Empowerment is an important topic in leadership and especially important in contemporary Church development literature. Ciulla (2004) writes, “Empowerment is about giving people the confidence, competence, freedom, and resources to act on their own judgments” (p. 59). Empowerment is essentially a transfer of power from the leader to the follower that puts the follower in the position to act. Ciulla views most empowerment in leader-follower relationships is ‘bogus empowerment’ and summarizes, “I describe bogus empowerment as the use of therapeutic functions to make people feel better about themselves, eliminate conflict, and satisfy their desire to belong (niceness), so that they will freely choose to work toward the goals of the organization (control of individualism) and be productive (instrumentalism)” (2004, p. 64-65). Bogus empowerment gives the follower the feeling of empowerment while keeping them under the same system of responsibilities, duties, and relationships and it is something that the Church is all too experienced with.
Bogus empowerment is most prevalent in the Church in discipleship/spiritual formation/leadership development ministries. The goal of many of these Church ministries across denominations is the faithful and noble attempt to live out Ephesians 4 command to, “equip his people for works of service”. In practice the approach is strikingly similar wherever one goes; take an inventory, take a class, join a small group or some other ministry to discover your passion and giftedness. The goal of this is to empower believers to use their gifts, passions, and abilities in kingdom services. The catch is that more often than not the church takes those discovered divine designs and fits them to a specific volunteer staffing need the congregation has. Many leadership development programs in congregations function similarity. The Church says it wants leaders but what it really wants is a warm body supervising the sugared up Jr. High kids. This represents a good example of bogus empowerment because the relationships never change. We say we want to empower believers but in the end they are still under the same staff lead and controlled ministry model, working toward the same goals as before but operating at a higher level. While this is not the case everywhere, it is typical. To be fair, many Churches have true empowerment programs for spiritual and leadership development but they are severely outnumbered by programs for staffing the busy work of the church disguised as spiritual and leadership development.
Ciulla’s characteristics of leadership as an empowering moral relationship could bring a powerful, transformative, and missional impact to the way the Church views equipping and empowerment. The key to empowerment is in relationship. “Bogus empowerment attempts to give employees or followers power without change the moral relationship between leaders and followers. Empowerment changes the rights, responsibilities, and duties of leaders as well as followers” (Ciulla, 2004, p. 80). In a Church context the end result is almost a role reversal. The leader becomes a resource serving and helping the follower carry out their passion, goals, and heart for ministry whether or not it takes place in a traditional ministry setting. This results in the responsibility for ministry being turned over to the follower. “When leaders really empower people, they give them the responsibility that comes with that power” (Ciulla, 2004, p. 77). A leadership model that seeks to equip and release congregations to pursue their own calling takes great risk on the part of the Church as it may lose members who choose a new direction to fulfill their calling but could make a real impact in the big picture of advancing the Kingdom.
Ciulla, J. B. (2004). Leadership and the problem of bogus empowerment. In J. B. Ciulla (Ed.), Ethics, the heart of leadership (2nd ed., pp. 59-82). Westport, CT: Praeger.