The most painful lessons I’ve learned in 35 years of Christian leadership have involved the exercise of wise boundaries. Now I don’t mean drawing a line in the sand and not engaging with someone because you are mad. Rather, I’m talking about how you draw the appropriate lines in relationships by looking carefully at your boundaries and your power over others.
Navigating the issue of power is a true test of both character and leadership. We’re more than willing to talk about the abuse of power when news breaks about a scandal in someone else’s life, but the minefields surrounding the use of power are rarely acknowledged, much less openly discussed, in Christian circles. This silence leads to consequences and significant harm, with the potential not only to wipe out a lifetime of good work, but to undermine our ministries for years to come.
The good news is that no matter where we are in our leadership journey, we can learn to steward power well and to set wise boundaries. I wish there were easy steps I could give you to cover all of the issues you will face. The following, however, are 10 principles that would have served me to avoid many of my biggest mistakes.
1. Do an honest inventory of the power God has granted you.
To be faithful, we need to be profoundly aware of the sources of power God has granted us. We are at risk of using power poorly if we ignore or minimize the extent of our power.
2. Meet with a mature spiritual companion when you find yourself triggered.
You can expect unresolved family-of-origin dynamics to reassert themselves anytime you have responsibility and power. The workplace and church are key places where our triggers and hot buttons will emerge.
3. Enlist wise counsel to monitor dual relationships.
Mentors, therapists, elders and church boards, and mature friends give us perspective and counsel. It is critical that we know our limits and defer to the discernment of others when dual relationships (e.g., employer and friend) are part of our leadership.
4. Watch for early warning signs of danger.
People change. We change. The church changes. What works now may not work a few years from now. Have honest conversations with people when your relationship with them experiences tensions and awkwardness. Talk about the risks, drawbacks, and challenges before you.
5. Be sensitive to cultural, ethnic, gender, and generational nuances.
The cultural and historical differences around power, authority, age, and gender are vast. Be a learner. Ask questions. Your history and experience with power is likely very different than that of other cultures, age groups, or even gender. Invite people from these different groups to share their unique perspectives with you.
6. Release people (paid and volunteer) in a loving way.
This is one of the most difficult tasks for leaders, especially since we represent God and carry a number of different roles with people — employer, pastor, spiritual guide, mentor, etc. Be sure to get wise counsel to ensure you use your power fairly, honestly, and in a caring fashion.
7. Remember that the burden to set boundaries and keep them clear falls on the person with greater power.
Even though a person in our ministry may manipulate a situation, the greater burden falls on us. Why? God has entrusted us with greater power.
8. Focus on your primary role.
Be friends with friends, a pastor to parishioners, a mentor to mentorees, and a supervisor to volunteers/employees. Monitor and avoid dual relationships (such as friend and employer) as much as possible. Ask yourself, “What role is primary for me in this relationship? Who am I to this person? Who is this person to me?”
9. Meditate on Jesus’ life as you encounter the suffering and loneliness of leadership.
Exercising the self-discipline needed to steward your power well can be difficult and lonely work. Align yourself with Christ by allowing extra time to read and meditate on the life and passion of Jesus.
10. Ask God for grace to forgive your “enemies” — and yourself.
You will make mistakes and hurt people. Ask for forgiveness and reconcile whenever possible. At some point, deservedly or not, people will feel betrayed by you; you will feel betrayed by them. I have yet to meet a Christian leader who has not experienced betrayal. These wounds cut deep and often lead us to a dark night of the soul. But as we pray daily for the miracle to forgive our “enemies” (and ourselves), we may experience some of our greatest seasons of maturing and deepening as leaders.
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