The Dark Side of Pastoral Authority

November 26th, 2012

“Take thou authority....” 

It has been a part of the United Methodist ordination service for many years. As each ordinand kneels and the Bishop places her/his hands on the ordinand, these words are spoken on behalf of the church, that the one being ordained is shown to have the authority given by the church after due process of candidacy. 

There are three types of authority: bestowed, claimed and earned.

Bestowed authority is that authority given to an individual by another individual or body. It grants authority to carry out the ministry that needs to be done. It also signifies that the one on whom it is bestowed has met the standards such authority requires.

Claimed authority is that which is claimed by an individual. A pastor, for example, may have authority bestowed upon her/him; however, if that pastor does not claim it, authority is often neither recognized nor honored.

Earned authority comes when an individual earns credibility by practicing what is preached, walking the walk and not simply talking the talk. This sort of authority cannot be seized or overtly claimed.  It must be given by those being lead once it is clear the pastor is sincere.

But sometimes, authority takes on a darker side.

From one perspective, this dark side is given power at the hands of the church's (lay) leaders. On the other hand, it is given its dark side at the hand of the pastor.

When authority shows its darker side at the hand of laity, it is often the result of that member giving over too much authority to the pastor. In other words, when a church leader cannot make a decision without the pastor’s involvement, a darker authority often rears its ugly head.

For example, a leader in the church encounters a member of his/her committee who appears to have taken over roles of other committee members, causing strife and anger to boil. The chair of the committee comes to the pastor to ask that the pastor “take care of the situation” by confronting the offending committee member and “setting him straight.” This request is sometimes accompanied by the phrase “I don’t like confrontation.”

Who does?

Somewhere, somehow, the church leader has come to think that the pastor is the be-all and end-all of authority in the church. While the pastor may have a great deal of authority, the pastor should not claim all authority. And this example is shows why.

First, when the church leader fears making a decision or confronting a problem without the pastor’s involvement, it stifles that leader’s ministry. When leaders in the church freeze at making decisions that fall under their purview as leaders, it stops ministry from happening.

Second, when pastors feel they must control every decision – or even have input on every decision – it stalls ministry. In fact, it often robs the laity of their ministry and conveys the message that they can’t be trusted.

This means that pastors (and church councils) must be willing to give up some control; to become a “permission-giving” pastor, allowing those in leadership to do the ministry to which they have been elected by the local church and/or called by God.

Let me suggest this way of practicing permission-giving: when a leader of the church approaches you as the pastor with an idea for a new ministry, instead of having that person jump through all the hoops of approval (by the end of which, the idea has all but died), say something like this: “I like this idea! It fits our mission and ministry and I think it would be a great blessing to everyone involved. Tell you what: if you can find two other people who will work with you to make this ministry happen, you have my blessing! Go for it! If you can’t find two other people to help, maybe it’s not time for this ministry to launch. Let’s keep it in mind, sharpening it, developing it further and try again in six months.”

Or if a leader comes to you as the pastor with a problem as stated earlier, instead of jumping in and “rescuing” that leader, why not offer suggestions on the best way to handle it and encourage that leader to deal with the situation directly (what I call “coaching’)? Coaching reinforces their leadership and expresses your trust in them. It also builds the overall health of the body by allowing others to do what needs to be done, rather than letting the body become dependent upon you in unhealthy ways.

There is also the reality that pastors actively contribute to the darker side of pastoral authority. Often, pastors manipulate a situation or the people involved so that the pastor’s desired outcome is realized or the pastor’s ego is stoked, even if the outcome is known to be the wrong one. Add to that the fact that with each time such manipulation takes place, the ego is stoked until it rages out of control.

Perhaps the best way to avoid the darker side of pastoral authority is by remembering a couple of things:

1) We are all in this together. The Church is not “my” church or “your” church or even “our” church. It is God’s church, of which we get to be a part. For whatever reason, God has brought us – as motley a crew as we are – together to be the Church. Each of us is a part of the body. Just like the human body, when all our parts work together and in harmony, the Church is healthy. But when our parts begin to work against each other (disharmony), we experience dis-ease.

This is what Paul is getting at when he speaks of the Church as the body (1 Corinthians 12:4-31). We each have a part to play. We are all is this together. We are best able to do what God calls us to do not when we give up our authority or give over our authority to another, but when we remember when we are all a part of the same body and encourage one another.

2) Humility is essential. Proper humility is not being a doormat for others to walk on. Proper humility recognizes one’s role and place in this adventure we are all taking together, claiming that role and position, then living it in relation to others and to God. Humility is taking our role seriously without taking ourselves so seriously that we are unable to enjoy the journey.

As pastors, let’s claim the authority bestowed upon us by the Church and earn the authority granted us by our charges by working together to make the Church what it is meant to be – the body of Christ for the transforming of the world.

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