From our Advanced Leadership Forum

While studying sociology years ago, I remember studying the difference between power and authority. My shorthand distinction between the two would be that power is about having the ability to make others conform to you will even against their will. Authority emerges when one so consistently demonstrates they have the best interest of others in mind that the others are willing to follow. The first constrains the will and second transforms the will. There is an inverse relationship between exercise of power and exercise of authority.

The modern bureaucratic corporate mentality located authority in a role rather than a person. In complex societal systems it is impossible to know all the people we must trust well enough to ascribe authority to them. Thus, with police officers for instance, we credential them through a process that gives them a legitimate claim to authority and to use power on our behalf in the execution of their roles. We have done the same thing with spiritual leaders, with church being the credentialing authority.

So what happens when the credentialing authority loses its “authority” and becomes perceived as inept if not hostile? Pastors loose their institutional authority. Pastors are not from our congregations. They are superimposed on them. We don’t know them so they have no personal authority either. Sensing the vacuum, the controllers move into assert their power (not authority.) As denominational authorities see the dysfunction they move increasingly from exercise of authority to exercise of power, further diminishing their authority.

What we need in order for people to “go deep” is for spiritual leaders to emerge who will exercise authority. But only a handful of people can get sufficiently close enough to a person with authority to be nurtured by them. One person can only have so many close relationships at a time. That means that a pastor with genuine authority will have to equip others to exercise spiritual authority in an ever expanding out-of-control network.

I have read several times here that the problem in our culture is that people will not submit to authority. True enough. Why? Genesis 3. We all want to become as God. We don’t want to be under authority. But what is the flip side? We want to be the one in authority. We want to everyone to submit to our authority because we have a “call” or a degree from a seminary.

Jesus said his sheep know his voice. When pastors speak with true authority the sheep hear the voice of Jesus. Yes there are rebel sheep. In our culture it is probably the majority. But my experience is that when most pastors speak, those sheep who truly know Jesus are not hearing Jesus’ voice. Their unwillingness to follow may not be rebellion against authority. It may be submission to the voice they know and trust.

From Bill Easum

Now you’re getting the power of empowered lay pastors who have spiritual integrity. ANd yes this is the problem with much of mainline protestantism. I know in my own tribe (UMC) there are bishops who have authority and their are those who try to wield power, more the latter it seems to me.  I have been under five bishops and only two of them had my respect.

The begs your question – How can you submit to someone whom you do respect much less trust. To make matters worse, you’re not even on the same bus. The answer – you can’t.

The same is true in the local church when you place or allow controllers to have any power at all.  All they can do is intimidate, but they have authority, so people just check out.


Michael, you make so many good points – especially important is the distinction between power and authority.
I would add another reason for the lack of respect or obedience given to those in authority – that is fear.  Because there has been this confusion between power and authority, some in authority have wielded their power in oppressive and painful ways, fostering a spirit of suspicion and distrust.  We’ve all heard of the six degrees of separation theory that everyone on the planet is connected through a chain of acquaintances.  Well, I suspect that there are three or fewer degrees of separation between individuals and a connection to someone who has been hurt by abusive power wielded from a position of granted authority.  I am one of those walking wounded.

This has made me a rather passionate advocate for EARNED respect and EARNED authority.  Never mind that some higher organizational power has granted authority to someone.  Let me see that person in action.  Show me what they can do and how they do it.  Then I will consider granting them authority over me.  This is not about my desire for power or my lack of willingness to submit to someone who is to lead me, but rather comes from a life and spirit preserving instinct that warns me not to trust until I have seen evidence of accountability with an appropriate system of checks and balances that can prevent abuse.  I hope that this doesn’t make me a “controller”, because I experience it as self-preservation.

How might our view of distrustful congregations change, how might our view of controllers change if we focused on earning our authority as leaders by paying attention to our own way of living and working?  Show me that you are impeccably walking the talk and I’ll follow you just about anywhere.  This was born out in my previous congregation where there were some very strong and very desperate controllers who constantly worked behind the scenes to undermine our transformation efforts.  But because I didn’t get all fussed up when they didn’t follow, I tried to keep my heart, hands and feet moving in the direction God was leading.  AND because this work immediately began to bear fruit, the controllers had to follow mostly because they wanted to be connected with success, but in some small part, I believe they followed because in their hearts, they knew it was the right thing to do.  They complained all the way.  They still griped and grumbled behind the scenes.  But they couldn’t take away my authority to lead because they could see that I was earning it every day by being in the same places I was telling them to go.

In those months, I so appreciated these forums and learned much, especially from the experience of folks like Candace and Bruce and Greg.  I distinctly remember Bill E. telling Candace not to blink, not to look back, but just keep leading.  Instead for worrying about whether our congregations will submit to our authority, perhaps we would be better just following those simple directions.  Don’t blink, don’t look back.  Just lead.