Speaking the truth about power

You have been working with ministry leaders for months on a new initiative. In the process you and your team have carefully gathered input, communicated decisions out in a variety of ways, and provided pastoral care to people for whom proposed changes to the way things are currently done might spark anger or grief.

When implementation time comes, however, the initiative dies on the vine. Why? Well, you’ve attended to reason and emotion, two key aspects of transformation, but it’s possible you and your team overlooked the most potent one: power. According to UCC minister and seminary dean Sarah Drummond in her book Dynamic Discernment, all three areas must be addressed for lasting organizational change to occur.

That makes sense, doesn’t it? You’ve got to have the investment of influencers for anything new to have a shot at succeeding. But here’s the thing, says Drummond: people with power often deny that they have it: “Oh, as board chair my voice is just one among many.” “I haven’t held any [formal] leadership roles for a long time.” “It’s not my fault that others look to me for my opinions.” That’s because those who acknowledge that they have power for whatever reason (position, wealth, gender, sexual orientation, race, age, length of membership, etc.) might be asked to give up some of that advantage, which even well-meaning people are reluctant to do.

Ministers must have a clear-eyed understanding of power dynamics in order to help their congregations live into hope and inhabit new realities. And they have to be able to help others see the forces at work, own where they have clout so that they can leverage it for healthy purposes, and willingly share some of their authority so that new voices can be heard.

As in many matters, curiosity is key, whether you wonder to yourself, “What is really going on here?” or if you ask others to tell you more about people, roles, and expectations to heighten their awareness as well as your own. This questioning not only illuminates previously hidden systems but also makes it possible to note what Drummond calls “pockets of possibility” where established power and grassroots energy could converge.

Who, then, holds the power in your setting? If you don’t know, how will you find out? And how will you then use that information in wise and compassionate ways to affect changes so that your church can be creative and faithful?

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash.