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.