Not Overpowering but Empowering People

By Dave Andrews

The Spirit challenges us not to exercise control over people, but to encourage people to exercise control over themselves.

When the Spirit came during Pentecost, this helped people create a liberating society of small, local, self-organized communities that were centered around empowering those who were marginalized and disadvantaged. These spirit-inspired communities worked to help others realize their potential as men and women made in the image of God.

Paul says (in Gal. 5:22–23) the ‘fruit’ yielded by the Spirit is ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law’ and that in any community open to the Spirit will yield the fruit of the Spirit.

I see this fruit the Spirit yields on different levels. On a personal level, there will be love (passion and compassion), and joy (awareness and appreciation) and peace (trust and tranquility). At a relational level, there will be patience (persistence) and kindness (sweetness not bitterness). At a social level, there will be goodness (generosity) and faithfulness (fidelity). At a political level, there will be tolerance (non-violence) and self-control (self-management).

Paul stresses ‘against such things there is no law.’ In ‘spirited’ groups, agencies or organizations, there should be no laws that discourage the development of these qualities. All the structures, processes and protocols should be specifically designed to facilitate the development of these characteristics—especially self-control.

The Spirit of God is committed not to overpower people but to empower people—not to exercise control over people, but to encourage people to exercise control over themselves.

Traditionally our idea of power has been defined as the ability to control other people. This idea of power emphasizes the possibility of bringing about change through ‘coercion’—an approach that tries to make others change according to our agendas.

While the traditional idea of power means taking control of our lives by taking control of others, Jesus advocated an alternative idea of power—taking control of our lives, not by taking control of others, but by taking control of ourselves. This alternative way of viewing power emphasizes bringing change by ‘conversion’—is a spiritual approach, which embodies the noncontrolling Spirit of God. This view does not try to make others change, but encourages us to change ourselves, individually and collectively.

The traditional idea of power is popular because it often brings quick, dramatic results, but it is characterized by short-term gains for some, and long-term losses for everyone else. Every violent revolution has betrayed the people in whose name it fought its war of liberation.

The alternative idea of power is unpopular because it is usually a slow, unspectacular process, but it is the only way for groups to transcend their selfishness, resolve their conflicts, and manage their affairs in a way that can do justice to everyone.

The essential problem in any situation of injustice is that one human being is exercising control over another and exploiting that relationship. The only solution to this problem is in the alternative Spirit-inspired approach. This approach emphasizes controlling ourselves, individually and collectively, through self-managed processes and structures.

We can create space for a new movement of the Spirit by cultivating what Harrison Owen calls ‘Open Space,’ where the Spirit is free to operate. We can do this by encouraging people to consider something they really care about, something they really want to do something about, and we encourage them to identify it, name it and own it for themselves. Then we encourage them to extend an invitation to meet with others who care about the same thing. Those who respond to the invitation come into a circle that they hold open, as a host, for mutual conversations. We encourage the host not to control these conversations, but to let people come and go as they please, trusting the Spirit to bring order out of chaos, clarity out of confusion, conviction out of concern. We encourage those who are hosting multiple conversations to welcome any expression of passion, compassion and responsibility as signs of the Spirit’s prompting in a particular direction. Then we encourage people to organize processes and structures that will support the activation of this critical mass of spirited interest.

When my wife Ange and I became involved in our neighborhood we hoped to create an open space for developing a Christ-like life in the community where we would model a lifestyle characterized by the radical, non-violent, non-dominating compassion of Christ. This is a community distinguished by a commitment to love and justice. This is a community where it is normal to work from the bottom up to empower people (particularly the marginalized and disadvantaged) and enable them, through self-directed, other-oriented, intentional community processes and structures to realize their potential, as men and women, made in the image of God.

We called ourselves the West End ‘Waiters Union’ ( because we wanted to be ‘waiters’ in the West End. We did not want to set agendas for people. We wanted to be available, like ‘waiters,’ to respond to people’s needs, and to do what we could to help. We wanted to develop a therapeutic sense of hospitality in the locality, so all people, especially people usually displaced in the inner city, could feel at home in the community.

The Waiters Union is not a high-profile network. As ‘waiters,’ we keep a low-profile. None of the activities we are involved in carry our name. They all carry the names of the groups that organize those activities—which we contribute to—but we do not control. As a result, a lot of people in our area may know us as people but may not know that the network we are part of exists. Which is fine, because the network exists to promote the community, not the network; and the network can function more effectively as a catalyst in the community if it is prepared, to be more or less invisible, rather than attract attention to itself at the expense of local groups.

However, we are not secretive. We welcome enquiries and answer questions as freely and as fully as we can. And we are inclusive. We invite anyone who is interested in our work to with work us, alongside us, as partners in the work together.

The work we do is ‘self-directed’ and ‘other-orientated’. Each person has the right to shape every group they are a part of and being part of a group depends on participation. A person becomes a part of a group simply by participating in the group. Once a person is a part of the group, they have the right to manage the group. We believe people should have the right to shape all the decisions that have an impact on their lives and we believe the best way for us to shape the decisions that impact on our lives, individually and collectively, is through the process of consensus. So, all the groups nominate rotating facilitators for their meetings in order to ‘be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody.’ (Rom.12:17)

As the groups work from the bottom up to empower people, we especially include people who are usually marginalized and disadvantaged in the decision-making process of the groups. All the groups work with the people that they work for, and, in so doing, seek to enable the people they work with, as partners, to realize their God-given potential.

Through one group, we seek to promote the aspirations of the displaced original inhabitants of our neighborhood, for whom Musgrave Park, in the middle of the neighborhood, is still ‘sacred ground.’ Through another group, we seek to support refugees by sponsoring their settlement and the settlement of their families, working through the anguish they go through as ’strangers in a strange land’. Last, but not least—though they are often considered ‘last’ and treated as ‘least’—through a whole range of groups we seek to relate to the people in our community, who are struggling with physical, intellectual, mental and emotional disabilities—not as ‘clients’, nor as ‘consumers’, still less as ‘users’—but as ‘our friends’!

Typically, when we meet with our friends, we emphasize the personal and relational, keeping the tone generous, gentle, and easy going. This allows the interaction to move back and forward from light humorous superficial exchanges to heavy heartfelt in-depth conversations.

We start with check-ins and pick up on any personal concerns people have and then focus on one of these points of pain while reflecting on what personal challenges they are facing and what personal approaches they have found helpful in overcoming these challenges. Throughout all of this we discourage people from trying to fix one another or give each other advice, but instead encourage the person (who is the focus of concern) to trust the Spirit to be an inner guide to lead them into truth that others can affirm and confirm in their own experience.

Dave Andrews and his wife Ange have worked in therapeutic communities with marginalized groups of people in Australia, Afghanistan, India and Nepal for fifty years. He earned his M.S.W.A.P. at the University of Queensland. He is the author of twenty books, the most recent is ‘To Right Every Wrong’

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love