April 2022: Barrier to Faithfulness: Worldly Power

by Mary Linda McKinney

Woven throughout Faithful Meetings will be the themes of humility, submission, and That of God within. For me, they are important elements of what it means to be Quaker.  In order to really explore these topics, I think it is important to consider a significant barrier to them: Worldly power.


Many Friends have observed that we have very uncomfortable relationships with power in our communities. We often deny support and accountability to folks with leadings to ministry, saying that to recognize individual ministers is to create hierarchy. At the same time, in every Quaker community, one may find a spectrum of unacknowledged power dynamics. What is normal for individuals outside of the meeting house is likely to be carried into it. Some of us possess a lot of worldly power and authority; many of us uneasily carry limited amounts of it in different areas of our lives; and some of us hold very little power and authority in the world. Whatever our individual relationships with power, most of us bring those relationships into our Quaker spaces in our habits and assumptions.


For folks who hold a lot of worldly authority, who are used to having influence and control, submission may mean that we begin to recognize the power we have and find ways to share it with others. It may mean speaking less often in groups so individuals who have historically held less power find more opportunities to be heard. It may mean inviting these marginalized folks into leadership or decision-making and using resources to ensure they can show up. It may mean using our standing to hold others accountable or help them become aware of abuses of their own power. It may mean learning to step back when impulse and habituation dictate stepping forward. Those of us with this kind of power are often so secure in it as to be unaware of the inequality we may unintentionally create when we use it. Contemplating the testimony of equality and the ways power creates inequities may be useful.


For folks with an uneasy relationship with power, submission probably begins with recognizing ways power has shown up, positive and not, in our lives. People who can’t take power for granted learn to find it in various ways in different areas of our lives. Submission may mean spending time with the query “Do all aspects of your life bear the same witness?” The testimony of integrity may be an important touchstone as we work through where we find power, how we use it, and the impact of our actions on ourselves and others.


For those of us with very little worldly power and authority, submission may seem at first like more of the same. This can be challenging for folks who have often been forced to submit to the authority of others. Aren’t we seeking liberation from domination? Yes, we are. For us, submission may mean claiming the authority that wants to work through us. It may mean saying “yes” to the leading or the invitation that feels uncomfortable and unfamiliar. It may mean doing our own inner work to help us sort through our insecurities and feelings of inadequacy that worldly authorities have caused in us so we can “speak truth to power” with love as the guiding principle. It may also mean intentionally developing ourselves by learning, experimenting, and connecting with others.The testimony of stewardship is an apt one to consider. What are the gifts and talents we have been entrusted with? Are we willing to faithfully use them?


You may be asking what power has to do with humility and That of God.


Our usual relationships with worldly power and authority often block the power and authority that God wants to bring into the world through us. Have you ever clung tightly to your desire for control over a situation? Yep, me, too. What I’ve come to understand is that doing so is saying that I know more than the Divine about the situation…which is pretty much the opposite of humility. Have you had the experience of a collective wisdom that arises when people come together to listen to one another with an expectation that “more” is possible? You may have other understandings of it but I call that collective wisdom “God’s will” and believe it comes from the Divine through those gathered. When we exert our will to try to ensure our preferred outcomes, we are not listening for the more that is possible nor making ourselves available for the Holy to work through. When we are attached to familiar power dynamics and our sense of control, we cut ourselves off from what Spirit is offering to us.


Queries for reflection: What is your relationship with worldly power? Have you ever argued with God when what you wanted was different from what God was inviting you to? How have you experienced the authority of the Spirit working through you? What does “humility” mean to you?

Feel free to share your responses to any of these questions in the forum.

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4 thoughts on “April 2022: Barrier to Faithfulness: Worldly Power”

  1. When I try to control things, I am claiming superiority to God! collective wisdom reached in unity is a form of “God’s will” found by listening for the more that is possible.
    I have the tendency to use my intellectual power as a means of exploring truth, and I too often fail to recognize that it can be intimidating to others. I am not attached to being right about most things—being wrong is learning, which delights me. But that willingness is often not clear to others. Also, I fail to recognize their discomfort soon enough to offer a different approach.
    I also have the power of whiteness and autonomy from growing up with privilege. I rarely feel helpless about ordinary life. I feel hopeful that I can work with a bureaucracy (currently the prison) or legislators toward shared goals. I believe in community organizing and the possibility of peaceful change. Sometimes it is my expectation of success that helps me, because it feeds my willingness to persist until I get things resolved. I don’t give up easily, as another person might, who perceives themselves as less powerful. I have the power of adequate finances, a safety net if people who love me, and good problem-solving skills.
    However, I have my weaknesses as well. I am disabled and as such not powerful in physical ways and often experienced being an outsider, so that is a particular sensitivity. God used that in me to strengthen community bonds and inclusion.
    How ironic that after years of teaching and advocating for radical inclusion, that I should become an outsider once again. It happened when I continued to love someone who was arrested for a crime that triggered members of my Meeting.
    Ultimately, I was powerless to heal the rift, as the Meeting could not deal with my unconditional love, which conflicted with the horror others in Meeting felt. Many lost any respect for my judgment, most saw no moderation in me, and some shunned or shamed me. I was humiliated. The Meeting did not have the bandwidth to elder or mediate. I was asked not to contact people directly, presumably to protect others from my worldly power. I complied. I endured for a year and a half with hopes of reconciliation, filled with self-examination and regret for my failures. Ultimately, I found no healing and left, following Guidance found in worship.
    So here is my warning to those with similar worldly, intellectual power: our power makes mutual reconciliation intimidating and difficult, and we may find that we are irreconcilably alienated from those we most love.

    1. Elise Hansard

      Good Morning, Diane,

      Your response has touched me deeply and my heart goes out to you. From what you say, I believe we approach life in much the same way. It has been hard for me to recognize the many ways in which I have personal power and to be more sensitive to those who can see me as intimidating. A big surprise when I realized this! I expected other people to also share from their hearts. I don’t cling to being “right” and experience being wrong as learning.

      Your experience in your former Meeting is heartbreaking. I wish I had better words to give you.

      Your Friend,

  2. Dear Olivia — Loved your piece.

    Regarding “submission”, this quote by Isaac Pennington has been a guiding Light for me.

    “Give over thine own willing
    Give over thine own running
    Give over thine own desiring to know or be anything
    And sink down to the seed, which God sows in thy heart
    And let that be in thee and grow in thee and breathe in thee and act in thee”

    It is antithetical to our common understanding of success in this culture to “give over thine own desiring to know or be anything.” It is a radical process of giving ourselves over to the will of love. It requires discipline. It is an everyday, intentional practice of releasing our own ego and selfishness and letting love work through us.

    Your Friend, Sarah Bur

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