In this series of reflections, which are far from complete, we turn next to giving authority away. To underscore two important points to be held in mind: every member of a healthy community has authority, and every member who has authority is responsible to God for how that authority is used.
Considering authority we have assumed some measure of self-reflection, honest self-assessment, and humility. This next topic requires an even greater measure of all three. In order to give our authority away, we must be honest about having it and consider our responsibility, but we must also be submitted to a higher authority than our own self-interest and beyond our self-interests, even altruistic self interests. This is when Jesus’ teaching about hating family for the sake of his kingdom begins to make a whole lot more sense.
What do you value more than your own self? What do you value more than your family, your nation, your tribe, your sports team? This is a vital question for many Christians that goes unasked and unanswered in many churches because we, your pastors, already know the answers, and they are not godly. We know your answer because we know our own. Or at least we think we do.
It is the answer we see lived out in our choices about faithfulness to attendance, to charities, to causes. It is the answer we hear behind the complaint about sermon or service length, behind the excuses, prejudices, and functional atheism of our talk, and its what we hear in our own self talk about why we feel burnt out and run over in doing things for “them.” When we can honestly say that God’s Rule in our lives is our first priority and our first value, then our children can have a parent rather than a worshiper, our time is held in wholeness as well as holiness, and we aren’t wasting time in worship, or living lives that are overwhelmed with the secular world and its values.
I am writing all of this and honestly trying to live it out with this one stark memory from almost ten years ago when our girls were little. My wife and I were in the front seats of the car, and our girls were in the back. We were driving past Bell Road and 32nd Street when we drove by a homeless woman holding a sign asking for help. The girls, both under seven, wanted to help, but I was in a hurry. I don’t even remember why I was in a hurry. They begged me to help her with money, food, water, anything. But I argued back that I was too busy, that I had to get back to wherever it was that I was going. I am still haunted by that sin. I had an answer to whose rule was important just then, and it was not God’s.
The value set and getting that right is vital in a community before crisis or even just conversation. We set values and priorities and reinforce them all the time.
There are times when we want to accomplish something that is bigger than ourselves and the authority we hold in a community. We have to pool our authority with others in order to have enough to call others to the work at hand. We have to give away our authority intentionally.
We often give away authority unintentionally. This is often done in the silence when someone has called the community to do something that is not in keeping with our values or when they have asked us to do nothing in the face of our communal values. In that silence, when we do or say nothing, we give them our authority as we seem to consent. In the silence often people have consented to terrible things because they were unintentional about their authority. They may think that saying nothing is objecting or just could not muster the courage. They have just waited for someone else to say something, until nothing was said.
There are all sorts of little post-it note philosophical whimsies about the evil of unintentional silences after the Holocaust of World War II. But there are millions more examples of smaller injustices or inactions that have gone unphilosophized but don’t go unnoticed. We are accountable for our words, but I think we may be accountable for what our silences say too one day.
So, we hold a value that is bigger than ourselves. We don’t have enough authority in the setting to accomplish a goal in keeping with the values we have, but someone else in our sphere of influence does. This is when we practice giving authority away.
It may be upward. If a boss or superior in the hierarchy can accomplish things we value, then it is fairly easy, respectable, and rarely controversial to simply “throw our weight” to them. My bishop has a very similar vision for the diocese to my hopes for our church. He can accomplish things that I cannot because he sits in a different chair with different influence and relationships. So I give him my authority. He has it naturally enough formally, but most people today do not assume that authority is given, so we must be intentional about giving those in higher authority the support we can intentionally by verbalizing those formal and giving witness to our shared values and goals. It helps that we are simpatico, but it is important to have honest and transparent relationships with those in formal relationships with us so that shared authority is not just implied, but used in ways for which we are willing to stand accountable.
We may give authority away to those below us in the systems in which we work. I have employees under me that are doing things that I value. I loan them my authority by hiring them, but I also verbalize my support publicly and am willing to be there when called upon to stand with them and give them my authority to do what they need to do, without taking over their work. This is more tricky than the vertical move upward. Giving authority to our superiors is fairly easy, but when giving our authority to those under us, we have to be very self-aware of motivations and very clear about what our values are in stepping in.
If I value what an employee is doing, I express it by calling to the shared value their project and giving voice to their work and accomplishments, or at least their hopes and goals. This allows them to borrow my authority while keeping their own and staying in command of their own goals, hopes, work, and accomplishments. They are still the ones accountable for their own success or failure. This is giving authority as opposed to taking authority, which is only to be done when someone is in desperate need to be saved or has completely failed. Taking authority is devastating to the person who has it removed, even when they are grateful, and it should be avoided at almost all costs. One of our primary values is the dignity of every human being from our baptismal covenant. We preserve their dignity when we give them our authority without taking theirs away.
Have you seen a boss take authority that did not belong to them? How is that different from taking credit for others work? They often overlap in unscrupulous cases, but let’s assume good intent. Have you ever taken authority unintentionally or given it away?
We often pass authority to others without thinking horizontally. We loan our word, our voice, our credit to others in subtle and overt ways. It is important to be careful when we do this because we are the ones responsible for that authority given to us by God and our fellow brothers and sisters.