Name Your Power

Usually in Auckland we don’t think much about our power, at the click of a switch we have light, hot water, all the things we need to make our life comfortable.  Last week we became suddenly aware of all the things that require power.  A storm damaged the overhead lines that deliver electricity and many people had to go without power for more than a week.  We become so accustomed to having power that we have trouble remembering and understanding what it is like to be without it.

The church has a long and complex relationship with power, and like electricity that is taken for granted, so too we often forget what it is like to be without power. 

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We can go right back to the Old Testament and see leaders struggling with power, we can turn to the New Testament and see the disciples asking Jesus about power.  “When Jesus will you overthrow the Roman oppressors?” - wasn’t that question about power and how holds it?  Acts and the Epistles outline the early days of the church, where we see the church struggling, often small, sidelined, persecuted, oppressed and lacking power.  Yet the church was growing rapidly. 

Many years later with the Emperor Constantine, came the rise of Christendom, Christianity became the dominant religion of the region and held hands with power.  Since then power, it’s use, abuse, maintenance or loss has been problematic for the Church.  With such a history, you would think we would have found the answers, that we would have worked out ways to live out more fully Jesus’ call to live with humility.  That we would be able to hold power lightly and be able to share it well, and to empower others.  Yet we still see leaders and institutions hanging on to power, and the problems and abuse that that creates.  

There are several stories in the Christian world that I am tracking with interest. Firstly at home, we have the Anglican church heatedly discussing motion 29.  In the US church and in some mission settings we have a growing challenge to the Church’s white western dominance, that excludes Christians of other ethnicities.  Finally in the wake of #churchtoo we have churches struggling to acknowledge and deal with men’s continuing inappropriate behaviour towards women.  At first glance, these seem to be quite disparate issues, but I see a common theme that underlies all these issues.  The common link between these issues and the issue that is often not addressed in the discussion is power.  Who holds the power?  How do they share it or hang on to it?  These are important questions for the Church going forward. 

Almost all of the teaching that I have heard about power in Christian settings has been about power being bad.  Power corrupts, power is a temptation (using, for example, Jesus temptation in Luke 4:6), it is something we need to resist the glittery attraction of, something bad. There is also often an assumption in the teaching that we don’t have power unless we are a ‘leader’. That approach to power is inadequate, it doesn’t teach us how to recognise our own power, how to find ways to share that power, how to recognise institutionalised power and to understand our part in dismantling or challenging that.  It leaves much that needs to be understood about power untouched and unexplored.  

One of the problems that I think we have as Christians (and especially as New Zealand Christians) is that we tend to romanticise persecution and martyrdom, we want to see ourselves as humble, oppressed and put upon.  “Oh but we are just poor Christians” is almost a persona we desire.   Unfortunately, this attitude means that we don’t make the time or take the effort to reflect on our power and it is so often that unidentified power that becomes our downfall.  If we are not switched on to the power that we hold, if it goes unnamed and unaddressed, that is when it becomes dangerous.  Perhaps part of the problem is that power often creeps up on us gradually. We might start a blog of 20-30 readers and then suddenly find ourselves influencing 1000’s, we might start a church of 20 people (mostly our friends) in a hired venue and then suddenly find ourselves as the pastor of the latest popular church of a 1000 people (mostly strangers).  The problem is that often in our mind we are still the small-time blogger who blogs for fun, or in our mind, we are still the struggling pastor of 20.  Gradually our power has changed and we may not recognise it because in our mind our influence is still small.  But our influence is not small, people look up to us and we need to be more comfortable acknowledging and naming that power.  As that is the first step to being able to share the power and to use it well to challenge and break down unhealthy power bases.

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To help you think about where you may have power, to begin to name it and become switched on to how it may be influencing your interactions with others here are some questions to reflect on. 

Societal Power

The first level to reflect on is where you are placed in wider society. This context in which you have grown and developed will impact your ability to see and acknowledge, use or share power.  Your assumptions about how the world should be, are created by the societal power that you have grown up with (or without).  The experiences that you have had because of your gender, ethnicity, financial status, culture, gender and sexuality identity all impact on your relationship to power.  

Reflect on the following questions:
How comfortable do I feel in the society in which I live?
Do I have role models that look like me?  
Have I ever experienced discrimination because of some unchanging quality of who I am?
Have other people even made decisions about who I am, where I should be and what I can do, because of my own characteristics?
Have I ever been told that you are too…..? (too ambitious, too intimidating, too intense, etc...)
How do these experiences influence how I see the perspective of other people?
Have I ever tried to initiate change, or challenge a person or institution with power?
How was that received?
What impact did that have on me? 

Role Power

Another level of power that is worth exploring is the power that our role itself gives us.  This is something that I spent quite some time exploring as I learnt to be a professional supervisor, and pastors should be encouraged and taught this as well. Sometimes we have power over others simply because of the role that we are taking on.  As a leader, a pastor, a national director others assume that we are powerful.  They may let us influence them in ways that surprise us if we ignore this level of power we can assume and act as if we are equal, expecting others to push back or challenge us but in fact, their understanding of our role power stops this occurring.  This is a level to be particularly aware of in cross-cultural situations as the ability of those without power to challenge leaders is strongly influenced by our culture.  

Reflect on the following questions:
What roles do I hold?
How do I see these roles?  What power do they hold?
Do I employ people? What power over them does this give me?
How might these roles change how others see me?
How do others see me?  (Ask them!)
How should this change how I interact with them?
How vulnerable and authentic am I in what I share with others?
What are small ways that I can share power with others?
What are small ways that I can change how others see me?

Spiritual Power

In our Christian community, our role power is often reinforced on a spiritual level. A leader or pastor can be seen as chosen by God to lead, and they also have influence over the peoples' spirituality and relationship with God.  This should not be taken lightly and if left unacknowledged can lead to spiritual abuse.  Thinking more broadly within our church structures and interpretive communities, we can also see that some people have more power in these institutions than others.  Many times those with power within our organisational structures hang on to that power and see any alternative viewpoint as a challenge and react accordingly.   We need to reflect on how this power is influencing our ability to think inclusively, to see beyond our presuppositions, and to interpret the Bible well.

Reflect on the following questions:  

Have I ever used the Bible to limit and or curtail what someone can do?
Have I ever had the Bible used to limit or curtail what I can do?
Have I ever had my ability to image God, or ability to relate directly to God questioned by the use of the Bible?
Do those who I see interpreting the Bible look like me in some way?
Have I always felt that my ideas, thoughts and experiences were valued and listened to within my faith community?
Have my ideas, experiences or people like me ever been made fun of, or been the basis of a joke in my faith community?  
How have these experiences influenced my ability to grow spiritually, to understand my gifts and to read the bible?
In what ways do I have power in my faith community?
What are three ways that I can begin to spread that power to people not like me?

Personal Power

These many levels of power all interact in a complex relationship. I think often it is the level of personal power that is the easiest to overlook. When we are meeting one-to-one with someone we forget that actually we are influenced by the other levels of power.  We are able to take or share power even in our one to one relationships. 

Reflect on the following questions:

How aware of personal power am I?
Do I interact with power or humility?
Do I talk over others?
Do I truly listen to others viewpoints?
Do I make assumptions about what other people think, or about their agreement?
Do I feel able to disagree and put forward my opinion in personal conversations?
How able am I to set and stick to my boundaries in personal relationships?
Do I feel that I can say no to others?
What are three ways that I can help others to challenge my ideas?
What are three ways I can help others to find their voice?
How vulnerable and authentic am I in personal relationships?


Keep exploring your power, and find many ways to share it this week.  Please get in touch if I have missed anything in this post, I am aware that I am writing from a particular perspective and a particular power position myself and I welcome challenge to that.