Power and Strength

GuinnessIt is not often that I get ideas for this blog from advertisements on the television, but today I saw one for Guinness which has set me off on a chain of thought. It was the first time that I had seen this particular advertisement and I probably missed some of the detail as I was not giving it my full attention. Somewhere in the advert was an implied contrast between the two words, power and strength. The advertisement appeared to imply that power was something that was often negative especially when it was often used against people. Strength on the other hand was a positive manifestation of power, which enables an individual human being to flourish. Strength is something in particular that one person can give to another.

In my reflections on power abuse in the church and elsewhere, I have often noticed that some individuals seem to want to gain power at the expense of others in many walks of life. Whether through persuasion, coercion or even the threat of violence, some people are able to take power in a way that weakens and depletes others. The action of gaining some power by doing someone else down is nearly always an act of abuse. The bully in the playground is trying to gain something for himself at the expense of others. He achieves for a short moment the exhilaration being in control, in charge. Someone else is dependent on his wish, his word for the next few moments. As long as the bullied person is under this control the bully feels the thrill of power. In the context of the church, the power to bully is normally accomplished in a far more subtle way. But the same ingredients are often present. There is the same dependency, the same thrill of control and the same looking up to the person in charge by the victim. A lust for power that we see in the bully is a constant temptation for people who may have lacked power in their childhood. Perhaps they have also never been the recipient of the respect of others which implied that they were people of merit and integrity. So such people, the bullies and the power abusers alike, have to force their authority on others to give back to them the semblance of a sense of importance and meaning.

In the Guinness advertisement the exploration of the word strength indicated that this was something that was being given by one person to another. It may be shared by a person who has power, but this sharing of strength in no way harms the person receiving it. The sharing of strength has nothing to do with boosting the flagging self-esteem of a bully. Rather the person of power is sharing something of themselves to enable the other person to feel good about themselves. The recipient is given strength in this process, strength to cope with any number of issues and problems that life may throw up. This is the act of, for example, a parent, a teacher or even a member of the clergy. Power other words is being used not to dominate or control but to empower another person.

When I reflect on a lifetime of pastoral care within the parishes where I have served, I remember particular incidents which have resulted in increased strength in another person because of what I believe to have been the right words at the right time. Alongside the word we have mentioned, empower, is another word which is found in Scripture, the word encourage. To give someone the courage to do things that they did not know they could do, is to give them a great gift. We see Jesus encouraging his disciples, gently showing them how they could do more than they expected. With that encouragement they set out to announce the kingdom of God. The gospel also record the disciples’ words on their return, their excitement at discovering what they could, with Jesus’ encouragement, do.

The typical cultic group or church is one where we can see that those in leadership have absolutely no interest in a genuine exercise of Christian power. To put it bluntly, these cultic leaders have put themselves in a place of authority so that they can extract as much as they can in the way of money and power for their own personal benefit. They appear to have neither love nor even concern for the people in their charge. The compensation they seek for going through the motions of preaching and performing other ministerial tasks is simply to exercise a position which will inflate them alongside the other material and financial benefits. If the care by a minister of his people is not present, then there will be a coldness and emptiness in that church. Those ministers and clergy who abuse their power also forego a relationship of community and mutual support which would sustain both parties. I have my own theories which might explain how money and emotional abuse is considered to be so much more important than any enriching experience of the warmth of community. Somewhere the abusing minister has become an addict to a need to have the power to be in total control. In this scenario the members of the congregation are pushed away and become just fodder in a complicated and ultimately futile and sterile power game.

Power and strength are two similar but very different words. The first is something that appears to promise a great deal, but having obtained it, the person of power often finds that it does little more than assuage a great craving which cannot be filled. It is like a drug which creates dependency but never satisfies. The ability and readiness to encourage others, to share one’s power in a ministry of encouragement is a task of enormous importance as well as creativity. Although this piece has been written from a retired clergyman’s perspective, this strengthening and encouraging is something to which we are all called to play a full part. ‘Bear one another’s burdens and so fulfil the law of love’. That perhaps is a key to biblical relationships and we can all aspire to following such a command.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

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