Updated: Jul 9, 2022
I was at a birthday party this week, and someone had tied a helium balloon to the birthday woman’s chair. It stayed there, bobbing around and occasionally hitting her on the back of the head or catching her arm in the string, until during dessert she finally said, “Get that thing off of there!”
One of the concerns I have regularly heard from CMCs and pastors, as well as observing myself, is the way people with power seem unaware of the effects of that power.
Power can come in the form of organizational power (Lead Pastor, Superintendent, Board Member, Bishop), social power (White, Male, Middle Class), educational power (degrees, or conversely no degrees and popular wisdom), or group identity (longest membership, generational membership, best representative of the group).
Whether they wield it like a helium balloon, and it just gets in the way, or they carry it more like a loaded gun that occasionally misfires, it is vital that those with authority understand how the power they carry works.
Two Kinds of Conversations
The very presence of a power difference causes some of those with less power to watch their words. Imagine the break room at Target. Employees are relaxing on lunch break, chatting about work and home, laughing, joking. Then the boss walks in. Laughter stops, and all eyes turn to her until she makes clear whether she is coming in for coffee or to chase some of the employees back out to the floor. If it turns out that she is only refilling her mug, conversations will resume, but they will likely be more subdued than before, and the topics, possibly even the vocabulary, will be different than before.
The difference between the conversations before and after the boss walks in, if it could be measured, indicates the amount of oppression the workers feel. Even the best boss, however, will not have direct access to everything said when she is not in the room.
Think about the people you talk with. Do you have the power to fire them? To assign them to the worst tasks? To give or withhold appointments? To speak about them well or poorly with other leaders? If so, then you should assume that no matter how wonderful and approachable you try to be, there are conversations going on that you don’t know about. There are truths that everyone knows except the leaders.
Believing Your Own Press
I used to work at a Seminary library at the check-out desk. We regularly had retired pastors who came to the library and wandered around, not reading, not looking for specific books, not even really browsing. They just seemed lonely. Inevitably, they would approach my desk and start talking.
It was clear that they did not want a conversation—they didn’t leave room for any responses from me—they just wanted to talk to someone the way they used to talk to their congregations. They would passionately expound their favorite themes on Christian living. And they seemed completely bewildered that all the people who had given them their full attention for so many years were now absolutely uninterested in hearing what they had to say. Their experience carrying a power invisible to them tricked them into believing that everyone thought they were brilliant. And when they lost their power, they became lost and confused because in reality, it was only their power that had kept people listening.
Power may be invisible to the one who holds it. Power is not invisible to those one has power over.
Of course, leaders can choose to ignore these truths. Pastors can continue to preach, teach, and lead in the ways they feel are right and assume that congregation members who refuse to follow are unfaithful to God, bitter, rebellious, worldly, or otherwise sinful. And when we get wind of the rumblings of that break-room conversation, we can dismiss it as gossip. But there is another way.
Using Power Wisely
Practice Listening to People You Disagree With: Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12 tell us that gifts are distributed throughout the congregation. Anyone speaking with you may be offering God’s corrective to your vision. If this is not a skill you excel in, practice using podcasts, talk shows, or other sources and look for what you might learn even from those you disagree with. As you get better, or if this is a skill you already possess, approach every conversation assuming that another person’s perspective is meant to improve your understanding of God’s guidance. Get curious about what your occasional anger tells you about you, instead of what it tells you about them.
Find Intermediaries: Maybe it will be your spouse, maybe the church secretary, maybe the youth pastor or the worship leader. All these people will inevitably hear conversations that you won’t. Know first that they will need to respect the privacy of the individuals who are speaking to them. However, they can be valuable conduits for you to hear the corrections from the congregation that God is sending you.
Disagree in Private; Agree in Public: Whenever you can, thank publicly those who helped you to see a truth that you missed. This signals to everyone else that you are open to being corrected by people with less power than you have. Back that up by continuing to be open to others, particularly critiques from people different than you.
Listen to Other Communities: If you are having trouble hearing from certain groups in your church, find out who they listen to and follow them as well. This may overlap with #1. You may find that these other communities fall outside of FMC doctrine, but resist the urge to “fix” this from the pulpit. You must first demonstrate that you have listened to them and that you recognize that some of their points of view are helpful for the church. Find ways to show that you value them.
Do Not Dismiss Other Conversations as Gossip: If you are newer to the church, there may be years of hierarchical teaching that you need to counteract before people are willing to open up to you. All the progress you might be making can be reversed by a race-based or gender-based joke from the pulpit, or the public shaming or private de-valuing of a member or a subgroup within the church. As annoying as we inevitably find certain people, they are gifts to us and to the church from God, and whether we agree with them or ultimately disagree, we must recognize their value.
Notice Those Who Disappear: Be proactive when you see people stepping back or getting mad. Make room for their anger in your presence. As leaders, we need to be aware of the suffering of God’s people, even when it occurs at our hands. We may be able to act differently in the future, understand people better, and ultimately lead better.
Men in particular will want to think about ways to make sure they are not inadvertently tying lead balloons to women’s chairs. What women in your congregation are you listening to? Is there a representative cross section of ages and races? What women are you following on social media? What female pastors and theologians are you reading?
What resources do you have in place for women in your congregation or conference to bring up concerns or disagreements? If you have the power to make or break their careers, you may need to put processes in place to hear from them anonymously. Where are you building bridges from women’s groups to leadership groups? How are you publicly affirming women who have helped you to grow in your understanding of gender dynamics, or your interpretations and applications of Scripture?
As you build answers to these questions into your leadership practices, your knowledge of and love for all the subgroups within your congregation will keep you from using your power to cause harm. And those following you or serving alongside you will be less hampered by balloons.