Tithe Your Power : How to lead collaboratively.

Psst – This was written freehand, and it got a little long. But there’s no time or space for nuanced editing today, and the message wants to get born. So if this bit resonates with you, you should read the rest. Because I need you with me on this one.

“Women should lead. We can and we should and we must.
But we need not lead like the dominate males we grew up with.
We can give away power and still be authoritative.
We can instruct that this or that must happen, and still serve.
We can take the mic, and then pass it to the left.
We can take the stage, and then step aside for someone who doesn’t look quite like us (and therefore has wisdom we never knew we’d forgotten.)”


“Tithe your Power.”

This is the phrase that came to me when I asked my older self a question in an exercise led by Patti Digh at Design Your Life Camp last weekend.

For years now, I’ve been trying to figure out how to lead. As a pastor, I was never comfortable with the top-down knowledge structure that is built into church life. It would have been fine, I suppose, if I had learned Greek and Hebrew well instead of just a smattering of both. If I had seen the Bible as a static rule book that you could dissect for answers. If I had loved to exegete ancient texts.

But I was every so much in love with the care and keeping of stories. The story of the congregation living on the corner of Brooklyn and 42nd. The stories of the kids living in the alley way. The story of the women pushing on lies about their “dangerous” bodies and the limited collection of roles they were allowed to play. The story of an ancient book, and a rabble-rousing man, and the way it shaped the world.

When you are in love with stories, you cannot be the boss of them. You cannot sit in an office and look at a flow chart of decision making authority and dictate the next line. You have to make space for them to grow. To wander. To discover themselves. (Of course now I am not talking about stories, but about the people who are living their stories. But you already knew that, didn’t you?)

So as a pastor I tried to make space for these stories by leading in a less corporate way. Rather than a pyramid of power trickling from the top down, I – and my other post-modern colleagues—tried to uncover a different structure. “Flat Leadership,” we called it. Or “collaborative leadership.” We were particularly fond of the idea of webs—a metaphor for a way that one could lead through the vibrations on a string, rather than by a gavel banging down from on high.

We experimented, we planted, we tried. And over and over again things failed. The old way was too ingrained. It was too easy for the designated leaders – the ones with the titles – to yank back control when things weren’t developing as they wanted them to. This control grew out of fear. We were too afraid of making mistakes, so we couldn’t trust the process to unfold. (That’s what happens when the idea of sin gets to be in the driver’s seat. It’s hard to shake off, that sinner’s mentality.) And the people we were building with were afraid too –afraid to they would have to give up all their time; afraid they would invest once again in something that ended up having little to no function in their everyday life; afraid to drink the Kool Aid.

In the face of this disappointment and conundrum, I abdicated my power. I decided that if I could not lead in a collaborative way, I would not lead at all. Or rather, whatever leading I did would be by default. If I inspired someone, fine. If someone liked my work, how flattering. I didn’t think leadership was bad per se – but I did see it as fraught with peril. I was tired of peril. Peril was wearing me down.

Then last week, as I was digging up old mixed media pieces to use as examples in my camp workshop, I unearthed a collage a parishioner had made for me years ago. Its picture of Dorothy and her traveling companions moving down the yellow brick road. They are arm in arm. A question mark made of waxed string hovers over the whole image.

It was popular, when I was coming up (and moving out) of the church to use Dorothy and her friends as a metaphor for the kind of leadership we were looking for. Each person sharing their strengths, with one person maybe keeping them on track a little more than the others. A navigator then. We liked this image, but we couldn’t seem to make it happen. So I gave it up. I literally put it away in a box because I couldn’t bear to look at it anymore.

Only I didn’t give it up, did I? Because I’ve been doing it all along. With my writing and classes, with coaching and Flock—all this time we’ve been traveling together down the yellow brick road. Only we gave up heading towards the man behind the curtain. We broke up with the Great and Powerful Oz, and we started to get to know the Great and Powerful Us instead. Instead we picked a new destination. We’ve been saying, “Look! A life based on the things we value most! Let’s go there! Let’s get there together!”

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about growing this message. About getting it into more eager, hungry hands. About letting it mature. And as that holy ambition has grown inside me, so has my concern about leadership. If my work get bigger, if our message spreads will I lose this Dorothy leadership? Will I grasp and claw and take back control? Will I forget that “there’s no place to go, but together.”

It was with these concerns in mind, that when Patti asked me to consult my older self, I turned to her and said, “How can I both lead and makes space for the gifts of others?”

By tithing your power,” my older self replied.

(Yes, this.)

Women should lead. We can and we should and we must. But we need not lead like the dominate males we grew up with. We can give away power and still be authoritative. We can instruct that this or that must happen, and still serve. We can take the mic, and then pass it to the left. We can take the stage, and then step aside for someone who doesn’t look quite like us (and therefore has wisdom we never knew we’d forgotten.)

I’m learning to do this. I want to do this better.

At Soul Sisters, I refer to my fellow coaches and artists as “co-conspirators.” I may be running this event, but I am only a host, not a rock star. My time on the stage will be limited. I’ll teach one 30 minutes session, and all the rest of the time I’ll be singing the praises of others. I’ll introduce, I’ll promote, I’ll testify. This year, with a bunch of nice white ladies. Next year with a more diverse crowd. I’ll set up the tent, and then get out of the way. I will share the mic. I will pass the talking stick.

But I’ll also suggest the topics. I’ll assess the need of the crowd. I’ll step into my role of leader and priest and say “Here, we need to grow here. There, that’s our strength.” Then I’ll make the space and gather the teachers who can lead us to healing, who can get us to step into our power, who can nudge us into the next developmental space.

Listen Friends, what I want to tell you is this.

The world needs you to start leading again. To step out of the shadows and into your strength, your skills, your compassionate heart, your crazy ideas. But you don’t have to be THE ONE in charge. And you don’t have to go it alone.

Let’s share our strength. Let’s make room on the stage for the voices that have a whisper in a crowd. (They want to roar, and we need to hear them.) Let us – well and truly – LEAD.


If you’d like to join the co-conspirators and I at Soul Sisters, we have a few seats left, and I’m sitting on two rooms at the hotel (with more housing options nearby.) We’re closing registration on Friday, October 18th so I can focus on preparing our space. So do join us soon!

Barbara Burns October 12, 2013 at 9:49 am

Blessings on your journey! And thank you for the reminder!

Sweetie berry October 12, 2013 at 10:41 am

Love this…and so as we tithe strength we honor that which is in others to become strong through our belief in them until they can believe in tgemselves. Yes!

Anna October 12, 2013 at 2:48 pm

This is beautiful. I love it. I’m feeling oh so very lucky to have said YES to Soul Sisters on a whim… I can’t wait to meet you! xo

Fiona Lynne October 17, 2013 at 6:13 am

I love this.

Previous post:

Next post: