My own history does not sensitize me to matters of power, control, and authority. I have never been dominated or controlled harshly by anyone. Power was not obvious in my parent’s home, and by nature I think “we are all in this together.” My children have said that I can be controlling, but I think they are identifying my inner perfectionism and an uncharacteristic interest in neatness as I get older rather than any oppressive tendencies. Overall, I prefer not to have power, control, and authority, unless, of course, things are not going my way, and then I would like to have all three.

So I have been slow to grasp the subtleties of power differentials.

Counselors Have Power

It is obvious that adults have power over children and spiritual leaders—pastors, elders, teachers, even small group leaders—have power over those they lead. But counselors also have power over those they counsel. I fit in all of these categories, but I am especially interested in the role of counselor.

In that role, I usually do not feel as though I have power. I remember when a person I had counseled ate a meal sitting right next to me, and he had no immediate recollection that we spent a number of hours together. I have also had people fall asleep while I was, in my mind, speaking very fitting words. But these examples do not trick me into thinking that my role is effete and inconsequential.

Information Is Power

Though I consider myself a friend in most counseling situations, there is still a power differential: I usually know more about the person I am counseling than that person knows about me. I believe I am open with other people, and I would be willing to speak details of my own life if I thought they would be edifying, but the common reality is that I have more information about the person than the person has about me. I have graciously been given access to someone’s heart, and some of those details are fragile and best kept within a small circle. This imbalance gives me power, and I better use it well.

Every human heart has an interest in being open, known, and accepted, and every human heart is scared to death that it could be open, known, and rejected. This is where the power lies. When people are rejected by those who know them best, it has enduring consequences. Witness those who have been rejected by parents. Even after the parents are deceased, their power and influence continues unabated.

Use It Well

So we redouble our attentiveness to well-known teaching in Scripture on leadership and power.

  • We are servants (John 13, Phil 2:5–11)—we prize humility.
  • We are trustworthy friends who keep confidences (Prov 11:13; 25:9)
  • We speak words that bless and build up (Eph 4:29). Even the private words in our hearts are words of blessing (Lev 19:17).
  • We remember that “leader” is typically an epithet in Scripture. We are among a sordid group, and we keep that history in front of us as an ongoing warning.
  • We are people who need help too.

These teachings all keep an eye on human pride. When power, control, and authority are misused, arrogance is inevitably at the heart of it.