Reframing Church Leadership: From Pastoral Authority to Pastoral Trust

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Pastors hold a unique position in the life of a community. They are simultaneously representatives of, and beholden to, the congregation. They lead and they serve at the same time. And the choices pastors make on behalf of the community have the power to promote healing or to inflict pain. What pastors do, from behind the pulpit or at the hospital bedside, can have life or death consequences.

For those of us involved in the world of ministerial leadership, there’s a phrase we use to talk about the immense responsibility and power handed to religious leaders– pastoral authority.

But just because I don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it goes away.

To be honest, I’ve never felt totally satisfied with the idea of pastoral authority. Perhaps it’s because I was raised in a Christian tradition which has historically challenged the rigid hierarchies and power structures of the state church. Perhaps it’s because of my dedication to the work of justice that I’m suspicious of leaders who wield power irresponsibly. Or maybe it’s because I know so many people who have been deeply and profoundly wounded by church leaders that took it upon themselves to act as mediators of God’s grace. Regardless, I knew at an early stage in my ministerial development that the language of authority would never adequately capture the way I feel about my own pastoral identity.

But just because I don’t believe in something doesn’t mean it goes away. I remember vividly my time working as a hospital chaplain. When I walked into patients’ rooms I was met by a whole range of reactions. But sometimes, by virtue of my title alone, patients projected a great deal of authority on to me. And it fell on me to decide what to do with it.

One time, I had a patient with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Her husband told her that if she had enough faith in God, she would be healed. But truly she was nearing the end of her life. She told me in a moment of confidence that she was starting to feel tired of fighting the cancer– that she was ready to die. But she was immediately mortified. For her, those thoughts betrayed a lack of faith in God.

I told her that it was okay to feel that way. That it was normal. And that God is big enough to accept all of her questions, struggles, and doubts. She entrusted me with the authority to give her permission to feel okay about dying. I didn’t want that kind of power. But I was grateful for her trust. And I did my best to respect its sanctity.

Trust entails accountability, commitment, mutuality, and humility in a way that authority simply doesn’t.

Trust. As pastors it’s something we need to earn. When we receive it, it’s a rare and precious gift. And when we have it, it’s our job to honor it.

Trust entails accountability, commitment, mutuality, and humility in a way that authority simply doesn’t. And after all, isn’t that what God’s authority is like anyway? Jesus was a king, but Jesus was not a king in the same way as Caesar. He led by example, he washed the feet of his friends, and he chose to hang out with the marginalized instead of the powerful.

I believe in pastoral trust because it flips pastoral authority on its head. When we choose leaders to represent our community, whether in the church or in the movement for social justice, we place our trust in them. It is a gift that must be earned and respected, and which can be taken away if abused. But when our communities are built on trust, we can do powerful things.

Scott SprungerComment