(Power without Cost)
I attended my first church annual membership meeting when I was twelve. I had just accepted Jesus as my personal savior and been baptized. Now I was a full voting member of the church, and I was allowed to attend the big meeting where all of the business of the church was discussed with the membership. I remember looking forward to being involved in God’s work at our church. I had no clue that I was stepping into a mud wrestling match.
The meeting exploded over the issue of a child care center renting our building. The organization was the first daycare center in our town, and so was considered something new and to older church members, dangerous. My impression at the time was that the people who brought their kids to a daycare center were somehow beneath the standing of our high minded membership. It was a different era; married women with children were just starting to work outside the home. The accusations being leveled against the daycare center revolved around dirt. Were the opponents of the center suggesting that the people who brought their kids somehow produced more grime than the rest of us? Maybe they thought the relatives of Pigpen, the Peanuts character were bringing their kids to the church. And in the shadowy recesses of the building, there were whispers concerning the possible spread of disease. When I returned thirty years later, to become the pastor of my childhood church, these whispers had not been forgotten.
And so, during my inaugural annual meeting, one prominent family had decided to take a stand against the ‘dirty’ daycare center. They were a big family, consisting of a matron and patron, three married children and lots of grandchildren. They were all uniformly against the center. I remember lots of shouting. I remember a woman crying as she gave a supportive testimony about the center. And then a woman rose up and spoke who I remember well to this day. She was to me, another grandmother. She was from the south, with all of the mannerisms and gentility of a southern aristocrat. She was also the financial secretary of the church. Or, to put it in plain English, the person who knew what everyone was donating. She rose and exclaimed her dismay that people were complaining about the mission of our church, without giving one penny to its maintenance. Oops. She shouldn’t have done that. The family in question rose as one, and stormed out of our church, never to be seen or heard from again. After that, things quieted down, and the daycare center continued in our building, with the full support of the rest of the membership.
I remember saying to my Mom after the meeting; “Wow! If that is what the annual meeting is like, I can’t wait until next year.”
Thank God, annual meetings at church are not like that every year. However, this story raises the question of how a meeting like this can happen within the organizational structures of the average church. I would argue that shouting matches like the one illustrated above, are quite common not only in churches, but also in nonprofits of every shape, size and description. I know that my conclusions are not based upon rigorous data collection. However, I have been a part of so many nonprofits over the years, that I feel pretty confident in stating that bad behavior is the norm within the memberships of these organizations. And of course, being a person who likes to analyze the motivations of the people around me, I have a theory as to why.
Nonprofits are unique because they give people an opportunity to acquire power, without the risk of any penalty. Back in the good old days before I became a minister, I was in banking. I was given responsibility over a very small part of the banks operation. That gave me a small amount of power. With that power comes a price. If I screwed up my responsibility, I would be fired. So, I was very careful to fulfill my responsibilities to the utmost of my abilities, or face the music. Along with those responsibilities, comes the challenge of working with people. Some were coworkers and some were customers. I knew that I had better treat these people with courtesy, because I could easily be replaced. And so, with the little bit of power I was given, and I mean little, there came cost. Do the job right, and treat people with respect, or get out.
For volunteers at nonprofits, the cost of failing to fulfill the above referenced requirements, do not exist. A person can volunteer to do a job, and not lift a finger. That person will not be thrown out of the organization. A person can treat the people around him/her with disdain, and not be shown the door. A person can build a power base within an organization based upon intimidation and manipulation and not pay any price for behavior which is universally condemned by civilized society. This is true from the smallest church to the largest charitable foundations. A billionaire can create the largest trust fund in the world, handpick the board of trustees and they can do whatever they please. Enormous power - no cost. With that equation as the norm, what do you think the results will be?
I know what the results are, because I have lived in the wonderful world of nonprofits pretty much my whole life. The patterns repeat themselves over and over again. People build power bases, people misuse their power, people fight and leave. Change the faces, repeat the cycle. Why it happens is much more difficult to explain. I would just say that there are some people in the world, not many thankfully, that are drawn to positions that give them power without cost. These people will pursue that power, be it small or large, without concern for the people around them. They become toxic to the organization and they must be removed from their position before they can do more harm. Or course, this is easy to say, difficult to do.
And getting rid of toxic people always involves yelling. When I was twelve, I enjoyed the yelling. When I was a volunteer in a church, I avoided the yelling. When I became a minister, I was intimidated by the yelling. Now, I accept the yelling as part of the job, and I go after the yeller (or is it yellie?) Jesus said; “be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). I take that to mean, show everyone love and respect, and show the toxic people the door.
God bless you,
First Baptist Church of Rahway