Navigating Power and Dual Relationships by Pete Scazzero

In this series, Pete Scazerro, author of the Emotionally Healthy Leader, is answering questions from listeners who find themselves navigating power and dual relationships in a church, paraministry or Christian NGO. Bringing his insights into emotionally healthy leadership, Pete will unpack how to address complex relational dynamics in ministry.

Changing roles and new responsibilities

The emergence of ‘dual relationships’- a situation where you have more than one relationship with someone can come about through changing roles and new responsibilities. Without acknowledging and stewarding well the complexity of dual relationships, it can lead to pain, division and deep confusion as conflict of interests go unaddressed and unhealthy power dynamics become entrenched over time. For example, when an assistant pastor is also a friend or an immediate family member to the Senior Pastor it is a dual relationship that can create a lot of grey areas. 

Pete Scazzero is no stranger to managing dual relationships. In fact, Pete argues that many of these relationships exist within church or ministry structures in contrast to other roles in society such as being a lawyer or a doctor where they usually have only one relationship to the person they are serving. 

For senior leaders who are pastors, leading para ministries or have a significant role in a Christian not-for-profit like a school, it is vital to have wisdom, prudence and self-awareness as the person with situational power over others. 

Pete points to his own experience of facing the prospect of juggling many dual relationships after being appointed the Senior Pastor of a large church. Growing from a church plant, Pete had become good friends with those in the church and the shift, to being part of a group of friends fellowshipping, to then appointed senior leader of many, required in the first instance, an acknowledgement of the changing power dynamics. Pete notes:

“Power is the capacity to influence other people, it is God given. Everyone has power, everyone is a leader to a greater or lesser extent, therefore everyone has influence.”

But the situational power of a senior leader is different. It took 20 years for Pete, watching his own challenges and struggles in managing dual relationships, to start to inquire from others who had led monastic communities, para ministries how to steward well the position of influence.  Pete refers to his book, “Emotionally Healthy Leader” where there is a whole chapter titled “Power and Wise Boundaries” which covers the need for mentoring and knowing your shadow as you lead others in dual relationships.  

Can you have deep friendships with people you are leading?

Pete recognises that when we have friendships with the people we are leading it can cloud our ability to make wise decisions. While ‘yes’ you can lead friends, it will be extremely difficult, as a Senior Pastor, since you play two roles of being a confidante and a supervisor. 

When approaching leading in the context of dual relationships, it is important to recognise that the church belongs to Jesus. Your role is to steward a healthy culture long-term. Pete points to Jesus wise words on servant leadership:

“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.’” Matthew 20:25-26 (NIV)

It takes great self-awareness of one’s family of origin when you are managing dual relationships to understand how your family’s approach to hierarchy may impact your leadership style.  

A real shift takes place when you are all friends to someone emerging with greater power. A close friendship by its very nature is one where there is equality of power. Pete continues:

“You want to always monitor and avoid dual relationships as much as possible. But the burden to set the boundaries and keep things clear falls on the person with greater power.”

There are several examples to draw from in the Bible of dual relationships such as Miriam and Aaron who were both siblings and leaders under Moses, King David and his son Solomon and the 12 disciples, where James and John were brothers on the same Apostolic team. While it can work, as the Bible demonstrates, there are hurdles along the way. 

Peter warns that as a Senior Pastor, it is important to recognise that when you lead, some of your friends may not want to go in the same direction. It will require a level of maturity when you are evaluating their performance as this can be difficult as a friend. Pete admits that for many years, he lied in job evaluations with his staff team as he didn’t want to disrupt friendships. Looking back however, Pete admits that this shortcoming reflected his own weakness of his need to be liked and have validation from others. Pete warns,

“If you’re not leading, you are following like Aaron in Exodus 32.”

Leadership is a great opportunity for development and growth. It is a crucible where it almost forces you to face your own vulnerabilities and wounds. As Pete oberserves, leadership introduces you to yourself. Reflecting on his time as a Senior Pastor, Pete recognises that leading a congregation will make you confront your own personal shortcomings but if you allow the Lord to work in the difficult circumstances or complex emotions you face, it will help you to grow like few roles in life could. Pete surmises:

“God is in our apparent failures, our apparent successes, our apparent setbacks. God is in everything.”  

When you learn as a leader, it will lead to emotional health for the whole organisation. 

Accepting Good Governance Arrangements

Pete relays a case study from a Founding Pastor of a church that has grown to 1000. This particular pastor is concerned that the Elder Board is challenging his authority and power in three areas of decision-making, something that the Pastor has not experienced in the past 20 years of the church’s history. To note, these were not moral issues, rather these were judgement issues. 

Pete points out that hierarchy is healthy and helpful when done in the servant leadership spirit of Jesus. Pete advises this pastor with the following words:

“You are the founder, but God is coming to you through the Board. You are under the authority of that Board… You are modelling good leadership by respecting their wisdom and the fact that God has put them over you.”

The elders were quite unified in their perspective and Pete says that their ability to say ‘no’ to the pastor is a sign of a healthy leadership culture and something that as a senior leader, it is important to be thankful for. Surrounding yourself with people who feel comfortable in disagreeing with you, can develop great character, as God can speak to you through others with leadership authority. 

Listen more to Pete Scazzero here

Pete Scazzero

Pete Scazzero is the Founder and Senior Pastor of the New Life Fellowship Church in Queens, New York City, a large, multiracial church with more than seventy-three countries represented.

Peter is the author of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, a groundbreaking work on the integration of emotional health and contemplative spirituality. He has also authored The Emotionally Healthy Church, winner of the Gold Medallion Award for 2003.