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Keys to Empowerment

Keys to Empowerment

by Tina Rendell-Thornton

(Transcript from Conference presentation)

Power is an interesting thing. If we have it and use it well great things can be accomplished. If we have it and use it badly it can destroy people’s lives, decimate communities and wreak havoc on the environment.

If we have power and don’t acknowledge that we do, we can unwittingly create chaos and undermine the community we are in.

So how might power be defined?

  • The ability or capacity to do something or act in a particular way- Oxford dictionary.
  • Power is the ability to influence the behavior of people – Wikipedia.
  • The ability or right to control people or things – Merriam Webster.

There are different ways people gain power, including through:

  • Their position in a company, in the family, in the church or in a society, or
  • A person may acquire power because people trust them or they are have a charismatic personality or are able to convince people of their ideas, or
  • They may have the power of knowledge – they know things that other people don’t know and this information gives them the ability to have influence over someone or something – sometimes these people become known as ‘gatekeepers’
  • Some people may have coercive power because they have the ability to punish others if they don’t do what they want – this could be violent, or it may allow someone to take something from someone or not give them something eg. a dictator of a regime or an officer at Centrelink or the police.

If we are going to talk about empowerment we need to understand the nature of power and what we are trying to achieve.

Animal Farm

In the story of George Orwell’s Animal farm we have the animals feeling oppressed by the farmer and engaging in a revolution with the aim of overthrowing the farmer to have a more ‘equal’ society. But in the end the pigs ended up with the power and they didn’t act any differently from the human oppressors they were trying to over throw. So what happened?

I would like to suggest six keys to empowerment that I have learnt over my 30 years of work in the community and the Church:


The first key to empowerment is you!

*How we see ourselves impacts on how we treat others and can impact how people treat us.

* If we feel threatened then we will spend all our time trying to prove ourselves; trying to prove that we are good enough; this may lead us to try to dominate a situation, or talk too much because we want to be heard, or get into positions where we try to control others to deal with our own feelings.

* Not dealing with our own pain reduces our ability to analyse what is happening in some situations and especially when we are dealing with our culture or acting cross- culturally and reduces our ability to respond in a way that is empowering for ourselves and others.

* To engage in positive empowering relationships, it is important to process our own pain of marginalisation and recognise that regardless of what other people say we are all created and loved by God; in Gods eyes we are equal regardless of what ever constructs our church, culture or society create.

* The more we are able to accept who we are with our strengths and weaknesses the better we are able to relate to others in a humble and helpful way.

* Some theorists say that our identity is partly shaped by the way people respond to us – we can contribute to the shaping of other peoples identity, by the way we respond to them.

Reflect in silence about how you see yourself and what part of your life experience has helped you create a positive sense of self -worth and identity and what triggers those deep hurts? How do you react when you are at your best and when you are not at your best? How does the way you feel about yourself end up empowering or disempowering yourself and others?


It’s all about relationship!

* I have been in situations where I have been on the edge or where I have been the centre of attention and been given significant status and power. When I was a child I lived on the edge of two cultures a wog in one culture and not Greek enough in the other.

* The way we relate to others can result in them feeling empowered or disempowered. I believe Jesus calls us to have positive respectful relationships with others and it is always important if we find ourselves in a position of power to watch for and acknowledge those on the edge. “So how might you do this? For example when at I am at event hosted by Churches in from the Pacific I try to acknowledge and thank those who serve; when preaching I ensure I sit with the children and share a story. Siting and talking to those on the edge sends a powerful message to those watching, without having to say anything.

* Sometimes you need to accept other people putting you in a position of power or accepting special treatment as a part of their hospitality. I call this reverse hospitality. You need to show respect of their culture and tradition before you challenge it, but it can be challenged subtly by acknowledging those who are seen as the least (often women and children) or challenged more directly when you have a good relationship (eg what would Jesus think about some people sitting at the front table and others sitting at the back?).

* Even from the margins we can encourage others and support them to have a voice.

* Empowering relationships encourage people to feel they are respected, their opinion is worthwhile hearing and they are able to make choices over things that affect their lives.

My deeply held belief is that God created us as equals – so whether someone has more or less status in our society it is really irrelevant, in God’s eyes we are equal – I may need to show someone respect due to their position or age or status or power but when you take away all of this we are all created in the image of God.

There are ways that we relate to people that give cues as to whether we see them as below us or above us or as equals. (Story shared of Pacific Church leaders not making eye contact when I was in a senior role in the Church until they found out about the positional authority that I had in that role.)

Yet if we look at another story, Jesus meeting Zaccheaus we see a story of an empowering relationships and how someone who had power in that instance used their power to empower another.

So what are the cues you have experienced when relating to others at home, or at work, or in the Church or in the community?

What can you do to help others feel empowered (or at least equal)? Discuss.


Create opportunities for people to be empowered.

I have only been in a number of leadership roles because someone gave me the opportunity. What opportunities can you give others to have a voice, provide leadership and make more choices about their lives?

How we structure meetings and gatherings and even church services can make people feel more included and empowered or excluded and disempowered. What are the things that could be done in your Church to give more people, including young people, to be involved in the decisions that affect their lives and their Church?

I think if we are to be more inclusive and empower others we must allocate more time in meetings so that people can ask questions, can have comments or discussion translated and have time to understand some of the ideas that are being presented.

If we are really serious about encouraging a group of people in our church or community, we need to be intentional and make an extra effort to think about what it’s like to be in their position and what we might need to do about including and then empowering them.

The disciples were empowered by Jesus and given the opportunity to exercise leadership. So let’s think about it – if we want to include young people or people on the edge and encourage them to be empowered, what might we need to think about? What might need to be changed in the way things are organised in your church, in meetings, in the community or at work?

Opportunities for change are best achieved when you have allies.

How do you find allies or help other find a group that can rally together so their voice can be heard on and issue and/or they can have something changed?


How language is used leads to shared knowledge or a sense of elitism.

Knowledge + Language = Power. Knowledge includes the understanding of how something works, a process, a system, an organisation, a society or a culture. The way language is used can increase someone’s understanding of these or can increase their sense of marginalisation.

To encourage empowerment ideas may need to be ‘translated’ or ‘mediated’ so that those on the edge can understand the ideas, concepts or processes that promote participation and inclusion. This may mean that the ‘translator’ may need to compromise the accepted or seemingly pure form of language to describe an idea and use more simple language that can be understood by a particular group of people or individual. Or it may be necessary to ensure a talk, or meeting or piece of correspondence is actually translated into the language of another country or culture.

The way ideas, systems, and accepted practices are communicated (or not communicated) leads to the sharing of knowledge and power or contributes to inequity and marginalisation.


There are a range of skills that need to be developed to participate and have a voice in the systems developed by the community, church and workplaces. Some skills are learnt by access to education, some skills are learnt by experience and being given the opportunity.

Speaking in public skills; leadership skills; leading meeting skills; understanding the language and ideas/knowledge (e.g. church speak; industry jargon); understanding the ‘culture’ of meetings and what is acceptable and what is not. Some skills can be taught and some are developed with practice. If young people are encouraged to run their youth group meetings in a formal way they then can practice their meeting skills in a safe place before they engage the rest of the church or community.

Story – The pram-athon and the bus crash.A story about church youth group leaders running a charity event and having to learn formal meeting procedures after a bus they had hired had a small accident and it was necessary for the youth group to make formal decisions about how to pay for this.


Empowerment needs a purpose and our values shape that purpose.

* Integrating values is often a neglected aspect of the empowerment process.

* Without the right values or understanding the values or motivation behind empowerment processes it is possible to end up with another animal farm. For example: people on church or community management committees that start to enjoy the benefit of extra services or dollars or status and then don’t encourage the sharing of power with others. Story – chaos in the classroom – women getting power they have never experienced before and community management goes crazy – participants on housing provider management committee restrict access by others to housing.

* If values are shared and everyone is on board with sharing and empowering each other then it is more likely that we will grow a socially aware group who have more of a say but are also working towards the good and well-being of others.

* Uniting for the common good is an important value as it reminds us that we are coming together and empowering ourselves not just for our own sake but for the sake of others also.

So what are some of the values that you would want to encourage in those you empower? How would you share those as a part of the empowerment process? Discuss.

The process of empowerment changes the power dynamics for everyone involved. As some people gain power others may have less influence, loose their place in the system or need to learn to compromise. It’s important to be clear about the values and purpose of empowerment and also critical to develop systems which keep everyone mutually accountable for the power entrusted to them. As each of us encounter situations and roles where we have more or less power it’s important to remember, that ‘it’s always more than just about me ’.