Authority. And shedloads of vulnerability.

But you are a proper academic, she said.  It was the next thing to come out of her mouth after I had told her that I, too, struggled to speak up in seminars.  That I, too, felt like a fraud a lot of the time.  Yet she would not hear it.  You see, that day I had delivered the paper.  And so I had role.  Vulnerability was cloaked by legitimated power.

It came up again that day, this sense of power fused with vulnerability, one threading through the other.  In a text conversation, this time with someone exploring vocational options.  And then again the next day, twice, with colleagues who also were not so far removed in time from jumping that same doctoral hurdle.

Position and vulnerability are a potent mix.  And what they mean for how one inhabits one’s power is hard to tell.

I am employed as a practical theologian.  An institution has given me authority and a sphere in which to exercise that authority.  I have positional power.  And behind that positional power lies expert power.  Allegedly.   Admittedly, my purest expertise is in two-thirds of nearly nothing.  But I can now pretend to be enough of an expert on a variety of surrounding areas.  I am almost always one step ahead of my students.  On good days, perhaps even two or three.  And shoring up the expert power is the all-important blag power, of course.

I joke.

Sort of.  Well, French and Raven never recognised this power base, anyway.

My positional and expert power are part of what grounds my authority in this academic space.  Prior to these in grounding my authority is God’s call, of course.  That call is both direct and mediated.  He spoke, even as far back as August 2010.  And then that call was mediated also through the institution which exercised its God-delegated authority in giving me this sphere of responsibility.

I have authority here.  Office.  This is my metron tou kanonos, my assigned sphere in this season.  I have authority in the building.  And, in significant part, such authority as I have in academic spaces outside of the building flows also from the fact that my authority is first in these hallowed halls.

I’m not sure how hallowed our halls are.  I just have to put that out there.  (Although I did inherit my physical office from a renowned scholar.  You know who you are.)

I have authority here.  And I have shedloads of vulnerability in this place.

For the avoidance of doubt, we’re talking a LOT of sheds.

What interests me is how my vulnerability affects the ways in which I inhabit my authority, both in the hallowed halls and in the places beyond where I am received as authorised because, in part, of the position I hold here.  And, secondly, how visible should my vulnerability be?

The second question was also thrown up in conversation this week.  Not in these terms, exactly.  But this was the thrust of it.  And I think the speaker favoured a measure of hiddenness.  As Andy Crouch helpfully considers in his Strong and Weak, authority means bearing vulnerability, or ‘exposure to meaningful risk’.  Where authority refuses to do so, vulnerability is simply displaced on to others.

Yet Crouch goes further.  He says, ‘The drama of leadership is hidden vulnerability.’  For the task of a leader, in his mind, is to help ‘communities meet their deepest vulnerability with appropriate authority’.  To do that, the leader must often leave unspoken their own vulnerability, for the community cannot bear it.  And they must often, too, bear those vulnerabilities of the community which it does not yet have the authority to address.

With this, you can see why one might argue in favour of those with authority hiding vulnerability.  It probably would not have helped my classes in my first year of teaching to know that my authority terrified me.  They would not have been blessed to know the degree to which self-doubt wracked me and how I second-guessed myself after every class.  There was, I think, an argument for hiding that vulnerability, that risk which I took every day because I believed it was a meaningful one which would hopefully have as its outcome my students’ flourishing.  For the students were in a place of vulnerability.  They didn’t know the subject, they didn’t know its methods.  They relied on me to empower their flourishing, to meet their ‘vulnerability with appropriate authority’.

Not to add to their vulnerability.

Indeed, I can see the place for hiding vulnerability.

Yet I can also see the place for making it visible.  For this lady in that context, it would have been easier had I received the accolade and said nothing.  Not to have disclosed my own vulnerability would have left unchallenged her belief that some women are proper academics and that she is not.  I can see that, had I said this in the context of delivering the paper itself, I would perhaps sufficiently have undermined my authority to deliver this paper that my vulnerability would have added to the weight of her own.

And yet I wonder whether there was a rightness about that vulnerability, in its timing and its revelation.  For a vulnerability which cohabits with authority can, I think, be directed yet to the other’s flourishing.  It is not as simple as saying that vulnerability should always be hidden by those with authority.  Hiddenness does not always protect those whom authority serves.  What matters, instead, is a different question.  Does revelation of my vulnerability serve for the flourishing of the one under my authority?

Does revelation of my vulnerability serve for the flourishing of the one under my authority?

And sometimes the answer is Yes.  That person whom I lead needs to hear my weakness.  Because it points to the God of all weakness.  Because it points to the call of those who lead to accept meaningful risk for the sake of others’ flourishing.  Because it invites them to step past their fears, to own their vulnerability without accepting its paralysis.

Sometimes the answer is Yes.

But sometimes it is not.  To reveal my vulnerability would be rather to release my own burden, to share pain in hope of displacing it.  And then revelation is not for flourishing.  So instead I must turn to another.  To a relationship which can bear the revelation.  To a friend whose flourishing does not depend on the right exercise of my authority in this particular sphere.

Appropriate intimacy in friendships can keep me from crossing boundaries with those in relation to whom I have authority.  It makes space where my vulnerability can be honoured, valued, submitted to, transformed – and all without displacing that vulnerability.  For vulnerability displaced on to those who depend on me to meet their own vulnerability with appropriate authority?  Such vulnerability is not for their flourishing.

My second question is, perhaps, answered.  The visibility of my vulnerability should be directed towards the flourishing of those in my care.  The first requires of me more thought.  How does my vulnerability affect the ways in which I inhabit my authority?  

What about you?  Do you own your vulnerability enough that you are aware of it?  Are you engaged in meaningful risk that renders you vulnerable?  And how do the threads of authority and vulnerability weave through one another in your life?

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3 thoughts on “Authority. And shedloads of vulnerability.

  1. The same questions can be asked in parenthood – and 4 kids in (two of them now adults) I’m still not sure of the answers.

    I want my kids to see my vulnerability – that I’m not perfect, that I worry and make mistakes and get down – so that they know that they don’t have to be perfect, don’t have to live up to some idealised image. (Which is all they see all the time in the media and on snapchat, so I long for a bit more reality at home.)

    But at the same time, I want them to feel secure, especially the younger ones. I don’t want them to have to worry about their Mum failing them, even though I will.

    It was thrown into sharp focus this summer as I underwent health investigations for something potentially extremely serious. What to tell them and when? How much to show of what I was feeling?

    So many senarios bring us to that same point – how real can we be in this situation, in this relationship, over this issue? No answers, but I really resonnate with the questions you are asking!

    • Thanks, Sally. You raise some interesting parallel circumstances. This makes me wonder even more about the church setting. Your authority in relation to your children is in the context of a mutuality which is, at this stage of the relationship, at least partly inchoate. For they rely on you to hold that power differential between you and to use it on their behalf, not treating them as equal in their ability to take responsibility before they are fully mature. So you use power FOR them more perhaps than power WITH them? In a more equal situation between adults, e.g. in the church, there may still be authority dynamics but I hesitate that these should be used in the kind of paternalistic way which is appropriate with children who have not yet reached full maturity. Perhaps then the authority-holder’s responsibility is more quickly to seek to use power WITH (whilst accepting that sometimes it is better to use power FOR and to hide the vulnerability which might be displayed in power WITH because that promotes better flourishing for those served). I don’t know yet really but your comment has triggered more thought, so thank you!

  2. Pingback: Authority as Kingdom promise? | The Art of Steering

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