The credentialing process to become a United Methodist pastor can take up to six years to complete. I served on the Board of Ordained Ministry that oversees the credentialing process. I chaired the board during the last four years of a twelve-year term. Every spring, the board interviews between 20 and 40 candidates for ordained ministry.
Like any credentialing process, some candidates sail through the process, some candidates are delayed or held back, and others are eventually discontinued. My observation after twelve years is that what makes the difference for candidates is “awareness.” Some people have more awareness than others.
So, what exactly is awareness? It is the ability to observe things factually, and specifically, to accurately observe relationship systems. Awareness can be developed and improved.
Clergy can get themselves into trouble when they lack a level of awareness. What distinguishes one level from another is the ability to see how one’s behavior impacts others and how the behavior of others impacts oneself. It’s the capacity to tell the difference between irresponsible and responsible behavior in self and in others.
For many years, the Board of Ordained Ministry recommended counseling to candidates who seemed “unaware.” By recommending counseling, the hope was it would develop and improve awareness. Today, programs that target the development and improvement of awareness have replaced individual psychotherapy. These programs are also run by licensed therapists. It is possible for candidates to improve their awareness without attending one of these programs. It requires an understanding of the different types of awareness.
There are three types of awareness essential for effective leadership. The first type is internal awareness. Neurological pathways to the brain monitor and detect one’s internal state. These systems are designed to help the individual “know” how the body is responding to the world around them. Biofeedback, meditation, and other instruments and techniques help the individual be aware of one’s internal regulation.
For me, the shoulder muscles provide feedback about my level of stress. As anxiety in the relationship system goes up, so does the tension in my shoulders. It has become a cue for me to be aware of how I am reacting to the anxious responses of others. Some questions to consider: When is it more difficult to pay attention to the body and what it needs? What are the signals that one is anxious? What are the steps one can take when stress increases? These questions do not provide solutions but encourage the development of awareness.
The second type of awareness is external. Two key sensors monitor the world outside of the body: the ears and eyes. Being aware of everything is impossible. We are oblivious to most of what the brain sifts through. It’s an issue of energy conservation. If the prefrontal cortex processed everything we see and hear, we would quickly run out of energy. And while we are “aware” of our surroundings, we don’t think much about them.
For example, let’s say I’m in my office, talking to a staff person. I am unaware they are upset with me. Their facial expressions and voice intonation communicate frustration, but I’m distracted by an angry phone call I received moments earlier from someone in the congregation. My brain energies are not focused on paying attention to the frustrated staff person. The staff person perceives my response to them as cold, distant, and not engaged. In response to my disengagement, their frustration rises which results in a big eye roll, tension in their muscles (clenched jaw and tight fists), and a stern intonation in their voice. This has become a reciprocal process. The staff person and I are each reacting automatically to the reactive, automatic behavior of the other. Awareness of the other's response can lead to a disruption of this cycle and provide space for a different, and perhaps better, outcome.
The third type of awareness is systems. Humans are unique in their ability to be aware of systems. Thanks to the prefrontal cortex, we can think about our internal state, our external state, and how they are connected. The ability to see systems has led to the advancement of science. We can predict the pathway of a hurricane. We know how to land a spaceship on Mars. We can “see” beyond individual functioning and observe how relationship systems function. We still have much to learn, but we are developing the capacity to observe all kinds of systems.
These three types of awareness influence each other. One cannot have an awareness of systems without an awareness of oneself and others. It is possible to be hypersensitive to how one is feeling but be unaware of the feelings of others. It is also possible to be hypersensitive to how others are feeling but be unaware of how one is feeling. Thinking systems requires an integration of both types of awareness. One can be aware of self and others but not understand the underlying process that influences the relationship system.
Clergy need all three types of awareness to be effective. To gain awareness, here are some steps to consider:
1. Purchase a journal book.
2. Set an alarm to go off every 15 minutes.
3. When the alarm goes off, ask the following question:
- What am I feeling?
- What am I thinking?
- Who did I interact with in the last 15 minutes?
- How did I react to the person(s)? What did I feel, think, and do?
- How did the other person(s) react to me? What did they feel, think, and do?
- What insights do I have about relationship systems based on this interaction?
When at work, reflect on the work system. When at home, reflect on the family system. When at the kids or grandkid’s school event, reflect on the school system, and so on . . .
This is not a technique. It is a way of thinking. The goal of this effort is to learn to think systems; to be aware that other people are interacting with large systems like the family; to see how the challenges we face in our relationships with others are connected to the relationship systems they and we are connected to; and to see how thinking systems is connected to an awareness of self and others.
A good coach can help a motivated thinker “see” systems and be the best person they can be.