For some reason this week I was thinking about the nature of power versus the nature of authority. In our culture, people tend to use these words as synonyms – and in the last few years they have also tended to take on entirely negative connotations. While our language does recognize a lexical over-lap between the two words, I tend to view them differently.
Power, to me, is what is accorded to a person by nature of their position. It’s what is handed to someone through law, or by-laws, or even common tradition. It makes no difference if a person “in power” is competent or compassionate, they have power to do certain tasks and enforce certain rules. Power can be a good thing, but often it is not 1. I have noticed people who seek power frequently possess insecure personalities, they crave power because they aren’t sure they can convince people to do what they want any other way. In a church setting these are typically people who know the by-laws backwards and forwards or actively campaign to be granted “official” positions. This, however, applies to any kind of social structure. It doesn’t matter if it’s a non-profit board, neighborhood association, town council, or a higher level of government – seeking power is often about a deep-seated need to control others.
I contrast this with authority, a privilege ascribed to people based on witnessed competence and empathy. When a person has demonstrated a skill in some aspect of their lives, such as a “computer expert 2,” people will tend to defer to them on matters which are in their orbit – as long as the person doesn’t use their gifts to protect personal turf or push others out. People with genuine authority share knowledge and try to pass on skills, which generates trust from others. Thus, even if the person with authority holds no official position of power, they frequently be able influence “official decisions.” Why is this? Because real authority is about empowering others. Authority generates energy in a community, power tends to consume it.
In the Church, pastors need to recognize the differences between power and authority. Church folk, for all our protesting otherwise, are products of our culture, and in our culture power is bad. This is why, when a pastor attempts to alter worship, add a Bible Study, or train up leaders the charge might fly, “Pastor is on a power-trip.” Sad as it might be, people in our culture now expect those who hold official office to abuse their power – pastors are no exception. In order to influence healthy, and lasting, changes in a community pastors really need to build up an equity of authority – an empowering trust which springs from displayed competence. This is not an easy task, especially in congregations which possess deep wounds and feelings of mis-trust, and is often accompanied a deep sense of loneliness and frustration 3. It is, however, possible. The longer a pastor takes to build up equity with compassion, competence, and long-suffering – the more those who cry out against perceived power trips will end up marginalizing themselves. People will begin to see how those who protest against power are often those who actually crave it for their own ends. Once they are self-marginalized, these folks will often learn they need the community more than the community needs them, and will re-approach a church in much more healthy ways 4.
What’s this mean for pastors who want to help influence a deep and healthy change among the congregations they serve? Well, I think it means one of the best tasks we can undertake for our congregations is to develop a wide authority among people who, whether they are “in power” or not, the congregation trusts as an empowering presence. These can be people who participate in worship, gather people together to accomplish “unofficial” 5 mission goals, offer generous hospitality, or who demonstrate a competent and compassionate use of their gifts. The wider this pool of authority is spread, the greater amount of empowered trust will be generated.
- Granted, I am a Gen-Xer and view power with great skepticism. ↩
- I am geek, so I go there. ↩
- I was once told by a wise pastor that the emotions pastors feel toward their congregations are often those congregants themselves feel. Wounded churches transfer their woundedness on to their pastors. ↩
- This may not always be with the original congregation. Sometimes new wisdom needs to be lived out in a different setting. ↩
- By “unofficial” I mean “not specifically codified in the bylaws.” ↩