It's Time to Talk about Power
But notice a remarkable feature of this story of high power distance. Before Aaron and his sons were dressed, they were washed. The whole assembly saw them naked, or at least underdressed. Their power, soon to be so directly and richly displayed, came only after their vulnerability and their cleansing. The priests—the ones set apart to be closest to God—were the ones who first came closest to the original vulnerability of human beings before one another and before God. They, like the great High Priest who fulfilled their commission in his life, suffering, and resurrection, took off their outer robes in the presence of the people.
One prescription for power's right use in high power distance communities is vulnerability and accountability. If your church is one where the pastor dwells in unapproachable, sanctified splendor, it becomes all the more crucial that known elders and friends hold your pastor accountable. The Catholic Church, the largest high power distance Christian communion, has been gravely damaged in our time by the unwillingness of its elites to accept internal and external accountability for the abuses of power that were concealed under priestly robes.
But the converse is also true. Low power distance cultures urgently need clarity on power, a willingness to name its reality. Indeed, Andy Stanley is one of the few megachurch pastors I know who has forthrightly preached about power—his own and others'. He preached a sermon on John 13 that began with the question, "What do you do when you are the most powerful person in the room?" Pastors like Andy are not likely to give up their café tables for imposing wooden pulpits, but they can open up a conversation about power by simply acknowledging what everyone already knows is true. And I have met enough men and women who have worked under Andy's leadership to believe that he largely uses his power in ways that lead to others' thriving and flourishing, rather than simply to bolster his notoriety.
Naming and owning power is the first step toward being accountable for power. This is why, paradoxically, high power distance organizations can sometimes be the least biased in how they distribute power. The most racially integrated large-scale institution in the United States today is probably the American military. Colin Powell became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before Clarence Thomas ascended to the Supreme Court or Barack Obama was elected President. Almost by definition, the military is a high power distance culture. But that very clarity about power meant that when the institution chose the path toward racial equality, it knew how to assess whether it was making progress.
The least racially integrated institutions in the United States, meanwhile, are probably country clubs, even though few still have racially exclusionary policies. Country clubs, with their carefully casual golf-course dress codes, are quite low power distance. They are so low power distance, indeed, that it is very hard to say how one acquires power in them, or enters them. Those of us who grew up outside their enclaves are likely to have not the slightest idea of how to become a member. And in turn, this is why even after racial exclusion is no longer policy, it continues to be reality—the very informality of country clubs makes it impossible for them to change long-standing dynamics of power. Power is not healthier when it is invisible—it is just harder to make accountable and fruitful.