All Saints: Let’s talk about power

This weekend, our ECMN Search Committee gathers with the nominees for the 10th Bishop of Minnesota to pray, discern, and learn together. I hope they’ll be in your prayers!

As they do that work of discernment, the rest of us have some work to do as well: the work of thinking theologically about power.

What do you believe about power?

This question is at the heart of how we behave with each other in faith communities and, more widely, as a diocese. In the broader dominant culture around us, a crisis of trust has been unfolding for decades as the institutions formerly seen as benevolent reveal the ways power has been used to defraud, abuse, and mislead those they were called to protect. And yet, structurally, Episcopalians have some positional hierarchy baked in to our life together. So it’s worth considering: What do we believe about power?

If we believe people with positional power are inherently worthy of respect, that they can be trusted to provide a vision needed by the whole and to know the path toward that vision, then we may miss the chance to speak up and share the wisdom we bring to the table. We may overlook or even become complicit when those leaders misuse their power. Then, when that individual stumbles, it’s easy to lose faith in the entire system.

To the other extreme, if we believe power is inherently corrupting or even repugnant, then we will see anyone who steps up to a leadership role with suspicion. That person has to fight for our trust, much less our partnership. When they stumble, we’re ready to see that as evidence that corroborates our fears. This isn’t a setup for collaborative or healthy work together – rather, it’s a foundation for unproductive conflict in which leaders and those they serve can easily slide into demonizing each other.

Though these beliefs might seem to be opposed, both of those orientations start from a place of projecting power onto others – the one or ones anointed or appointed. That narrative of the heroic leader is a powerful one. But the ‘heroic leader’ story in which we laud or blame the leader misses the truth of the capacity and energy found in the whole group. When our primary orientation toward power is that it’s not ours to wield, we abdicate our own responsibility for the culture and content around us. And today, All Saints Day, is a good time to remember the power each one of us carries – whether positional power is involved or not.

Along with the Episcopal charism of via media, All Saints Day invites us to a third way here – a mindset about power that is more nuanced, more faithful, and more honest than either of those other two. Leadership is never just laudable: each of us brings our own fears, brokenness, and mixed motives to what we do. I’m keenly aware of what happens with newly ordained deacons and priests: The moment they have a collar on, we expect them to be ready for all the challenges their ministry will throw at them. Realistically, that ordination is yet another beginning, one that demands ongoing learning and partnership and collective discovery. Bishop X will deserve that same grace. Likewise, a belief that leadership can’t be well-intended cuts us off at the knees – we’re stuck in whatever messes we have, and anyone who puts up their hand or strikes off in a new direction becomes a target rather than a potential partner.

More importantly, Susan Moss, the chair of your ECMN Search Committee, has often shared the wisdom she’s heard in this process: Be the change you want to see in the church. We get to focus not on the leader but on the power inherent in the body itself. So this is a time for our own discernment too – reflecting prayerfully about the experiences and beliefs that undergird our behaviors around power in the church.

These questions that follow may be a good entrée into thinking theologically about these issues.

  • What stories in Scripture, especially from the Gospels, illustrate what a good use of positional power is – and isn’t?
  • What stories in your family system and/or in your church reflect a good use of positional power – or not?
  • In thinking about those stories, are there places where you find yourself or others stepping away from courage, responsibility, or empathy? Are there places where you find blame, shame, or scorn? What does your faith invite you to do in response?
  • If you have an authorized position in the church – an elected position, or a staff position, or an order such as the diaconate or the priesthood – where does your authority come from? How do you make sense of your responsibilities in that role?
  • How do those beliefs and practices impact the way you speak about and treat people ‘up the chain’ from you? ‘Down the chain’?
  • How does positional power intersect with socialized experiences of power, or powerlessness?

The language in these questions points to our church, but they also are immediately applicable in our neighborhoods and our polarized and painful political experience in this country right now.

In other words, this time of collective discernment echoes the same invitation of the readings for Advent I this weekend: there is no time like the present to become who we long to be, who God calls us to be. In the church, in our neighborhoods, in our country. Taking seriously our own baptismal vows and our collective life together is not a light endeavor. As we pray for the bishop candidates and the search committee, pray too for the Holy Spirit’s guidance and courage as we seek to live out our own baptismal call to respect the dignity of every human being.

And lest we err into a sense that it’s all on us, All Saints Day is also a good time to remember the Baptismal Covenant’s words, “I will, with God’s help.” Embedded in that response is the acknowledgement of our penchant to hide, flee, or otherwise deny the promises we make and the vision we had for who we wanted to be. Yet the story we see in Jesus is one of grace, forgiveness, and the invitation to become new. Be the change you want to see in the church, in your neighborhood – over and over again, even when you fail. Because the mission, ultimately, is not ours but God’s. It is not one person’s heavy lifting that points to Beloved Community, but the shared effort of many. It is not one church’s enlightenment that makes the kingdom appear, but the surprising grace of God.