Sometimes while traveling to and from working with congregations, I’ll throw on a podcast of a past General Assembly workshop. One of my favorites and a session I have learned a lot from is the 2013 Commission on Appraisal session where they presented their report, “Who’s in Charge Here?: The Complex Relationship Between Ministry and Authority.”

During the workshop, Commission members share this definition of authority:

“The ability to influence and bring about growth and change in an institution, or the ability to block and derail growth and change.”

Who's in Charge Here coverSomeone from the audience pops up and claims, “Wait a minute…that’s power!” The workshop progresses. Then, in the final minutes of the recording, one of the Commission members returns to this statement. He remarks, “You’re right. This is not a dictionary definition of ‘authority.’ But it comes out of hundreds of conversations with Unitarian Universalists and this is the reality of the understanding on the ground.”

To me, of everything the Commission uncovered, this is the most important finding. They divulged the fundamental misunderstanding of power and authority that exists in many UU congregations.

This misunderstanding came up again at my colleague Doug Zelinski’s recent workshop on “The Future of Small to Mid-Size Congregations.” Doug shared a quote by John Anner that we have used in other workshops:

“Strategy is the art of gaining influence and power.”

Some participants rejected this definition due to their aversion to the notion of gaining power. Several from the audience remarked how strange it was for people for whom society has given great privilege and power to want to disassociate themselves from power.

Thing is, we all have power. And some of us have authority, often times because it has been given to or conferred upon us. When we elect leaders in our congregations, we are bestowing authority on those few. Authority can be taken away, and while we can be disempowered, no one can take away our power.

Theologian Paul Tillich defines power as the “drive of everything living to realize itself.”

Dr. King describes power as “the ability to achieve purpose.”

Don’t Unitarian Universalists have the means to achieve our purpose?
Doesn’t Unitarian Universalism have the drive to realize itself?
Doesn’t this faith seek to gain influence and power?

image credit: top – Katya Horner “of a feather