So the secret is that you have authority and that you give authority to others. This true whether you think it should be or not. It is true whether you like it or not. It is a social principle that is reliable.
The moral principle that is corollary to the secret is that you are responsible for that authority. We are made, in our Christian understanding, to be stewards for God on earth, caretakers of creation and one another. This is central to what it is to be a God worshipping, Bible believing, human being. We are made for this task. No other creature of God is given our role, calling, vocation, or gifts. The dolphins are smart, but they cannot manage ecosystems.
Human beings are made to be God’s stewards. A steward is a house manager who manages the affairs of the master of the house. They are to act in the master’s stead. They are expected to act as the master would act if the master was present. They are to care for the people and things of the master’s household and property and to be ready to serve the master by overseeing all that belongs to the master. This is stewardship.
Human beings are gifted to do this work. We can understand, study, imagine, create, and manipulate whole systems and subsystems within the world. This is both wonderful and terrible as we see almost every time we turn on the news. We use our gifts in amazing and terrifying ways. We are blessed to be a blessing, and we are fallen from grace, going on our own way, serving ourselves alone, which is one definition of evil.
Okay, so what does all that have to do with holding authority? If we don’t know who we are and what we have, how can we be responsible stewards? We have been given tremendous authority by those around us. When we ignore this and act powerless, we betray them, our vocation as human beings, and God. When we manipulate that authority to our own gain above others, we betray them, our createdness, and God.
We hold authority humbly when we are honest that we have it, when we tend to it, and when we use our authority to further the work of God to create, redeem (set free), and make new. If you are sitting in a meeting as a Christian, whether anyone else knows you are or not, you have a duty to be honest about the authority and trust that others have placed in you, to speak honestly and call the gathered community toward that which is good and creative, redemptive, and that gives life to others.
There are those who deny that they have any authority. This is either cowardice or avoidance or the truth in an unhealthy system of relationships. I have rarely found it to be true. What I have found in systems is that when I have no authority at all, I have either given it away and sometimes rightfully so or it has been taken. The other reality is that we may face and often face times when our own authority is not enough to accomplish the creative or redemptive work. We must then either make allies and pool authority or we must persuade others through appealing to higher authority within group norms.
I may not have the personal authority in my parish to make deep changes to our common life even after five years of pastoral work. This may be due to squandering my pool of authority and trust on other projects or goals. I have lost authority due to poor planning or results, poor communication, or past infidelities to our common master. In that case I must appeal to the higher authority of either God, in the case of the church, or to the Bible or our commonly held values and goals. This must be done carefully, and I would add prior to the need being desperate.
Authority is really a form of trust. Thought of this way, it is easy to see how it relies on integrity, honesty, and honor. We have to prove trustworthy. The past matters. It is not all that matters. Honesty and integrity are always present tense, but built on the past. On the other hand, a vision of where you are leading the group is vital. The future needs to be as clear as possible, at least in the form of intentions and plans. This is part of what makes authority.
Appealing to other people’s shared authority requires really clear communication about what is presented and how far the commonality of the common purpose really goes. My associate pastor and I are lock step on certain communal values. Either of us can state with integrity and honesty that we agree and support certain positions, and everyone can see the truth of that in our history and current practice. They know our vision and plans and can judge how far to trust us. And if we are talking about the areas we hold commonly, that trust and authority can be given freely and held honestly and used to further our community values.
But there are areas where we don’t see eye-to-eye. We are different people after all. For the most part, these things are not central to our common mission and vision. They do not deeply affect our community. If we were to pretend to hold a common set of values there, we would have to either agree to support one another despite differences and work out whose values were to be presented, or we would have to be honest about a disagreement on values and work out what values would serve as the communal norm. These negotiations are vital and vitally done privately and hopefully before a breech in the image portrayed to the community. It can be handled well and honestly, and relationships can be saved with integrity and communication, but it must be honest.
To appeal to higher authority seems tricky and can easily slip into manipulation. We are made to manage systems after all, and it is all too easy to manage the system to get what we want in the short term rather than attending to the health and vocation of the whole system. This quickly leads to institutional sickness and even death.
We have to return to our original vision. We are stewards of God’s house, and God’s hope as I understand it is that his children would all be in direct relationship with God, not dependent on other “fathers.” So we have to use our authority in such a way that assumes other’s direct access to God, provides avenues for access, encourages use of those avenues, and then doesn’t short all of that out in order to get what we want in the short term that is of lesser value.
So, in the Benedictine model we assume everyone has access to God’s Spirit, so we call the whole community together. We provide avenues for accessing both the situation and its reality and God’s Spirit. We may do that by clearly explaining the relevant parts of the situation and giving people time to understand and to pray. We then encourage prayer and give time for people to pray. In our parish that has meant months before some major decisions, but sometimes it may mean a few minutes right then. It depends on a number of factors, but I would advise going long rather than short, but short enough that you can be accountable to actually making a decision. Time is a vital component in any significant time of discernment. It should not be too little, but then it rarely is these days.
Practically the appeal to higher authority should be a part of every meeting and it should be democratic in that the appeal is to an authority to which everyone is obedient equally, including the leader, and it should be normalized so that everyone remembers what the overseeing authority is. That is why it is vital to have a mission, a vision, a purpose to exist that is short, memorable, and should be direct enough to make you grow up to hold on to it.
If you are going to appeal to a higher authority, everyone should have access to it and be held accountable to it. That means that the priest is not the only one who can read Scripture, and the priest may be called up short to by Scripture. It is important then that people be hold what higher authorities hold sway in a meeting and that these higher authorities be agreed upon in order to belong to the group. Every cop and congressperson has to swear allegiance to the Constitution. If they did not there would be no check on power.
If you want to grow your own sense of responsibly holding authority, acknowledge your given authority, explore your vocation as a human being, tell the truth with love, be honest about what your vision and mission of the group and yourself is and communicate that to the group, and use your authority to do creative and redeeming work.
We all hold authority. Hopefully these reflections will help you hold it with a little more self-reflection, honesty, integrity, and responsibility.