Part 4: Stages of Power

A good number of years ago, when I was a young and inexperienced woman in ministry, a mentor showed me Janet Hagberg’s stages of power.  It was an ‘aha’ moment for me.  It gave me an understanding of some of the feelings, experiences, and efforts I was making in my life to become a freer and more giving individual.

We had already covered quite a bit of ground at the women’s retreat, but I checked in with them to see if we could add this additional layer – as a tool to bring us to a deeper awareness of where we’re at and where we want to be.  Given the ages and stages of life and the many experiences represented in the room, I knew that the women would have a lot to offer to one another as we talked about these stages of power.

Though we’d been working with the four quadrants of a circle, representing the seasons of our lives, Hagberg describes six stages of power.  The first stage which would be up in the awakening quadrant, is described as powerless.  In this stage, we feel as though we are starting at ground zero.  Perhaps we have suffered a significant loss – a death of a family member, a break-up or divorce, being laid-off or fired, failing a course at school, not making the team, discovering the betrayal of a friend, financial disaster, totaling the car, illness or sudden disability.  These experiences can leave us feeling unmoored, unsure of where to turn, disconnected from needed resources.  Some may call it ‘hitting bottom’.  Hagberg suggests that in this place we may realize our need for God.  We cry out for help – we have no where else to turn.  We awaken from the stupor and recognize that we cannot carry on simply relying on our own devices.

The second stage is described as power by association.  We find an ally, a friend, someone to support us, encourage us, share resources with us.  I don’t know if any of you were one of the cool kids in school – but I most definitely was not.  Older kids bullied me.  One particularly humiliating situation was when I was in grade 9.  Two older girls in grade 11 came up behind me when I was at my locker.  They tugged on my pants with the supposed intention of startling me so that I would drop my books.  However, it so happened that I was wearing sweatpants (it was the 80’s ok) and not only was I startled, but they ended up pulling my pants (underwear included) all the way down to my knees.  Now truth be told, I was somewhat of an athlete back then and had a cute little rear end, but at the time I was shocked, mortified, and unsure of what to do.  I fled into the gymnasium, which was often my sanctuary.  My phys. ed. teacher was there and she knew me well enough to know that something was terribly wrong.  I told her what had happened and she was furious.  She told me that something similar had happened to her when she was a kid – and she was going to make sure these girls were held accountable.  And suddenly, I went from feeling powerless to having some degree of power by association.  Someone had my back.  Someone understood how I felt.  Someone was going to pursue justice on my behalf.  (Of course, this particular power by association often caused me feelings of powerlessness all over again when I was bullied even more for being ‘teacher’s pet’ – but that’s another story).

In our ministry with New Direction, we connect with a lot of folks who are feeling powerless – often because they are struggling to make sense of their sexuality, hearing messages of shame from their religious communities, are closeted and feel acutely isolated.  One of the first things we do is offer them safety in telling us their story – but this is often quickly followed by connecting them to someone in our community with whom they can experience a sense of connection, being known, sharing the journey, and receiving encouragement and support.  This is power by association.

The third stage is power by achievement.  When you’re just starting out in a job, relationship, marriage, as a parent etc. you often feel like you have to prove yourself.  You’re often fairly well aware of your own limitations and lack of experience – and sometimes this can bring a paralyzing sense of fear or inadequacy.  Perhaps you have the chance to find some peers going through similar experiences (power by association) because after all, misery loves company.  But as you begin to pull yourself up by your bootstraps and hit some milestones, meet some expectations, fulfill some goals, you shed the powerlessness of a newbie and grow in confidence.  You finish your first project before the deadline.  You make the move for the first kiss – and you get kissed back.  You negotiate your first thorough bathroom cleaning as newlyweds – and don’t kill each other.  Your newborn latches on and suddenly breast-feeding isn’t so scary and unknown.  These can all be right and good things to achieve.  They are legitimate ways we move forward in our lives with less fear and insecurity.

For Christians, this can be a time of uber-activity in the church.  On every committee, planning most events, willing to jump in where-ever and when-ever.  And these too can be right and good things.  Though sometimes we need to recognize that we are so driven because we are looking for some sort of affirmation that we are okay, that God loves us, that we’re doing a good job …… sometimes we’re not engaged because there is such an overflow of God’s love in our lives and not because we are at rest in being the Beloved of God

These first three stages of power are all externally controlled.  They are appropriate steps, ones that cannot usually be skipped over.  And certainly, there are many people who remain in these stages moving back and forth depending on what life throws at them.

But have you ever encountered someone who just exudes light and life and completely fills the space given them?  Perhaps you think of someone like Maya Angelou or Jean Vanier or Mother Theresa.  Perhaps a grandmother, a wise Sunday School teacher, or spiritual director.

Such folks seem to beckon us to a deeper place, a place that is all at the same time more powerful and embracing the wisdom of powerlessness.  And indeed, there is more than simply negotiating power external to our inner self.

The fourth stage of power reflects the transition from external to internal and is described as power by reflection.  This stage invites us to journey inward.  We make space to slow down, to stop rushing, striving, driving, and pushing.  We consider who we are, where we have been, where we are going.  We reflect on our beliefs – are they truly our own or did we just inherit the beliefs that were expected of us?  We reflect on our values – perhaps bringing intention for the first time to the values that have so much impact in shaping our decisions.  Perhaps we need to clarify or refine our beliefs and values – risking deconstructing assumptions and expectations and giving ourselves the space to really weigh, discern, listen, and wait on God’s Spirit.  Some of us will reflect on past experiences, sometimes very painful ones that we may have locked down into the dungeon, away from our conscious day-to-day life.  Perhaps we pursue healing through a variety of means.  Perhaps, in our stage of power by achievement, we submitted ourselves to the expectations of others in ways that actually harmed us – and now in this stage of reflection we shine the light, we relinquish, we trade our sorrow and shame for the deep knowing that we are the Beloved.

Hagberg would suggest that sometimes we hit a wall before we are able to move towards the fifth stage.  This could be a feeling of being stuck – facing the opportunity to make different choices – but still being fearful about what that will mean or what losses might arise.  We have reflected, we have traversed our inner world – and sometimes we don’t like what we see, sometimes we feel paralyzed in knowing how to move beyond patterns and habits, and sometimes we just get overwhelmed.  The way to break through this wall is less about resolving everything perfectly and more about having the courage to transcend them to see beyond to a wider and more expansive place where we are not so bound, worried about, or focused on dealing with every last hurt, habit, or hang-up.

The fifth stage is described as power by purpose.  Here we journey outward as we become attuned to the ways that we can co-operate with God in dismantling the barriers that prevent others from experiencing shalom.  Here we see banking executives quit their jobs and buy a food truck to do what they love and to connect with people in their neighborhood – or doctors making trips to the developing world to offer training and support to nationals – or teachers going to the inner-city school.  We see people choosing vegan lifestyles and minimizing their carbon footprint.  We see people volunteering at the food bank.  We consider our vocation rather than just our career.  We envision the mission God is inviting us into.  We pour out in the quiet confidence that we have enough, we are enough, God is enough.

The sixth stage is described as power by a life of love.  The person who lives consistently in this place is a rare jewel to be treasured.  These are the world changers who often seem so ordinary, who embody a staggering humility, whose wisdom sings with very few words.  This person lives an incarnational life – being willing to live in identification with others, often those on the margins and in most need of empowerment.  This person is able to allow others to find their way, no longer needing to be in control,  the conveyor of all knowledge, or to be followed and obeyed.  This person trusts God’s gifts and sufficiency in the other – and is simply able to be a witness to those gifts, at times inviting them to come forth, consistently loving the human being for who they are, as they are, with unwavering hope and confidence that God who started a good work will bring it to completion.  This person has child-like wonder, a vivacious imagination, curious creativity, and eagerly adopts a learning posture.  To be in the presence of such a person is to be blessed – by simply being one’s self.  This is a power that is pervasively marked by self-emptying love.

These stages are not often linear, as if they would follow some nice, neat, one-time only, trajectory.  But once we have navigated forward, if we find ourselves thrown back, the encouragement is that it won’t be such difficult terrain to traverse the second and third and fourth (etc.) time around.

If you read all of these posts, and consider all of the different symbols and tools and reminders and descriptions – you will see overlap and repetitiveness.  Indeed, the seasons of our lives traveled with spiritual practices, connections to God’s creation, pursuit of our true self, and an understanding of power and its role in humanizing our lives and the lives of those around us are incredible opportunities to embrace the abundance of life that Jesus said that he came to offer to us.  Friends, there is more.  And the more most often comes with a deeper and more willing capacity to confidently give rather than grasp and cling.  This is the freedom to which Christ has called us.  This is our invitation to live as ones unified with Christ.  This is our privilege of partnering with God in the redeeming of all things – starting with ourselves and moving beyond to touch with love all that God brings into our spheres of influence.

Thank you to all the women who engaged in this WeConnect retreat with me.  May God bless you and may these catalysts awaken us to move more deeply into into the life God has for us.

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