Empowering people in the local church

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people empower
A few years ago, a young adult from a local church was asked by the leadership to develop and oversee a significant component of an outreach event. She was given a brief. Enthused, she threw herself into the task.
The Danger of “Dis-“
However, very late in the process, totally contrary to the brief given, leadership within the church over-rode her plans, going with an alternative strategy. That young adult described the whole experience as “disempowering”.
Without volunteer disciples such as the young adult above, the local church flounders. So an important question for pastors of local churches is “How do I recruit and retain competent, committed, consistent volunteers?”
One important component of that is how, as pastors, we “empower”, rather than disempower, members of the local church.

Empower for What ?

Over the last twenty years or so, “empower” has become a contemporary buzzword.1 It is frequently employed in political and sociological language, and in popular psychology. In these contexts it connotes control, commonly by an individual, over that person’s individual action and destiny.
The word itself, however, is not recent. Appearing in the seventeenth century “empower” initially had a legal meaning. A person was empowered in the sense of “invest with authority, authorise”. Over time, this broadened out to include the idea of enabling or permitting something.
So, when it comes to empowering people in the local church, by which emphasis shall we operate? In the community of the local church it is the more ‘classic’ definition that is important. For this article argues that the goal of a pastor “empowering” someone is not, primarily, to enhance the individual’s control, action and destiny, for their sake. Rather, to it is about enabling people to function, inside appropriate boundaries, with authority, and control, for the sake of the Kingdom of God. It is not about “power to the people”, to quote the 1960’s pop song. “Power”, for Christ’s disciples, is other-orientated. (2 Cor. 4:7 – 12)

“Power ” in the New Testament

“Power” is a significant word in the Gospels and Epistles. The NIV translation uses it one hundred and thirty-five times. Overwhelmingly, the focus is upon the power of God, the Lord Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the gospel.2
Here then is a core principle when we talk about how to “empower” people in the local church: any enabling, or empowerment for functioning in the local church must be carried out in the context of, and with the humble attitude that, all power is from God and for others. It is not just about “up-skilling” (to use another dreadful buzzword) or “releasing” (another over-utilised piece of Christianised jargon). It is about seeking to so act and speak that God’s power (in a multitude of forms) is manifest in and through us. As we will see, such an attitude will have some implications when we consider “how” pastors can “empower” people.
Further, as we look at the New Testament and how Jesus operated, there is another significant principle. Take for instance how Jesus operated with His disciples. He called them in to stunningly powerful positions of healing, teaching, leading, etc. Yet he never stopped the rich young rulers Matt. 19:23ff), or the followers affronted by hard teaching (John 6:60 ff), or the Iscariots, from walking away from that power. He compelled no one.
To “empower” could be taken to mean that controlling or disbursing the “power” lies totally in the hand of the one who is doing the ‘empowering”. It could imply that power can be ‘given’. Yet as you think about it, effectively power can only be received.
What do I mean by this? Particularly in a local church context we can only truly empower someone who is willing to take on power, accept authority, or assume responsibility. Discipleship is voluntary. Power offered may be power declined! Pastors and leaders can “dragoon” no-one. From the top to the bottom in a local church power and responsibility must be accepted voluntarily. It cannot be imposed.3 Once again, to grasp this will have implications for how pastors seek to empower people.

Empowering Volunteers

If, then, we define “empowerment” as enablement and giving of authority, permission and responsibility, how might pastors go about doing that for those disciples [voluntary followers of Jesus and workers in the church) who form their congregations? Let me suggest the following attitudes and operational behaviours by pastors who want to empower others.
First, a pastor who wants to empower others will teach and model a discipleship that relies upon God’s power. She/he will exhibit great humility when dealing with power. Richard Foster in his classic book4, was right to make a triumvirate of sex, money and power as three great temptations, especially for Christian leaders.
For the pastor who wishes to empower others there will be a sincere humility about power, a conscious attitude that God’s power is best displayed through their weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). They will also adopt a realistic assessment of their human propensity to be corrupted by power.
A pastor exercising power, under God, with an attitude of humility, creates ‘space’ for others to receive power. A lack of that attitude reduces such ‘space’.
Second, to empower local churches, a pastor will place a high value on respect for the individuals they are charged to lead. They will respect them as fellow disciples who are also ‘volunteers’ in a local church. This means that we will not see people merely as ‘resources’ for the mission.We will envisage them as disciples on mission.
Pastors disrespect people by compelling reception of power and authority. Imposing power by ‘force’ or manipulation, even for the sake of the gospel, does not empower people; the opposite happens.
Third, pastors empower people when they trust them, and entrust responsibility to them. This needs to be effected in a context of support, without micro management. Setting clear boundaries and expectations, along with accountability, then setting people loose to have a go, will provide a context for people to flourish.
Fourth, we empower people when we disciple people with an apprenticeship model. That is, we will train, inform, resource, send and then debrief those we lead. Do so in a setting of invited partnership for mission. Once again, consider Jesus. He taught the disciples, offered them ‘power and authority’, and then sent them out (Luke 9:1 – 9; 10:1 ff.).
By these actions, it seems to me, Jesus exhibited respect and trust. He did not go with the disciples. He did not too closely supervise. Notice however that he did ‘debrief’ the seventy-two upon their return (Luke 10:17 ff.) Pastors who follow this model will produce ‘empowered’ people. Pastors who over-function will not!
Fifth, to empower people is to consult with them. Empowering pastors engage teams of people in decision-making, planning, implementing, day-dreaming, and brainstorming. Arrogating such tasks to oneself alone, all the time, is one evidence of an insecure leader who fears consultation.
Which is not to say that all feedback will be taken on board, or all ideas incorporated or all daydreams flown with. Some brainstorms are just brain-snaps, rather than words from the Lord. However, inviting others into the creative end of ministry as well as the implementation end of ministry will multiply the options leaders will possess. It will also expand the capacity of people to receive power and assume responsibility for ministry. It increases ownership.
Sixth, pastors who empower will disburse and distribute power, authority and responsibility across the local church. When pastors allow churches to develop that are pastor-focussed, pastor-dependent, they disempower people in those churches.
New Testament leadership was almost invariably multiple. Surprisingly, Jesus disbursed his power and mission to fallible humans. Paul distributed his authority to Silas, Timothy and Titus. We would do well to follow those models.

A Delicate Balance

As leaders, empowering people involves a delicate balance.
On the one hand, pastors and leaders can become “corks in the bottle”. They may do so by over–control, fear-based defensiveness, and narcissistic tendencies. We can believe no one can do things as well as we do. Or we may so focus on “high-level” leadership so that we fail to model what it is to serve in the ‘trenches’ with the ‘troops’. Either way power is withheld from people, by over-control or failure of example.
On the other hand, pastors who fail to lead, who refuse to take appropriate charge and responsibility, leave those who follow to flounder. That too disempowers people.
That delicate balance must be sought however. For truly empowering people to fulfill the mission of God is part of what it means to present everyone mature before Christ (Colossians 1:27 – 29). And that is the task of a pastor!

1. For a bit more detail on ‘empower” see http://www.thefreedictionary.com/empower
2. Consider two of these many references from 1 Corinthians: “My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might rest not on man’s wisdom but on God’s power.” 1 Corinthians 2: 4 – 5 “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power.” 2 Corinthians 4:20
3. This is so in the non-voluntary corporate world. A friend working at a leadership level in a major international airline showed me a recent leadership poster. A section on empowering employees made the point that team members need to “step up and own decisions” and “take responsibility”. Power given is effective only if received..
4. Money, Sex and Power, first published by Harper and Row, 1985

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