the shape of leadership

Managing Exousia in Leadership

Four ways to steward the power differential

Donna Barrett on January 25, 2023

While shopping with my sister, I overheard a tense conversation in the checkout line.

A customer had purchased dresses for his wife. He was unhappy the bill included sales tax. He told the clerk the purchase should be tax-exempt because he led a nonprofit organization.

To calm the man, the clerk called her manager, explained the situation, and asked what she should do. Then she relayed the manager’s reply: The sale was not tax-exempt.

The customer powered up and harshly demanded to speak directly to the manager. The clerk politely refused as the manager was off site. Finally, he relented and paid the bill, stomping out of the store in a huff.

When I stepped to the counter, I commended the clerk for handling a difficult customer well and confirmed that tax exemption applies only to purchases made for a nonprofit organization, not for personal use.

She thanked me, then delivered the bad news: The quarrelsome customer was a local pastor.


Power and Privilege

As a form of leadership, ministry involves authority and privilege. The New Testament uses the same Greek word — exousia — for both. 

Mark 3:14–15 describes the spiritual authority Jesus gave His disciples: “He appointed twelve that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority [exousia] to drive out demons.”

Paul identified certain privileges apostles received, asking, “Don’t we have the right [exousia] to food and drink? Don’t we have the right [exousia] to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right [exousia] to not work for a living?” (1 Corinthians 9:4–6).

These Scriptures indicate that neither authority nor privilege are immoral per se. They can be used for good or for evil. What matters is how we steward them.

Jesus warned against using them for selfish ends: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that” (Luke 22:25–26).

The contentious pastor is an example of how not to exercise exousia. He tried to “lord it over” the store clerk through his aggressive posture, emotions, and tone of voice. And he tried to leverage his status as a nonprofit leader to benefit his family financially. 

By contrast, Jesus showed how to steward authority and privilege well. In Philippians 2, Paul exhorted believers to “have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (verse 5). “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit,” Paul wrote. “Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (verses 3–4).

Jesus exemplified this humble service through the Incarnation and the Cross. Although He was “in very nature God,” Jesus “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (verse 6). Instead, He took “the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (verse 7). Jesus incarnated humility.

The Cross showed the extent of Christ’s concern for our interests. Jesus “humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (verse 8).

Elsewhere, Paul wrote, “In [Christ] we have redemption through his blood” (Ephesians 1:7). Jesus served our need for salvation.

All Christians, but especially Christian leaders, are supposed to have “the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” Like Christ, we should use whatever authority and privilege we have selflessly, not selfishly.

The exousia of Christian ministry, then, is the authority and privilege of serving others.

Character is what we
do when we think no
one is watching. It’s
how we treat the less
powerful when no one
is around but them
and us.


Stewarding Exousia Well

As ministers, we know we ought to lead like Jesus did, but we are tempted to lead like unscrupulous kings instead. Below are four ways to steward our authority and privilege appropriately.

1. Recognize that a power differential exists. If you want to resist a temptation, you have to admit it exists. Too often, we don’t acknowledge that a power differential operates in the background of our ministries.

The term power differential refers to the fact that leaders have more exousia in an organization than followers do. We have decision-making authority. Church members defer to us, calling us “Pastor” or “Reverend.” We have status as leaders in the broader community. We receive a salary and benefits for our work.

When the senior pastor leads a staff meeting, a youth pastor drives home high schoolers after Wednesday night services, or a pastoral counselor meets with a congregant whose marriage is on the rocks, the power differential is at work.

Acknowledging this dynamic reminds us that our choices during every encounter have the potential to help or harm. And it’s our responsibility to manage the power differential ethically even when the other person isn’t aware of it.

2. Notice the early stages of compromise. No one who answers the call to ministry sets out to “lord it over” others. The spirit of domination starts small.

For example, a pastor pays for a personal meal with the church credit card and tells the treasurer he lost the receipt. A 20-something youth pastor pays too much attention to an attractive high school junior. A pastoral counselor leaves a reassuring hand on the shoulder of a distraught client a little too long.

The little foxes ruin the vineyard, the Bible says (Song of Songs 2:15).

It is impossible to make a list of do’s and don’ts for every situation you may face. But it is possible to self-monitor, show respect, and demonstrate Christ’s love consistently.

Self-evaluation is crucial to character development. Character is what we do when we think no one is watching. It’s how we treat the less powerful when no one is around but them and us.

Simply stop at the end of each day and evaluate yourself. Have I powered up on anyone or taken advantage of my position? Have I treated my colleagues and direct reports with utmost respect? Have I been fair even when I could have gotten away with less? Have I asked for forgiveness when necessary?

3. Take responsibility. Not long ago, I read in the news about a clergy member from another denomination who claimed to be the victim of a prostitute. He said the prostitute lured him into sex against his will.

When unhealthy people get caught in a misdeed, their instinctive reaction is to blame others or appeal to circumstances beyond their control. They claim to be victims, not perpetrators. It’s someone else’s fault.

Spiritually mature leaders take responsibility for their actions and do so right away. They manage their relationships responsibly from the get-go. As the old spiritual put it, “Not my brother, not my sister, but it’s me, O Lord, standin’ in the need of prayer.”

4. Welcome accountability. In my present role, I have noticed that abuses of power lie at the base of many ministerial discipline cases. An unhealthy understanding of authority and privilege is the root of eventual misconduct. Initially, the inappropriate actions are subtle; others often notice them before the leader recognizes there is a problem.

In ministry, as on the highway, lines are our friends. Your church’s board, constitution and bylaws, policies and procedures; standard accounting practices; and good relational boundaries protect both you and others. They channel the power of your ministry toward good results.

That’s why ministers should welcome external accountability even as they develop their internal moral compasses. 

If the past few years of clergy abuse scandals have taught us anything, it’s that the world is watching to see how we lead. Let’s make sure people see Christ’s humble service in how we steward our authority and privilege!


This article appears in the Winter 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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