Power Dynamics on the Mission Field

by Anna Glenn on May 10, 2021

Power is a dirty word for Christians who want to follow a life of humility, right? In church, it feels like we’ve been conditioned to not talk about power unless we are talking about the power of the Holy Spirit. To talk about power and how it plays out among mere human beings feels like a risky road to start walking down…almost like the one that James and John stepped on to as soon as they asked Jesus whether they could be granted the seat at the right hand of the Father (Mark 10:35).

But the reality is, we all have power, whether we admit it or not. Power is not just a position, but instead it is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events.

Power comes in many forms and many types. Power can be either visible or invisible and sometimes we are aware of it while other times we are not. Power is associated with many words such as “power over”, “power to,” “power of,” and “power with.” Power can either be used or abused. Power can lift up and power can crush.

Power itself is not inherently evil. Seeking opportunities to influence is not a bad thing. God gives us opportunities to influence and sometimes even places us in positions of influence so that we can direct or point people towards His truths and His ways. Pastors are placed in positions to influence their parishioners, parents influence children, and teachers influence their students. In their healthiest forms, power in these relationships is being used to empower others by influencing and encouraging positive behaviors, but at other times this power can be used to abuse or oppress those with less power. The study of how the use of power plays out in relationships of those with varying degrees of power is called power dynamics.

If power dynamics exist within the church, within the home, and within the workplace, it’s pretty safe to assume that power dynamics exist within our ministry field. And if they exist, then we should probably be talking about them.

When and if we talk about power dynamics and missions, our focus is usually on the relationship between the missionary and host country nationals. The importance of talking about power dynamics and the potential effects on relationships as we live out and share the gospel is generally recognized, given the economic conditions and sometimes colonial heritage of many of the countries we serve in.

How often though do we talk about power dynamics between missionaries who serve alongside each other as part of a team? Are we not also involved in relationships with one another? Even if we are coming from the same country, does that mean power dynamics are not also at play amongst us? What is the likelihood that we are all entering into these relationships with the exact same understandings about what power is, who has it, how it should be regulated, and why it’s important to talk about?

Given that one of the most common reasons cited by missionaries for leaving the field is trouble with their own team members, maybe we ought to begin a conversation about this.

WHY should we talk about power?

  • Creates a unified language about power. We may not all have the same definition or idea of power and how it relates to our relationships, our roles, and our witness so it’s important to establish some commonality in language so as to avoid misunderstandings and hurt.
  • It encourages self-reflection and self-awareness. By first acknowledging and then engaging in open and honest conversations about power and it’s origins and uses, we are able to reflect on our role and our use of power to determine whether we are honoring God with it or not. Power can be an amazing asset when used in the right moment and in the right context. But if we are unaware of the power that we are yielding, we just might end up walking around like a bull in a china shop, hurting and alienating those we love.
  • Helps create efficiency and ownership. Talking about power and who has it can help us identify areas where it needs to be either consolidated or distributed further. Consolidation of power can help when perhaps we are taking too long to make a decision because too many people are involved. Further distribution of power can serve as a tool for more people to feel ownership in decision making and the mission itself.
  • It can help to clarify roles and temper expectations. In talking with many missionaries, I know that one of the big challenges that comes along with saying yes to this job is the fact that often we don’t really fully know what we’re saying yes to! Nonetheless, we each come onto the field with our own expectations of what we will be doing and how we’ll be doing it. Although we may all have a shared mission, we have different ideas about how that will play out and how our power to influence should or shouldn’t be used which can lead to a lot of unmet and unrealistic expectations and bitter or resentful feelings when things don’t necessarily play out that way.

By being afraid or ashamed to talk about power or by denying it exists at all, we may be missing out on opportunities to equip our brothers and sisters in Christ to live out their purposes. Power is not just something to be wielded, nor is it something to be ignored. Christian author Andy Crouch asserts that power is a gift because “power is for flourishing.” Power, or postures of influence, is what allows us to be image bearers for Christ in a world that is looking for hope and a Savior. We can use our power as a gift from the Holy Spirit as God intended it, or we can hand it over to the devil and let ourselves become ensnared within the throngs of jealousy and pride. Because power is a gift, we are called to steward it and use it wisely.

HOW can we leverage the gift of power among our team?

  • Facilitate a conversation about power dynamics and the ministry. Talk openly together as a team about this reality and both the positive and negative implications it has on your relationships with each other, with host country nationals, with partners, with the board etc. Talk specifically about the factors that influence power dynamics such as differences in roles, age, gender, experience, race, denominational views, education levels, subcultures, personalities, and of course money. How money is spent (ie how this “power” is used to influence others for the sake of the gospel) can be a huge area for tension. Don’t allow the devil to take that and use it to create division. Instead, take hold of the narrative through open and honest communication. Talk about power dynamics if you are just now joining the team and you don’t anticipate any problems or whether you’ve been a team for years and you’re looking for ways to grow stronger. Talk about it with each other, talk about this with board, and talk about it with partners, donors, and funders.
  • Personality tests or spiritual gifting tests. Personality tests and spiritual gifting tests are tools that can better help us to understand not only teammates, but also ourselves. When an organization or a team leader knows the personalities of those on their team, they can better understand the values from which each person operates and the lenses through which they might view a situation. When we understand the strengths and weaknesses of the members of our teams alongside those personalities, we can uniquely position each member of our team into a position where their giftings can flourish and create maximum influence for the Kingdom.
  • Set up an organizational chart for your team. A chart that shows hierarchy or spheres of influence can greatly help to empower each team member in his or her area. This helps to set up clear communication lines and boundaries so that each person knows to whom to talk, defer, or delegate. When there is less confusion as to who should be doing or deciding what, you are limiting the potential for misunderstandings and negative feelings about control. It can feel “icky” to have conversations about control/power because it’s a blurry line between looking like you are in it with selfish pride verses just craving structure that might help you and others to thrive. A (flexible) organizational chart can provide a foundation for those hard conversations.
  • Develop clearly written job descriptions for each team member. This goes in line with the organizational chart as it will help to further clarify the responsibilities (or areas of influence) of each team member. I suggest having these written up before a team is brought together, but as we all know, things never seem to work out quite exactly how we planned so perhaps make a point to revisit these job descriptions together as a team as roles or projects shift.
  • Pray for each other daily. Pray that God would give your teammates opportunities to use the power that God has given them to influence people for His kingdom. When we are continually lifting each other up in prayer, this act will naturally soften our hearts towards our teammates and rather than praying about how we can deal with this other person’s perceived power complex? perhaps we are instead praying about how we can help that person and ourselves grow in self-awareness, wisdom, and love within the unique sphere of influence that God has placed us in?

Let’s start the conversation of power within our ministries and our teams. Maybe you can start by just subtly dropping this blog to their inbox as a hint, but I think it might serve you better to be a little more direct. There are tons of great resources online and books that can help us facilitate these conversations in a healthy and God-honoring way. Talking about power dynamics will not solve anything in and of itself. It can however serve useful as a tool or framework for helping us evaluate our roles on the team and ensuring that each person has opportunities to use the gifts and talents God has given them to glorify God and live out their purpose through the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

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About Anna Glenn

Anna Glenn is an agricultural missionary who has been living in Liberia, West Africa since 2016. She and her husband work with Hope in the Harvest, an organization that is committed to both agricultural and personal transformation in Liberia. Before moving to West Africa, Anna studied international development work at Texas A&M University and then worked as an agricultural extension agent back in her hometown of Baltimore County, Maryland doing community development work and education. She writes about faith, agriculture, and life in West Africa on her personal blog: www.glennsgoglobal.wordpress.org

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