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Permission to Dissent

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Ken D. Fuquay is curating a series featuring an eclectic group of voices responding to the question, “Does church matter? And if it matters, how, and if it does not, why?” Some of the voices speak from the center of the PC(USA); others stand on the periphery. One or two of the voices come from other denominations while some speak to us from the wilderness and barren places. “To every age, Christ dies anew and is resurrected within the imagination of humans.” These voices are stirring up that imagination in their own way. May your imagination be stirred as you consider their insight. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Nathan Rouse

My story is little different than many others, but maybe not that different from yours. It starts in the pews of a church and ends… well, I suppose in the ways that matter most it hasn’t ended, but for this part at least it ends outside those walls in the wilderness. But the wilderness is where life is, where true Goodness and holy light may be discovered. And the place you had always thought to be identity reveals, upon sober reflection and the benefit of hindsight, its own decayed innards.

My story is a story of walking away — no, limping away — from religion and a subsequent stumbling, staggering, into Hope; and maybe these are the wrong verbs. Maybe it’s more of a ‘dying to’ religion or, if I’m being perfectly honest (and really it’s just you and me here so why not be honest) it was more a ‘being crushed by’ religion, a crushing which itself resulted, thankfully, in a subsequent ‘being born into’ Hope. Yes, being crushed and then being born. Those feel right.

See if you can chart this path with me, as odds are good you’ve borne witness to it, if not actually lived it yourself: idealistic young adult of faith hitches his (or her) fortunes to a community he loves and in which he feels loved, welcomed, even known, insofar as we can comprehend known-ness. Even when teaching that runs counter to instinct is posited, the love of the community and the belief in its perceived core integrity rivals the impulse to dissent. Until that one day, that day it all sours, that night it all withers; power abused, ostracism enacted, silence condoned, community lost, faith dimmed.

The place I’d known intimately had abandoned even the artifice of faithfulness to loss and revealed its ugly commitment to power and control and personality-worship.

Thank God for therapy.

Then, of course, in the middle of my own intimate faith doldrums, the presidential election of 2016 happened and the angst and grief I felt at the church locally ballooned and magnified, exponentially scaled up, into a wellspring of angst and grief at the church nationally.

This all sounds poetic, perhaps, but at the root of these experiences, at the heart of this forced questioning over these past 5 years, I keep being led back to a most basic line of thought: if adherence to the traditional forms of church and its mores can still result in catastrophe, then why bother? When pastors and presidents are guilty as hell of heinous wrongdoing; when leaders of faith and of civic life metaphorically and literally abuse those in their care; where, then, are we left to turn?

With unveiled faces and with tear-reddened eyes, I have come to think, to maybe believe that we turn — impossible as it may be — to the Suffering Servant; perhaps, ultimately, into the Suffering Servant. The face we had before the world was made is that of humility, lowliness, meekness. We are taught self-aggrandizement. We are modeled ego-stroking, even (and especially) by those in pulpits. Thus, only in the rubble of our old identities can we finally forsake the security of the puffed-up self; can we finally abandon the rigid language of religion and embrace the untamed and untamable spirit of Christ, adopting the posture of loss as the only example worth emulating. We’ve grown drunk following Christ, letting him do all our dying for us, forgetting that the end-goal of any following is embodying.

God help us, we’re so pathetic at embodying.

Reject the Cross as purely and solely substitution, and embrace the Cross as our own will to loss. Resistance only matters if we know what we’re resisting for, if we comprehend what our resistance has to offer instead. Merely holding back the hordes of corruption and decay is not enough. Resistance is painting a picture with our lives, by the aggregation of all our mutual loss into a redemptive counterforce; the very essence of light in darkness.

We dissent in practical ways, like holding our tongue long enough for our words to transmute our anger into tenderness; like truly attempting to conduct a life of love towards others, all others; like recognizing our own limited perspective and embracing the discomfort that comes in broadening it.

We dissent in our religious life by interrogating our biases; by insisting on accountability for our leaders; by fully and completely rejecting the notion of a national identity as a theological one; by recognizing that our own theology has an adverb; by seeing the true dignity of every life at all stages; by full and unfettered inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons and minorities in the life of faith, abandoning the extreme exegetical gymnastics required to keep others from Christ’s great feast; by dignifying the agency of all in our midst, especially our mothers and sisters and daughters.

Once the church I loved had expelled me into the wilderness, I ceased striving against what I’d come to know is true: Christ’s kingdom and its gates are offensively inclusive and insultingly wide, and I would no longer be party to bodies, religious or otherwise, that worked to keep others from the Feast of Plenty, the Great Table of Christ’s Welcome.

Forced exclusion from a church congregation pushed me deeper into the suffering servant’s state, and imbued within me a permission to dissent; from the imperially entwined American church leadership that trades its sisters’ safety for power, its parishioners’ presence for pleasure, others’ children for perceived security, and its witness for an empty electorate.

There do remain good churches doing good work. But Christ’s kingdom isn’t bound by four walls and a steeple, no, it is unwalled and elevated, raised high and visible, it is untamed and untamable in the hands and feet of those embodying His prophetic witness to speak truth to power and to issue forth a Kingdom of goodness, where mercy and justice flow like a river.

The church was never a place, but a people. We fashion this Kingdom where we are so those who don’t know the way Home can more easily recognize it and find themselves amidst it. In the life to come for sure, but the life to come begins with the life at hand.

Repent, for the Kingdom is at hand. So, too, dissent, for the Kingdom is in your hands.


Nathan Rouse is a husband, a father, a pet-owner, and a fool for hope. He can be found on Twitter at @thenathanrouse, and also co-hosts a podcast called The Fear of God, discussing horror movies and faith, if you’re into that sort of thing.

God, the Architect of Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Lawrence Rush

When thinking about power, the first question you must ask is “what is power”? The dictionary defines power as: the ability to do something or act in a particular way, especially as a faculty or quality. Simply put; power is the ability to get things done. When viewed through that lens, power is neither positive nor negative, neither good nor evil. These values are added in the way that power is used. For example; Dr. Martin Luther King and Adolf Hitler are two of the most influential and powerful speakers of all time. They wielded their power to completely different ends. Again, power is neutral.

So how does power impact me? What is my theology of power? First of all, as a Christian, I believe that power, all power, comes from God. Not only is God love, God is power. I think that understanding this truth helps us understand why power can be positive or negative. Those who know that power comes from God tend to use their power in ways that they believe would be pleasing to God. Conversely, those who seek power for their own ends tend to wield their power in a negative, harmful way. Another aspect is power’s seductive nature. Since the fall of humanity we humans have been fascinated with power. Adam and Eve were forbidden from eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When the serpent tempted Eve, he said it would make them like God. I think that was a major selling point for her and has been a continued selling point throughout the history of humankind. Power is seductive because it has the ability to give us more control and (seemingly) God likeness.

The saying is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. If you remove the concept of absolute from it (like a math equation) you learn that power corrupts. From this I conclude that the more power you gain, the more corrupt you become. I have struggled with this idea for all of my adult life. I have held numerous positions of leadership and I have always worked share and limit that power for fear of corruption. Power’s seductive nature makes it easy to forget where power comes from and that leads to all manners of abuse. This fear of the corrupting nature of power is also due to my interactions with it. Many times in my life I have had to deal with people with power who have wielded it in immoral and hurtful ways. I never wanted to be like that. So despite my cognitive understanding of power as a neutral, I saw it, experienced it, as a negative.

Another issue I had with power (this time, as it relates to the church) is the church’s activity in politics. When I was in college, my American politics professor said that “politics is the study of the acquisition and maintenance of power.” It’s how you get and keep power. The issue I encounter is the drive to acquire power. If we are servants to God who IS power, then we shouldn’t seek to acquire or maintain it because it is God’s to do with as God pleases. I have seen so much corruption and hurtful things come from politicians (many of which are signed off on by church leaders) that I don’t think the church and politics should be so closely linked.

My view on power has started to shift since the NEXT Church training in community organizing. The teachers went out of their way to illustrate the positive impact that power can have. They highlighted the differences between dominant power (which is more controlling) and relational power (which is more of a shared power). Getting back to theology, I believe that relational power is more God-centered. God calls us to be in community with one another just like the trinity is a community (3-in-1 and 1-in-3). However, even in that there is potential for power to be seductive. The accountability of community can counteract that if it is used. The accountability of shared, relational power is also the route through which the church can safely enter in and have a voice in the realm of politics. I mention Dr. Martin Luther King again in this regard. The civil rights movement was a political action that was born of and bolstered by the church. This is how it looks when it’s done right.

Power is something that has been a negative word throughout my life. Much of this is based on my personal experience with it and that tempered my theology towards it. However, now I have to re-evaluate my views. Perhaps power (having it and using it) is not something to be wary of. Power itself is neutral and acknowledging its source and using it properly will keep it from being a corruptor. The early church was all about building shared relational power, building up new leaders who would further spread the gospel and baptize. Perhaps I can acquire and wield power in positive, non-corrupted ways as long as I keep God (the architect of all power) first and foremost.


Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Lawrence Rush received his MDiv from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary in 2009. Presently, he lives in Tampa FL with his wife of nearly four years. Lawrence is an ordained Presbyterian minister currently serving as a chaplain at Tampa General Hospital.

Sacred Agents

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Eyde Mabanglo

The Purpose of Power is Restoration

Luke 1:17
“With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

I am tempted to recoil from power because I see power abused everyday. It is offensive to me and grieves my heart. As a result, I often reject (or shrink from) any power I might have in order to avoid any temptation to wield the same abuses of power that I abhor.

Reflecting on a theology of power has challenged me to re-evaluate and re-calibrate my ultimate distrust and rejection of power. My calling to follow after Christ and proclaim healing to the nations is woven together with a God-given power and sacred agency to participate in that restoration. I am reminded that the world desperately needs Christian leaders that have a healthy view of power to enter into this glorious, restorative work of God’s Spirit.

Power Comes from God’s Authority

Luke 4:36
They were all amazed and kept saying to one another, “What kind of utterance is this? For with authority and power he commands the unclean spirits, and out they come!”

The truest power is God’s. I love how the word authority includes the word author. God is author of all that was, is, and will be, so naturally the only power that exists to bring renewal and restoration belongs to God alone. God is sovereign. Scripture reminds us that power and authority go together. When power serves self only (basically the definition of abuse of power), then it should be obvious to all that it does not reflect God. Power that diminishes or destroys is demonic. Power that restores is sacred and ordained.

We Have the Power to Help and Heal

Luke 9:1
Then Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases…

I believe that the abuse of power prevalent throughout the lifespan of humanity is indeed a demonic force. I may hesitate to believe that I have ultimate power over demons, but I now believe I have the power (and obligation) to speak to power, to redirect power, to leverage power, and to influence other agencies of power to bring about healing in our bodies, relationships, and institutions. I am a sacred agent of restorative power.

Power Restores Right Relationships

Luke 22:69
“But from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”

The picture of Jesus sitting at the right hand of “power” is more than a family photo. Through a theological lens, the incarnate power of God simply (yet profoundly) abides with God’s Self. Power is about restoring each of us to a wholeness that finds itself in God’s self. This is the purpose of power—to turn hearts (Luke 1:17) to others which in turn is to turn one’s heart to God. This is the new commandment (self-giving love is the essence of God’s Word). In other words, “They will know we are ‘Sacred Agents’ by our love.”

God Sends Power and Sends Us

Luke 24:49
“And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

God’s power is God’s essence which means that this divine power is not just sacred agency but perhaps is profoundly equal to God’s love, grace, mercy, life, faith, resurrection, and self. God’s self can’t not love. God must create (make things new) always, so God’s Power is always regenerative, renewing, restoring. This may be the best way to understand the Word — the Logos, the imago dei, our Triune God. Dwelling in that Word is how we understand the purpose of God’s sacred power and our sacred agency.

Then, we must humbly embrace the responsibility of receiving this power to bring about right relationships under the authority of Christ Jesus. We must not abuse it, but neither should we reject it or recoil from it.

For yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory. Now and forever. Amen.


Eyde Mabanglo is an ordained PC(USA) pastor and ICF trained leadership coach. She is an experienced transitional pastor and is currently serving in a 260-member congregation in Tacoma, Washington. Eyde is driven by a profound hope in Christ Jesus and is devoted to helping church leaders fully participate in God’s mission of sacred restoration.

Stinging Like Salt

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dwight Christenbury

We church people — we post-Christendom church people, at least — tend to be squeamish about power: we don’t want to claim it, use it, or even, for that matter, be in close proximity to it.

Even those of us who like to think we’re not nervous around power still probably wouldn’t know what to do with it if we had it, and there’s a decent chance it’s never occurred to us to think theologically about power. That is, while we may not think of power as something “dirty,” neither do we consider it to be more than a tool of last resort. We prefer to live in the world as it should be, rather than in the world as it is.[1] As a result, we feel that the rightness of our ideas and arguments ought to be enough to carry the day — and if not, if carrying the day requires the use of brute force, then there must be something wrong with our ideas and arguments.

The theory and practice of community organizing, however, tell us that it’s high time we church people began to develop a realistic theology of power and a (non-squeamish) understanding of its place in situations that call for positive change.

Elias Chacour’s Blood Brothers is an instructive study of one person’s lifelong struggle to come to terms with power and its use. Chacour is a Palestinian Christian, a priest and archbishop in the Melkite Church, who grew up as his Galilean homeland was occupied and then transformed into the state of Israel. As a young man, he struggled to reconcile his anger and urge to resist the injustices suffered by his fellow Arabs with his father’s seemingly endless well of patience and accommodation. Chacour reflects,

Here was that old question that had troubled me so long: As a Christian do you speak out against the actions of your enemies — or do you allow them to crush the life out of you? So many seemed to think that submitting to humiliation was the only Christian alternative. Should you not, sometimes, be stinging and preserving like salt?[2]

Chacour’s use of the metaphor of salt is helpful (as well as biblical): we often think of salt as a preservative, but it also stings. Might Jesus himself have had both aspects of salt in mind when he used the metaphor in the Sermon on the Mount? Chacour goes on to think of power in other terms growing out of Jesus’s teachings:

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Immediately I thought of Moses, who was called “the meekest man on earth.” Yet he opposed Pharaoh and all Egypt, insisting upon freedom for God’s people. Meekness, then, was not weakness but relying fully upon God’s power as Moses had.[3]

What Chacour leaves unsaid is that one does not rely on God’s power by magic or wishful thinking but by cultivating the mindset, skills, and discernment required to wield it.

Finally, Chacour helps us to reflect theologically on power by telling the simple story of a march and rally that he led at the urging of the Melkite bishop Joseph Raya, who advised him:

It’s good that we’ve rallied these [Palestinian] people. It’s a first step of hope for them. But the Jewish people need the hope of peace, too. It’s time to march in Jerusalem and give our Jewish brothers the chance to walk at our side and show the world together that we are all against violence.[4]

A reminder that the use of power often involves significant risk, Raya’s words also point to the crucial role of forming and cultivating clear-eyed relationships among as many parties, on all sides of an issue, as possible.

Many of us will likely never confront forces such as those Chacour has dealt with over a lifetime of struggle in the Middle East, but he shows us that, whatever our context, our efforts to bring about justice and peace will fail, or at least be diminished, if we’re unwilling to claim and use the power we have. Power isn’t dirty. Rather, it’s a neutral but important tool for effectively organizing positive change.

As we look at our communities and congregations and the ways in which they cry out for growth and change, let’s not be squeamish about power. Instead, let’s be willing to identify and analyze the places where power resides and to use and grow power through relationships with others who have a stake in the outcome. Not every situation comes down to the choice between “submitting to humiliation” and “stinging … like salt,” but neither should we forget that the latter is often (or perhaps always) the way to be the Jesus-followers that we claim to be.

[1]An oft-cited distinction in community organizing circles, as described in chapter 2 (p. 33–46) of Going Public: An Organizer’s Guide to Citizen Action, by Michael Gecan (New York: Random House, 2002).
[2]Elias Chacour and David Hazard, Blood Brothers (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1984, 2013), p. 133.
[3]Ibid., p. 149.
[4]Ibid., p. 190.


Dwight Christenbury graduated from Union Presbyterian Seminary in 2005 with dual M.Div./MACE degrees. He now serves as Associate Pastor of the Trinity Presbyterian Church of Hendersonville, North Carolina, where he’s been for a really long time. He lives in nearby Black Mountain with his wife, Carol Steele, and their children, Olin and Dean, and he may or may not be working on a book.

Power in Relationship, Community, Hope

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Kathryn Johnston

My theology of power has three components:

  1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
  2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
  3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.

These three components are illustrated in the telling of the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25ff).

Kathryn and IAF organizer Kathleen O’Toole demonstrate a one-on-one meeting

1. It is a power within and sustained by a community built on the foundational commandment: love one another.
A man, presumably because of his occupation as lawyer, has individual power that he decides to use to test Jesus. He asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus turns the question back on him. The answer is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself (NRSV).

The lawyer pushes: And who is my neighbor?

Jesus responds with what we know as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In this parable, Jesus builds a case for a community that cares for one another simply because everyone is part of the community – regardless of ethnicity, class, or religion. Real power is shown through mercy to one another and building community together.

2. It is a power constantly aware of the inherent, sinful nature of humanity.
The priest and the Levite are good examples of sin being humanity’s default. I don’t think the two men who didn’t help were two evil men, but rather were two humans who made a bad decision. Their reasons for doing so undergird the reasons for relying on #1 – power sustained by community. Each one made a decision not to help the man based on their own individual needs (fear? prejudice? time constraints?). In contrast, the Samaritan acts with mercy, but that doesn’t mean he is without sin throughout his life.

The theology of power must include recognition of temptation and sin, and rely on the community for accountability.

3. It is a power thats driving force is hope based on resurrection; the assurance that justice and reconciliation will rise from brokenness.
At the end of the story, Jesus challenges the lawyer to act mercifully. Jesus doesn’t offer guarantees that if he does it will mean that robbers will no longer roam the road between Jerusalem and Jericho.

Jesus also leaves the power with the man who asked the question. When asked by Jesus: “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”
He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”
Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37, NRSV)

Whether we choose to engage with our neighbor or not – there is power in that choice. The Good Samaritan had to make a choice to engage with his neighbor. And then according to the NRSV, he made many more choices after that one (He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ vv. 34-35), each choice building the power of relationship with the man he was helping, and potentially between their two communities.

There is power in the choices the two passers-by made as well. Both the priest and the Levite passed by on the other side (v. 31, 32). A decision not to engage is still a decision. It’s still a choice, and there is power and fall-out from that choice. The two men didn’t just pass by on the other side. They made the decision not to stop.

Feeling powerless while ‘the world as it is’ sloshes around us is a normal reaction. Power comes from and is sustained by a hope that passes all understanding, a hope based on the power of the resurrection.

Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:1-6).

There is power in making the choice to stop and notice our neighbor.
There is power in recognizing that we are all broken, we all need mercy.
There is power in relationship, in community, and in hope.


Kathryn Johnston is pastor of Mechanicsburg Presbyterian Church in Mechanicsburg, PA. A graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, Kathryn earned her M.Div. at Princeton Seminary. She and her wife have four children (3 ‘adulting’ out in the world, 1 in middle school), 2 cats and a lively lab mix named Teddy.

Relational Power Over Coercive Power

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Jim Honig

Twenty-five years ago, I was a young pastor in Naples, Florida, and got a hard lesson on power. Our congregation operated a preschool in a relatively small room in our church building and wanted to move it to a house that we owned next door to the church. The house had a wonderful open floor plan, a large backyard that would be perfect for a playground, and a circular drive out front to make drop off and pick up relatively simple. To move the preschool required a zoning variance. So, we hired an engineering firm and an attorney, and prepared to make our case. A few of the neighbors we enthusiastic supporters; most had no objections.

Most. One key neighbor was opposed to the notion, and he had friends on the city council. When we made our case before the city council, one of his friends actually got up and left the room during our testimony and came back just in time to vote no. And so did his other friends. I naively assumed that since we had good intentions, we were good neighbors, and the city needed more preschool spaces, we would get the zoning variance. I had my head in the world as it should be and neglected to pay attention to the world as it is.

Participants in the 2018 organizing cohort learn from a panel of clergy.

It’s not enough to have good intentions if we want to accomplish good things. In order to act, one has to have power. Broad based organizing is about organizing people and organizing money so that one can act. That’s the exercise of power, the ability to act. Since that difficult and expensive lesson, I have seen organized people and organized money get things done; it works.

A key distinction we make is the difference between coercive power and relational power, power over in contrast to power with. Coercive power operates from the place of position and privilege. Coercive power is like the manager who can make her employee do something unethical because she can threaten to fire him; the politician who can choose to make a decision that is good for his contributors rather than the ordinary citizens because his position and privilege allow him to. By contrast, the ability to act with rather than over is a way for ordinary citizens to push back against the coercive power that stems from position and privilege.

The exercise of relational power is countercultural and counter-intuitive. It is not the way we are taught or formed. “You can’t fight city hall,” we say, symptomatic of our willingness to give away our power and bow to the systems, structures, and powerful individuals. Building relational power is a way to take back the ability to act in the public realm.

The exercise of relational power is not demonstrated primarily through the big, dramatic public actions — although the public actions is where the hoped for change actually happens. The fundamental exercise of the relational power happens when we actually relate to others. The primary tool for building relational power is the one-on-one individual meeting. When we take the time and effort to relate to one another, we build a large and strong network of relationships and as a consequence have the ability to exercise that relational power.

Acts of resistance are also part of exercising this power, especially when resistance is undertaken in community. Part of our baptismal identity is to resist the structures and manifestations of evil, those forces that defy God. So, in this sense, it is also a subversive power, a countercultural means of throwing a wrench into the gears of the systems and structures that work against human thriving.

Though I am committed to doing the work of the kingdom by the arts and practices of organizing and exercising relational power, there are still points of tension for me. I still struggle with the paradox of exercising power vis-a-vis the theology of the cross. In the theology of the cross, power is exercised in the contrary — strength through weakness, wisdom through folly. The theology of the cross supposes that God acted most powerfully to reclaim, redeem, and reconcile the world through the humiliating and shameful crucifixion of Jesus. Paul builds on this notion in 1 Corinthians 1 when he says that God’s ultimate power is demonstrated through human weakness and God’s wisdom through human folly. God works not through coercion, but through love; inviting rather than coercing.

I believe God has intentions for the world and calls the church to work for the sake of enacting those intentions. In over 30 years of pastoral ministry, this exercise of relational power is the most effective means I’ve seen to get that work done.


Jim Honig is pastor with the people of Shepherd of the Bay Lutheran Church in northern Door County, Wisconsin. He is a writer, blogger, and the author of the novel, By Paths Untrodden. He is passionate about congregation based organizing and trying to figure out how that works in a new context after spending 15 years in the Chicago suburbs.

Questions Unanswered

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Melva Lowry

To write about power in light of the recent passing of Rev. Robina Winbush sparked me to think about the ways she and the late Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon stood in the fullness of their power, while serving in predominately white spaces. In Dr. Cannon’s 1988 womanist ethics dissertation that she presented to a mostly white and male audience at the American Academy of Religion, she posed two questions that have yet to be answered by the Church, specifically the white Christian church. Dr. Cannon asks: “How long would the white church continue to be the ominous symbol of white dominance—sanctioning and assimilating the propagation of racism in the mundane interests of the ruling group?” Dr. Cannon also presented this question: “How could Christians who were white, flatly and openly, refuse to treat as fellow human beings Christians who had African ancestry?” 1

These two questions presented in a time where Black women and men were still becoming the first to breakthrough barriers of a systemic past seems understandable. Being given the stage to ask colleagues why the world was the way it was is, shows the deep gravity of the work Dr. Cannon and other womanist scholars were introducing. The power of these questions to still hold relevance 31 years later is why the white Church must give a response. The fact that I was about 8 years old when these questions were presented and the fact that as I enter ministry now can see these questions have yet to be answered is troubling but gives me an understanding into the power of the white Church to ignore the probing questions that could bring about the reconciliation they preach and pray for.

I have worked with and known Dr. Cannon and Rev. Winbush, who worked in ecumenical ministry after beginning ministry by serving the local church in New York; these two African-American women stood and worked in spaces where their power was held to the standards of white Christians who whether they saw them as fellow human beings and valuable to the work and ministry of the church toiled with grace and persistence. I just recently reconnected with Rev. Winbush at the 223rd General Assembly in St. Louis. I was leaving the main plenary after a riveting back and forth on the floor about the financial implications of making information available to those who do not speak English as their first language. In quiet black woman understanding we communicated the power being displayed to slow down the forward movement of the denomination because it was not financially in the interest of the dominant majority. “How could Christians who were white, flatly and openly, refuse to treat as fellow human beings Christians who had African ancestry?”

At this point in time we know that the ancestry extends beyond the African diaspora and includes anything non-European. Rev. Winbush, whose work has taken her beyond the limits of Christian engagement to the table with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhist and Jews to name a few, understood that it is in our best interests as Presbyterians (USA) to work as if we are answering the question Dr. Cannon posed and not appear to want absolute power and dominance unto ourselves.

What is power? Who has and who gives power? A seasoned saint would answer, “God! Of course,” but the reality of power for Christians rests in the ways we have existed and used our understanding of God’s power over the centuries. I participated in NEXT Church’s community organizing training this past October and I remember many of my white colleagues expressing their trouble with claiming the power the systems of this world have given to them. I wondered, is it power they have trouble with or is it the fear of acknowledging that they have even tried to take God’s power away by denying others to flourish? Recently, I have begun to hang on to the verse of scripture in Luke 12:48, that “[to] whom much is given, that much more [shall] be required” as a reminder that every time I am able to flourish, I have a responsibility to create an environment for others to flourish as well. This does not seem to be the case for some of my fellow white colleagues of faith. If God has granted us the ability to become, to flourish, and to withstand the daily moral trials of life, then who are we to dictate another person’s value and access to the power of this land? When will the White church answer Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon’s questions?

Cannon, Katie G. Black Womanist Ethics. Susan Thistlewaite ed. “American Academy of Religion Academy Series” No. 60 p.1, Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press. 1988.


Melva Lowry (Mel) is a ruling elder in the Greater Atlanta Presbytery and is currently serving as a Hands and Feet Fellow through The Center, a mission-oriented arm of the Presbytery of Baltimore. The Hands and Feet Initiative started by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Stated Clerk for the Presbyterian Church (USA) seeks to get local Presbyterian churches engaged in their own community’s grass-roots movement and be the hands at feet that God has called us to be in the world. As a Fellow, Mel helps The Center provide hands on mission experiences throughout the Presbytery of Baltimore so individuals and groups can see the different and creative ways God is working in communities similar to their own.

Confronting and Claiming Power for the Gospel’s Sake

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series written by participants in the second Community Organizing and Congregational Leadership cohort offered by NEXT Church, Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary, and Metro Industrial Areas Foundation. You’ll hear from various church and community leaders as they explore the key organizing concept of power. How can these reflections on power shape your own work and ministry? What is your reaction to their reflections? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Sarah Cooper Searight

Day one, in processing our very first activity together, those of us gathered for the week in Baltimore were told the truth: If we were serious about making change we would have to have power, and if we wanted power then we would have to “unlearn all of our clergy stuff.” That statement has been agitating something in me ever since. Somehow, in the midst of our best attempts as leaders to challenge the powers and principalities, we have inherently set up a dynamic whereby we’ve locked ourselves out of claiming power. We are supposed to confront power, aren’t we? Name it, shame it, reframe it, but certainly don’t claim it. So how can we claim what we also condemn?

Community organizing training participants gathered in worship

We begin with who God is. We know, based on Genesis 1:26 and John 1:1-2 (among many others), that God within Godself is in relationship. Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Mother-Sophia, Jesus-Sophia, and Spirit-Sophia, as Elizabeth Johnson points out: “The mutual coinherence, the dancing around together of Spirit, Wisdom, and Mother…this defines who God is as God. There is no divine nature as a fourth thing that grounds divine unity in difference apart from relationality. Rather, being in communion constitutes God’s very essence.”[1]

Further, we read throughout the biblical stories how God is not only in relationship within Godself but yearns for, makes way for, initiates again and again relationship with humanity and indeed with all creation. Though certainly God is capable on God’s own, God consistently transforms by raising up leaders who then raise up communities of power: God in Moses and Aaron with the Israelites, Jesus with his disciples and masses who were fed on the hillside, the Holy Spirit with Lydia who grew the church in Philippi, to name just a few. We learn, in knowing who God is and how God works, that power is generated through and used in relationship with others.

Of course we all know that relationship can be manipulated to generate power that wields the tools of violence and fear. Howard Thurman shares the story of a young German woman who escaped from the Nazis. Talking to Thurman, she describes just how thoroughly Adolf Hitler manipulated the isolation felt by German youth. “It is true,” Thurman reflects, “that in the hands of a man like Hitler, power is exploited and turned to ends which make for havoc and misery.”[2] Hitler convinced them that he was the only one who could love them, ensure their belonging and their safety. Of course, there are any number of stories we can tell of power built by manipulation and fear in relationship to others wreaking havoc on our communities.

God isn’t about any of that mess, never was and never will be. God cultivates relational power. Thurman contrasts the story of Nazi youth, pointing to how Jesus spoke of God’s care for humanity and all creation as that of a loving parent. God creates the conditions for belonging, and trust in belonging empowers both the individual and the community as a whole towards acts of transformation. “A [person’s] conviction that [they are] God’s child automatically tends to shift the basis of [their] relationship with all [their] fellows.”[3] [brackets are mine].

This is the same belonging that we preach and enact in the church through the sacrament of baptism. God does not manipulate us into it, but rather makes it the ground of our being. Thereby, if I am a child of God then you are a child of God. We, together, belong to God — we have a common identity and a common purpose. That common purpose is set out explicitly in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ — love God and love neighbor enough that we act upon these things now, not later.

As church and community leaders we can (I think we have to) both confront and claim power for the sake of the people we love and minister with and for the sake of any hope in real transformation of our communities. Confront that which is manipulative and abusive, and at the same time claim power that is more accurate to God who is the one who got us into this ministry-game in the first place.

[1]Johnson, Elizabeth A. (1992) She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse. New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing Company. p 227.
[2]Thurman, Howard. Jesus and the Disinherited.(Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press, 1976), p. 40.
[3]Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited, 40.


Sarah Cooper Searight serves as Associate Pastor at Swarthmore Presbyterian Church in Swarthmore, PA. She delights in both her ministry life and her home life where she is partner to Bill (also PCUSA clergy) and mom to Maggie and Ella (PKs extraordinaire), and every so often in the midst of these two she gets in a good run.

The Ability to Act

by Jessica Tate

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you now and remain with you always. Alleluia! Amen.

I say these words almost every time I’m asked to offer a benediction. I’m struck that in church we talk a lot about grace and certainly about love, but I don’t hear too many conversations about power.

Power is, simply, the ability to act.

Participants in the 2018 community organizing cohort are taught about power

The Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), the oldest faith-based organizing network in the US, teaches leaders about power – what it is, how it works, how to build it and use it for the aims of justice. A key teaching from the IAF is that in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

As people of faith, we dwell in the world as it should be. We are charged with sharing the promises of God where justice rolls down like water. Where mourning and crying and pain will be no more. Where love reigns.

As people of faith, we are confronted with the world as it is. Where people are suffering. Where we harm one another and are victims of harm. Where we forget our interconnectedness and become isolated. Where power reigns.

Again this key teaching: in order to make change in the world as it is, on behalf of the world as it should be, you have to build more power.

The kind of power we’re building matters. The IAF (and I would argue they borrowed this from Jesus) argues for building power with people. Not power over them or power for others, but power with people. This is the kind of power that is engaged, reciprocal, dynamic, expansive, open, and accountable, based on respect and trust. It is the kind of power Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. described when he said, “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic.”

The church at its best builds power with people in order to alleviate suffering and move us ever closer to the promised world as it should be. I have watched as congregations –

  • built up trusted relationships between adults and teenagers and engaged in education around mental health, anxiety, and depression as suicide rates rose in the community;
  • worked together to lobby the county for a new bus line so that folks can get to and from the Department for Health and Human Services more easily;
  • came together in the wake of blatant racism on the part of elected officials to examine the legacy of racism and forge new ways of leading together; and
  • developed a strong enough coalition to demand that banks reinvest $250 million in principal reduction and loan modifications to keep thousands of families from losing their homes in one of the counties hardest hit by the foreclosure crisis.

There are countless other examples of congregations building their power to act in the world as it is on behalf of the world as it should be.

This month our blog will explore power through the reflections and experiences of members of the 2018 community organizing cohort. The reflections will range from scripture to theology to experiences with power and the lack of power to using power in ministry settings. Our hope is that their reflections will give shape and texture and nuance to the concept and use of power in the life of ministry.

People around us are suffering. As Christians, we claim good news. I am convinced that for this good news to be more than a nice idea, church leaders need to understand how power works and claim our own power to bring these values to life.

Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3:20-21)


Jessica Tate is the director of NEXT Church and lives in Washington, DC. 

Anger That Saved Me

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sara Dingman is curating a series on the #metoo movement and the church. The series will feature recollections, sermons, and art. We honor the women who have shared their stories, and hope their courage might inspire others to seek the support they need to speak their truth too in ways that are best for them. The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline is always available to support survivors of sexual assault. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

Sophomore year of college. It was not a good year. For a variety of reasons, depression was consuming me — me — not sure who I was or what I believed. The world seemed very unsteady under my feet. This was not my first dance with depression, but this was different, this was brought about (or arrived concurrently) with that very natural part of growing up, figuring out the difference between what you believe and what you were taught as a child. I’d grown up going to church. Ministry had appeared as a possible calling before, but I didn’t have the slightest idea what that meant, and didn’t enter college with that in my heart. Still, faith in God was my baseline.

Now, I wasn’t even questioning if God was real. I’d not dared to say those words aloud — I could hardly admit such doubt to myself. It seemed blasphemous. Weak. Scary.

And then, I found myself at a party where I was introduced to a man who was a student at a nearby seminary. It seemed providential. I immediately had a million questions. I know that it wasn’t fair to place that burden on him. He was in school. He wasn’t my pastor. But I certainly wasn’t going to take these questions to church, and he had appeared before me.

I waited to open up to him. We drank. We were really getting along. Finally, it became clear that I would probably be spending the night at the house (my friend who had brought me was staying. She was my ride. She was staying.). He invited me to stay with him. I did what most of my friends did in similar situations. I stated my intentions. I could stay over, but I wasn’t going to have sex with him. I didn’t do that. But we could kiss. We could cuddle. He agreed.

We went to his room, where we got in bed. I was clothed. And we talked, his voice soothing and comforting. I asked him question after question about what he was doing in seminary, what he believed about God. After a while I went in for the big question: “How do you know that there is a God? What if God doesn’t exist?”

My question came with tears, released with the desolate reality of what I had suggested.

As I cried, he made his move. I said no. I tried to move away. He wasn’t violent, but I couldn’t fight. He raped me. And he didn’t even answer my question first.

Morning, or something close to it, finally arrived. As soon as enough light came through the window I went to find my friend and told her we had to go. I made it to the car before I started to weep. I don’t know what I told her. I don’t know if I ever said what had happened. I do know that he had no idea anything less-than-delightful had happened.

The next few months were hard. Depression seemed to be winning. But somewhere, sometime, a few months later, anger began to rise from within me, and it was an anger that would save me. Anger at knowing that what happened wasn’t right. Wasn’t okay. Wasn’t of God.

I put myself in the presence of preachers, women preachers, whose words were the Holy Spirit to me, helping me rebuild my faith, block by block, moment by moment. I began to understand what a call to ministry meant, and that I was, in fact called, a call that had been within me for some time, I just hadn’t had words to name it.

This understanding of call, the one I still inhabit today, decades later, had a new companion that I hadn’t known the first time God tapped me on the shoulder: anger. Anger at what had happened. Anger that the man who had assaulted me was someone who would be entrusted with a congregation.

I never spoke to him again and never told anyone else until I told a therapist, years later. I still google him from time to time — on the surface, at least, he’s doing fine. He’s still a pastor. He has a family. I have no idea if this was an isolated incident or not. I hope that it was.

I’m still angry. Angry, because the church deserves better. Jesus deserves better. And over time I’ve come to embrace that this is part of my call — if I detest what he did, then I cannot leave. I must stay and do better, show better, live better. Love deserves no less. Jesus deserves no less. The church deserves better. I will do everything within my power to keep #churchtoo from happening on my watch.


This post was written by an anonymous author.