Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Paradox of Power

Power doesn’t usually get good press in the Christian world, as in the phrase “principalities and the powers” of Paul’s writings, or Jesus’ words to James and John when they requested to sit next to him when he ascended to the “seat of power,” – “You know that those appearing to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their ‘great ones’ dominate them; but it is not so with you” (my translation). At least in part, that’s because of two fundamental qualities of power: (1) it turns means into ends; (2) it’s addictive. People don’t covet money or fame or high political office in and of themselves; rather, they covet them for the perceived power they bring. And, of course, no amount of power is ever enough. The Faustian vision of limitless power is both ubiquitous and universal. “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely,” said Lord Acton.

But without a measure of power it would be difficult to achieve anything worthwhile, even in the church. Pastors, for example, must possess a certain measure of power within their congregations in order to be effective in their ministries. That power typically takes three different forms: positional, relational, and functional. Positional power is the kind of power one has by virtue of the office or position. You get that kind of power walking through the door. CEO’s and presidents possess positional power the day they arrive. Relational power, on the other hand, is earned through trust developed over time in relationship with those with whom you work and serve. Functional power is accrued because you know something or can do something someone values. Functional power is the kind of power your surgeon has over you.

Pastors who are competent and diligent develop relational and functional power fairly quickly. Hospital visits and effective preaching will accrue the pastor a measure of relational and functional power with most congregations in fairly short order. But while most laypeople believe that the pastor also possesses a measure of positional power the day he arrives, in most Baptist churches that is more perception than reality. Most Baptist churches already have well-established and firmly-entrenched power structures (church staff, deacons, key committees, well-heeled members who know how to “get things done,” etc.) that a pastor ignores at great peril. The paradox is that while most laypeople believe that the pastor possesses positional power and hold him accountable for achieving whatever agenda they deem essential to the church’s “success,” many pastors have virtually no positional power and are left to try to achieve their goals solely through the judicious exercise of relational and functional power. Holding a pastor accountable for things over which he has, in reality, little if any control is a recipe for frustration…or disaster.

Which brings me to my point. Churches need to grant their pastors an appropriate measure of positional power if they intend to hold the pastor accountable for the achievement of the church’s goals. Is there a danger here that the pastor might abuse that positional power? Of course. Remember Lord Acton? But that’s precisely why it’s so necessary and important for the congregation to do its job well at the front end, when they call the pastor. If he understands ministry as a vocation (calling) rather than merely a profession (job), he is unlikely to use power in a self-serving way. If your pastor is a person of integrity, he can be trusted with an appropriate measure of positional power. Sound paradoxical? Sure it does, but we’ve got to expect that kind of thing in the Kingdom of God, don’t we.

1 comment:

John King said...

All very true! Something that that needs to be explicitly taught in seminary!