Power is everywhere and helps to shape almost every interaction we have throughout our day. So why don’t we in the church talk about it more? It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I ever heard a sermon or talk on power and ministry.1 Non-believers are often more up front when discussing matters of Money, Sex, and Power. These three form a trilogy of ethical areas that are easily recognized by society. Yet strangely, only two are routinely talked about in church. Why is power most often left out? Why don’t we talk more about power?
One reason we don’t talk about power is that it is hidden from the people who possess it (see video in previous post: What is Power?). Like a boxer or weightlifter who doesn’t know their own strength, so is a leader with their power. Often we can become so used to using our power that we don’t even realize the we have it. It is only when we find ourselves in settings where we have significantly less social power that we realize what is missing.
A second reason we don’t discuss power more often is that talking about power can be uncomfortable, at least for those who have it. Often people mistakenly equate power with value, and assume that by saying one person in the room has more power than another that it makes them more valuable. While this is not the case, it can feel that way to people who are not accustomed to speaking about power.
Thirdly, discussing power violates our ideals about how the church should work. Many members of the majority culture would probably agree with an Anglo pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, who in a discussion facilitated by Christianity Today, stated the following:
I think the way a Caucasian hears the power question is a little different. It has been a turnoff to me, because the language doesn’t line up with our core values at Willow [Creek]. Besides redemption itself, our church’s highest value is servanthood. It’s never been about power. We’ve never recruited “powerful” people. We’ve watched God raise up people who have powerful and anointed ministries because they were humble and willings servants.”
“Those who are in power tend to think of it as this pastor did. Because they have power, it is easy to misunderstand its importance and its use.”2 Much of this hesitation may come from the way we have seen the secular world use and abuse power. We wrongly think that if we don’t talk about power, it will go away. But as we’ll see in a future post, Jesus constantly used power in ministry and set an example for us to follow.
Fourthly, talking about power can disturb the status quo. By explicitly identifying who in a given situation has more power than another, it highlights the power disparity in the group. For followers of Christ, it also highlights how the powerful are using their power: to serve themselves or others. If those in leadership are abusing their power then the very act of discussing how power is used in the organization can be a critique of their leadership.
Finally, you have majority/minority cultural dynamics at play even in a conversation about power. “A dominant culture doesn’t readily see power inequities. Neither does it want to relinquish power, since it has thrived precisely because it has a dominant position.”3 While we would all want the church to operate differently from the world in this situation, many times that is not the case.
Starting the Conversation
If we are ever going to see God’s kingdom truly lived out here on earth, we’ll need to stop shying away from conversations about power. We will need to step into them with grace and humility, recognizing they will be difficult. Unfortunately, it is often those with power like myself (as a white, middle class, graduate school educated male) who decide whether or not the conversations will take place. If those of us with power don’t want to talk, the dialogue won’t happen.
I pray God will shape me into the type of leader who can be fully present in these conversations. My dream is that on individual and corporate levels we would be able to sit with one another in vulnerable honesty and excruciating grace, because it will take both to bring about a Kingdom vision of the use of power in ministry.
Be sure to read the other posts in this series, “The Use and Abuse of Power in Ministry”.
Photo courtesy: Julian Tysoe