The nature of power in pastoral relationships
The roots of power in pastoral relationships
The Fear of ‘Power’
In many Christian groups the idea of ‘power’ is considered to be dangerous, John Harris (1977: 55) writes that, as Christians, “…we have been afraid of power and have tried to hide its overt exercise from ourselves.” This has led to concealing power or pretending that in the church there are no holders of power, that we live in a situation of mutuality, free from the undue influence of power. Harris continues “Against this background, many pastors have sought to wield influence while appearing as neutral and benevolent parties, as disinterested in power.”
But power is a very real part of pastoral ministry, especially within the structures of the Church. As we attempt to deconstruct the bases of that power and of the authority that gives ministers certain power in pastoral encounter we must consider how power might be acknowledged and used appropriately in pastoral encounters.
Initial Structural Considerations
T Howland Sanks (1987: 74) writes:
“Like any other human sociological group, the Christian community requires some authority to maintain its identity, its unity, and to resolve internal conflicts.”
That authority within the church has come to be concentrated in the hands of ministers of the church, both lay and ordained - though in the majority of cases with those in a recognised position of authority such as clergy. This role has extended into the world beyond the Church, especially in western societies, where the minister often holds a status within the community at large as well as within the community of faith. It is worth mentioning here that it is being recognised by many contemporary Ecclesiologists that this role and status in the community at large is, in many cases breaking down, with ministers finding themselves unsure of the position they hold both within the Church and in society as a whole.
Michael Riddell (1998: 6) talks of the ‘…loss of status of the Church’ and says
“There was a time when not only the Church was held in high regard, but also the profession of ministry. To be ordained was to be somebody; to have a certain degree of standing and respect by virtue of one’s vocation. This is no longer true.”
This in itself has created for pastoral ministers, not only ordained but laity also, issues of insecurity and loss of identity, which can lead to both positive and negative results.
One response to such insecurity is to consider new models of ministry, looking at issues such as lay involvement, non hierarchical structures and empowering both sides of the pastoral encounter. There is more commitment among many ministers to exploring new ways of working, examining issues such as motivation, accountability, sharing power and the relationship between lay and ordained ministry. As a cautionary note, Riddell (1998) comments that, especially in Protestant Evangelical structures, much of the adoption of new models can involve the inappropriate taking on of commercial managerial methods without considering their impact on a pastoral role
A more negative approach to such insecurity may (often unconsciously) seek to reinforce often, literally and metaphorically, crumbling structures and hold on to the vestiges and/or illusion of power. This approach might involve maintaining strong boundaries and refuse to change structures, methods, ideas or doctrine - becoming reactionary and containing a ‘siege mentality’ that finds it impossible to be open or flexible.
This subject is too large to be examined any further in this paper and is one being explored by many present-day church thinkers and writers, including Riddell (1998), Newbigin (1996) and Bosch (1995). It does, however, highlight the need to examine the issues of power and authority in pastoral ministry, especially in the church, as times of change such as the current era can often create such insecurities that positions of power are even more open to abuse than in a more settled society.
Leaders who have pastoral power and authority, whilst ultimately answerable to the people they serve, are still usually the holders of power in most pastoral encounters. This is not to deny the power that the client holds in a pastoral relationship, as those who often initiate the pastoral relationship. From the start, therefore, we will work from the assumption that the pastor is the ‘power broker’ in the pastoral encounter and that the power within the relationship is mainly in their hands.
The minister (often, though not always, ordained) is the one to whom both members of their church fellowships and, sometimes, the general public turn at times of deepest joy and of deepest need, looking for answers which make sense of the world around them from a perspective of faith. The pastor is a leader of a community and much of his or her authority comes from the community’s recognition of their position. As Bishop Penny Jamieson (1997: 12 ) writes, “It is natural then for individuals seeking leadership for their community to seek an individual in whom to locate the power enabling that leadership to function.”
Traditionally in both ‘sacred and secular’ situations, especially in small communities, the minister of the local ‘faith-community’ has taken on some kind of public leadership role, and this carries on still to a greater or lesser extent depending on the makeup of a community.
The basis of pastoral power
Often the issues brought to these individuals in leadership by members of their congregation and by others who come to them as pastors are of a personal, even intimate nature. This can engender a relationship in which the minister is privy to quite sensitive, painful and confidential nature. This, alongside the power inherent in their position of authority, can be a combination that leaves both pastor and client open to abuse within the pastoral relationship.
Much of the pastoral contact which a minister has is based upon trust. The individual comes to her or him in an attitude of humility - to a greater or lesser degree - and this opens up a relationship in which the minister, the pastor, has a certain amount of power and the potential to control, or at least have a strong influence on, the client. In the light of the fact that this approach to the pastor has occurred voluntarily, and that the church is a body consisting of those who have made a choice to be there, there is the possibility that the pastor has a great deal of influence over those she or he is responsible for. People place themselves in the hands of their pastors, and allow the pastors great sway in personal decisions. People also look to the church for guidance, and expect the minister, as the representative of the church to speak on behalf of the church, and even on behalf of God, as pastors and prophets.
This power springs from the very beginning of the Church and is part of the foundational principles of the Christian community. T Howland Sanks (1987 :74) states that “Authority in the early church was understood to be more than a mere sociological necessity; it was a spiritual authority.” This type of authority is related to the understanding that we examine more in Chapters Two and Four and of this study, that, originating in the person and work of Christ, power and authority are a part of the nature of Christian ministry. As such, any authority held by a Christian in pastoral office is an offshoot of the power that Jesus held and administered in his ministry and comes also from the understanding of power held by the first Christian communities and passed on through the ages of the Church. Sanks (1987: 74) elaborates, explaining that
“Authority in this community is based on the authority of Jesus himself and his commission to his disciples ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and, lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ (Mt 28: 18-29)”
Those who are leaders of the Church are given their position by those they minister to, and in many traditions, by others who are already in leadership. In Churches those engaged in pastoral ministry are usually ordained there is normally a process of examination of candidates by both laity and clergy and, after a period of training and teaching, authority is conferred by someone of higher office in the Church through a recognised symbol such as the laying on of hands. This activity is a visible sign of the power and authority conferred upon ministers who serve those Churches.
Authority and power are therefore two of the keys to effective pastoral ministry, not only in the Church but in any pastoral situation. Those who act pastorally, whether Priests, Social Workers, Psychotherapists or any others with similar roles operate effectively because of the personal or institutional authority that it is perceived that they have. This power and authority may come through qualifications and training, position, professional standing, or even from trust built up in previous relationships. It is this sense of ‘speaking from/with authority’, that opens up the potential for both meaningful and effective pastoral contact and for the abuse of those who seek aid from a pastor - either intentionally or unconsciously on the part of the pastor.
There is inherent in Christian ministry, indeed in any pastoral contact, many opportunities to offer help to those in deepest need, but alongside this there are always possibilities of misusing power by controlling those at their most vulnerable who come seeking assistance from a pastor. This control may be conscious or subconscious - it is often related to the dynamic that exists in the relationship between client and pastor. We will examine this in more detail in Chapter Four and consider further implications in Chapter Five, but in brief, Dr Brice Avery (1996: 40) explains:
“… the pastoral encounter requires a partial and mutual emotional immersions of the pastor and the client: how else is the pastor to know what it is to be like the client? But, and this is crucial,…the pastor has to know his or her own responses to as wide a range of emotional contacts as possible to be able to tell the difference between their own feelings and that of the client.”
So the pastor is in a position where she or he is vulnerable to abusing their position by the very nature of their openness to the client. As the dynamics of pastoral relationships unfold it is often difficult to distinguish between the needs of the client and the needs that the pastor is seeking to fulfil - this is a dangerous situation and leads very easily into misuse of the power invested in the minister as they, often unconsciously, project unhelpful and destructive ideas upon the client. The implications of this and possible means of guarding against the situation are examined more fully in later chapters (as mentioned above.) But it is important at this point to note that no pastor is infallible, and that the power they have to heal or to harm is constantly open to misuse. With power must come responsibility and the pastor has to be aware at all times of the fragility of the people they hold power over.
The ‘Suspicion of Power’
There are dangers in the use of power that means that some are always highly suspicious of any institution or figure who claims holds authority or power over any other person. The presence of power in any relationship suggests to such people a fundamental inequality. Many ‘Post-modern’ thinkers work from the basis of a ‘suspicion of power’ and the imposition of any opinion upon another human being is seen to be threat to their individuality and self-hood. Middleton & Walsh (1995: 40) describe this understanding thus:
“…not only is reality a human construct, it is more particularly a social construct. It is always someone’s or some group’s construction of reality that ends up being the dominant construction that guides social life…‘why is it your construction of reality, your collective hunch, that rules?’ Why is any one construction of reality given privileged status, thereby marginalizing all others?”
In many ways this critical viewpoint has caused those holding power to feel vulnerable to attack and many have felt the influence they have held over certain events, groups and individuals slipping away. This added to various identity and role crises can cause great strain for any pastoral minister. However, the positive aspect of this ‘sea-change’ in popular perception has been an increase in structures of accountability and in the checks and balances that need to exist to prevent power being exercised inappropriately. Many organisations have had to step back and examine the methods and processes by which power is exercised by those within the organisation - the Church is no exception to this.
In order to further inform this debate we will move on to examine the life and teaching of Jesus and the Church of the Apostolic and Post-Apostolic eras, as the foundations upon which modern day pastoral ministry is built. We will examine the implications brought about by the development of structures of authority in the church of the first two generations of Christians and examine the tensions between ‘institutional and ‘charismatic’ power and authority.