Acknowledging power in the church

March 10th, 2022
Available from MinistryMatters

As soon as you use the word power when it comes to the church, you need to be very clear about what you mean by the word and how you are using it. One way to define power is to consider the preposition attached to it: power “for,” “under,” “with,” or “from.” The rather benign preposition of carries a lot of weight, especially for women in ministry to claim the agency of their power. That is, “the power of women in ministry” means that women in ministry have power. Period. This power does not need to be enabled, affirmed, or empowered—it just is. My goal is not to provide answers for gaining power. It is to acknowledge, to state clearly, that this power is already present. It is to provide ways by which to imagine how that power can be unlocked and exercised not only for the sake of an individual’s call to ministry but also for the sake of the community’s call to nurture the ministry of all of its members.

Claiming your power as a woman in ministry has to come first from yourself. There will be resistance to this. This resistance resides in an idealism of Christ’s power: that we need to have the kind of power that Christ had, the power of emptying himself, power for the sake of the other alone (Phil 2:1-11). Of course, this is a Christian virtue. But you cannot exercise power, even for the sake of the other, if you do not acknowledge that you have power in the first place. You have to be able to articulate where your power is based, but do not let your answers be the lofty ones that you think others want to hear—like your sense of call, your vocation, or your baptismal identity—if those really are not true and if you do not know what any of those claims actually mean. To claim power from within is to be grounded in the absolute truth of who you are. The key before all of these keys is to tell the truth about yourself. If you consistently defer your power externally, the external forces will eventually take over and define your power for you. You will lose your voice.

Power that is acknowledged as coming from the place of truth about one’s self is truly the kind of power that makes a difference—and it will save you from those who are intent on taking your power away. Power is not only something that you have but represents who you are.

Available from MinistryMatters

At the same time, the kind of power assumed and outlined here is that which is premised on the true power of God’s love to change the world. An ideal claim perhaps, but when the power that we know we have is not grounded in God’s power in love, it is easy for any claims about power to become personal or personally driven. What happens when power usurps mercy? When power demands drama? When power manipulates and connives and only looks out for the self? That is power in its most destructive form.

The fact is that the church has a history of power in those destructive forms. The truth is that the church has demonstrated power that has been damaging, demoralizing, debilitating, demeaning, desecrating, and discriminating. And the wielding of the church’s power has led to the insistence that some inherently have more of it than others when it comes to doing and being church. Arguments for and against women in ministry are, in part, arguments about power—who can and cannot have it. In the end, for the church to allow women in ministry is a relinquishing of power, and even the church, whose power is nominally based on the Christlike empowerment of others, has had a hard time letting go of control.

Specifically, for the church fully to support women in ministry, it means that the church has to give up the misogynistic practices that have so long undergirded its power: the power to control biblical interpretation, the power to control the image of what a representative of the church should look like, and the power to control, as if one can, human sexuality and gender identity/expression. At the same time, the power of women in ministry can be wielded to empower the church to broaden its understanding and interpretation of the biblical witnesses so as to offer and teach the fullness of God’s vision, even to those who are resistant.

Why? Because we all have the potential to dismiss the origin of destructive power, which comes when we lack recognizing our starting point. where you start determines your end. What controls you? Domination or dignity? Self-service or true service to the other? Self-protection or honor? Self-preservation or pleasing the other? The starting point of your power matters.

If you cannot articulate the seat of your power—that you have it and that you know what to do with it—then your power will have the potential to disempower others, your power will eventually be taken away from you, or the keeping of your power will be your motivating force instead of the power of the gospel. If you do not know the starting place of your power—and whether or not it comes from love, dignity, honor, and glory—then abuse of power and the usurping of it is just around the corner. There is no lack of examples and circumstances in the church where power is yielded with a complete lack of self-awareness. And a letter of call is no justification for yielding unchecked power.

This becomes the litmus test for power. When power’s starting point is money, rules, control, competition, manipulation, or the bottom line, then that’s not power. That’s bullying. That’s abuse. That’s coercion. That’s narcissism. Then what you stand for and what you believe—your thoughts, your ideas, your aspirations, your truth, your sense of justice, your commitment to mercy, and your dedication to preaching the truth of the gospel—is commodified rather than celebrated. We are simultaneously drawn to power and repulsed by it. And that convergence or juxtaposition is at the heart of the issues that surround women in ministry.

God’s people have been the recipients of the generosity of power and the objects of the negativity of power. To be a woman in ministry means that you have to come clean about your own power, as well as how you use it and how you think about it. Leadership positions in the church are freighted with an extraordinary amount of unacknowledged, unchecked, and unregulated power. It is critical when entering ministry to reflect on where your power is rooted. Church leaders have the potential to model power that comes from a starting point that is rare in this world: a starting point of truth and mercy, of grace and dignity, of regard and respect. This is the kind of power that will truly save the world. 

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