Power in Church Leadership: Exploring our shared commitment to doing church together
As a global communion of Anabaptist-related churches, we share a common commitment to doing church together. We also acknowledge that the church needs leaders who take responsibility for guiding and shepherding the flock. Yet we know that in our diverse contexts of church leadership, power gets exercised in many different ways. In this issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier, writers from across our fellowship discuss the different ways in which Anabaptists approach issues of power in church leadership – the struggles and challenges, as well as the blessings and benefits.
A Blessing or a Curse?
My earliest recollection of power in church leadership was observing the awe with which my pastor was held. At the beginning of a church service he and some others in leadership would not be visible in the auditorium; they would be in a backroom somewhere. Singing would start and then these leaders would file in, clutching their Bibles and hymnals under their armpits. At the end of the song the room would be quiet and expectant.
Without conscious teaching on the matter, I somehow formed the opinion that a pastor was a holy man – closer to God than the rest of us. I noticed that even off the pulpit, if he expressed an opinion it was accepted without discussion or dispute. I listened to the adults around me and noted how they often quoted, “The pastor said…” It was as though the pastor was the final authority. I too learned to revere him and all the other pastors I knew.
As I grew older and started reading the Bible on my own, I discovered a new intimacy with my creator. My understanding of God’s relationship to humanity underwent a massive shift – and as a result, so did my understanding of church leaders. Although I still esteem pastors as my spiritual leaders, I also realize that they are human and liable to all human weaknesses and faults, just like the rest of us.
In my Christian walk I have worshiped God under the authority of many leaders. In the hierarchy structure of my church, Ibandla Labazalwane KuKristu eZimbabwe (Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe), these leaders would include bishops, overseers, pastors and deacons. For this reason I have experienced as many leadership styles as the number of leaders who have ministered to me. From where I stand as a lay person, all leaders have power, and that power in leadership can either be positive or negative. The leaders – all of whom are fallible human beings – set the tone among those they lead by the way they wield their power.
One positive use of power is obedience. Sometimes this exercise of power may mean leaving the known comfort zones by venturing into unknown new ground. For example, in the late 1960s, I was part of the Brethren in Christ youth group that used to meet at a rented women’s club in one of Bulawayo’s townships called Mpopoma. The group was started by Mr. Khono Ndlovu and Mrs. Abbie Dube (who for 13 years had served first as Sunday school teacher and later as superintendent). These two leaders sensed a gap between the children’s Sunday school age group and the young people of the church. The young people were now ready to explore a wider variety of topics than what was being addressed in Sunday school and they did not quite benefit fully from the predominantly adult-dominated worship services. To meet this need, the two leaders decided to create a forum for young people to meet, play games, sing and study the Bible together.
Their vision spread to other Brethren in Christ congregations countrywide. Today, we have a recognized arm of the church in the Youths. Many from that pioneer group of young people are still in active church ministries. By obeying God’s call, these two leaders demonstrated positive power in leadership.
Another positive use of power is in preparing for succession. Since I started having more interest in my church life, I have witnessed several leadership transitions in the offices of bishops, overseers and pastors. When the leader in the office grooms other potential leaders, the transition is smooth and effective. There would be several eligible candidates from which to choose when the right time comes. When this does not happen, it hurts the church. Every Moses should have a Joshua or two.
By contrast, leaders who do not prepare for succession weaken the church. For instance, when a pastor remains in one congregation for several terms, he may be wielding a negative form of power. His decision represents a loss to the larger church body. If he has special gifts, they are only enjoyed by his congregation. Yet if he stepped down or moved on to another position, he would edify the body.
Another area of potential leadership weakness which sometimes causes strife is in failing to recognize the gifts of others and failing to use them to build the body of the church. This year, one of our leaders, Mrs. Nellie Mlotshwa, celebrated her eightieth birthday. Her family threw a party for her, and many people belonging to the Brethren in Christ Church attended. At the party, speaker after speaker shared about how she had ministered to them and helped them discover their own potential. Leaders who have this gift and use it are truly blessed. The Lord’s work is so broad that all may have a slice.
Sometimes issues of power in leadership do not manifest themselves as openly as do other simple matters of church life. They just defy discussion. The church in Zimbabwe, for instance, is rich with powerful women that God is using in amazing ways. In their own forums they are able to feed and grow the body of the church while very little attention is drawn to them. Some of these women are very gifted. Others have exceptional leadership qualities and are ably caring for their flocks.
Even so, the Zimbabwe Brethren in Christ Church does not yet have any ordained women ministers. At times, questions have been raised about this situation. The general answer is that the women have not presented themselves or requested ordination. On the other hand, gifted men with leadership qualities find themselves asked to pastor congregations; eventually, they are licensed or ordained. In this situation one wonders who wields the power over whom?
Leadership is power. Power is addictive. Once gained, power is a special gift to be shared meaningfully or relinquished humbly. Leaders are still strengthening or weakening the church by the way they lead. Some are daring to implement difficult decisions in order to heal or keep the church body healthy. Others take risks in making wise but unpopular decisions that lead to isolation or walking alone. Blessed are the leaders who recognize the source of their power and can balance their stand before God and humanity. Those are indeed powerful men and women.
Doris Dube is an author, teacher, former MWC regional editor for Africa, contributor to the Africa volume of the Global Mennonite History Series and member of Ibandla LabaZalwane KuKristu eZimbabwe (Brethren in Christ Church in Zimbabwe).