One with Authority

Today I had lunch with a member of the church, and we got to talking about leadership styles. I mentioned one of my struggles in that area: namely, how to balance the need for collaboration and consensus with the role of the minister as the vision-caster, the one who inspires folks to think big and look beyond the present into the future. I think new ideas take root more fully if people are a part of the process. I’m a big fan of discernment processes. On the other hand, sometimes people don’t recognize the answer until someone with a bird’s eye view of things articulates it. I have a friend whose church council basically said to her, “We don’t have a clue what needs to happen next, but we trust you, so tell us where we’re going and we’ll follow.”

Part of the tension I’m feeling is that only now, almost a year into my time at the church, do I really feel the future coming into view. I also feel like the trust is still being established. It would not have been effective for me to gallop in and start ordering people around—as if that were my style anyway. However, the time is soon coming when I will be called upon to offer what my ministry coach calls the “I Have a Dream speech.” And this is a bit nerve-wracking. What if I misread the signs? What if the vision is too ambitious? It can be demoralizing. Or what if the church says, “Eh, that’s the best you could come up with?”

As I was pondering our lunchtime conversation in the car afterwards, I found myself in a school zone while a crossing guard was directing traffic.

I was mesmerized. The woman was in complete command of the situation. She wore a bright yellow vest and matching gloves, crisp black shorts and sensible but stylish shoes. Her movements were precise and decisive. With a flick of the hand she made cars move. With a palm upraised, they stopped.

I thought about a training I attended years ago in which the presenter talked about power and authority and used the metaphor of the crossing guard. Let’s face it—those of us behind the wheels of these two-ton machines have the power. We could ignore her commands. We could even mow her down if we wanted to. She is just one person out there, unprotected. And yet when she puts on her uniform and steps into the street, she has authority. We confer that authority on her. But that’s only part of the process—she also claims it for her herself in the way she stands up straight and projects confidence.

And with that authority comes power, just a different kind. A riskier kind, that involves being a little defenseless out there.

Leadership is like that too.

My lunch companion suggested that people are going to listen to what I say by virtue of being clergy, with training and perspective and whatever wisdom I’ve accumulated over years of ministry and just being alive in the world. They confer that authority upon me. I can appreciate that, though I have no illusions that everyone’s going to just go along with whatever I say. I could stand tall and give all the right signs with as much confidence as I can muster and still there is a possibility of getting mowed down.

True leadership is vulnerable, I am realizing again and again.


8 thoughts on “One with Authority

  1. Deb says:

    Very Thought-provoking… I think I’d really enjoy working on your staff team! 🙂

  2. Martha Turner Fein says:

    I had the same sort of revelation when I was teaching Sunday school as a college student. I realized that I could not make my students learn if they really refused — my authority as a teacher depended on their willingness to accept that authority. It’s like it’s a big adult consipiracy!

  3. Marci Glass says:

    I had an interesting experience as the foreman of a jury. (forewoman?) In the conversation, these 11 strangers were happy to hand over the leadership to me. And I realized in the discussion that I had to be careful because my opinions about the case, which were based on the exact same observations that everyone else was a part of, were being taken with more weight than other members of the jury.
    This was before I was a pastor, so in this case, they weren’t affording me authority because of my special clergy powers. But it was still interesting to watch them hand off authority to me so quickly. Where else do we do this as a society? The crossing guard is a good example. Sarah Palin, in my humble opinion may be a not as good example.

    • mamdblueroom says:

      Very interesting perspective on this!

      I do think that even when the roles are not clear (jury foreman/woman) that people will defer to certain people. I’ve been in situations where that has happened and sometimes it feels right and other times it rankles me for reasons I can’t understand. I wonder whether it rankles me when I disagree with the decision of the group on who the leaders should be…

  4. keithsnyder says:

    I don’t have a ton of leadership experience, but I do find myself leading sometimes. Generally it’s been when they realize that I’m going someplace they want to go too. But it doesn’t seem to happen until the bus is already moving.

  5. lukeluke says:

    If you build it, they will come.
    If they are coming anyway, you better get to building!

  6. Sarah E says:

    MAMD – do you look follow any of the things they offer at Might find their leadership topics interesting – and lots else, too. I may send you some reading suggestions via email. Good work. Good thoughts.

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