Holding onto Power Lightly

A good friend of mine from Massachusetts shared with me the following reflections on what she called the “summer of shame” within the Catholic Church where she worships relative to widespread sexual abuse problems: “while our bishops continue to fail to act and do the right things, the laity is shifting around like crazy,” possibly leading to a “smaller and more faithful church.”

A failure to “do the right thing” on the part of those in power is not limited to the Catholic Church. Without seeking to generalize from my experience, I will report on some painful experiences I have had with those “in power” within Protestantism.

All too often. I have found that a number of Protestant leaders are strongly motivated by a desire to maintain their power and they maintain their power by ensuring that they are in control. This motivation leads to a command-and-control view of leadership where the important decisions are made by those “at the top,” without adequate consultation with those who report to them who will be significantly affected by their decisions.

To elaborate a bit, I have had a few painful conversations with Protestant Christian leaders that revealed that the values that they were motivated by had more to do with maintaining their authority and control and the “prestige” of their organizations than with fostering timeless Christian values like love, justice, truth and community.

In his book The Active Life, noted Quaker sociologist Parker Palmer provides important insights into the limitations of a command-and-control type of leadership designed to maintain power, suggesting that Jesus modeled a different type of leadership that fosters the Christian value of community.

Jesus exercises the only kind of leadership that can evoke authentic community – a leadership that risks failure (and even crucifixion) by making space for other people to act. When a leader takes up all the space and preempts all the action, he or she may make something happen, but the something is not community. Nor is it abundance, because the leader is only one person, and one person’s resources invariably run out. But, when a leader is willing to trust the abundance that people have and can generate together, willing to take the risk of inviting people to share from that abundance, then and only then may true community emerge (p. 138).

There is much to unpack from Palmer’s insights. In my own words, the fatal flaw in the command-and-control model for leadership is that the decisions made are only as good as the best thinking and giftedness of the boss who has the power. In stark contrast, a collegial process for leadership, which I have embraced (more about that later) can lead to decisions that reflect the best thinking and giftedness not only of the boss, but also of those members of the community the boss is leading. 

A mis-reading of a collegial approach to leadership is to think it is an abdication of the responsibility of a person “in power” to “take charge” and “make things happen.” I can best point out how wrong-headed this view is by noting my own experiences in relative positions “of power” when I served for 13 years as a Vice President for Academic Affairs at two Christian liberal arts colleges.

I didn’t leave the teaching of mathematics that I loved for a VPAA position because of the supposed greater prestige of my new position. I left for a relative position of power primarily because of a dream; the wild idea that I could expand on my attempts to make connections between my academic discipline of mathematics and my biblical/theological understanding to inspire a whole college faculty to pursue such connections in their various academic disciplines (thereby fostering the Christian value of knowledge about God’s Creation). So, I could now use my relative position of power to seek to implement that goal. 

When I saw that something needed to be done toward the realization of my goal, I didn’t sit around waiting for my faculty to take that initiative. I took proactive steps in pursuit of my vision. But I didn’t proceed as a Lone Ranger. I assigned the initiative to the appropriate faculty committee at the same time that I “put my oar in the water” (as my faculty jokingly described my modus operandi). What this meant was that whatever the issue at hand (e.g. a curriculum change or an academic policy change), I always sent the appropriate committee a detailed document that presented my current best thinking on the issue, with the exhortation that I expected the committee to improve considerably on my initial thinking. What typically resulted was that the final product reflected the best thinking of all of us and, in the process, a strong sense of community was fostered (if that sounds too easy, it wasn’t that easy – for further elaboration see my essay “Planting Seeds for Redemptive Change” in the book I co-edited with Mark Sargent titled Soul Care: Christian faith and Academic Administration). That was my attempt to hold onto power lightly.

But my journey in the corridors of power didn’t end well. At the end of my 5th year of service as VPAA at Messiah College (PA), I was called into the president’s office and told that my employment was being terminated due to my “lack of deference to the President and Board of Trustees.” To make a long and painful story short, my “firing” reflected an irreconcilable conflict between the command-and-control leadership style of the President and Board and my collegial leadership style. My downfall was that I insisted on following the collegial governance process for making academic decisions about curriculum and programs of study spelled out clearly in the Faculty Handbook. Those who had more power than me wanted to bypass those approved governance procedures.

I was glued to my TV for the funeral services for President George H. W. Bush. The splendid eulogies made it clear that he held onto his power lightly. For example, his decision to change his position on taxes, due to an evolution in his beliefs about was “good for the country” probably cost him re-election. The contrast with President Trump is stark. 

My experiences, good and bad, in a position of leadership are an example of an attempt to use power to promote Christian values, as I understand them, in the context of an individual Christian organization. Such attempts get more complicated and controversial when one is dealing with a group of organizations, like churches, falling under a larger umbrella, like a denomination. This brings me back to the second aspect of the reflection of my friend from Massachusetts about the “summer of shame” in the Catholic Church.

Recall that my friend did not only lament the failures of those in power (the bishops) to “do the right thing.” She went on to report on how the laity in Catholic churches were filling in the void by “doing the right thing” at the local congregational level. This local approach fits well with the principle of subsidiarity that is prominent in Catholic social teaching: wherever possible allow decisions to be made at a local level rather than by a central authority.

This principle of subsidiarity makes a great deal of sense to me for all Christian traditions, primarily because it is at the local level that Christians get to “know each other” well (especially by listening empathetically to one another), thereby being attuned to what needs to be done in their local congregations to foster the growth toward Christian maturity of all their congregants.

Of course, implementing the principle of subsidiarity requires an extraordinary measure of “holding onto power lightly” on the part of those having central authority (e.g., the leaders of Christian denominations). And the implementation details are extremely complex – for one example of this complexity, I refer the reader to the section titled “Navigate Denominational Conflict” regarding contentious human sexuality issues in my book Respectful LGBT Conversations (pp. 273-279). But I believe it is the “right thing to do.”

In conclusion, I observe, as an example of gross understatement, that any attempts of finite and flawed human beings, like me, to hold onto power lightly pale in comparison to the example of Jesus who. although he had unlimited power, chose to hold onto that power so lightly that it led to his crucifixion.

Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2: 6-8)