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So who's in charge around here?

Photo (c) Jo Fielding. My badges of office just before I wore them for the first time.
We have a fairly well developed authority structure in the Anglican Church in which people are given odd sounding titles and even odder articles of clothing so that people will know exactly who is boss. We all quickly learn whether a cathedral dean outranks a regional dean and the difference between a transitional deacon and an archdeacon. I could let you know the answers to these earth shatteringly important questions but then I'd have to shoot you, so I won't. And anyway, as anyone  who has spent time in our church knows, despite the airs and graces to which the holders of our various offices are sometimes tempted, the real power in the church actually lies elsewhere.

Power is the ability to get people to do what you want them to do.People in power can do this with more ease than the rest of us because there is a whole system which enables them to make decisions with which others comply. This system is the power structure of an organisation, and all organisations usually have both a formal and an informal power structure.  

Formal power structures are those laid out in constitutions and job descriptions. Formal power is that which comes with appointments and positions and the consequences of obeying that power or not as the case may be are usually well laid out and well understood. Informal power is more subtle, more hidden and more difficult to understand, but in the church anyway, it is of far more importance than formal power. 

People are informally powerful through the exercise of three things: Mana, which is that importance within the organsation which derives from such things as social position, or previous accomplishment or family connection; Knowledge by which I mean the accumulation of facts and understanding and wisdom about the  organisation and the people which make it up; and Influence which derives from one thing above all, namely a sense of obligation for favours granted in the past.  These last two are by far the most significant and the people who possess knowledge and influence in an organisation may not be the ones you expect them to be.

I was three years into my first parish ministry and just about to leave before I realised that I was not, in fact, the leader of the parish. I might have held the formal role of Vicar and I might have had a piece of paper containing the bishop's signature to prove it, but there was someone else whose decisions were far more decisive than mine. Ever since, I have made it my business to understand the actual, as opposed to the presumed, power structures of parishes and other organisations to which I belong. But basically it comes down to answering a few key questions: who knows things around here? Who are people obliged to? Who do people listen to? Who do they look at before the vote is taken? Of course you can't answer those until you have been there a while and talked to a lot of people. But until you can answer them you shouldn't presume to be in charge in anything but name only.    


Anonymous said…
I wonder Kelvin, if your last component of power has been reinterpreted by the cross. "Influence which derives from one thing above all, namely a sense of obligation for favours granted in the past."
This strikes me as a pretty exhausting way to live our lives and running a little contrary to the grace Jesus invites us into?
Kelvin Wright said…
Yes, I agree. None of this has much to do with the values of the cross, including the official and formal power structures. They have a lot to do with being human however. I wasn't trying to make any comment here about the way things SHOULD be, but rather about how they are. And if someone is answering a call to leadership in a church they need to know this stuff or their call will not be fulfilled.

I think also that much of the informal power structure is unconscious. Some might be manipulative and conniving (the church is not free of any of the manifold sins and weaknesses of humankind) but often the powerful person in the church is only half aware, if at all, of the influence they yield. And they will describe it in terms of 'friendship' or 'doing the right thing' or more usually 'this is the way we do things around here'
Tony said…
Your phrase, 'This is the way we do things around here' is very important I think, as it is usually points directly to the Values of the place being lived out. It's when Values - the deep, unconscious things that are most important to us - get into conflict with someone else's Values that real trouble happens. We can all sign up to Mission Statements etc, but it's the Values that really matter.

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