The Art of Pastoral Power

Of late I have been reading Jon Meacham’s biography of Thomas Jefferson, The Art of Power.  I bought the book because the title hooked me; “art” is not a word I normally associate with power.  Sadly, the word “power” is not one pastors readily embrace, mainly because we have witnessed too many examples of its abuse within congregations.  We often think of power in terms of unscrupulous manipulation.  Nevertheless, it’s imperative for pastors to exercise the power of their call and vocation with care, to learn and practice “the art of power.”

Here’s how Meacham describes the art of power as it pertained to Jefferson:

Jefferson believed in the possibilities of humanity.  He dreamed big but understood that dreams become reality only when their champions are strong enough and wily enough to bend history to their purposes.  Broadly put, philosophers think; politicians maneuver.  Jefferson’s genius was that he was both and could do both, often simultaneously.  Such is the art of power.

Pastors are required to exercise the power inherent in their calling and vocation in much the same way Jefferson did. Let’s paraphrase and adapt Meacham’s description to pastors.  Pastors have to think theologically. We have to take time to dream about the possibilities our congregations possess.  We have to ground those dreams in God’s larger dream for humankind.  We have to discover what God’s up to in our corner of the world.That’s the thinking (and praying!) part.  Pastors also have to maneuver.  We have to find ways to turn those dreams into reality. Pastors have to persuade people to join in.  We sometimes have to be doggedly stubborn about what we believe must happen if the congregation is to thrive.  And, without a doubt, pastors have to find the right levers to pull to make the machinery of congregational life churn in a different direction.

It’s easy, however, for pastors to excel at one at the expense of the other.  I admit that there have been times when I have had big dreams but couldn’t work the machinery to make them happen.  I admit there have been times when I have worked the levers of power only to create small-scale disasters.  In other words, I have exercised power artlessly!  I can also recall several instances where I managed to put my dreams forward and then worked the machinery to make them living, breathing realities.  Still, pastoral effectiveness depends on cultivating the capacity both to dream and then follow through.  Some of us are first-rate dreamers and thinkers while others of us can make stuff happen seemingly without effort.  Whatever our strength, our lifelong challenge is to learn the art of pastoral power:  to learn to think, pray, and dream and then position our resources to make those dreams come true in ways beyond our imagining.


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