Formation

The Surprising Power of Those on the Margins (and how it can be abused)

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“People with power abuse power every day unless they’re forming themselves in Christ.” – Todd Hunter, SheLeads Summit, 2017

After years of defending my calling to powerful people, powerlessness is a familiar feeling. After years of being dismissed, victim mode is a well-rehearsed script.

But now, I’m learning that those old roles are postures that I have to unlearn. In contexts where there is longing for healing and shared ministry between women and men, I have more power than I know.

And I am learning: I can abuse it.

What do I mean by this? Let me share three moments recently when I’ve been confronted with this reality.

3 moments when I was in a position to abuse my power as a woman. @uccmandy Click To Tweet

Learning to Steward My Own Power

1. I can abuse men’s silence

Whereas once my voice was not welcome, now I’m often invited to join a group which has become aware that it’s missing the voices of women.

Recently I was in a planning committee like this, and I could see that the rest of the group (all men) wanted to be attentive to my input. They looked to me as the one representing all women. In a way, I did, as the only woman in the room. But I’m just one person. I may sometimes be speaking on behalf of all women. And sometimes I’m just sharing my personal opinion. At one moment in the conversation, I felt the decision of the group leaning away from my preference—so I spoke my opinion. In response, there was a familiar polite silence. It was the silence that happens when people in power disagree but know their own privilege and do not want to abuse it. It’s the silence of the majority learning that their voice is not the only voice. So it’s a silence I admire. And it’s a silence I could abuse. In that moment I felt a strange weight come over me. I realize now it was the unfamiliar weight of power. I knew that if I wanted, I could abuse their deference, push my agenda, and totally get my own way. I must admit there was something delicious about it. I was tempted by it.

But something better was also in my mind. So in that silence, I chose to say, “You’re welcome to push back, by the way. It’s not good for me to be in a place where I can’t be challenged. I can take your feedback, and our work is better when it’s honed by honesty.”

In these moments, I’m given the choice:
I claim to love Christ’s model of mutual submission—but will I still choose it when faced with the opportunity to get my own way?

I claim to love Christ’s model of mutual submission—but will I still choose it when faced with the opportunity to get my own way? @uccmandy Click To Tweet

2. I can abuse men’s guilt

I’m often invited to speak to fellow leaders about my story of coming to leadership as an outsider. I share it to open our imaginations to a broader array of leadership models. So I’ve been surprised how often it brings deep repentance from men in the room. I’ve had several experiences where, with a spirit of lament, a man in the room says: “I’m sorry it’s been so hard for you. I wish I could change the way things are. As a white man I feel so overwhelmed by my power and privilege. How can I overcome what I am?”

After many experiences with white men who have had a less than humble posture towards me, I must confess that in these moments of lament, I’m tempted to put this man in his place. In a way it would feel good to respond with bitterness to these contrite brothers. I’m a little tempted to say, “Your privilege is not my problem.”

But in that moment, there’s something better in my mind. So I’ve chosen to say, “Brother, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a white man. And the fact that you are acknowledging that your way is not the only way is a huge step! You are choosing to lay aside the power you’ve been given to learn to see through the eyes of others. As you learn to speak more than one language, you’re becoming like the rest of us who have to be ‘bilingual.’” I’ve been surprised how this response has brought tears to the eyes of powerful men as they receive grace.

In these moments I’m given the choice:
Do I truly long for grace? Or is my own kind of twisted justice more appealing?

3. I can abuse my platform

I was speaking at a big event and a pastor friend had come along to participate and to support me. I knew she also had gifts to speak in this kind of context and felt called to do so. But she’s younger than I am and hasn’t yet been invited. I brought her behind the scenes with me and introduced her to the other presenters and event planners. As I was bustling around in presenter mode, I saw her standing to the side and had a sense I should introduce her to the event organizer. But with that prompt, a strange hesitation came over me. A feeling of scarcity. And fear. And the first time I’d ever been tempted to see this dear sister as a threat. So I confess that I let that moment pass without introducing them, and the event went on.

But at a meal afterwards, I repented and went out of my way to invite my friend to join me at the table with the event organizer. I told the organizer all the gifts and virtues of my friend, then quickly slipped away to let them chat. (I’m happy to say that since then, he has invited to her to speak at an event, and her voice blessed the gathering in her unique way).

In hindsight, I wonder if this is what power feels like. In the past, I’ve had to rely on others to invite my voice. That’s a comfortable role—but maybe it’s a temporary one. Maybe now, I have more power than I know, and consequently I’m in the place to create opportunities for other voices.

In these moments, I’m given the choice:
I claim to love collaboration and the idea of inviting all voices. Do I value the voice of the minority only when it’s mine? Or do I truly want all to have a voice, even if it means stepping aside to make room for others?

Mutual Submission is Jesus’ Kind of Authority

I don’t always get it right. But when I’ve set aside that delicious temptation to abuse the situation, when I’ve chosen not to gain the wrong kind of power over my brothers and sisters, I’ve found myself strangely empowered. I’ve suddenly seen how much the submission of others had put power into my hands—for me to use or abuse.

Those who have been wronged have surprising power to continue the wrong. Or to forgive. And when we choose to submit in response to their submission, we find a different kind of authority—Jesus’ kind.

Those who have been wronged have surprising power to continue the wrong. Or to forgive. And when we choose to submit this power to Christ, we find a different kind of authority—Jesus’ kind. Click To Tweet
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