Serving Leader and the exercise of power

The dynamic of daily living involves the exercising of power.  For the effective operation of social power, some form of hierarchy is essential. Is it possible to make a distinction between power and authority? While power can be positional[1], true authority is relational.[2] Power is “related to the present” and primarily manifested in the ability and opportunity to accomplish things now, while “Authority brings the past into relationship with the present and helps to assure the future …”

While it is possible to endlessly debate the semantics of words such as power and authority, Jesus, through his life, demonstrated that power need not dominate and corrupt. He refused to take a grim negative view of power or authority.[3] He distinguished between two kinds of power- the power to control and the power to empower. He condemned the religious leaders for using their God-given power to control and manipulate their followers.

The degree of influence a person is able to exercise in a particular community depends profoundly on the ‘amount’ of power that particular person or the group he/she belongs to has.[4]  The idea of serving leadership Jesus talked about concentrates on the type of power and the exercising of power rather than the amount of power. If so, how did Jesus expect his followers to exercise power?

Serving is the key to incorruptible power.[5] It is the opposite of domination and exploitation. Serving is the proper explanation of the correct use of power.[6] It is easier to manipulate and control people than to love them. Love is best expressed in the context of healthy, meaningful relationships while manipulative power is exercised in the absence of such relationship.

When a leader exercises power for controlling he erodes the self-confidence of his team members and diminishes their trust in him. In reality, instead of feeling empowered, they feel powerless. To be involuntarily powerless is to be without hope.

When serving is accepted as a way of life, power becomes evidenced in “self-limitation”[7]

Mark L Branson speaks of three kinds of leadership. Interpretive leadership creates and provides resources for a community of interpreters who pay attention to God, texts, context, and congregation. I would like to call it the source of our leadership. Relational leadership creates and nourishes all of the human connections in various groups, partnerships, friendships, and families. This is the context of our leadership. Implemental leadership develops strategies and structures so that a community embodies the culture of reconciliation and justice in a local context and in the larger world. This is the result of our leadership.



[1] French philosopher and a great exponent of the virtues and vices of power, Michael Foucault, disagrees with this categorization. For him, power is relational and productive, not just obstructive. Christine Firer Hinze, pp. 111-113; Foucault does not believe that “power is something possessed by those who exercise it.” Power, according to him, is exercised rather than possessed.  David Couzens Hoy, “power Repression, Progress: Foucault, Lukes, and the Frankfurt School” D.C. Hoy (ed.), Foucault: A Critical Reader, Basil Blackwell, New York, 1986, pp. 127,128, 131.

[2] Political philosopher, Hannah Arendt takes the view that genuine authority is neither imposed nor democratically agreed-upon. It is exercised through neither coercion nor persuasion.  Hinze, pp.140-141. Commenting on this distinction made by Arendt between power and authority, Hinze says, “Authority is not in itself power but, we might say, power’s servant or guardian.”, Hinze, p.142. “Power profoundly impacts our interpersonal relationships, our social relationships, and our relationship with God” Richard Foster, Money, Sex and Power, Hodder and Stoughton, London, 1985, p. 175.

[3] Christine Firer Hinze categories various theories of power into two groups: power-over and power-to. Hinze claims that “A model of socio-political power that interrelates power-to and power-over is more theologically satisfactory than alternative views.”, p. 270.

[4] “…the type of power and resources that people have can profoundly shape the nature  of social relations.” Murray Milner Jr. , Status and Sacredness: A General Theory of Status Relations and an Analysis of Indian Culture, Oxford University Press, New York, 1994, p. 6.

[5] Richard Foster lists love, humility, self-limitation, joy, vulnerability, and submission as the marks of spiritual power.  Foster, pp. 196-207. These are also true marks of serving leaders.

[6] “Power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.” H. Nouwen, In the House of the Lord, Darton, Longman and Todd, London.1986, p. 59.

[7] According to Richard Foster one of the major characteristics of  “creative power” is its ability to refrain “from doing things- even good things …” Money, Sex & Power, p. 203.

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