The nature of power in Pastoral Ministry
Power structures within the Church
As the church of the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic eras had to come to terms with a need to change the structures by which they operated, so also there is the need for the pastoral ministers of today to consider the power structures within which they work and the authority which gives them freedom so to do. The balance between charismatic and institutional power will always be a difficulty, but one which the church has the responsibility to take seriously. In order to maintain any form of accountability the church needs structures which bind the power a pastor has with the responsibility of representing a larger organisation, and with the ethos of empowerment that Jesus exhibited in his own ministry.
Present day considerations
Having considered the way in which the church has dealt with issues of power and authority historically the subject leads naturally towards the structures within which that community exists today, and the way in which the historical basis might usefully inform present day reflection.
“Christianity claims that all authority comes ultimately from God.” Writes Dr Jack Dominion (1976: 7). This has historically given the hierarchy of the church great scope for justifying the activity, existence, methods, models of ministry and structure of the church, claiming that the authority to deal with both the members of the church and with the world ‘outside the church’ is divinely inspired and thereby answerable to none. This understanding is thwarted, we believe, by the record of the early church found in the New Testament and in the life and witness of Jesus.
For many years the church has been an ‘authority figure’, and historically it is possible to find many examples of times the church has taken a role of control and domination rather than compassion and service. The crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms and many other events, as well as general attitudes and the teaching of the hierarchy give an impression of the church as an ‘authority figure’ existing to exert undue influence over individuals at the expense of personal freedom. Expressing what Campbell calls an ‘unnecessarily extreme view’, Harvey Cox, quoted by Alastair Campbell (1993: 2) says of the history of the church in pastoral care,
“…we should read it more as a cautionary tale than as a treasure house of available inspiration. We Christians today need to understand our history as a compulsive neurotic needs to understand his - in order to see where we veered off, lost genuine options, glimpsed something we were afraid to pursue, or denied who we really are.”
Many would admit today that the church has failed, and often still does fail, to live out the values which it proclaims, of healing, wholeness and care. It is also true to say that many church leaders have sought temporal and spiritual control rather than taking pastoral care of those in their charge. These shortcomings are obvious and well documented, and cannot be ignored, but the church today is seeking, and must continue to seek, to recognise the appropriate use of power both as a response to changing cultural standards and a fresh understanding of the history of the church and the nature of scripture.
However, as Campbell (1993: 1) says, there is a tendency to discard too much, in an effort to distance ourselves from the failures of the church in the past.
“…the temptation to discard everything from the past as irrelevant to our present situation must be resisted. This would be an adolescent reaction to the views of past generations, as immature and inadequate as the false antiquarianism which treats the tradition as sacrosanct.”
As the last chapter sought to explore, there is a need to consider the structures of the church and how they came to be. Alongside this we can see an ongoing critique within Christianity regarding power that may go some way to correcting unhelpful developments in the use of power in the church.
Issues around authority and the power of the church and its ministers are very much the concern of those who seek today to examine the church in the light of cultural shifts and take account new understandings of the responsibilities and the nature of the church. Bishop Jamieson (1997: 9) explains,
‘We are a faith with our own built-in critique and protection against the unwarranted accumulation of power, so there is a real sense in which Christianity will never rest authentically on unquestioned structures of power.’
As the Christian pastor works within the constraints of church structures and with, sometimes unwelcome, ties to the history of that body, there are a number of possible sources of tension, both creative and destructive, in pastoral ministry. We must also consider the fact that the hierarchical structures of the church have been a home for controlling activity and misuse of power. Bishop Jamieson (1997: 53) writes
“There are ways in which the very structure of the Church, its ordered hierarchy, establishes relationships of responsibility, and power can distort and sometimes destroy the pastoral ministry of the church.”
In the church, control and misuse of power should be subverted by our own scriptural critique. Power is to be acknowledged and shared. The abuse of power runs contrary to the principles and aims of Christian faith founded on healing and wholeness. But to talk of power openly, and to stress the need to share power creates for many pastors some anxiety. For many the adjunct to power sharing is a feeling of powerlessness, and to many ministers this means losing influence over pastoral context. John Harris (1977: 56), Anglican Priest and trainer of clergy and laity in Washington DC writes,
“In my experience pastors now encounter the problem of power (and powerlessness) in three ways: Institutionally, as they see the church’s peripheral place in society; personally, as they attempt to resolve confusion about their own roles in the parish; operationally, as they search for new patterns of congregational leadership that share power in authentic ways”
Harris believes that the many pastors are seeking to work in a way that recognises the change in the public perception and function of the church. He also states that ministers, in an age where change is pretty much a constant, need to constantly assess and reassess their role, function, style of working and models of ministry. For Harris the changes in understanding and using power need to be integrated into the structure of the churches, not just seen as the responsibility of individual pastors. He writes (1977: 61),
“As traditional models of authority have weakened, we have begun to discover the meaning of collaboration – shared power between pastor and people, church executives and clergy, in the development of the local church’s ministry.”
Many still turn to a pastor with an expectation that she or he will have all of the answers, and that she or he will exert some kind of control by telling them to live, think or believe as certain way. The structures of the church have often encouraged this, but with changes in those structures and with cultural shifts taking place in western, and other, societies there is some confusion about this role. This is where ministers may find that the institutional approach of the church, which might demand obedience and submission, must be subverted by the pastor in order to allow the healing of those hurt by power as control.
The pastor can become a prophetic figure, challenging structures within their own ‘faith community’ in order to facilitate appropriate uses of power. It must be remembered that the church does have some kind of authority with which it has been endowed by its founder, and there will be times that a pastor can only facilitate healing or growth by speaking from the perspective of ‘the representative of the Church.’ Some people may only be healed by pronouncement, either the word of admonition, or absolution, or some other form of declaration which offers the church’s blessing or guidance.
Individuals respond to pastors in different ways, but often there is, Harris (1997: 61) states “… a mixture of a yearning to be dependent and a desire for partnership.” This partnership has been the stated aim of the church for many years, but it is only in the past thirty or so years, with patterns of ministry changing, churches experiencing slower or negative growth, less candidates for ordained ministry and other factors that the church as a whole, and especially the leadership, is taking seriously the role of all Christian people in the pastoral task. Because of this church structures are changing.
There are methods of leadership that seek to take combined Episcopal, clerical and lay involvement seriously. This has been the case for many years in a number of denominations, but in the Church of England the growth in the influence of local, diocesan and General synods has been a mark of the encouragement of active participation by representatives from the whole church in the government of the Church of England. There has also been recognition of the need to involve individual parishes in the selection, training and ‘rooting’ of ministers - making way for local ministry courses where individuals are selected and ordained to serve a local area under the guidance of their own congregation. This are two ongoing acknowledgements, thought not always perfect, of the role of all believers. They are initial attempts to redress the imbalance and destructive potential of a ‘top down’ hierarchical model.
Power sharing is not powerlessness. This is a message that needs to be communicated to all those who are involved in pastoral ministry. Opening up pastoral ministry in such a way that groups take on responsibility for what ministers do in their name, and so that pastors acknowledge in pastoral relationships a sense of ‘mutuality’, a ‘shared journey’ in pastoral encounter, creates more energy, more power for change than having one individual who is ‘the pastor’ holding power. The term ‘holding’ power is an important one here, as power that is controlled and released by a single individual is power that is often misapplied and dysfunctional. For those who use their position and influence in this way there is normally a need for control, and this creates dangerous dynamics in pastoral ministry. Bishop Penny Jamieson (1997: 65) explains,
“When pastoral care is associated with power, and pastoral ministry moves only in a single, downward, direction, mutuality is discouraged. At times, this can produce a severe distortion of the relationship of pastoral care. It implies that one party has everything to offer, and the other can only receive.”
All of these ideas involve a large amount of risk. Whether it is challenging inappropriate structures within and around the community of faith, or opening up pastoral encounters that may allow the client and others to see the vulnerability of the pastor, or acknowledging the role of mutuality in any pastoral relationship. All of this require a pastor to go somewhere that she or he may not have been before. All of these demand that the pastor negate the image of him or her self as ‘omni-competent’. In challenging the assumptions that have been made for many generations the pastor risks disempowerment if her or his approach is rejected, or if his or her support networks are insufficient to cope with the demands of a broader approach to pastoral ministry.
Difficulties and Challenges
It is often easier to tell a client what he or she should do. It is easier to project an image of perfection in pastoral encounters that does not allow for mistakes on the part of the minister. At least it is easier in the short term. Those who come to ministers seeking pastoral care also come seeking authenticity. Healing is hampered by a lack of honesty. Bishop Jamieson (1996: 65) tells us,
“…we all thrive best where giving and receiving are interwoven. This, of course, means that the one offering the pastoral care needs to give away a certain measure of both distance and control, and be willing to accept a level of vulnerability – which might well be costly, but is frequently more healing.”
Without genuine depth within a pastoral encounter the client is being offered false solutions to difficulties and superficial assistance and advice. It is also unhealthy for a pastor to continue with what is ultimately a false act that will eventually leave her or him with problems of personal identity and integrity. As Campbell (1993: 102) writes,
“Without the discipline of self-examination we shall find ourselves battling against unseen and enervating forces in our efforts to do what we regard as our Christian duty. Yet this discipline does not add a fresh load, piling duty upon duty. The discipline of knowing self frees us to offer a love grounded in our own truth, reaching out to the truth in others.”
But as the whole area of working at an appropriate use of power is so difficult it is important to build new support structures for pastoral ministry, structures that make provision for accountability and which acknowledge of the need for transparency in pastoral contacts. Pastors who seek to make pastoral encounters more open, more honest and more helpful are liable to be under great strain on their personal resources, certainly in the first stages of learning and exercising such relationships.
Ultimately, the fruitful kind of pastoral encounter that springs from a relationship of trust and freedom is energising and liberating for both pastor and client, but until these relationships are recognised by the structures of the wider church and the members of the immediate ‘faith community’ then working for such mutuality is difficult and draining, creating negative forces of anxiety and even fear of the unknown. Until that fear is faced and conquered the pastor needs the love and support of the community he works for and within.
The structures of the church present both challenges and opportunities for the pastoral minister. If we do accept the self-critique which should be foundational to the church then we are able to question, explore and challenge from the inside. In order to do this pastor will need to use the authority conferred upon them by their position within the organisation as well as following the long heritage of prophetic proclamation against restrictive and ungodly structures which is the hallmark of authentic Christianity. Church structures will need to change, but the task of the pastor representing the church is to learn to hold on to those parts of the tradition which are valuable, to speak with authority in such a way that challenges the shortcomings of the church, and to live with integrity as an individual and fellow-member of the faith community. In this power and authority are used to express both a teaching/nurturing role for those who seek pastoral aid and to speak out against that which is negative in the structures of the church.
Back to basics?
If the Church is to take seriously the model of Jesus as an example of the appropriate attitude towards and uses of power then those in pastoral ministry are to follow that example and to take seriously the instructions given to those who seek to continue his work of compassion and healing. Middleton and Walsh (1995: 139) state that,
“Jesus explained that his followers were to exercise power…in serving each other, ‘for even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mk 10:42-45). The imago Dei as the right use of power is thus equivalent to imitatio Christi (the imitation of Christ.)”
This understanding of power in pastoral encounters is both liberating, in that the pastor is freed from the need to always be ‘in control’ of every situation, and demanding as it requires responsibility, honesty and humility.
Michael Riddell (1998: 68) talks of ‘the dangerous memory of Jesus’- where those who seek to maintain the remembrance of Christ are those active in subverting accepted structures of power as control. Jesus had a radical critique of power. A person of great personal power and authority, he changed the lives of those he came into contact with because of his self confident position as ‘God’s representative’ to those he met and through his compassion and his willingness to listen and respond to the needs of those who encountered him. But as well as the authority which he obviously carried we must remember the previously mentioned idea of ‘kenosis’, the emptying of power taken on by Jesus which empowered humanity’s relationship to God. This has many far-reaching implications for pastors. Though both our records of Jesus in the Gospels, and the writings of the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic church offer a very strong picture of the power inherent in Christian life and ministry there are ‘checks and balances’ that seek to prevent those who have power taking control of others lives. Jesus talks of the responsibility of leaders in a striking way, saying that,
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around you neck and you were thrown into the sea.” Mark 10:42 (with parallels in Matthew & Luke)
In New Testament terms, especially with regards to the Gospel accounts of the ministry of Jesus, power and authority are necessary components in the pastoral process. Jesus himself wielded authority to pronounce healing and forgiveness to those who asked and the results recorded were life changing for the ‘clients’ of the pastoral encounter and often for those who witnessed the events as well. That authority has been passed on to those who hold pastoral position in the church today. In the meantime it has gone through a transformation of being a primarily charismatic to a primarily institutional power, a change which leaves the possibility of bring the pastor to account through the structures of the church.
For those engaged in Pastoral ministry there are many responsibilities and the basis of all care must be concerned with healing and wholeness, with bringing those in need to a position of self-dependence whilst fostering a dependence on the God who makes their healing possible, and building a trust in the pastor who seeks to assist in the process of growing to wholeness.. On many occasions Jesus affirms the faith of those who have come to him for help, in a recurring statement, found in many forms but using similar words, throughout the Gospels -“Go, your faith has healed you”. Jesus also affirms the act of seeking help and asks those who come what they expect of him and what they need.
In the same way the task of the Christian pastor, or indeed anyone with pastoral responsibility, is to allow people to be a part of their own healing, firstly to acknowledge their need, then to seek the way to proceed. The pastor offers guidance, reassurance, support - and within the authority given to them by the institution they serve and represent, often can pronounce some form of ‘absolution’; forgiveness and the promise of unconditional love. The pastor also has the opportunity to reflect back to the client what she or he is saying and to respond, when invited, by offering help and advice as appropriate.