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Leader's Authority

by Dan Reiland

Where does your authority come from? Your answer to that question makes a difference.

Leaders deal in the realm of authority—it's the currency with which we get things done. We prefer the word "influence." It is a better term. It more accurately describes the innate function of leadership. It communicates what we are about better than "authority," but at the end of the day if a leader can't handle authority, he or she can't lead.

Leaders often struggle with handling authority. Some leaders take advantage of their authority, others barely act on it. Some leaders over-step their authority, others hide behind it. The wisest of leaders understand that the authority wasn't theirs in the first place and steward it with wisdom, grace and strength of character.

Where does your authority come from? Your answer to that question makes a difference. What you believe about the source of your authority shapes how you handle your authority.

The Source of Your Authority

There are two primary sources of authority: God and Man. The two are usually integrated. The important point is that you are never the source of your own authority. The implication is that it doesn't belong to you. The complication is that you are still held responsible.

God gave leaders gifts and abilities. He gave us the ability to influence, skills to work with, and talents that give us a unique edge. He gave all these things to us, and they are ours to keep. But ultimately they did not begin with us. Is this a fine line? Perhaps it is, but again, how you think about this really matters.

I have sat in many ordination services where young pastors were commissioned into the ministry of the gospel of Jesus Christ. That night they were scared to death, humble, and quick to acknowledge that all that they have came from somewhere else. Their God-given talents and their earthly-given opportunity to exercise those talents, all were given to them.

Then as time passed, they began to believe that they owned what they had been given, and some even began to believe they were the source of their own authority. And in these cases, nearly always, the ministry headed for trouble. Looking from the outside in, this seems impossible. But it is no more impossible than a young couple standing before a pastor reciting their sincere promises of love before God, family and friends only to find themselves a few years later in a bitter divorce.

Phrases like "my church," "my staff," and "my ministry" may be innocent, but they may also be a preview of ugly things to come. You may resist here, saying "But it IS my church, I'm the one held responsible."

This is the complication I stated earlier. The life of a servant is complicated. We are responsible for that which does not belong to us.

This is not true just among the ordained. Untold thousands of volunteer church leaders have lost sight of where their authority and ministry came from and have begun to act as if it belongs to them. In contrast to pastors who lost perspective, I have personally sat in many churches where the board said to the pastor, "We were here long before you got here and we'll be here long after you leave." What they were saying is, "Ultimately, we are in charge—the authority around here belongs to us." They said it almost as if that authority actually began with them in the first place.

There are many volunteers who are well-meaning and (in general) godly people who are empowered to do ministry. They have been empowered to do ministry for which the elders and staff took the risk and ultimately carry the responsibility. One such church in California started a ministry to the deaf. It was a great ministry that helped many people. But the day came when the elders and staff no longer sensed the press of God to continue this ministry, and so they shut it down. You'd have thought they just blasphemed the Holy Spirit. The volunteers literally said, "Who are you to take OUR ministry away from us?" How quickly we all forget where our authority comes from.

The Transference of Authority

Authority is always transferred. Let's go right to the top. Even Jesus' authority was transferred to Him from the Father. Take a look at Matthew 28:18-20.

18 Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."

Now read John 10:17-18

17 "The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. 18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father."

It is not difficult to see the pattern of Jesus acknowledging His source of authority. Take some time to read John 15, it's a beautiful picture of what I'm talking about.

So then what happens? Jesus transfers His authority to the disciples. You have already seen this in Matthew 28. Consider also Luke 9:1-2.

1 Jesus answered, "You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. Therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin."

The theological weight of this passage is heavy. God granted authority to man over Himself! But it was still given. Let's come back down to earth.

If my 14-year-old son John-Peter said, "Mackenzie, mom says you have to clean your room," the room will soon be clean. What is the difference? Authority was transferred from mom to John-Peter!

It's funny. Why is this so easy to understand but then so quick to be forgotten in the local church? I have an enormous amount of authority at Crossroads Church, where I serve as Executive Pastor. But I'm clear that the authority is not mine, and that it was transferred to me from the Senior Pastor Kevin Myers. I am responsible for tremendous amounts of ministry, but none of it belongs to me. That is the essence of a servant leader. In the same way, Kevin's authority is transferred from the elders. I am responsible for leading the staff at Crossroads. I have transferred large amounts of authority to the team. This authority, however, doesn't belong to them, and neither do the various ministries—they are stewards of what they have been given for as long as it is entrusted to them.

If, for example, one day Kevin should decide to no longer transfer authority to me, that's it. I'm done. I leave with gratitude to have been entrusted to lead that which did not belong to me. That is not always how it happens, is it? Don't some pastors leave with their underwear in a knot? They say things like, "I built this church, you can't take it from me" or, "If it wasn't for me this ministry would be nothing!" Or how about, "I'm not letting go of MY ministry without a fight!"

If we could all daily remember the relationship of the Father and the Son, we would handle authority so much better. Reflect on Ephesians 1:18-22.

18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Whenever you forget the source of your authority and begin to believe it is yours, you move from "I am responsible" to "I have my rights" and trouble begins.

Sustaining Authority

Your ability to sustain transferred authority is entirely dependent upon your faithfulness to serve the one who gave you the authority.

This part of empowerment (the transference of authority) is not about you, it's about the overall mission or purpose of your local church. Think this through with me: For the one who empowers, the focus is on the one being empowered. And for the one being empowered, the focus is on the mission. The focus is never about you.

The transference of authority, part of the process of empowerment, always breaks down when it stops at a person. Empowerment is like a river that must continue to flow, not pour into a still lake to sit and grow stagnant.

Have you ever experienced the frustration of an adolescent breaking trust with the authority given to them? For example, let's say you empowered your teenager to drive a car. This is transferred authority. You are still on the line for their mistakes! Then they live beneath their privilege in some way, so you attempt to revoke their privilege of driving and they declare something brilliant like, "You're not the boss of me—I'll do what I want, I've got my rights." How quickly they forget that none of that authority originated with them. It was all a privilege that both the parents and the State Department of Motor Vehicles granted to them. Yet they scream, "I took MY test, I have MY license!" The folly of their thinking is easy to see, but it gets complicated fast when they are no longer 16, but closer to 36.

Adolescent leaders are always hard to deal with because they do not understand the principle I've been talking about. Authority is a responsibility, not a right. It is a privilege, not a possession. It is a tool for the sake of God's Kingdom, not a toy for their own agenda.

A servant leader understands authority in this way and serves with a sword in one hand and a towel in the other.

This article is used by permission from Dr. Dan Reiland's free monthly e-newsletter The Pastor's Coach available at www.INJOY.com

INJOY's The Pastor's Coach: Volume 6, Issue 5 [2005]

Prepared for the Pneuma Foundation website by Todd H.