It’s All About Power

I was with church leaders a few weekends ago, coaching them (with my friend Stephen Johnson) in processes of communal, spiritual discernment. It’s big on listening and on letting wisdom emerge. It requires patience and a confidence that God really is at work in the lives of people in the congregation.

At one point, one of the leaders stopped the presentation and asked if we knew how strange all of this was sounding. This didn’t conform to his understandings of leadership. He was sure that his dad and brothers and the guys at work (his list) wouldn’t recognize this as leadership at all. He said it seemed weak and “gay.” What passed for leadership in his world was announcing a direction and controlling the outcomes.

I’ll tell you my response to him in another post. I tell the story here to surface the issue of power in congregations. We are almost hopelessly confused about issues of power in our churches.

Let me start by saying that I think power is a good word. Paul says, after all, that the Kingdom of God is not about talk, but about power. And in one of the theme verses for my life (1 Cor 1:18), he says that “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to those of us who are being saved it is the power of God.” I think its interesting that Paul contrasts foolishness, not with wisdom, but with power. Whatever the cross means for Paul, it falls into the category of the practical, of accomplishing something, of getting things done, or of realizing a new reality.

But I also want to point out here that it is the word, or logic, of the cross that constitutes this power. This simply doesn’t look like power. The rulers and powers of this world certainly don’t recognize it as such. It might even seem weak or gay. This is because they equate power with control, and the cross is a story of trusting submission.

But this lack of concern with control doesn’t make the cross a story of powerlessness. It is a different kind of power, and if you believe the gospel, a more effective form of power.

I want to skip a few links in the argument here and just say that I think the fruit of the Spirit is one place where the way, or practice, of the cross is articulated. And here’s what I want to say about that: humility is power. Patience is power. Kindness is power. That is, these things produce something. They create a reality. They are not simply the things we do so that God can be powerful (read controlling). They are his power. They produce things that tactics of control won’t and can’t. And the church, of all places, should be the place where this kind of power is put to full use.

Because we have tended to define leadership in terms of direction and control, we have very little experience and wisdom related to other notions of leading. We see the fruit of the Spirit, for instance, only as a set of personal qualities. But these things can also produce processes for deciding and acting. We simply lack the imaginative capacity to hope in this kind of power. We don’t trust our own story.


About Mark Love

I am the Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who lives in Portland, OR. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and three amazing granddaughters.
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5 Responses to It’s All About Power

  1. Susan Mitchell says:

    One of the greatest disappointments I’ve ever experienced in a church community had to do with this issue of power. We were hiring a minister, who had been an elder within his current congregation for many years. A vocal minority made it a condition of their approval for his hiring that he would never be permitted to serve as both minister and elder simultaneously because they were concerned that he would hold too much power. Years later, my heart and mind still boggle over this view, which is wrong on so many levels that ought to be obvious to Christ-followers. But when people are so paranoid and hard-hearted, where is the room for discernment? for following the counsel of scripture? for asking what God would have us do? As individuals and congregations, we desperately need the Spirit’s toolkit.

  2. Shannon Amburn says:

    I like the notion that the fruits of the spirit are uses of power. That is significant to me and it helps me understand what Paul meant by the cross as the power of God. Thanks

  3. Travis Stanley says:

    Mark, you’ve stepped on one of my soap boxes!

    In my work as a community organizer, the first thing we taught new leaders was that Power was good. We defined power as “the ability to act”, that is, the ability to do something about the things you want to change.

    There is an old essay by Bernard Loomer where he delineates between Unilateral Power – power over, and Relational Power – power with ( You need Unilateral power, at times. A cop, a fire fighter, a military general, and even a parent or teacher needs to be able to make a ruling, and expect for those under their care to fall in line.

    But Unilateral power isn’t the only game in town, and is a very ineffective, potentially damaging, way to lead institutions like churches. This is where ministers get tripped up. We rule all “power” as evil, thus leaving all the power-plays in our institutions to the power-hungry few who like to “lord it over” others.

    Instead, we should learn how to build relational power. This means a lot of personal meetings with church members, leaders, and power-players in your congregation and community. It means building consensus when at all possible. It’s hard, but if we learned how to do this, then I think we’d be less frustrated in ministry, more effective, and able to achieve some impressive results as a group. Or, we could continue to have ineffective ministries where we are weak, accomplish nothing, get burned out and angry at the establishment, or are ruled and abused by those who build power against us.

    For good, meaningful, positive change to happen in our churches and communities, I believe that building relational power is a must. Being a weak minister is not attractive or effective. Being a unilateral power-grabber is also not attractive or effective. But being a minister with power, who is able to build a constituency that she or he can inspire to action and change–that’s what we need.

    King said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic”

    • Mark Love says:

      Great stuff, Travis. I like and have used the distinction between unilateral and relational (though I feel a little uneasy completely distinguishing the two). I too want ministers to be powerful actors within the field of endeavor–in this case the Kingdom of God. It’s one of my pet peeves as well.

  4. JW says:

    Thank you, Mark, for this lengthy “Tweet”. I’ll follow you here instead of on Twitter.
    Valuable stuff.

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