Power that Empowers
Teaching and Modeling the Healthy Use of Power in Congregations
By Dayna Olson-Getty
YOUR CIRCLE OF GRACE
Sunlight streamed through the sanctuary windows as a group of children reached their arms high above their heads, wiggling their fingertips in the beams of light. After a pause, the children’s hands swooped toward the floor, their fingers brushing the carpet. A moment later, they stood, stretching their arms in front of their bodies as far as possible, then extending them behind their backs, each inscribing a complete circle around their body.
“This,” the children’s time leader explained, is your “circle of grace.” God gives each of us a circle of grace. God helps us know what belongs in our circle of grace, and by giving us feelings of peace, love, and contentment when something or someone good comes into our circle of grace. And the Holy Spirit prompts us when something does not belong in our circle of grace by giving us uncomfortable feelings that something is not safe. When we have worries, concerns, or uncomfortable feelings, God wants us to talk with trusted grownups so they can help us be safe.
As I listened to this leader explain God’s desire for healthy boundaries to our congregation’s children, I was surprised to find tears filling my eyes. I felt a wave of gratitude wash over me—gratitude that this generation of the church’s children were being taught to listen to their emotions and instincts and given tools to notice potential boundary violations and seek help. But they were also tears of grief for my younger self, whose church often did not permit children to maintain healthy boundaries. As I spoke with a group of women after the service, I heard similar responses. Even though we ranged in age from our 30s to 70s, we all felt grief over harm that could have been prevented if our congregations had both taught and modeled respect for healthy boundaries when we were children and youth.
Many of our congregations have established policies for preventing and responding to physical and sexual abuse of children and have begun teaching children about healthy and respectful relationships. But the harmful use of power and influence can take many forms and affect people of all ages. We teach our children what we believe about God’s desire for healthy boundaries and respectful relationships through what we teach them directly, such as through the Circle of Grace curriculum, but also through the ways we use power and respond to the misuse of power in our daily lives in families, workplaces, and congregations. This implicit, lived curriculum also shapes our children’s understandings of healthy relationships in profound and lasting ways.
Nonphysical boundary violations can be difficult for us to identify and address, and especially if we have experienced faith communities or family life in the past where such boundary violations were accepted. Yet using power or influence in ways that cause harm to another—whether it takes the form of physical or sexual abuse or more subtle forms such as emotional manipulation, verbal domination, or spiritual abuse—has roots in the same harmful problem: the coercive use of power and control. When we use our power or influence in a way that dominates, controls, harms, exploits, suppresses, silences, or weakens another person, we are violating healthy boundaries and using power coercively.
The coercive use of power can occur in progressive and traditional congregations, and can be perpetrated by men and women, and lay members and credentialed leaders. It may occur in a very noticeable and conflictual incident or through a subtle pattern of behavior over time that fosters isolation, anxiety, and dependence. As with other forms of abuse, those who misuse their power in these ways usually do not do so in every relationship or setting. Especially in situations where power is used coercively in subtle ways over time, it may be very difficult for those who are not being directly harmed to see that power is being used in a harmful way.
Here are some good questions for reflecting on the implicit curriculum about power that we are modeling in our families, congregations, and faith-based institutions:
Are disagreements, critique, and differences of opinion welcomed? Or are they met with anger or quickly dismissed?
Do those with more power welcome accountability, or is asking questions considered disloyal or threatening?
- How is this community motivated, either explicitly or implicitly, for discipleship and service? Motivation through fear, obligation, shame, or guilt is a sign of spiritual or emotional coercion. Motivation rooted in love, freedom, respect, and joy is a sign of spiritual and emotional health.
- What happens to those who choose to leave this community? Are they spoken of well and able to remain relationally connected?
- Are relationships prioritized over performance and conformity? Spiritually healthy people and communities value people and relationships over their contributions or compliance to expectations.
- Is this person or community willing to honestly name their mistakes and seek to make amends? Healthy people and communities practice radical honesty about both their weaknesses and strengths.
- Are differences of power, including those among adults, acknowledged and respected? Are there consistent efforts to distribute power equitably and to empower those who are vulnerable?
- Does this congregation or organization have policies for reporting boundary violations and misuse of power regardless of the form of the violation and the age or position of the person reporting? Do these policies involve trusted people and resources beyond the congregation in seeking to address reports of the harmful use of power by those in positions of leadership?
As Mennonites, we seek to be communities of grace, joy, and peace so that God’s healing and hope flow through us to the world. Teaching, modeling, and practicing healthy ways of using power that respect and empower others is an essential part of this calling.
Dayna Olson-Getty has served congregations and faith-based institutions for the past 21 years, including as a Mennonite pastor and an editor for Herald Press. She holds a degree from Fuller Theological Seminary. She attends SundayMorning@Home, a diverse online ecumenical faith community.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of Leader magazine, © 2021 MennoMedia. Used with permission.
The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Spiritual Authority within the Church by David Johnson and Jeff Van Vonderen (Bethany House, 2005). An accessible introduction to spiritual abuse in churches.
Traumatized by Religious Abuse: Discover the Cultures and Systems of Religious Abuse and Reclaim Your Personal Power by Connie A. Baker (Luminare Press, 2019). A good resource for those who have experienced harm in a faith community.
When Narcissism Comes to Church: Healing Your Community from Emotional and Spiritual Abuse by Chuck DeGroat (IVP, 2020). Helps congregations identify patterns of entitlement and control, especially among pastors, and address the harm done by this kind of leadership.
Into Account (IntoAccount.org) provides individualized support to survivors and allies seeking justice, accountability, and recovery in Christian contexts. They also consult with faith communities, educators, and institutions to strengthen their readiness to prevent sexualized violence, respond with integrity to reports of survivors, and create a culture of lasting change.