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It was my first call as head pastor. Before coming to this Sacramento church, I had ably served another as youth pastor, but like many young men, I had been itching for my own command. When I interviewed for the position, I remember saying brash things like, "Growing a church is not all that difficult." That sweeping assertion was grounded in the fact that I had taken two classes in church growth at seminary some five years earlier. Such are the foolish things young men say when they crave authority.
My first few months at this church were pretty rocky, as there were two or three elders who also craved authority and did their best to sabotage mine. One had an indirect and snide way of doing so. He never complained about my leadership to my face, but he sure would let others know what my faults were. He knew the gossipy nature of the congregation well enough to know that his words would soon enough make it to my ears: "You know, Mark, Stanley didn't care for that last sermon …"
After a few months of being humble and forbearing, I'd had enough. I invited Stanley out for lunch. It didn't take long for the conversation to move to the topic of church, whereupon I said: "Stanley, I understand you don't care for me or my leadership. That's your prerogative. But one thing I will not abide in this church is people talking to others about me behind my back. If you have a concern, you need to bring it to my attention personally, man to man."
This long-time elder had for years put the fear of Stanley into many members; he was not used to anyone talking to him like this. He stared back at me a little wide eyed as I went on like this, with evident frustration, for a couple more sentences.
Then to make sure he got my point, I concluded with, "Understand?"
In the pregnant moment of stunned silence that followed, Jesus meek and mild was nowhere to be found.
Then I asked if there was anything he cared to address at this lunch.
Stanley shook his head and said no.
And then we had a delightful lunch together.
In fact, after that, we had a delightful relationship. He never complained again, to my face or, as far as I know, behind my back. Stanley became one of my strongest supporters in the congregation. Stanley apparently wasn't much impressed by humility and forbearance. But he respected tough talk.
In what follows, I'm mainly thinking of pastors and how they ground their authority, but it surely applies to anyone in any calling—from ministry to motherhood, from being a head coach to a head cook. No matter your calling, you can be sure that at some point you may need to exert your authority brashly, boldly, with tough talk, using every ounce of authority your office possesses. Sometimes this is necessary, because there is a lot of hardness of heart still going around.
But in this essay, I'd like to suggest a better way, one alluded to in the story of the Transfiguration.
In this story (Mark 9:29), Jesus takes his closest disciples up a mountain, where they watch as he becomes arrayed in glory. At the climax of this story, the voice of the Father says to the astonished disciples, "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!" A story this wondrous has many points, but one certainly seems to be this: Jesus is someone the disciples should listen to. "Listen to him!" says the Father about his Son.
What's less clear is why the disciples should listen to him.
Certainly, there is all this glory, the blinding light that wraps Jesus in a mantle of divinity. After a moment like that, and the Father's command to listen, you almost expect Peter to say sarcastically, "Ya think?"
But apparently, it's not about the glory. The display of glory is not intended to overwhelm the disciples with wonder, though I suspect they did experience wonder. The glory seems designed to get their attention so that the Father can make three things clear: that Jesus is his Father's son; that Jesus is loved by his Father; and therefore, the disciples should listen to Jesus.
It's the second and third parts that interest me—that the disciples should listen to Jesus because Jesus is loved by the Father. That's a connection that doesn't make sense at first blush. What does love have to do with authority? Yet, I think we can grasp what is happening in this extraordinary revelation if we contrast it with a few ways we usually delegate, confer, or grasp at authority.
For example, we sometimes try to confer authority through delegated power. In my workplace, like many, our president often delegates authority to his administrative assistant. When it comes to the formal ladder of authority in our company, the senior managing editor of the flagship magazine has more authority than the administrative assistant to the president. But when the president of the company delegates a task to his administrative assistant, and that administrative assistant asks me to do X, Y, or Z, I do it as if the president has asked me to do it.
When she calls and says, "Mark, Harold would like to set up a lunch with you next week," I don't say, "Well, he knows my number. Tell him to call me! What are you bothering me for?"
No, I respond to Paulette as if it was Harold personally asking me to clear my calendar for him. That's delegated power.
In some ways, of course, Jesus has a kind of delegated authority, no? He's the only begotten Son of the Father, God from God, light from light, true God from true God. And so in our preaching and teaching we sometimes exploit this type of authority: "Jesus had the authority of God. He's Lord. Listen to him!"
We're most tempted to use this approach when people are not living according to the teachings of the gospel. Someone will complain to us, "My friend has betrayed me. It's something I can never forgive. My so-called friend has become my enemy. I will have nothing to do with him!"
And we'll say, at the right pastoral moment of course, "You need to let go, forgive, and love this friend." Along the way, we may talk about the health benefits of not harboring resentment, about the freedom it will bring to forgive, and so on and so forth, trying to cajole our friend into forgiveness. But when our friend remains adamant, and asks one more time, "So give me one good reason I should forgive," that's when we pull out the delegated authority card: "Because Jesus told us to forgive, and he is Lord. We have to listen to him."
What's interesting in the story of the Transfiguration is that during Jesus' greatest moment of glory (at least until the Crucifixion), God does not pull out the delegated authority card. He doesn't say, "This is my son, in whom I have invested all my glory and power. Listen to him!" No, he says something odd and counterintuitive: "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him."
Another way we confer authority is by way of endorsement or by appealing to expertise.
My family is at an extended family gathering in a nice California restaurant in Morro Bay. After we give our orders, the waiter asks, "Will you be having wine with your dinner?"
That's when we all turn to Bob, my brother-in-law. Bob's father's business was growing wine grapes, so Bob was raised around wine. He knows something about wine. Bob is an expert on what wine is good and not so good, and what wine goes with what dish. When it comes to wine, Bob enjoys the authority of expertise, so we listen to him when it comes to picking wines.
We listen to our insurance agent about what insurance we need, to our stock broker about what shares to buy, and to our doctor about what prescription to take. It's the authority of expertise.
Note again, though, what the Father does not say here at the Transfiguration. He does not say, "This is my son, a very wise teacher. An expert in moral theology. Listen to him!" To be sure, Jesus is wise, and I think we can safely say he was an expert in moral theology. But none of that comes into play in this climactic moment when God is trying to demonstrate the authority of Jesus. He just says, "This is the one whom I love, so listen to him."
Finally, we have one of our favorite methods of exerting authority: psychological manipulation. This happens in families a lot.
I'll tell my children, "For Mother's Day, I'm thinking your mother would really like someone to take her to the flower show."
There's a part of me that is just trying to be helpful—giving a suggestion for ways my children can honor their mother. And there's a part of me that wants to see my wife have a good time on Mother's Day. But there's a large part of me that just doesn't want to take her to a flower show myself, and I know that if I play this card right, my kids will be guilted into it!
This works more insidiously sometimes. We see it in the empty-nest mother who is so easily hurt if her children fail to call on Sunday, and so the main reason they call every Sunday is so they won't have to hear their mother complain about how her kids have forgotten her. We see it in the man who manipulates his wife into taking his dream vacation, which she finds boring, because as he so often reminds her, he works so hard and so sacrificially for the family and sighs about it all the time. It happens whenever we clearly communicate that our feelings will be hurt or that we'll be angry if we don't get our way. Power by psychological manipulation.
I've been in Christian circles where this is the preferred method for instilling obedience to God. We say, "God doesn't hate us when we sin, but he's just so sad and hurt when we do." Or, "We need to give our lives to Jesus because, well, look at all he's done for us. My gosh, he died for us!" And so on.
But once more, we have to note what the Father does not say at the Transfiguration. He does not say, "This is my beloved Son, and I'll be hurt and sad and maybe even angry if you don't listen to him!"
As we engage our callings, whatever they might be, we'll be tempted time and again to ground our authority in one of these three ways.
My encounter with Stanley serves as an example of grasping for delegated authority. As I said, sometimes tough talk is also love talk, but I can assure you that at the time I was not motivated by love. I was basically telling Stanley that I was the pastor, the one called by God and that congregation to that position. I was a person to be reckoned with because of that calling. Stanley needed to listen to me!
We tend to pull this card a lot because, well, it works. And when it works, we tend to feel pretty proud of ourselves. But I think we should feel something different at such moments: a little disappointment. When we have to exert the authority of our office or calling it's a signal that something has gone wrong. Hardness of heart has won the day again, and brute force is the only way to counter it. While it "works," we should feel as ambiguous as does the victor in a just war—glad that a wrong has been righted, but so very sad at what had to happen to make things right.
I believe this is a special temptation in many churches, where pastors often have an extraordinary amount of formal and informal authority. Pastors can pull rank in almost every area of church life, and they often do. They'll do this in the name of efficiency, or church growth, or the parish mission, or faithfulness to the Bible, or defending truth, or whatever. And every time they exercise this authority, even though they may have won a particular political struggle in their church, they will have lost something as well. But no matter our calling, the less we play this card, the better.
Another temptation will be to ground your authority in expertise. You have taken two classes in church growth, and so naturally your evangelism committee should submit to you! You have a degree in accounting or a Ph.D. in political science or lots of experience as a father, so of course people should listen to you!
This does not mean that we do not have or should not exercise our expertise in our callings. Of course we should. But our expertise—whether it comes from education or experience—is not where our authority is ultimately grounded. Our efficiency, our ability to solve problems or gain insight may be grounded there. But not our authority.
And psychological manipulation will be a constant companion, always whispering in our ears. We'll be tempted time and again to threaten that we'll be hurt or angry if we don't get our way. This is so common I hardly need to illustrate here.
So, the temptations to ground our authority in anything but love will be with us always. But sooner or later, God's good grace will knock us up the side of the head. We'll discover that disconcerting but liberating news that we have no power to ground our authority in the first place. It is something grounded in us, and grounded by another. And that other grounds it in love—more particularly, his love for us. In the same way that we are called to listen to Jesus because the Father loves him, so people in our charge are called to listen to us only because the Father loves us.
It's just at this point that we feel the ground shifting under our feet. This doesn't feel like a very secure foundation for authority. We are tempted to say, "What type of authority is that? If I don't start using my gifts [note the appeal to expertise!] or throwing my weight around [my office!], nothing's going to get done! Who cares if I'm loved? What does that have to do with anything?"
Well, it has a great deal to do with authority.
In the movie Unforgiven, the character played by Clint Eastwood shoots a man who then crawls out of rifle range. As he bleeds to death, the victim calls out to one of his companions hiding within earshot, "I'm thirsty, Slim, Jesus, I'm thirsty. Bring me a drink won't you, Slim? One drink, Slim … I'm dyin', Slim."
That's the situation for all of us when it comes to love—we're desperately thirsty for love, dying for love, the blood draining from our lives while we desperately yearn for love. And when we're in the presence of love, why, we'll do anything asked of us. We listen for love more than we listen for anything.
Here we have this person, Jesus, one utterly beloved of God. Loved by the perfection of love. Son of the Father of love. Intimate with Love itself. As Jesus put it, "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me" (John 14:11). He also said that "whoever believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35).
Can you imagine what it would be like to be in the presence of someone who so knew he was loved that he could live and breath and act in complete self-confidence that indeed nothing could separate him from love, nothing could shake the ground of his existence? We rightly believe that Jesus attracted people to himself and his teaching because he loved. Did it ever occur to us that maybe Jesus attracted others also because they could see he lived in the utter confidence that he was loved, and they were desperately thirsty to know what having that type of love was like?
Ultimately, that's the ground of our authority, if we would just believe it. It's a hard thing to believe many days, especially when we're in the thick of things, duking it out with boards or members or clients or competitors. It's hard when we feel our calling or effectiveness or the very purpose of our lives seems to be on the line. At such times, we're tempted to play the cards of delegated authority, of expertise, of manipulation—anything to secure our place in our church, in the office, in our world, anything to justify our existence.
But if we can remember and believe that first and foremost our existence and our authority is grounded in God's love for us, we need not fear, nor respond in fear.
Take my conversation with Stanley. I was a young pastor, desperate to establish my authority in the church, anxious to show myself and others that I deserved the position, that I was strong enough and talented enough to do the job. I was, in short, trying to justify my calling to myself, to my congregation, and to Stanley. So I pulled the delegated authority card.
But if I were to have that conversation today, I hope it would be grounded in the self-confidence that I am loved no matter what, that I don't have to exert anything, prove anything, or justify anything; that there is nothing to prove. If I were to talk to Stanley today, I would hope it would go like this:
"Stanley, I've heard from parishioners that you don't care for the way I'm leading the church, and I'm sorry to hear that. Like most people I want to be liked by everyone, but I also know that this is not possible. Still, I am anxious to hear what you think, because I have a lot to learn as a young pastor. You have a great deal of experience in the church, and I suspect I could learn a lot from you. But I'm wondering if you could do me one favor. Instead of criticizing me to others, I wonder if you'd be willing to just tell me your concerns face to face. I feel I could learn so much more about you and from you if we handled it this way."
I suspect Stanley would have appreciated this approach as well.
Note the difference? The first response was grounded in fear, and was a desperate attempt to justify myself and my position. The second is grounded in the confidence that no matter what Stanley or others in the church think, I am still loved. Knowing and believing that one is loved—well, it carries with it an authority that is hard to define but also hard to resist!
We spend our whole lives learning to lead with love. By that I mean learning to love and learning to believe that we are loved, because it is the latter that makes the former possible. We love because God first loves us—when we really believe that God first loves us.
Each of us in our callings will likely grow in expertise, and we know—or will soon know—the legitimate authority of an office or calling. This is all part of the normal order of growing in authority. But it is not in the normal order of things, and is in fact a divine gift, to recognize the futility of the love of authority and the blessedness of the authority of love.
Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of Chaos and Grace: Discovering the Liberating Power of the Holy Spirit (Baker). This essay was adapted from a recent commencement speech given at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.