The Tomorrow’s Professor blog has a helpful post on the differences between authority and influence. It’s focused on education, but reading it through “church” eyes can also help us distinguish between two very different kinds of power in the church.

Authority is legitimate power which is vested in leaders within formal organizations and involves a legal right to make decisions which may be supported by sanctions.

Influence represents an ability to affect outcomes and depends on personal characteristics and expertise. Here are seven distinctions between authority and influence:

  • Authority is the static, structural aspect of power in organizations; influence is the dynamic, tactical element.
  • Authority is the formal aspect of power; influence is the informal aspect.
  • Authority refers to the formally sanctioned right to make final decisions; influence is not sanctioned by the organization and is, therefore, not a matter of organizational rights.
  • Authority implies involuntary submission by subordinates; influence implies voluntary submission and does not necessarily entail a superior-subordinate relationship.
  • Authority flows downward, and it is unidirectional; influence is multidirectional and can flow upward, downward, or horizontally.
  • The source of authority is solely structural; the source of influence may be personal characteristics, expertise, or opportunity.
  • Authority is circumscribed, that is, the domain, scope, and legitimacy of the power are specifically and clearly delimited; influence is uncircumscribed, that is, its domain, scope, and legitimacy are typically ambiguous.

Church leaders/officers such as elders and deacons certainly have a degree of God-given authority, but influence is almost always preferable to authority if at all possible.

The post then identifies six forms of power in educational institutions, but the parallels can, again, also be found in churches:

  • Positional power: the power of individuals who have an official position in the institution.
  • Authority of expertise: the power that is vested in someone because of their acknowledged expertise
  • Personal power: individuals who are charismatic or possess verbal skills or certain other characteristics may be able to exercise personal power.
  • Control of rewards: power is likely to be possessed to a significant degree by individuals who have control of rewards, and are inevitably perceived as powerful by those who value such returns.
  • Coercive power: the mirror image of the control of rewards may be coercive power, and rests on the ability to constrain, to block, to interfere, or to punish?
  • Control of resources: control of the distributions of resources gives power over those people who wish to acquire them.

To these I would add:

  • Administrative power: The use (abuse) of procedure and bureaucracy to further a personal agenda.
  • Political power: Decisions are based on considerations unrelated to the particular issue or case.

I could go on, but the list is sadly already way too long. How wonderful it would be if we could simply trust in spiritual power, authority, and influence; and prayerfully pursue God’s glory and the good of souls by the power of the Holy Spirit alone.

  • Rob Bailey

    Great exercise. It is a great habit to closely consider the structure of our institutions. I do get a little lost when you bring in “(abuse);personal agenda;sadly;and too long” Based on the impartial tone of the first 9/10ths of the article “administrative power” should have been defined as -use of procedure and bureaucracy to ensure the well being of the institution.(or something like that) The final 10th of the piece implies something inherently faulty with authority or some presupposed disposition towards authority.

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