Learning how to use authority responsibly

The Despised Ones are doing a synchroblog on leadership. I hate the idea of leadership. I hate the way that my evangelical world has created celebrity cults around various leaders. I was going to write a post on how there should be no leaders in Christian community but we should all consider ourselves servants with different roles. And I definitely believe that to be true. But it’s also dishonest to deny that I’m a leader. I’m a leader because people treat me like one and I have to figure out how to use the authority I’ve been given responsibly rather than pretending like I don’t have any.

When I wrote my commissioning papers three years ago as part of my United Methodist ordination process, I said that being a pastor involves living in the tension of two basic forms of servanthood identified in the New Testament by Jesus and Paul. We are called to be douloi christou (slaves of Christ) and diakonoi pantou (servants to all).

Doulos is the Greek word for a slave whose identity is tied to a specific master. Diakonos on the other hand is the word used for a waiter at a restaurant. Your job is to serve, but you are not bound to a specific master in the same way as a doulos. So basically, I am at the service of my congregation and bound to Jesus Christ at the same time. If my congregation asks me to do something that goes against Christ, then my status as a doulos christou trumps my status as diakonos pantou. It is only because of my slavery to Christ that I should exert authority with people in my congregation. And only I can know to what degree I am motivated by subservience to God’s will and to what degree I am motivated by greed for power.

The authority that a pastor has is a really weird kind of authority because people can ditch your congregation whenever they want to. It’s not like being a government official where you’re in charge of everybody until they vote somebody new in. The church is a voluntary association. Now it may be that in other branches of Christianity, there are all sorts of manipulative authoritarian structures that are set up to control people once they sign a membership covenant, but in United Methodism, we tend to be so worried about losing people that we bend over backwards to accommodate them.

Nonetheless, as a pastor, I have been put in a position of authority. Once a week, I am expected to speak in a straightforward way a truth that God has given me to say. It’s a disingenuous cowardice to preface what I say with a lot of self-deprecation (which I have a habit of doing). I shouldn’t say more than what I can with integrity, but I shouldn’t say less either. I use a lot of intentional vulnerability when I preach, which I think actually gives me greater authority than if I pretended to be flawless. When people see that I’m human, they take me more seriously.

Even so, the fact that I’m the guy who says things emphatically in the front of the room on Sunday causes people to apologize when they cuss in front of me. A friend was telling me today about how someone had sent him a photo of her holding a margarita on vacation, and it hit me that nobody has ever sent me a photo of themselves holding a margarita. Because I’m the pastor. Some people call me “Pastor” instead of “Morgan.” Some people even call me “Reverend.” I really wish people wouldn’t treat me with deference. Because they do, I need to be careful.

I don’t really have any brilliant or earth-shattering insights about how to use my authority responsibly. A lot of it has to do with paying attention to how much I’m talking versus listening. My authority as a pastor should exist for the sake of others’ empowerment. The question is how I react when people I’m ideologically committed to supporting and empowering have ideas that go completely against my own intuitions. It’s an art figuring out how strongly to speak my point of view as an authority. If I speak too strongly, I disempower others. So sometimes I go along with ideas I have reservations about for the sake of empowering others.

The other way I have to use my authority is to stand up for people who are getting stepped on when there’s a conflict. I hate confrontation so this is very difficult for me. But this is perhaps the most critical use of my authority. It’s circumstances like this that prohibit me from pretending like I’m just one servant among many. It’s not that I should be seeking to increase my power, but rather the fact that people listen when I speak gives me the responsibility of speaking up for anyone whose dignity is not being respected. Ultimately I don’t want to have any more power than anybody else. But because I do have power, I need to use it honorably and not pretend that I don’t have it.

7 thoughts on “Learning how to use authority responsibly

  1. I like calling my pastor pastor in a public setting. One on one I use her first name. To me the term is a friendly honorific, like “Doc” to a physician, Officer to a police person, or Captain to the one flying the plane.

    Knowing, as I do, what a difficult and exhausting job being a pastor is, I am not sure that it is complementary. I agree with you that I see the pastor as a servant; and my servant, at that. I am also a willing slave to Jesus because he first loved me, as they say. And a servant to as many people as let me. So really, lay people are called to the same path as you. You just have a different job on the bus.

    My job now, for example, is as a lay leader.

    I chose to be a Methodist because of the real balance that has been established to make it a church that is led by both clergy and laity. My opinion is sought and my voice is welcome here.

    You are called to blab on Sundays. I love the Sunday sermon. Thanks to all pastors for those. They are one of the highlights of my worship life. But they are only a minor part of my relationship with Christ.

    We are all glorified to the degree that we become His tools. He decides how to utilize us. You know when you have been used, because it is so awesome. It’s like the Dalai Lama said when he was asked about how to reach Enlightenment. He replied, “Oh by all means, avoid it if you possibly can.” In other words, don’t do it unless you can’t help it!

    I wouldn’t suggest anyone become a pastor unless they feel absolutely cannot do anything else. That isn’t just advice for pastors. It’s the way you find out how to really be alive no matter what you do. When you are doing what you must do you will know, as I think you do, that this is what God wanted you to do.

    In the end, Christ calls us all, of course, not just pastors. And we must answer how we can, with patience, confidence and love. When the fire is burning inside you, you know it. As they say, at that point, “You give your house for a coral castle and you learn to breathe under water.”

    • That’s what my grandpa said to me. Don’t do it unless you can’t do anything else. Tried for a decade to do other things and I couldn’t.

  2. My area of America acts like if you aren’t a leader then you aren’t successful. Therefore we get a bunch on non-leaders who think they are leaders because they read a John Maxwell book.

    Of course we are all called to be leaders in some way. However I don’t think leadership is my strength. I’m a much better follower.

    • I suspect you have an area of expertise and giftedness where your leadership is needed. You probably don’t think of it as leadership but I think our organizational culture is healthier when we name the contributions that individuals make as a form of leadership rather than saying that the facilitator of decision-making gatherings is the only leader or the preacher, etc.

  3. It’s funny you should mention people calling you “Pastor”. I have heard it a lot, people using that title combined with the pastor’s first name. I have deliberately not done that. In every church I’ve been in as an adult, I’ve called the pastors by their first names. I figure, I wouldn’t call my professor friend “Professor Melissa” or my veterinarian friend “Vet Mindy”, would I? I am not quite sure if people have noticed that I don’t do it or not. [caveat: sometimes I do when talking to my children so they know who I am talking about]

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