Sources of Authority for Pastoral Leadership

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Lovett H. Weems, Jr., explains that while people may give pastors a leadership position, the true authority needed to lead must be worked out among the people with whom they serve. One’s authority in ministry is rooted not just in one’s calling from God, but in multiple callings, including the calling from the church and the calling of the particular context in which one serves.


What is the source of pastoral authority? From what source does one draw the power needed for effective ministry? Some might answer, “From God. God has called me to ordained ministry and from that call I draw my mission.” Others might respond, “From the church. I took very seriously the words of my bishop at my ordination, ‘Take thou authority.’ ” Still others might say, “From the local church I serve. My local church is the arena of my ministry and thus the source of any authority and power I might have.” Is the first, second, or third response correct? In good Wesleyan form, the answer may well be “yes.” There are, indeed, multiple sources of pastoral authority and power for pastoral leadership.

For Christian leaders, authority and calling cannot be separated. Indeed, there are multiple callings that comprise a spiritual leader’s authority — theological, ecclesial, and contextual.

Suspicion of Authority

The subject of authority for pastoral leadership often is difficult to raise. Pastoral leaders sometimes are suspicious of “authority.” They may have experienced the abuse of authority. Others stay away from the subject because they have seen enormous energy misspent in disagreements around matters of standing and prerogative among clergy, staff, and laity in congregations. These pastors are correct to be wary of authority when connected with power over others. However, there is an authority essential to the effective fulfillment of one’s calling to ministry. Without understanding and claiming this authority, many pastors will be reticent to exercise the authority given to them. By not exercising an appropriate authority, leaders may be denying their calling.

Sources of Authority

For Christian leaders, authority and calling cannot be separated. Indeed, there are multiple callings that comprise a spiritual leader’s authority. One might think of the sources of authority as the theological, ecclesial, and contextual.

Calling from God

The first source of authority is our calling from God. Jesus taught as one having authority, and not as the scribes. The scribes had positional authority, but that did not mean they had the authority that comes from an inner conviction of God’s calling.

Our calling from God represents the essence of our spiritual identity. It is who we are before God. It embodies our mission in life. While we continue to seek greater clarity about God’s call on our lives, we will always take with us into any ministry setting the call of God that claims and guides our lives.

Christian leaders must see all leadership rooted in what God has called them to be and do. But more is needed. If we were to be spiritual entrepreneurs or private practitioners, then our own conviction might be sufficient. But Christian leaders always function within a community of faith that must confirm God’s call.

Calling from the Church

The second source of authority is our calling from the church. Jackson Carroll speaks of authority as “legitimate power.” A key part of that legitimizing comes from the larger community of faith that not only confirms our call from God, but also calls us to various roles of leadership. These “assignments,” as Jürgen Moltmann refers to them, are to be fulfilled on behalf of the whole church. The leadership roles never become private possessions to be guarded and protected. Leadership is about service, not prerogative.

Our callings from the church will change from time to time. For example, at one point our calling may be as a pastor or associate pastor. The next calling may be as youth minister, music director, or in educational ministries.

Calling of the Context

The third source of a leader’s authority comes from the calling of the context. Leadership is finally about real people in actual circumstances. Proverbs says that “when the righteous are in authority, the people flourish.” Paul speaks of authority being used for “building up” and not for “tearing down.”

People may give us a leadership position, but the authority needed to lead must be worked out among the people with whom we serve. An essential element of authority comes from the credibility a leader establishes with the people the leader works with most closely.

James Kouzes speaks of credibility as “credit-ability.” People analyze our credibility all the time just as a bank might assess our credit worthiness. Indeed, credibility is the working capital of the leader. A leader draws from the account of credibility to make change possible.


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About Author

Dr. Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

Lovett H. Weems, Jr., is senior consultant at the Lewis Center for Church Leadership, professor of church leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary, and author of several books on leadership.


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“In order to move forward with vision, we are wise to pay attention to what the past has taught us.” — Lovett H. Weems, Jr.

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