There are powers in our congregations that are informal–that is, there are not powers granted by the congregation to its leaders, but that are ascribed to certain individuals due to position, skill, etc. It is important to be aware of informal powers and, when we can, help put them to work in service to the mission of the church. (Like with formal power, there is no reason to start from a place of suspicion, but just an acknowledgement that informal power exists.)
One important observation: the amount and effectiveness of informal powers in our congregations seems to be inversely related to size. That is, the smaller the congregation, the more likely it is that informal powers make up a significant part of the congregation’s overall power and culture.
Here are the most common forms of informal power:
The Power of Longevity
The Power of Longevity resides in long-term, even founding, members of a congregation. They can be called upon to tell the congregation’s story and remind people of the “long view.” Often, the power of longevity can be helpful in times of anxiety to remind people that the congregation has weathered other storms. A few rare people have the Power of Longevity over the course of not only time, but multiple congregations. They can be called upon to help put a current issue in the larger context of Unitarian Universalism as a whole.
Dangers of this power: A congregation’s story is a precious thing and can be used in support of health or in support of dis-ease. Some people use the Power of Longevity to shape the congregation’s story to their own ends. In one congregation, the first thing I heard from a founding member was a long litany of the failures of previous ministers. I should not have been surprised, a few years later, to find my own perceived failures added to the list. Another danger: people with the power of longevity can stop any conversation with four simple words: “We already tried that.”
The Power of Assets
The people with the Power of Assets are able to provide the congregation with a large part of the resources needed to do the work of the congregation. This is most often money, but can also be time or certain skills that are deemed to be “irreplaceable.” These people can be called upon to inspire others by speaking to the importance of the mission of the church and how it motivates them to share what they have. They can help a new program get a good start by giving a bit extra to make it happen. They can help a congregation be supple and flexible in response to change and unforeseen circumstances. They can model generosity and giving with a grateful heart.
Dangers of this power: A congregation can easily become dependent upon and even beholden to people with the Power of Assets. If a congregation isn’t careful about limiting special gifts, they can usurp democracy by funding pet projects while letting other things languish unfunded. A person who has made themselves and their gifts “irreplaceable” can keep things from happening because the congregation doesn’t feel they can risk the disapproval of the person with the Power of Assets. At worst, a person with the Power of Assets can control the church by threatening to leave and take their assets with them.
The Power of Charisma
People with the Power of Charisma can make excellent leaders. Their ability to “light up a room” can make even the dullest aspects of church governance seem interesting. People often clamor to get involved in activities and program that are run by people with the Power of Charisma. If they aren’t in leadership, they can add “spark” to a meeting or event. They are able to “lift people’s chins” from myopic focus on detail and get them to remember the vision, mission, and covenant of the congregation. (Lots of minister have the power of charisma.) When a good idea needs energy, it’s good to get someone with the Power of Charisma involved.
Dangers of this power: A congregation cannot be all things to all people. Often people with the Power of Charisma are idealists who have a hard time setting priorities and letting go of perfection. They may exhaust the congregation with vision after vision and idea after idea. If they get disillusioned, they can spread that disillusionment just as quickly and effectively as they spread energy and excitement. They may even use their charisma to put forward a competing vision that causes conflict between those with formal power and those with informal power.
The Power of Judgment
There are people in every congregation with a keen sense of judgment. They can often evaluate ideas and see the flaws, keeping the congregation from making mistakes. If the Power of Judgment is used in service to the mission and vision of the congregation, these people are able to clarify, focus, and keep the congregation on track. Good judgment is a blessing, especially in financial matters. A person with good judgment is not always fiscally conservative–sometimes they champion a good risk because they are able to see that the odds are worth it–they know the power of investing well.
The dangers of this power: While a congregation needs to exercise judgment, sometimes they need to make choices that, on the surface, include significant risk. This might be taking an unpopular stand on a justice issue or firing a beloved but troublesome or ineffective member of the staff. Often, people with the Power of Judgment raise a congregation’s anxiety about the consequences of making difficult choices that are necessary for their health or integrity. And when a congregation chooses to act in ways that a person with the Power of Judgment does not support–well, judgment often becomes just downright judgmental. This can range from low-level complaining to all-out power struggles. Another danger: the congregation and person with the Power of Judgment can sometimes get stuck in an almost parent/child dynamic. The person with the Power of Judgment can become an overbearing parent taking credit for all successes while saying “I told them so” at every setback. And the congregation can sometimes become take on the role of the rebellious adolescent, pushing away responsibility and acting out.
The Power of the Unscrupulous
This is the only kind of informal power with no benefits. There is nothing about a person willing to do anything by any means to get their way. The Power of the Unscrupulous is entirely destructive, even if the “ends” seem legitimate. If a person is willing to ignore the rules and covenants of the congregation, they do more harm than good every time. It is vital that people understand there is never an exception. Our congregations are places where people risk deep relationships of trust and the process is as important–if not more important–than the result. If someone argues that “this situation demands an exception,” things have just moved onto very shaky moral ground. There are no exceptions to the rules of compassion, equality, respect, and good process. If someone is organizing a secret meeting, sending scathing emails, or spreading gossip or rumors, they have fallen under the spell of the Power of the Unscrupulous and it’s time to call them back into right relationship, insisting they stop doing harm.
I’m sure there are other informal powers that I haven’t thought to name and describe, but the most important thing is to get people thinking about the powers–formal and informal–in their congregations. What powers exist? What powers are being used in service to the mission and vision of the congregation? What powers are being used to resist? How can leaders begin to harness the “powers that be” in order to further the good work they hope to do?