Webster's Dictionary defines power as the "possession of control, authority, or influence over others; the ability to act or produce an effect." The Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence speaks of power as command of resources. Most of us have a certain amount of power as a result of any of a number of factors: class, knowledge or information, employment position, creativity, relationships, finances, personal charisma, gender, race, physical size, church role, or spirituality. The crucial distinction that needs to be made is whether that power is being used creatively or destructively.
Richard Foster speaks of creative power, saying that it is "the power that creates, gives life and joy and peace. It is freedom and not bondage, life and not death, transformation and not coercion. The power that creates restores relationship and gives the gift of wholeness to all." When power is used creatively it restores relationships, liberates those who are oppressed, brings inner and outer healing, nurtures confidence, enhances communication, and inspires faith. We all need power in some aspect of our lives. Without power a person feels inadequate, out of control, and lost. Having power gives us a means of making changes in our lives and in our society.
Power can also be used destructively or to hurt. Sexual abuse by a church leader or caregiver is one of the ways in which power becomes destructive. Abuse occurs when there is an imbalance of power and where persons with greater power misuse their power to their own benefit and the detriment of another. In situations of sexual abuse within the church the abusing leader has greater power than the victim, usually in several areas such as gender, leadership position or office, physical size, education, economic and ecclesiastical power. In the church, leaders have enormous power because they are perceived by some to be God's representative. The perpetrator may also have the power of information because church leaders are often privy to information that is shared with very few others.
While perpetrators of abuse have more power than their victims, they sometimes do not feel powerful and most refuse to acknowledge their power. In fact they frequently feel inadequate, overworked, unsupported, ineffective, and powerless (that is, not in control). Therefore, the notion of pastoral power may not be something with which they readily identify. Additionally, within church communities which emphasize the "priesthood of all believers" there is less permission to formally recognize power differentials within the church. The appearance of humility may also be an unacknowledged power, as it has the effect of silencing any criticism and increasing a leader's power. This inability to identify the power difference is dangerous; when pastors have difficulty acknowledging their power they stand in greater danger of abusing it.
A power imbalance is easily sexualized or eroticized. Carolyn Holderread Heggen notes that "The imbalance of power between men and women has become eroticized in our culture. Many persons find male power and female powerlessness sexually arousing. In general, men are sexually attracted to females who are younger, smaller, and less powerful than themselves. Women tend to be attracted to males who are older, larger, and more powerful. Male clergy have a great imbalance of power over their congregations, which are often predominately women, therefore, the stage is set for a sexually inapproprate expression of this power differential." Peter Rutter adds that "because men so often control a woman's future - and her physical, psychological, spiritual, economic or intellectual well-being - the mere presence of sexual innuendo from a man who has power over her can determine whether she experiences her femininity as a force to be valued and respected or as a commodity to be exploited."
In other instances, misuses of power can be sexualized in situations that begin as mentoring. This could happen in the case of an older man or woman taking an interest in a younger person of either sex for the purpose of encouraging that youth's development. A youth activity that begins as play can become a context for misusing power and authority when the youth leader does not understand that they have power by virtue of their difference in age and authority.
Because of the power imbalance, the leader always has the responsibility to protect the boundaries of the relationship. The person with the greater power must act in the best interests of the person with lesser power. This holds true even when the person with less power makes sexualizewd advances. A person in leadership is the keeper of a trust and, as such, is responsible to ensure that no sexualized behaviour occurs, no matter what the level of provocation or apparent consent. (Peter Rutter)
This article was written by Heather Block as part of the Advocacy Training Manual - Advocating for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by a Church Leader or Caregiver. Published by the Mennonite Central Committee Canada Women's Concerns. 1996,2000. Used by permission.