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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Attentive Awareness

Written by: on January 22, 2015

In an effort to build relationships between a particular local non-profit and the church in which I worked, I asked the Executive Director and her Senior Project Manager to meet the Senior Pastor and Executive Pastor. When Karen and Marsha, both women, walked into the room with me, we encountered the two pastors, both men, who were sitting in chairs with their arms behind their heads, legs crossed, leaning back in their chairs. They eventually got up to shake hands with the two non-profit leaders, and then sat back down in their original stance. Later when I spoke with Karen and Marsha about how they felt about the conversation, Marsha mentioned the power play by the two pastors. I was a bit confounded as I thought the two men were simply relaxed in meeting them. But as Marsha continued, she helped me recognize the open posture non-verbally indicated who was in charge, and if it had been two men walking into the room, most likely the two pastors would not have had the same posture. The situation was also compounded by the fact that both Karen and Marsha are African-American and the two pastors are Caucasian. While I believe I have a keen sense of interpersonal dynamics, particularly in small groups, I was surprised by my lack of attentiveness to something that Marsha picked up on right away.

I recognize the scenario above is not as simple as one group “powering” over another, as there are many layers when it comes to race, gender, and even personality differences. However, that experience is a reflection of what MaryKate Morse addresses in her book Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence. How people use space, both verbally and nonverbally, indicates how they view and use their power along with their influence. In this same church, about the same time as the conversation, a remodel was going on whereby the Senior Pastor’s new office was now at the end of the hallway, the largest room and furthest away from the Receptionist Desk where any one who wanted to speak with the pastor would have to pass through. While the rationale was to give the pastor privacy, it also communicated his importance and elitism in his inaccessibility. When it was brought to the pastor’s attention by some elders what this kind of space non-verbally suggested, he was defensive and lacked any kind of awareness. Interestingly, while he certainly recognized the value of the power he held in his position, he was unaware of how pervasive it was, even to a fault.

It is this awareness that I found fascinating in Morse’s book. She articulates the “attentive awareness” that requires taking responsibility with what you recognize about one’s own use of power. Power itself is not positive or negative (as money can also be). Rather, it is how it is used. In fact, Morse counter-intuitively states “powerlessness is not a virtue; rather, using power to help the powerless is.” We are not to abdicate our power as an indicator that we’re a servant-leader. Power is something given to us, as the sphere of our influence is. Our response and use of that power and influence reflects whether we are awakened to what God calls us to do and be as leaders.

In addition to individual awareness, a group that begins the conversation around power, influence, and space opens up the opportunity to see more clearly what dynamics are at play. Morse highlights this synergy towards an authentic way of offering change: “Awareness triggers a group’s capacity to be Christlike.” That first step of being willing to step in the messiness of hard conversations, raw emotions, misunderstandings, and common places in conversations brings about the capacity to effectively move in a direction together. Power done in authenticity provides the fuel to sustain the change.

The aforementioned non-profit started that conversation on power long before the Executive Director and Senior Project Manager met with the two pastors. Perhaps that’s why Marsha so quickly picked up on the power play. Their group conversations around power stirred up old history, forced healthy responses of honesty, required forgiveness and reconciliation, and provided profound healing.   That’s when I realized that the authentic leadership Morse captures truly is about “leadership that catalyzes a group toward deep change and moves its members in positive, energizing directions – involved the group acting together.” My hope is to provide the same kind of conversations wherever I might find my place of power and influence as I sit in the space that I live.

About the Author

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Mary Pandiani

Spiritual Director, educator/facilitator, follower of Jesus, a cultivator of sacred space for those who want to encounter God

7 responses to “Attentive Awareness”

  1. Travis Biglow says:

    God’s blessings Mary,

    MaryKate hit on this too in the book. Some people have a inner circle of people who are in the power play together. And they are arrogant because the meeting was already met when they got together. What i hate the most about this is that they compound their arrogance by acting like you dont realize that they already made a decision and them talking to you is just a formality. I face so many challenges with leaders like this that it makes me sick to my stomach but i am learning to deal with them and to use wisdom to change some things! Its not easy because power corrupts some people more than others. But prayer has more power that a secret meeting. God is at the meetint too so its not that secret!

  2. Phillip Struckmeyer says:

    Mary, I think MaryKate would be very encouraged of all readers had the same overarching “take-home” as you. You say, “My hope is to provide the same kind of conversations wherever I might find my place of power and influence as I sit in the space that I live.” Now there is a formula for world change! Great reflection and application. I also did, as mentioned in David’s post as well, caught the point of power is not bad and most people have been hurt by power in someway, that power is not necessary a negative, but rather like money it comes down to stewardship and using it as a commodity for good in our world!

  3. mm Nick Martineau says:

    Thanks Mary…Lots of good takeaways for me here.

    Most church structures are setup with a Senior Pastor and staff below him/her. The power rests in one man/woman at the top and depending upon the gentleness and humility of the leader the conversation of power and shared power can be had or not had.

    As you probably remember I’m in the middle of a Senior Pastor generational transition right now. It makes me really uncomfortable because in essence we are handing off power. I’ve really been wanting to move from an “I” mentality to a “We” mentality through this transition and MaryKate’s book has given me a vision of how to do it but it involves deep change.

    I love your thought of having the power conversations and your reminder that “Power done in authenticity provides the fuel to sustain the change.” I really appreciate your heart and encouraging guidance.

  4. mm Brian Yost says:

    Mary,
    Thanks for sharing this story. One thing that stood out to me was that the Karen and Marsha brought past experiences to the meeting and were immediately able to identify a “powerplay”use of space and posture. While the men in this story seem to know what they were doing, it made me think about the way that we can send a wrong message to people even if it is unintended. I have a bad back and crossing my arms helps relieve some of the pressure, but I am also aware that others may read this not being open. If someone has dealt with people who cross their arms, lean back, and present a physical attitude of superiority, they may read my posture as meaning something more that just a sore back. As leaders, we need to take these things into account and try to see ourselves through the eyes and experiences of others.

  5. mm Dave Young says:

    Mary,

    Your post made me reflect on my office. It’s not at the end of a long hallway, but I am concerned I might be sending the wrong signal. Our offices and meeting rooms are in a house, the office manager is up front next to the front door. When you come into the house you walk into a living room that doubles as our church library. Off the library are a number of rooms used for different purposes: kitchen, nursery, toddler room, copy room, meeting rooms, pastor’s office. So directly outside my office is library/living room that is really the hub of activity. So here’s my question to you… when I close the door, because I’m easily distracted – I seem to be sending the message of ‘I’m unavailable’. How do I get study, writing, etc done with an open door? Currently I at times close the door, at other times work from home. Thoughts

    • Mary says:

      Dave – I can appreciate your dilemma as you need the time to focus on your work (I too am easily distracted). I think, as Brian noted above, it has more to do with being aware of the situation, and then responding to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. I think it’s your attentiveness and presence to the people you do meet that ultimately makes the difference. For me, I found I had to do my concentrated work at home, and then the things that could be interrupted, I would do at the office. The fact that you are even considering means you have a sensitivity for which many people are unaware or unwilling to acknowledge.

  6. These situations are complex — multi-layered. Awareness and knowledge give us power, but we can walk away from a meeting as described and feel superior because WE understood the dynamic and rose above it, and WE would never use power that way.
    A large church in my home town hoped to change some of the power dynamics by bringing a senior leader on to their team who came from a smaller church with a family ethos. What they failed to appreciate was the power of their corporate culture. He didn’t last, but he did manage to generate a conversation about the corporate ethos and its disconnect with the gospel.

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