Often, it seems to be coupled with words like ‘too much’ or ‘too little,’ or use and abuse. Yet we all (yes all) have power, even if in different ways.
It could be the legendary power of the holder of the key to the tea-towel drawer; the chair or moderator of great councils; our ability to give or withhold our joy; or our participation and our voice in the activities of church and community. Even when at times we feel powerless, in that powerlessness we have choices about how we respond.
We hold power through our lives and experiences, our roles and responsibilities, and in our character and person. Our education and knowledge through our profession and employment bring their own aspects of power to our engagements. Our gender, ethnicity, language – even our physical stature – can affect the way we influence or even dominate others. Much of this happens without our being aware of it, in the ways that we listen or are listened to, or are silenced; our readiness to take action or defer to others.
We also hold power through roles, in our positions of authority in formal and non-formal roles. Formal roles seem the most obvious way we hold power, and yet there are many subtleties in this. Within a role we can give away the responsibility we may rightly hold, or abuse the power of the role.
In some communities in the Uniting Church, influence and power may be assumed by family lines, or ‘chiefly heritage’. It may be difficult for those from other communities to understand the kind of deferment that is often in place.
We also hold power in a kind of personal and spiritual authority. Our competence and confidence and way of being in the world, living in a manner that demonstrates we ‘have our act together’ – and in a spiritual sense, that we have our sense of place with God together – in a subtle way governs the way that we act with power.
When power is used without awareness it can be destructive. Power can then become manipulative or dominant; other voices and opinions are silenced so a full canvas of options is not heard, less than optimal decisions made, and others disempowered. Neither are we immune from playing power games: power used negatively as people play out roles of victim (never taking responsibility), rescuer (always taking on others’ tasks and not completing their own), and domination.
Strangely, we can use power simply by being silent, by not participating, by withholding as well as by actively engaging. We withhold power when we are silent instead of speaking out, when we don’t give our opinions or comments for another’s advantage, and when we don’t play our part.
A ‘power audit’ of the ways we hold power in specific situations can help us to recognise and articulate the power we have. It may highlight how we use our power unwittingly or even abusively. Reflection may help us to recognise our power shadow – the ways we use power that underlie our articulated motivations, the dark side of what we do. Realising the kind of power that we hold can help us to use power in ways that are beneficial.
In the Uniting Church, with its inter-related councils and a consensus decision making approach that invites participation of all views, there seems to be a flat approach to power. Yet of course, as individuals who make up the church – at all levels – we participate in ways that are more or less ‘powerful’. I hear many mutterings about power coteries in church councils. How can we make sure we use our power positively in the ways we act in our congregations, faith communities, and agencies?
Many of the names and adjectives we use for God, and sing in our hymns and songs, also speak of power: Almighty, God of hosts, omnipotent, victorious. Sometimes these articulations of God’s power are deeply off-putting to others, especially those who have experienced abuse of power by those who used God’s name.
Yet God’s power as displayed in Christ is a power that is taken up in ways that benefit and empower others. It is power linked with love, and for relationship. It might be that we think a Christian approach of humility and service means that we should not use power in any way.
Someone taking part in one of our programs recently said: “I’ve realised I need to regain personal power that I have lost and given away.” Maybe this person realised the tension we all need to keep in balance: when we recognise and use the power that we hold in our person and our roles, we fulfil our responsibilities by using our power to serve rather than withdraw, or dominate or have our way.
Power used wisely to serve the other is thus power in love and relationship.
Centre for Theology & Ministry