Several years ago, I helped design an academic study of Christians who held positions of significant leadership in the marketplace. My team and I joined forces with a major university to learn about the lifestyle, beliefs, and work of over seventy leaders.
Much of what we discovered through our research was predictable. But one of our findings was surprising, almost shocking. We asked, “How do you think about and use your power?” Almost every respondent said, “I really don’t have much power, so I don’t know how to answer your question.” This was completely unexpected because they were, indeed, some of the most powerful people we knew. All of those we interviewed were established leaders in influential institutions. Many were CEOs of major companies. Yet they didn’t believe they had significant power.
We could try to figure out why these leaders didn’t acknowledge their power. I imagine it had something to do with American culture’s ambivalence about power as well as the church’s failure to talk honestly and biblically about power. But my point here is not to psychoanalyze the leaders in our study. Rather, I would like to think with you for a few moments about how we ought to exercise the power given to us.
Acknowledging Our Power
If you’re reading this article, you almost certainly have a measure of power, perhaps even a substantial measure. You may be reticent to admit it, and I expect you rarely speak of yourself as having power. I’m not recommending that you start boasting at work about how much power you have, by the way! But if you are a supervisor or a teacher, or if your colleagues look to you for guidance, or if you are an elder or deacon in your church, a parent, or a public servant, if you are just about anybody in the marketplace, then you do have at least some power. In reality, I imagine you have more than you realize.
Why is it important for us to acknowledge our power? As Andy Crouch writes in a challenging Christianity Today article called “It’s Time to Talk About Power,” “Naming and owning power is the first step toward being accountable for power.” If we don’t see our power, it’s likely that we won’t use it wisely. Crouch continues, “I believe we need a new conversation about power in the church. I say a new conversation, because it will be a genuinely new topic for many pastors and laypeople.” Yes, indeed, as it was for the leaders we interviewed a few years ago.
As a Christian, I believe whatever power I have is a gift from God. Once again, I’m drafting off of Andy Crouch, whose recent book bears the intriguing title: Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power. Oh, I suppose from one perspective you might say I have earned power, such as the power to determine the content of this article. But, from a wide and truer perspective, whatever power I have is really a gift from God (see Romans 13:1). Thus, I find it helpful to talk about “stewarding power” more than “having power” or “using power.” I am to steward well the power God has entrusted to me for his purposes.
Stewarding Power for God’s Purposes
What might this look like? We have compelling negative and positive pictures of the stewardship of power in Ezekiel 34. In this chapter, the Lord speaks through the prophet Ezekiel to the “shepherds” of Israel (34:1). Commentators agree that these metaphorical shepherds are Israel’s leaders, probably their kings. Yet their sovereignty was not absolute. The Lord assumed the right to rebuke the kings, to hold them accountable, and to dethrone them if necessary. Their power was not theirs, really. It was given to them by God to be used for God’s purposes.
And what are God’s purposes? Keeping with the shepherd metaphor, God intends that his flock be tended responsibly. The people of Israel should be well fed and clothed. The weak among them should be strengthened. They should be nurtured when sick and brought back home when lost. They should be protected and kept together. That’s why God gave power to the kings, to help God’s own people flourish.
But the kings failed to steward well the power given them. They fed themselves while starving the sheep. They ignored the weak, sick, and injured. They failed to seek the lost. Thus, God turned against the kings, promising to take back the power he had entrusted to them.
The negative picture of the shepherd kings who failed to steward their power wisely is contrasted with the image of God as the good shepherd. God will be the one who seeks and rescues his sheep. God will feed them generously. God will give them rest, healing, and strength.
Using Power to Empower Others
I’m struck in particular by God’s accusation against the shepherds: “You have not strengthened the weak” (34:4). Conversely, God, as the good shepherd, promises to “strengthen the weak” (34:15). I wonder, am I using the power God has entrusted to me so as to empower others, especially those who have not been empowered by our culture and its institutions? Can I help give voice to voiceless, both through my commitment to listening as well as my ability to share my platform with them?
Ezekiel 34 challenges leaders to take a good, honest look at our stewardship of power. Are we leading for the benefit of those entrusted to our care, or are we really seeking our own advancement? Are we showing mercy to those in need and pain? Are we shaping healthy communities in which people flourish, both in work and in rest?
By God’s grace, may we reject the power-hungry example of the shepherds of Israel in Ezekiel 34, choosing instead to model ourselves after the Lord. May we humbly and honestly acknowledge the power God has given us so that we might steward it well for God’s kingdom.
Photo by Nate Harrison, FULLER Studio
Dr. Mark D. Roberts is the executive director of Fuller’s De Pree Center and the primary writer of the Life for Leaders daily devotions. His most recent book is a commentary on the New Testament letter to the Ephesians (Zondervan, 2016). Mark and his wife Linda, an executive coach and spiritual director, have two adult children and one lively Golden Retriever.