to the speaker to ensure that the listener understands what is being communicated.
  • Empathy. They have the ability to empathize. Empathy is the ability to detect and understand emotions being felt by others.
  • Awareness. They are generally aware of the environment and issues affecting their organization and its members.


Become a good student of the culture and always treat people with dignity and respect. Take the time to observe and with this practice comes earned credibility.


  • Do not Resort to Dysfunctional Ways to Influence Outcomes

darth vader obie wan

Anybody who is a “Star Wars Fan” understands that there was a huge difference how “Obi Wan Kenobi” used the force to influence people and “Darth Vader.” One principle of servant leadership theory is key to how one uses power to engage change:

  • Persuasion. Servant leaders influence others through persuasion rather than through exercise of authority or coercion.

Use only appropriate tactics for influencing people. Do not triangulate or attempt to get people to go after each other. I communicate to new pastors all the time, “Remember you license to preach can also be a license to kill!”  Be consistently honest and do not become passive aggressive yourself when people push back on an idea. If there are people in the church who are coming at you in unhealthy ways make sure you use direct personal confrontation by describing to them in clear and concrete terms what the unhealthy aspects of their behavior are. Explain how their behavior is negatively impacting others but avoid labeling and always remain redemptive in your approach with people.

3) Use Power like a Steward Not a Landowner

Pastors can begin to lead change when they have come to the place of the “WE” and not the “ME!” Several principles of Servant Leadership theory support this:


  • Conceptualization. They can conceptualize their vision and goals into strategies and objects that serve the organization and its members.
  • Stewardship. They are stewards, which means they view their position as having a care-taking responsibility over their organization and members as opposed to dominion over them.
  • Commitment to Growth and Emancipation. Servant leaders are personally committed to the personal and professional growth of their followers.


Pastors must be able to articulate a clear vision and at the same time share power in such a way that you as a leader have invited others in the organization to begin to go on an adventure of discovery together as you investigate those adaptive issues that need to change. If a Primus leader models the ability to learn and grow and to be flexible as members of the team begin to create a culture of trust change will begin to take shape.


In finishing this article it is important that a leader also capture this key truth: If a leader has to use his or her position or title in forcing change this will always boomerang in negative ways. This is an article for another day but the more hierarchical a leader uses power by using position or title the smaller the circle of real leaders who can effectively influence others will become. Where a leader has focused his or her energy into relationship building the greater the influence will be in the future.


[1] (George Parsons and Speed B. Leas) p 1

[2] (Linsky 2002) p 13.

[3](Linsky 2002) p 12.

[4] (Linsky 2002) p 12.

[5] (Susan Beaumont) p 2. Note: Susan Beaumont has become one of my favorite authors on the topic of Local church leadership. I highly recommend her web site.

[6] Refer to: (Greenleaf 1998)


George Parsons and Speed B. Lea. 1993. Understanding Your Congregation As A  System, Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute.

Greenleaf, Robert K. 1998. Introduction. In The Power of Servant Leadership, edited by L. C. Spears. San Francisco, California: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Linsky, Ronald A. Heifetz & Marty. 2002. Leadership On  The Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press.

Susan Beaumont. June 15, 2015. Do I have Enough Influence. 


About PastorAl

Al Soto has been married to his incredible wife Valerie for 30 years and they have five sons and one grandson. Al has been in Local Church Ministry for 35 years as both as a Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, and for five years as a Regional Overseer for his denomination. He has a BA degree from LIFE Pacific College and is currently completing an MA in Leadership & Spiritual Formation from Vanguard University. He currently resides in Lincoln, CA where he is the new Lead Pastor for one of the Campus locations for Bayside Church. He continues to coach High School Football for the Lincoln Fighting Zebras for the Junior Varsity Program and is facilitating Leadership training and coaching as well as facilitating Spiritual Retreats. His hobbies include Golfing and Scuba Diving as well as he is a veracious reader. His Life Statement is “Real Success is Helping others to Succeed!”
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