Power Encounter—of the Wrong Kind: A Preliminary Phenomenological Survey on Inappropriate Exercise of Power Experienced by Short-Term Missionaries
By: Dr. Ant Greenham
The phenomenon of Christians indulging in power plays (but refusing to admit it), seems widespread. I conducted a brief, preliminary, qualitative survey to test for its presence in late 2014. I approached fifty units appointed to overseas missionary assignments by a large North American organization and asked if they had experienced an inappropriate use of power or control on the part of a co-worker or supervisor. I also approached ten long-standing personal contacts, previously or presently involved in missions, with essentially the same questions, to gain an independent perspective.
I received twenty-nine replies from the fifty appointees, in addition to five responses from my personal contacts. Of the former, seven had experienced no abuse of power issues, eight had a “no” response but had observations on the topic, while fourteen had experienced an inappropriate use of power or control. A number of different issues were identified by these fourteen (and by three of my own contacts). They may be subdivided into three broad categories: abuse of authority, deficient mentoring, and refusal to consider alternatives. Each case involves a problem the respondent had with a superior, not with a co-worker.
The following leadership issues emerged under the first category: attempts to circumvent or manipulate the authority structure, refusal to consult before making assignments, opposition to transfer of personnel, refusal to specify an alleged problem, refusal to confront the person causing a problem, and making inadequate provision for existing workers. As an example, one respondent had the following to say:
Requests for godly counsel from stateside pastors and fellow laborers were not permitted, and refusal to comply with these inappropriate restrictions would be treated as “insubordination.” In addition to this, it was clearly stated that all mentoring relationships were subject to the approval of the supervisor. This was viewed as an attempt to silence us while we were on the field, and greatly hindered our ability to seek reconciliation and resolution. We viewed this as an attempt to protect our supervisors from honest criticism and scrutiny from higher field and stateside leadership. This treatment left us feeling alone, isolated from teammates and fellow laborers, and victimized with no potential recourse of action.
Unfortunately, this untenable situation played a key role in their not returning to the field.
In contrast to abuse of authority, other respondents reported its virtual absence, seen here as deficient mentoring. The following leadership issues emerged under this second category: abandoning respondent in a challenging or untenable situation, requiring a long-term decision at short notice, miscommunicating expectations but demanding compliance, creating false impressions through miscommunication, and giving no feedback. To quote one respondent, “My first month overseas I was left all alone in rural Africa and we had to figure everything out on our own.” Essentially, his desire was simply to be mentored, but it didn’t happen.
While inappropriate use of authority could take the forms of abuse or abandonment, supervisors’ resistance to other ways of doing things also featured. Leadership issues falling within this third category included a refusal to discuss operational structure, the implication that a different decision to their own was against God’s will, and a discouragement of open communication. One respondent lamented the sclerotic leadership she experienced as follows: “Three ladies in particular were wives of the team strategy leaders within their cities. They informed me that . . . I needed to submit to the way . . . [they] did things in country or find a new team. They were condescending in much of their communication with me and informed me that my ignorance was due to newness on the field.” However, when she and her husband returned to the field on a second assignment, they were treated with respect. Sadly, it would seem that the difference in attitude they experienced on their return was solely a product of their seniority, not because they had better ideas to offer than before.
Rather than end the research on a negative note, questions sent to the respondents included an opportunity for positive recommendations. Examples sent included cases of leaders who admit their shortcomings, seriously consider other ways of doing things, and act sacrificially. These are not radical leadership innovations; similar recommendations are noted in literature on member care and avoiding attrition in missions. Significantly, Jesus addresses such leadership deficiencies and provides a remedy (in Mark 10:35-45), modeled on himself, as well.
In sum, it seems that power plays are alive and well, despite the existence of sound organizational structures and policies. However, more research would help clarify the problem of power abuse in missions and elsewhere. It should also address a potential one-sidedness of my 2014 survey by including supervisors. Nevertheless, beginning a conversation on this subject aims to make the problem more visible, and may lead to concrete approaches to deal with it.
Dr. Ant Greenham is Associate Professor of Missions and Islamic Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.