Power, Empowerment, and Disempowerment
We have all had THAT experience. Seeing power used in a ministry setting in a negative way. I have a good friend who had his first pastoral assignment, the head pastor made him preach his sermons in private just to the head pastor for feedback and approval, and to make sure they would be adequate for the few times he preached on Sunday morning. The message was obvious, “I am in control.” My friend is now the head pastor of a fairly large church, and his former boss was eventually removed in disgrace from his role. Off the top of my head I can think of many similar stories where pastors used power to cajole, control, and manipulate. I am blessed to work in a great organization where leadership development is prized, where everyone is encouraged to be a leader, and where the ultimate goal of leadership is to empower fellow staff, as well as volunteers and students to unlock the power of the Holy Spirit in themselves and help fulfill the Great Commission. Still, even in a democratic movement such as ours, you can occasionally come across people who abuse power. I once sat in a meeting with a high level leader where he lied, manipulated, and intimidated everyone else in the room, ever so subtly. Everyone knew what he was doing, but he held all the power. I serve alongside my wife as a co-director and it has been here that I have also seen how systems and patterns can often work to exclude women from power.
Mary Kate Morse’s Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence delves into the intricacies of power. Morse explains that power is embodied, it is carried within us, and the way we present ourselves, dress, move, and talk carries with it the amazing power to influence. In essence, “our bodies tell others whether we have power (or not) and whether we will share it or not (loc 77).” Furthermore, power is always played out in a social and communal dimension, where the very unconscious sensitivities and emotions of a group and culture decide who will have power and who will not. Thus, leadership is “a physical and a social process. (loc 164).” In this sense, Morse is quick to point out that leadership is rarely appointed or confined by structure or labels, instead leadership is always happening, and some who don’t even know they are leaders are actually leading. Morse then dichotomizes the use of power into that which either functions to “consume or invite (loc 115).”
As leaders, we all have influence, and we all have power. Our choice is to use that power either to empower others towards positive changes in their lives and in the organization, or to use the power to exclude, control, manipulate, protect our interests, or even to abuse. In a sense, true leadership is more about character and how one handles one’s power. As such, Morse gives an excellent definition of leadership as: “Authentic leadership- leadership that catalyzes a group toward deep change and moves its members in a positive, energizing direction-involves the group acting together (loc 256).” Leaders use their power to build consensus, encourage others to participate, be a part of the team, and be change agents themselves. In fact, true leadership empowers. It gives all a sense of their own ability to make change happen.
Morse’s book reminded me very much of Henri Nouwen’s wonderful little meditation on leadership In the Name of Jesus. Nouwen a professor at Harvard left that world of power and influence to work with the mentally handicapped at the L’Arche community. One of the things Nouwen writes about is his relationship with a mentally handicapped man named Bill, who Nouwen had tasked with accompanying him on some of his speaking engagements. For Nouwen he very much wanted to empower Bill, and for him to know that “what we did, we did together in Jesus name (Nouwen, 101).”
Power that empowers is of course part and parcel of the ministry of Jesus and the New Testament church. It was built into the Trinitarian love for humanity, that humanity would participate in the life and mission of God. God sends into all the world all people, regardless of sex, race, or station in life in order to bring about the Kingdome of healing, justice, and peace. Unfortunately, the church we have inherited is often one beset by struggles with power and how to use it. It is an institution desiring to protect its institutionalness. The best leaders understand that power must be given away, and be used for the benefit of the powerlessness. Perhaps in our postmodern, post-Christendom setting we are seeing the rending of the uneasy relationship of power in the church. The missional movement (and other movements) instinctively understand that to expand and grow, one must use power to empower. That is the genius of the Jesus who empowered women, crooks, and all kinds of riff raff to change the world. Power must be gripped loosely, but not rejected. Power is not the problem, it is how it is used.
I firmly believe that the early church, and many Christian movements that have changed the world understood that power must be used to empower, and to unleash all the people of God to influence the world for Christ. As I sit here in Spain in 2014 watching the continual decline of faith and the institutional church, I can’t help but wonder if churches and organization could reverse this course by changing their understanding of leadership and power. Perhaps Pope Francisco is a breath of fresh air who will do just that, against the cronyism and corruption that for so many generations has used its power to protect and insulate itself.
If you are leading a missional team, or any organization that seeks to empower the body of Christ, then I highly recommend this book.
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