Resisting Toxic Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Andrew Kukla is curating a series on officer training. We’ll hear from various perspectives about how churches might best equip those they call to the ministry of ruling elder for that service. How might we feed, encourage, and enable the imagination of our church officers? How can we balance the role of officers as discerners of the Spirit alongside church polity? How might we all learn how to fail — and learn from it? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Katie Day

When I was asked to write about resisting and building immunity to toxic power, my first thought was, “I don’t know how.” After all, I participate daily in systems of toxic power as a white, heterosexual, cisgender middle class woman. Power and privilege have worked to my advantage more often than not, and while my participation in those systems is often unconscious, I cannot let myself off the hook and must acknowledge my complicity.

Power comes in many forms, in the world and in the church, and training officers to recognize and resist toxic power would benefit not just our sessions, but our neighborhoods, schools, and places of business.

When does power within the church become toxic? I’m sure if we were all in a room together talking about this, we would have as many opinions and definitions as there are voices. For the purposes of this post, I’ll define it like this: when power ceases to empower, equip, and liberate others and is used primarily to elevate the one or ones holding the power, to silence opposing voices, and to marginalize, undermine, or sow seeds of mistrust, it has become toxic. Toxic power can be seen within the church in individuals and groups who participate in unhealthy and unhelpful practices of control and domination, as well as in corporate participation in systems of oppression like white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity.

For a scriptural example of what discerning toxic power might look like, consider Acts chapter 5, beginning in verse 12. The high priest at the Temple in Jerusalem was “filled with jealousy” (a clear indicator of toxicity) after witnessing the apostles healing the sick and converting new believers, and has the apostles arrested. The Pharisee Gamaliel spoke to the council these wise words:

“Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. … I tell you … if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them.”

The high priest and his jealous rage did not prevail against the power of God at work in the early church. Toxic power is of human origin, born of jealousy, fear, hatred, complacency, or the idolatry of privilege and success. The power of God is still at work in the church, even today, and it is on that power that our leaders can always rely.

Toxic power will fail, in the end, but can and will cause a lot of harm before it fails. How might church leaders build up immunity to toxic power? Begin by creating awareness. We have to know there is a problem before we can start to work on it. Where do you see toxic power at play in your community?

And if you cannot see it, start researching and learning about the oppressive systems I’ve named above, seeking out resources and conversation partners from groups who are affected. Andrew’s initial post in this series comes into play here: church leaders will need to take a long, prayerful, and honest look at our congregations, without letting fear of failure cloud our vision. We confess in worship each week the ways we have failed to live into God’s calling, and failing to notice or to take action against toxic power in our community is part of that. Hiding our mistakes out of fear is not a healthy option.

When we create awareness of the problem of toxicity, when we can name it and learn about it, and discern where it exists in our congregation, we begin to build immunity to it. I am not a medical professional, but what I recall from high school science class is that immunity can comes after exposure to the harmful bacteria or virus; only after acknowledging our churches’ experiences with toxic power can we begin to resist it, trusting in the power of God that guides us, sustains us, redeems us, and calls us into new, healthy, non-toxic leadership practices.

Katie Day lives in Monterey, California, with her husband Kevin, son Elijah, dogs Lola and Mr. Wiggins, and cat Fred, and serves as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Monterey.