The Ethics of Power in Christian LeadershipJan 08, 2023
One of the things I teach in my course Leading Adaptively is how leaders can find their power and use it for good. But but but, I can feel you asking, don’t leaders already have a lot of power, and isn’t that part of the problem? Well, let’s talk about it.
For the past, oh lets call it three decades, there has been a lot of enthusiasm about “flattening” organizational structures - getting rid of hierarchies, and that sort of thing. I think the idea is that imbalances of power are the root of all evil, and if only we were all equal, everything would be better.
Now, I’m just as much in favour of everything being better as the next person. And without a doubt, hierarchies have led to whole groups of people being excluded from power. However there is a major misconception here.
Hidden in this idea is an idea about what sin is (yep! I just said sin), and how to fix it. If everything would be better if we only got rid of hierarchies, then sin (or human brokenness, as you like) is outside of ourselves: “We’re fine,” this idea says, “it’s hierarchies that are the problem!” But the problem is that we are actually not fine; it’s not hierarchies that make us broken. We are broken people (I’ll explain this more in a sec, stay with me) who use hierarchies as an expression of our brokenness. Without hierarchies, we’re still broken and we’ll just find some other way to express it.
What do I mean by “we are broken people”? We don’t need to enter into a discussion of original sin here (by all means go ahead, but it’s optional). Instead let me tell you about my experience working with small Anglican congregations who could no longer afford clergy - experiences I had because I love the people of these communities and I worked hard for the privilege of working with them.
In a community of 5-30 people you can see some human dynamics pretty clearly. I’ve spent lots of time with lots of these small communities, and while each is entirely unique, they also share a lot of features.
In these congregations, far from the centres of power, and without the formal leadership of a priest, the non-ordained people have to figure out how to organize themselves. When they have competing ideas, how will they decide which idea to follow and which idea to leave behind? When money is tight and the needs are many, how will they decide when to say yes and when to say no? If they face a moment that asks for courage, how will they do a hard thing together, and who will encourage others to step up?
In communities even as small as 5-30 people, none of these decisions are made in a perfectly equitable way, because people are not all carbon copies of each other! People are unique and they have gifts! Some people within the community will have the gift of decision-making (sometimes called “being opinionated”), or the gift of exhortation (“being bossy”), or the gift of seeing what’s good about someone else’s idea, and getting behind it enthusiastically (“being a yes-[person]”). You will have visionary people who will argue passionately (aggressively?) that their idea is right, and others who mediate among competing options (the diplomats /pacifiers / codependents, depending on the context).
None of this involves formal hierarchy - it is completely organic and its based in everyone’s unique gifts, life contexts, traumas, hopes, dreams, and narratives.
Well, wouldn't you know it: here in this completely organic, “flat” social context, we often find people behaving in ways that are unhealthy for the rest of the community. Here, in this “flat” system, sexism, racism, and xenophobia can thrive without difficulty (and without awareness), and so can dysfunction. A skilled bully, a talented manipulator, or a competent narcissist may have little difficulty gaining influence in these non-hierarchical situations.
If there are working structures of formal authority (hierarchy) that actually offer folks power, these antagonists will search them out and make use of them. This is what happens when skilled antagonists enter the ministry - it expands the scope for their ‘talents’ and their harms. But if there’s no formal hierarchy, that alone won’t stop them from gaining influence over others.
Something more is needed.
That something is an empowered community.
Rather than investing in fighting against all hierarchies and all power differentials (it’s a losing battle), I suggest that we change our attitude to power.
If we only ever talk about power as a bad thing, the kind of thing that good, polite people avoid, then only the dysfunctional, damaging people will make use of it. And where does that lead us? To a place where the only empowered people in a community are the dysfunctional ones, the bullies, abusers and narcissists, and everyone else tries to address the issue by giving up their power still more, as if it’s power itself that is the problem. It’s not. And this strategy doesn’t work.
I’ve seen those communities; I’ve worked with them. I’ve helped some of these people heal. And the healing comes not from expunging all power from our community’s midst, but from finding our power in the face of antagonists, embracing our power, and doing good things with our power. Healing comes from contesting the power of damaging people, and reclaiming our power for good.
That’s what I teach in Leading Adaptively: where is our power? How do we find it even in really tough, conflictual situations? And what good can we do with our power, when we’ve been taught for a long time that using power is bad? What does a good use of power look like?
I can’t tell you what it might look like in your context, but I strongly encourage you to mull this over. Make it a question of ongoing discernment. Imagine: we can be kind, compassionate and welcoming while also setting meaningful boundaries for the dysfunctional people in our community. We can help communities work well together (and stay together) through the messy business of deciding between competing priorities.
We can facilitate hard and good conversations about complex issues in which the wisdom of the community emerges collaboratively, piece by piece, instead of being dominated by the loudest most intractable voices at the meeting.
We can help create communities in which we genuinely (all) wrestle with the challenges of the Christian life; in which there’s the space for sin and repentance, as well as grace.
We can help our communities contest the powers of bullies, abusers and narcissists, and find new life with the help of the Holy Spirit.
Good people, finding their power, using their power for good, and contesting the power of antagonists can do all this. You can help make your community a place like this, whether you wear the collar or not.
That’s the power Christian leaders are called to find and to use. As the body of Christ, let’s have this conversation about power.
Let’s have a real conversation not just about hierarchies, but about our human sinfulness, the antagonists in our midst, the risks and possibilities of power. After all, sin doesn’t live just in the antagonists either: we each struggle with it, and the power for harm each of us has, just as each of us has the power for good, everyday.
So let’s talk practically, pragmatically, about the new life Christ offers, and the daily practice of taking responsibility for our power. And let’s have this conversation trusting in the love of God, the ongoing redeeming work of Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.