power & transformation.

power offers an easy substitute

This month’s Synchroblog was centered on spiritual abuse & redemption. I didn’t have time to write earlier but it is a topic near and dear to my heart. At the Denver Faith and Justice Conference two weekends ago my friend Ryan Taylor shared about 5 stages of power, a blend of Janet Hagberg and Richard Rohr’s work on power. Respecting and understanding these stages is important and something I wish we would talk about more openly, more honestly, more reflectively in small and big pockets.

As we get in touch with our own story related to power, we connect to the bigger story about it, too.

Plus, all spiritual abuse comes from power issues.

However, lots of other roads also lead there. Inequality, injustice, church woundedness, oppression, broken relationship–all of these things usually, somehow-someway have power issues underneath.

One of the things I love about Jesus and the Kingdom of God we’re called to co-create is that he turns all the power structures of the world upside down. What we think is strong, isn’t. What we think is success, isn’t. What we sometimes think is worth following because it looks shiny & “powerful” & cool, often isn’t.

It seems like there are several categories of people that cover most of us when it comes to power:

  1. Our weird crazy human draw to either amass power or join-with-those-who-have it.
  2. Those with a tendency to search for a king, a hero, someone-to-follow-and-tell-us-what-to-think-and-feel.
  3. Those stripped of power because of the grooves of oppression and injustice who feel like there’s no option for change.

Today, I wanted to quickly walk through the 5 stages of power that Ryan shared at the conference. They will only scratch the surface, but I personally think they are so helpful to wrestle with and consider.

We can so easily get stuck in the first three:

  • Stage 1 – Powerlessness // This stage is characterized by inner voices as well as outer voices that communicate we are inferior and always will be. Underneath it makes us scared to death, terrified. We get stuck in inferiority and have a blind obedience to systems to gain reward or promotion. To move to the next stage, we have to begin to have some sense of an identity, no matter how small.
  • Stage 2 – Power by Association // This stage is where power is found entirely outside of oneself through external associations. We gain our power by being part of a team we want to be associated with and begin to mimic their actions, beliefs, and culture. All of our desires are born from other people. In this stage, we have extreme loyalty to our leaders and don’t know who we are apart from them.
  • Stage 3 – Power by Symbol and Achievement // This is when power is found by external symbols such as titles, roles, and responsibilities. We’ve learned to play the game and succeed in it. The system provides perks, and we get trapped by golden handcuffs or fear of losing what we’ve gained.  Our roles and responsibilities make us something and we’re not sure who we are without them. For many Christians, this can be our roles in the church, the ways we serve, the ministries we are part of.

All these first 3 stages of power are about finding it externally. I believe wholeheartedly that “the church” is built upon these first three stages of power and has a possibly unconscious but still vested interest in keeping people there.


Because Stages 1-3 of power keeps things manageable & contained. It’s linear. It’s easy to follow. It’s part of our work-hard-and-make-your-way-up mentality that so much of our faith and work is built on.

They are also a dangerous cocktail related to creating a breeding ground for spiritual abuse.

Fortunately, many of us have hit some kind of what Hagberg calls “The Wall” when it comes to power. We know something’s not quite right. We know the power we’ve ascribed to isn’t the Jesus-y kind. We know we’ve given ourselves over to something that just doesn’t satisfy. We can no longer just blindly follow certain kinds of leaders. We begin to confront our false self that thrives in Stages 1-3 and get in touch with our authentic souls.

I believe hitting a wall and moving out of Stages 1-3 is true spiritual and emotional maturity because we begin to gain power internally in the deep places of our souls, the kind I think Jesus was talking about.  I also think it’s the best way for abuse survivors to heal.

When we allow ourselves to let go of the safety of what I’d call “false power” we begin to move toward the next stage, which I hope is an area more and more of us are willing to bravely explore:

  • Stage 4 – Power by Reflection and Inner Knowledge. This is when we humble ourselves and allow ourselves to consider questions about power and ourselves and systems that we hadn’t before.  We let go of symbols, titles, or knowledge about God and begin more honest self-reflection. It’s marked by humility, openness, and willingness. Ryan called it an “attentive patience” (I love that). I think this is where a lot of faith shifters and people-in-big-life-transitions are living right now, realizing so much of what we’ve ascribed to isn’t leading to life.
  • Lastly is Stage 5, Power by Known Purpose. We know our limits and accept ourselves for who we are; we also embody a deep compassion for ourselves and others.  I see known-purpose-power as a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of others in a way that isn’t concerned with protecting ourselves because we know we don’t need to. We have a deeper security that guides us and a stable, secure foundation to live from that is based on freedom, not fear. Think how cool it would be if there were communities of faith and living systems (link) built on this kind of power.

I hope we keep talking about and re-thinking power–our own power, the power of the systems so many of us have ascribed to, and the kind of power we are called to cultivate in this world as Jesus-followers-and-dignity-restorers-and-lovers-of-people.

Oh, we are in desperate need of transformed Stage 4 & 5 power in this world!

I hope you have a good Thanksgiving week. All 5 of my kids will be home starting tomorrow and so Jose and I will be in happy mommy and daddy vacation mode. See you next week.

peace and hope and prayers for ferguson, kathy

Kathy Escobar

Kathy Escobar is dedicated to creating safe and brave spaces for transformation and healing in real life, online, and outside. She co-pastors at The Refuge, a hub for healing community, social action, and creative collaboration in North Denver, co-directs #communityheals, a non-profit organization dedicated to making spaces for transformation accessible for all, and is the author of Practicing: Changing Yourself to Change the World, Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything You Believe is Coming Apart and several other books.


  • This is excellent. Very well stated, and I agree, we are in desperate need of widespread ascension to Stage 4 and 5 power. God’s blessings to us all. Happy Thanksgiving!

  • So timely for our little community of faith. We read your stand on the table blog post last night to kick off our conversation on social justice and oppression. It led us to talk about power and then holding both love and boundaries. This will fit right in. Thank you. I love when you write about power, it is rare. Keep it up friend.

  • Everytime I read something of yours, which is all the time and am currently reading “Faith Shift”, O MY, I wonder if you have a surveillance camera hooked up somewhere in my life. . .Always right on with it! Your words bring me much confirmation and comfort in knowing I’m not CRAZY nor ALONE. . .I’ve limped my way into Stage 5. Bruised & worn but alas, Free, after 51 years! Thankyou for your Wisdom and Who You Are, Period. I always look forward to your post!

    • ha ha, i promise, no surveillance cameras 🙂 bruised & worn & freedom often go together, don’t they? thanks for sharing and i’m so glad you’re here.

  • Great ideas about power. You know I love stage theories, and this is a little different aspect than I’d seen. I won’t take time to try to relate these stages to those of other systems, but right off I see a lot of parallels and how it complements others and vice versa.

    One thing I love is that “power” is a good word and concept to organize around. And it is interwoven with identity and “ego strength” (positive in psychological lingo), as you mentioned.

    I’m still trying to put my fingers on how to best draw out the higher stage power expressed in the Bible and in communities of faith. You are quite right that we yet have very few examples of that among churches (not just Christian ones). One limiting factor I’ve been studying about that has captured a great portion of churches is the stage 1-3 identification with and support of the power of empire.

    • hi howard. thanks, as always, for sharing. i know ryan combined two different models into one and there are a lot of different possibilities to consider but most of them do lead to all of the same places–we need to wrestle with and reflect on and consider and mature and continue to transform (individually and as systems) when it comes to power. peace to you!


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