The issue of power seemed to arise almost immediately when Marcus Pomeroy and I began our pastoral partnership in January 1996. Within a few weeks we began to hear the question over and over again: “Where does the buck stop?” At first amused and later annoyed, we came to understand that inquiry as the ultimate question about power. Who is in charge? Who has responsibility? Who receives the credit, but we suspected more important, who gets blamed?
Marcus and I had begun to articulate a vision of mutuality—that is, equal ownership of the ministry we shared. But that seemed unnerving and unsettling to some congregation members. “How could power be used in a different way? What’s wrong with the way we have always used power?” was the subtext. Who is really running the show, calling the shots? People in the congregation were so familiar with hierarchy and domination that imagining anything else seemed inconceivable and frightening.
Where does the buck stop? How can the use of power possibly be redefined? Marcus and I answered the questions immediately, repeatedly, dramatically, and, ultimately, convincingly for most people. We continued to describe our vision for sharing power. We began acting it out in congregational life. And we fashioned a sign that looked like a stop sign that read, “Buck Stop.” On a Sunday morning, we placed it on the communion table located in the very center of the worship space. “This is where the buck stops,” we gently told the congregation. “This is where the power resides: in our relationship with Christ, our community/communion, and with each and every one of you.” This moment, and our effort to embody mutuality, was the beginning of redefining power in relationship, between both Marcus and me as partners in a pastoral team and between the congregation and us.
The question over where the buck stopped reflects the reality in which we all find ourselves. We live in a society where hierarchies are assumed and where domination is expected. We live in systems that have long embraced the idea that power is finite and therefore must be protected and preserved for the use of just a few. Our experience as dominator or dominated tells us that this is simply the way the world is; we are inexplicitly caught in a kind of “human food chain” where people prey on one another to gain position and control. Someone has to rule; everyone else must be ruled.
Partnership, however, imagines an alternative way of relating to each other and the created world. It imagines power shared and power multiplied; it imagines relationships that are free from domination and energized by mutuality. It imagines a truer reflection of God’s realm in our lives as individuals and together as the church.
A Radical Shift
No clearer demonstration of what God’s realm is intended to look like exists than the one found in the life and ministry of Jesus. In a society that was both hierarchical and patriarchal, Jesus offered, through his actions and words, a liberating vision of power and its use. Jesus is the reference point for the transformation of assumptions about power; he redefines power in light of God’s reign and invites us to do the same.
Jesus’s description of the Pharisees in the opening verses of Matthew 23 is unflattering, to say the least. They are described as people who weigh down others with heavy burdens and who flaunt their spirituality to gain status. At best, they are described as hypocrites who teach one thing and live another; at worst, they strive to oppress people through the law. Either way, they use power to dominate others and as a way to demand respect within the community.
Jesus enjoins his community of followers to behave in a radically different way. He insists that they view themselves not as teachers but as learners, that they make no claim to power or authority. Rejecting titles for himself and for others, Jesus forbids the use of “father” for human teachers, refuting the patriarchal social structures that demanded privilege and priority be given to males. He suggests a vision in which God alone is the leading, guiding, loving parental figure, in opposition to the hierarchy of power that elevates some above the rest.
Jesus’s speech in Matthew’s Gospel continues as he proclaims a vision of God’s reign: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest” (Matt. 23:11). Jesus proclaims a radical reversal of the status quo. Those who were considered to be “at the top” must now willingly, as a sign of their new understanding about power, take their rightful place “at the bottom.” Those who benefit most from the hierarchy must serve those who are exploited the most. Not only is the structure of power changed but the use of power is also transformed. Power is no longer coercive but inviting; it no longer manipulates but serves. This new understanding of relationship and power opens the way for partnership.
Jesus carries this new interpretation even further in the words recorded in John 15:12–17. No longer are Jesus’s followers called “servants” or “slaves,” but they are renamed “friends.” Jesus replaces relationships focused on power differences with relationships that celebrate each person as a gift, reshaping community in love that is selfless, empowering, and mutual. When the church takes seriously the invitation to friendship offered by Jesus, we find ourselves welcomed into a relationship built on shared power. In hierarchy, power is withheld from the servant, who is not entrusted with intimacy and close knowledge of the master. But in this new configuration, knowledge is shared and openness is encouraged. Relationships based on love, not domination, are hallmarks of God’s realm.
Power Redefined in Partnership
While there are many ways to think about power, the experience of hierarchy and patriarchy has led many of us to believe that power is bad, that it can only be used to coerce and control (often described as “power over”). Partnership, however, discovers something new about power. Power in partnership might be described as “power with” and “power within,” reflecting relational power and our ability to claim the power that belongs to each of us. Unlike hierarchical power that is restricted to a few and therefore assumed to be limited, power in partnership—mutually respectful, nonhierarchical relationship—is in fact limitless. Rejecting the myth that power is finite, partners discover that by sharing power it multiplies and grows, deepens and expands. Openness to give and to receive power leads to the creation of an ever-increasing number of opportunities through which power is shared and relationships are nurtured. Power in mutual relationships then—particularly relationships modeled on the love of God in Christ—is power shared and multiplied for the benefit of all. It is power that invites others into a growing network, or web, of relationships that generates creativity, good will, and ultimately grace.
Adapted from Choosing Partnership, Sharing Ministry: A Vision for New Spiritual Community, copyright © 2007 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go towww.alban.org/permissions.asp.
Choosing Partnership, Sharing Ministry: A Vision for New Spiritual Community by Marcia Barnes Bailey
Partnership invites us on a journey that can transform us as leaders, as human beings, and as the church. In Choosing Partnership, Sharing Ministry Marcia Bailey invites pastors and congregations to a new understanding of ministry, leadership, and the church that challenges hierarchy by fully sharing responsibilities, risks, and rewards in mutual ministry. This model took shape over 10 years as Bailey, pastoral colleague Marcus Pomeroy, and the congregation they served began writing their own definition of partnership—creating a ministry that was widely inclusive, delegated power, shared authority, and thrived with the multiplication of gifts.
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