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Power Struggles

“Charles! Take that attitude and mouth with you when you leave. The office is expecting you. NOW!”

Charles was a fifteen-year-old student in my seventh grade class. He had given even the most seasoned teachers the runaround the first three months of the school year. I was a rookie, and I had my hands full dealing with his ongoing disruptive behavior. We all celebrated in the teachers’ lounge the day Charles moved to California to live with his mother.

But now several months later he was back. Back with the same uncooperative mindset, eager to throw his swagger about and take me on. He didn’t realize, however, that I had acquired a few skills and attitudes of my own. Charles had met his match, and the young boy sitting nearby was quick to inform him it was a new day:

“Ms. Vogelsang don’t take that crap no more!”

I should have chided him for his language and grammar. However I was enjoying the moment too much, viewing the dumbfounded expression on Charles’ face. He gathered up his six-foot frame and meekly exited.

Classroom management is a skill that can be learned only through experience. Later there are techniques that help “up your game,” but any teacher knows it’s important to get a solid grip on students’ behavior before anything else can be accomplished. Students are bound to test their teachers. It’s just a fact.

What’s really at issue here is a power struggle. The student testing the situation is seeing how strong the response will be, who is truly the one in charge.

Sometimes the teacher’s response can be heavy handed. I’ve had teachers and professors who wanted you to know they were smarter, stronger, the one in power. They constructed test questions designed to make sure you failed or at least didn’t get that 100%. I remembered those instructors when I became a teacher. I made sure my students knew what would be covered on any assessment. I gave them the tools and knowledge to shine.

During those early teaching years I found out quickly that there was another test going on for power, for control. This included a much broader territory involving parents and principals. Sometimes it was a serious case of being put to the test. That’s when I could really feel the strain, the demands, the challenges. That’s when I discovered how important it was to “test the waters.”

The art of testing the water is a lifelong learning process, learning how to judge people’s feelings or opinions before saying or doing something. Some conversations I’ve had in the past with principals, bosses, and parents gave me an uncomfortable feeling. The questions they asked seemed to fit a pattern, an agenda. I wondered, “Is this some kind of test? To see how I’ll react? What I will do?” I had the uneasy sense of being manipulated. There was a lack of trust in those situations that created a chasm between us. Something inside warned me to keep my feelings of loyalty or camaraderie at arm’s length.

But I learned from these experiences. I learned what it meant to have truly loyal support. I learned how a true leader with the heart of Jesus should behave when testing the waters. I learned to be up front if I was looking for an honest opinion, someone’s genuine feelings. And I learned to weigh those responses, testing for their validity and seeking a path forward that would honor my Lord Jesus.

Even in the best of relationships there can be power struggles. But when they are the underlying, ongoing behavior, the resulting climate is painful in classrooms, families, organizations and companies. Now come the insidious tests that humiliate because the person in power knows there is no possible way for that student, employee, or family member to succeed. The targeted person is too small, too weak, too inexperienced, or too young. Those unfortunate people are tested to see the strength of their resolve, their stamina, their endurance… even to the breaking point. How sad for those who struggle under such leadership. How truly ineffective is that leader who’s not connected to the Lord Jesus!

Scriptures tell us we should welcome tests. Tests to our faith, no matter the place or reason. These challenges strengthen and mature our trust in the Lord Jesus. As James writes in chapter 1:3-4, these tests of our faith “produce perseverance” so that we may be “mature and complete.” They are the natural outcome of following Him. The Apostle Peter tells us we shouldn’t be surprised when these faith tests come, and we’d better be ready (1 Peter 4:12).

And it’s okay to test God, if we’re not doing it for the wrong reasons in a struggle for power and control. He encourages us to put His faithfulness to the test in Malachi 3:10, when He says, “Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see…” When we give to Him completely, not holding back, testing His promise, how abundantly He will pour out His blessings in return!

Thankfully my Lord Jesus doesn’t put me to the test. He isn’t out to humiliate me or break me. He wants me to succeed in all I do in living my life for Him. He gives me the tools and the knowledge to shine. His loving hand of control guides me in days of uncertainty, giving me the answers I need, not holding back to gloat at His superiority.

And He expects me, in turn, to treat those I’m leading with that same gentle, supportive touch. Allowing me the privilege to create an atmosphere of trust and joy. Turning those tests and power struggles into His love and grace.

Leaving my guilt at the cross,


(First published at Lead Like Jesus October 2019)


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