Week 8 of the equity-based hospitality study
- Understand power dynamics and how to navigate them in order to extend equity-based hospitality.
- Unpack how microaggressions play a part in pushing people away from feeling like they belong.
“Don’t be concerned for your own good but for the good of others.” ( 1 Corinthians 10:24, NLT)
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28, NIV)
Recently, I spent time reading Karen González’s book The God Who Sees. In it, she shares: “We operate in a disembodied spirituality that understands reading Scripture as merely a way to know God’s character rather than as a way of seeing God’s particular acts of mercy, compassion, and justice.” (González, 14)
I had to ponder that quote. I asked myself, “What lens am I looking at Scripture through? Am I looking to find acts of mercy, compassion, and justice, or a powerful God that conquers enemies? Am I looking to find God’s true character, or the character I desire God to be?”
God’s mercy, compassion, and justice
Most of my life, I have viewed Scripture as a way to understand God’s character of power as well as the story of events that took place in biblical times. I understood the Bible to be the story of Jesus who conquered sin and death. But what exactly does that mean? I’ve been on a journey to have the Scriptures influence my understanding of God as I look at the culture, context, and history behind the words.
We believe that in our Holy Scriptures are the words of God, are the stories of God and God showing us mercy, compassion, and justice. God is showing us a better way to live. A better way to love one another. The Scriptures are showing us the meaning of life. The meaning of life is to love God and love one another. Yet, without even knowing it, our own desire for power can get in the way, which is the opposite of how God shows us how to live.
Personally, I needed to approach the Scriptures with a growth mindset. I needed to ask myself, “what can I learn today about injustice, lack of mercy and lack of love?” I needed to ask myself “what can I understand today about God’s love towards all people?” I am always asking the question, “What is something new I can learn today to grow from my childhood faith to my adult faith?”
Power dynamics in the church
In every layer of church leadership and church life, there’s temptation to give in to the privilege of power over those who come from a disadvantaged background. These are the powers and principalities the Scriptures talk about. People with more get more, which sets up a system of “haves” and “have-nots.”
I remember studying as a young adult how some churches would have people pay for seats. Some churches would have those who they considered “less than” sit in the back. Recently, I learned that in the United States, people of color were not allowed to sit anywhere they wanted in some churches before the Civil Rights era. This segregated seating system contributed to the thriving Black church. People of color found churches where they belong.
As a pastor I’ve needed to remind myself that I am here to serve, not be served. I’ve had to ask myself how am I showing mercy, compassion and justice in this moment. I’ve had to ask myself, “Do I want only my music, or am I willing to worship with others who have a different style of music?” Am I thrilled that we are all in unity worshiping together, or is it about my likes and wants? Do I want the power to have my way, or am I willing to let go of the power of my way and instead ask what others want or need and welcome them in?
There is a big push right now for the younger generations to have the keys to the worship service. If we don’t give it to them, our churches will die out. For me to give the keys means I must step back and serve the younger generation as they lead the way. I need to support them as they find their way of leading. I need to prevent any barrier that would keep them from succeeding. Part of removing barriers is to immerse myself in God’s acts of mercy, compassion, and justice.
A particular biblical story that Karen González shares in her book is found in Matthew 15 and Mark 8. Here, a woman comes to Jesus and begs him to drive the demon out of her daughter. This woman has tenacity, quick thinking, and a bit of sass. She does not back down when Jesus states that the food is not for her or her daughter, but for the Jews only. She replies “even the dogs get the crumbs.” Jesus heals her daughter because of her tenacity and sass. She points out that even the “less-than” in society can receive blessings and healing.
Understanding how power operates
Power dynamics have to do with a person’s ability to exert control over others. These dynamics may be something a person is conscious of, or they may be unconscious of the power they hold. Organizations have their own systems of power and dynamics, layered on top of power dynamics among individuals. Power dynamics influence how people speak up in meetings with supervisors, leaders, and their peers. There are all types of power and different nuances of power dynamics to consider. Power dynamics are not inherently good or bad. How you structure your own power dynamic is what matters. Giving away power, acknowledging power, and making sure all voices are heard is what brings equity-based hospitality.
We may not believe we are exerting any power over anyone. Sometimes it takes very careful observation of our behavior to understand where our power might lie. An example came to me the other day.
Different cultures have different understandings of what it means to volunteer in a school. In the U.S., it’s common for parents to volunteer and get involved in the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) of their children’s school. PTA members may assume all parents understand why the schools need volunteers. Sometimes a judgment will come that people who aren’t volunteers don’t care about their child’s school, or are even selfish in not wanting to give of their time. What is really happening here is a cultural difference. Many cultures consider it offensive for parents to help the school. These cultures believe that schools are the authorities, and educators don’t need help from those who are not trained in education. Different cultures have a different view of education.
Another example I experienced was in a Bible study. There was a woman who loved to decorate. She wanted help and had been setting up the study for years. I tried to help her find volunteers. Yet, volunteer after volunteer would only last one week. It turned out the woman wanted someone who would do as they were told. She wanted someone to clean up afterwards. When someone came to help, she wanted to micromanage how they decorated. You can’t lead if no one is following. She did not believe she was exerting any power over anyone. Yet she only allowed others to help her if she could control what they did. She eventually left because “no one would help her.”
Power dynamics in the New Testament
During the time of Jesus, different religious sects and government had different levels of power. Like today, most wanted power. Dismantling the structures of power caused a major upset. Jesus came and dismantled that power. Women traveled with him and paid his bills. People from all over came to be healed, not just the religious elite or stout followers. Jesus shook up the power structure wherever he went. Having the power to heal and raise people from the dead was quite a power restructuring.
God desires unity. God values all people equally.
A common Roman belief in biblical times was that the Jews were naturally slaves. They did not believe that the Jews had the capacity to govern themselves. Jews themselves did not believe women could be educated and seen as equals. Certain people groups were viewed as better than others. We need to guard ourselves against this mentality.
Church power dynamics and societal influences today
In today’s churches, there are power structures, too. Some have denominational rules/polity they need to live by. Non-denominational churches may have elders or boards who have the final say. Even a church with just a lead pastor and no board to be accountable to has a power structure. The pastor could hold a lot of power in such churches if he or she sets it up that way.
None of this is 100 percent good or bad. A caring and serving pastor might willingly share power generously. Negative power dynamics come into play when a pastor (or someone else) wants to hold all the power. Negative power dynamics can sink an organization and keep it from thriving. Negative power dynamics can keep marginalized groups out and the elite in.
Positive power dynamics look upward and outward. Positive power dynamics look to share power in order to increase their capacity to get things done and welcome all in. The woman who was decorating in my example earlier could have encouraged a team of women with different ideas on decorating, celebrated their uniqueness, and had fun being creative together with the team.
Power dynamics set the tone in any human interaction. They influence your decision to speak up or stay quiet, to engage or walk away. In meetings, if there is a negative power dynamic, those at the top will make decisions based on their needs and not look out at everyone’s needs.
Using your power to share power with others
Recently, I was working to create a curriculum, and choosing the font for the course became a conversation. Certain fonts enable those who have difficulty seeing to read better. The Braille Institute has actually released fonts for this reason. I proposed using an accessible font for the curriculum. In a conversation with the executive team for the curriculum, a member asked me, “Why use a different font? Who cares, our market majority is seeing people.”
This person clearly had the power to veto my suggestion of including universal design on all of our projects. If I was younger and needed the job for my livelihood or any other reason, I might have been fearful, I would have stayed quiet. But at this point, I understand power dynamics and the need to be as inclusive as possible in all of the work I produce. So instead of just arguing and trying to assert my power, I asked questions, starting with “I wonder…”
“I wonder what percentage of people struggle with eyesight? I wonder if the new font would also help those with glasses? I wonder about the percentage of people who wear glasses who read our curriculum? I wonder if we advertised that we use the principles of universal design and the Braille Institute font, would there be a market value for our curriculum outside of who we currently sell to?”
Those were just a few of the questions I asked. I then asked the executive if I could do some research and find out those answers before we finalize not using a new font. Instead of challenging the power dynamic that was there, I needed to engage with humility and redirect.
I completely understand that I am in a majority with my current situation and have the power to redirect. Not all do. Which is why all leaders need to understand their own power dynamic. If I had stayed quiet, fewer people would have the ability to enjoy and learn from what I believe is a powerful curriculum for all people. But we must make it available to all people by using the principles of universal design. The font is just one example.
I believe this is what Jesus would have done.
Acts 6:1-7 gives us a powerful picture of the early church. The early church made provision for those who were at risk and in the minority, and appointed people to be mindful of the care of those groups. Here, we see a group of men give power away to others. This group knew they could not do it all and needed assistance from others. They gave the power away.
Ways to consider power dynamics and share power
- Don’t exclude the few for the majority needs. Consider every aspect of your church or organization. Where can you include the minority’s needs?
- Give people the freedom to come and go. Don’t make people stay in situations if they are uncomfortable. At the same time, take care that they aren’t leaving as an easy out.
- Continue to invite people to your meetings. Many churches today are even creating their weekly sermons in collaborative groups. Anyone can come to them if they have the time. In these groups, the lead teacher of that week shares their big idea and key verse. Then the group discusses it. They exchange stories, ideas, and other Scripture passages. The teacher then goes back and drafts their sermon based on what they heard. It’s a delight when you are sitting in the service and you hear your idea or verse being presented. I’ve sat in on these and they are a beautiful way to have a healthy power dynamic.
- Just because it’s always been done that way does not mean it always needs to be done that way. You may have heard the story of the cutting of the roast. A granddaughter was using her grandmother’s recipe to make a roast. Her mom had taught her to cut off both ends. She eventually asked her grandmother why she had done it that way. She laughed and said, “My pan was too small for the roast!” For years, they had done it a certain way without ever evaluating if it was still the best way. Continue to ask the next generation how they would like to have elements in the service done. Service elements are done differently all over the world, even within the same denomination. If we believe all have access to God, then how we do a certain element will not cause eternal harm! Be open to new ideas.
Microaggressions: what they are and why they cause harm
Last, but not least, it’s important to consider microaggressions. There is so much that can be said regarding microaggressions. Microaggressions for many are a new concept in the power dynamic world. But they have been around since the beginning of time. Microaggressions can be given in a casual, seemingly innocent manner, yet contribute significantly to a negative power dynamic. They are verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in a marginalized group.
On the surface, microaggressions can seem like benign interactions to people who aren’t aware of what they convey. Some feel these microaggressions are really the victims being too sensitive. Most often, these critiques come from people who are in power, not those who are on the margins themselves. If something is hurtful to someone else, why say it?
For example, Ashley Daniels is a TikToker who educates people on Autism. She recently made news by bringing attention to a song that used the word paralized in its lyrics when it could have used starstruck, or mesmerized, or struggling to talk to a pretty girl. This language makes a person’s disability into a metaphor to describe an unrelated experience. The implication of talking about someone’s disability in this way is that the disability is not normal and is something to be afraid of.
Other microaggressions include making fun of character traits and expecting to get a laugh out of it. Or using race or gender to describe intelligence. Claiming to be “color blind” to the differences between people of different races is another example. All are created in the image of God with our own uniqueness, cultural traits, and beauty. Additionally, you can’t see how racism contributes to negative power dynamics if you claim not to see color.
Let’s instead acknowledge the beauty in all, the uniqueness in all, and champion one another, while also being honest about the ways things like racism hold some of us back.
I’ve watched church greeters, board members, people of all ages, and people of different races participate in microaggressions. Older generations make disparaging comments and “jokes” about younger generations, and vice versa. A white person makes a “joke” about another person’s heritage. I’ve watched a broker assign intelligence to a group of people and state “Wow! How did you become so good at math?” I’ve seen people deny they can be racist, or claim they have no blind spots when it comes to prejudice. A senior that I know keeps saying, “Everyone is just so sensitive.” This, too, is a form of microaggression.
Microaggressions occur when we feel slighted, maybe sense we are losing our power, or just want to put someone in their place. There is nothing funny about them. Yet people engage in them on a regular basis. These microaggressions only bring disunity and keep equity-based hospitality from happening.
Remember, we desire for our hearts and doors to be wide open. We desire to be seen as a people who love God AND love one another. We must be mindful of our words and actions and clearly understand power dynamics. We must remember that all are created in the image of God.
- Read Matthew 25:35-40. How does this passage help us to dismantle negative power dynamics?
- Read Micah 6:8. What do you learn about power dynamics in this verse?
- Take inventory of your personal life and organization. Where might there be some negative power dynamics? What positive influence can you bring?
- What does dismantling negative power dynamics in your life or organization look like?
- Do a study of the word “unity” in Scripture. How often is the word used? How does this word give us a visual of what the kingdom of heaven here on earth will look like?
- Read Matthew 6:10. What does the kingdom of heaven look like? What does it mean to have the kingdom of heaven here on earth?
- Take some time to pray, meditate, and journal on power dynamics and how they can influence negatively and positively to equity-based hospitality.
For further study consider these resources:
- “It’s Time to Acknowledge the Power Dynamics Involved in Accepting Hospitality” by Michelle Ami Reyes (Christianity Today)
- “This Is a Question of Culture, Power, and Value, Not Role” by Sheri Bradley (CBE International)
- What Is White Supremacy Culture? (whitesupremacyculture.info)
- “I want to love God with all my mind, but as an autistic Christian, my brain works differently to yours” by Erin Burnett (Premier Christianity)
- Empower Initiative (fosteringbelonging.org)