Who's In Charge Here?

Who’s in charge here?

Authority is a complicated business.

There’s the story of a Department of Water Resources representative who stops at a Texas ranch. He tells the old rancher, "I need to inspect your ranch for your water allocation."

The old rancher says, "Okay, but don't go in that field over there."

The Water representative says, "I have the authority of the Federal Government. See this card? This card means I am allowed to go wherever I feel I need to on any agricultural land.”

The old rancher nods politely, “All right, then.” Later, the old rancher hears screams and sees the Water Rep running for his life. Close behind is the rancher's bull, gaining with every step. The rancher throws down his tools and rushes toward the Water Rep, hollering, "Your card! Show him your card!"

So: authority is contextual and relational. The authority created by, and held within, some contexts and relationship doesn’t exist in other contexts and relationships. Many statues and pictures of the Buddha depict him seated, with one hand touching the earth. The story goes that when Siddhartha Gautama, who became the Buddha, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, he was challenged by Mara, the voice of limitation, death and delusion. Mara asked the Buddha by what authority he could claim awakening. "By what right and authority do you think you can solve the mystery of suffering? Just who do you think you are?"

In response, Buddha extended his right hand, touched the earth, and said, “The earth is my witness.”

It’s a lovely story. And there is one important question of authority that it answers. You, just like Buddha, have authority just by be being on this Earth. The Earth brought you forth and that is all the authorization required for you to be who you are – all the authorization needed for you to end your suffering. As important a point as this is, as crucial as it is recognize that everyone gets to be who they are, there are further issues of leadership and followership.

Someone needs to be in charge.

A few weeks ago, I posted a humorous quip on Facebook. I wrote: Why would a standing committee need a chair?

Some readers missed the pun, and wrote back, for instance: “Because when no one’s in charge, no one’s in charge.”

So, just to make clear that I was making a joke, I added, “And when the chair has the floor, where does the committee stand? Do they get tabled?”

(Clearly, I have spent a lot of time in committee meetings musing on subjects that maybe weren’t on the agenda.)

But to get back to the serious question: Who’s in Charge? And a related question: Who owns the congregation?

When I ask this question, I think the first thought most of us have is: the members own the congregation.

After all, Unitarian Universalists have congregational polity, so we're beholden to no higher authority, right?

Yes and no. Let's explore that.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Who's In Charge Here?"
Next: Part 2: "Congregational Polity"

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