Theology, Psychology, and Power

Last month we talked about one of the “Big Six” factors that influence how power plays out in our schools. I shared some reflections on how gender impacts access to positions of power and how power impacts gender.

In this entry, I’d like to look at the “theological” factors that impact the power dynamics we work within. I put quotation marks around the word “theological” because I think there are times when this word is misused, or at least used without reflection on whether it is the most accurate word.

I say this out of the personal conviction that so often what I state as my theology might more aptly be described as my psychology. There are times when my own personal story, my upbringing, my experiences and my reactions to those experiences, and my deep fears and hopes play such a powerful force in shaping how I read Scripture that I’m not sure I am truly letting the Spirit have his way. In other words, I believe there are times that I (and I might suggest you as well) bring so much of myself to my prayer, devotional, and Scripture study life that I see what I choose, want, or need to see in that moment.

My theological offerings are then my psychological offerings.

I challenge you to reflect on that reality for yourself. If that feels uncomfortable, start by reflecting on some of the interactions you may have had with parents and faculty. It is no surprise that a person with a high need for control will express a theological position that is very similar, or that a person with very relaxed personal boundaries will express a theology reflective of that. Please know that I’m not saying that ALL theology can be reduced to psychology. I am simply saying that our personal psychology impacts our theological understandings, and it therefore requires honest and vulnerable reflective work on our part to submit that reality to the work of the Spirit in our lives.

With that qualifier dealt with, let’s get on with the question of how one’s theology impacts power. In my doctoral research, I worked with an urban Christian high school whose staff members beautifully represented the richness of the local community. They were of varying ethnic groups (Korean, Chinese, Dutch, German, Caribbean, English, etc.), ranging from newly landed immigrants to fourth-generation Canadians.

They also represented a range of denominations, and that the denominational variety was represented in the variety of understandings of power. For example, one of the female teachers I interviewed, a highly intelligent and very strong classroom presence, held to what some would label a very traditional interpretation of Scripture’s view of male and female roles. This meant that she would not question the leadership of her male administrator. The administrator, on the other hand, did not hold to those views, and very much wanted her input and feedback on his leadership. He expressed frustration that there were several teachers on staff for whom this was true, and that this reality limited authentic and effective discourse regarding moving the school forward. For this teacher, her view of power was directly connected to her theological understandings.

I have experienced a similar dynamic in my own leadership.

When I was officially welcomed at a staff/board gathering, one of the board members prayed over me—a wonderful gift—and included the phrase, “God brought us Dave to be our leader. Help us to submit to his leadership.” The word “rule” was also used at one point. I felt uncomfortable about the situation, as my own beliefs around leadership connect a lot with the idea of working WITH a strong staff team in my unique role and at times submitting to their deeper knowledge or understanding in certain areas of expertise. In following up with that board member, it became clear that we had very different views of the biblical understanding of authority. For them, the biblical injunction to submit to human authority was clear cut and left little to no room for shared discourse or informal staff leadership. Obviously, I feel my own view is right, but at the end of the day, it came down to our different ways of understanding the Bible.

Some of our schools are denominationally homogenous, so it might be tempting to feel this doesn’t apply. I think that’s a risky temptation. Even within a specific denomination there is variety and difference in theological understandings. I would venture to guess that plays out in our schools as well.

So why does all this matter for me in my leadership?

  • First, I believe it is vital to reflect on our own “theological” view of power and to do so in submission to the voice of the Spirit.
  • Second, I think it is important to be aware of, and sensitive to, the diversity of views amongst our parents and faculty. This understanding can allow us to more readily engage and empower others.
  • Third, I believe it is important to be able to name the real contexts within which we work.

For staff to understand and trust each other, they need to know each other. Knowing the reality of our theological diversity moves us one step forward toward understanding and trust.

Blessings to you as you continue to enact and share power faithfully in your schools.

– David Loewen

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