Whenever Congress debates the budget, you always hear them talking about entitlements. It’s the idea that some people have certain privileges. Government programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, most Veterans' Administration programs, federal employee and military retirement plans, unemployment compensation, food stamps, and agricultural price support programs are all examples of entitlements.
There are arguments for and against entitlement. Those who are against specific entitlements programs argue that they create a dependency which is bad for people. Rich people often say this about poor people. But those who advocate for the poor are quick to point out that rich people are wealthy because of entitlement programs. Tax breaks and government policies favor the wealthy.
Some recent studies have shown that the more money you have, the less generous you become towards those who are poor. It’s not true for everyone, but it does point to an interesting reality about entitlement: to have a poor, entitled class you need a rich, entitled class. It’s as if they go hand in hand.
Among clergy, the word entitlement shows up in conversations about self-care. I’m United Methodist. We have rules related to the care of clergy. There are specific expectations about housing, salary, days off, vacation, pension and healthcare mandates, business expenses, and the list goes on. For example, all clergy receive four weeks of paid vacation. For most companies with vacation policies, it may take an employee several years to earn 4 weeks.
Over time, congregational leaders have voiced their entitlement of better care for members of the congregation. I don’t know if these two timelines, entitlement care for clergy and for congregations, happened simultaneously, but I believe they are connected. Congregations expect more out of their clergy. Clergy are expected to work more than 40 hours a week, they are expected to be available at a moment’s notice for house calls, hospital visits, and midday interruptions. They are expected to give meaningful and memorable sermons and handle all administrative problems. The list goes on. For United Methodist congregations, when it's time for a pastoral change, they can feel entitled to get the very best pastor available. Like clergy, congregations want the best for themselves.
My point is this: when it comes to entitlement programs, there are always two sides. Each side demands something from the other. You can’t have clergy entitlement without congregational entitlement. It doesn’t really matter how it starts; each side reacts to the other. The more one side campaigns for an entitlement program, the more the other side demands their own program of entitlement.
None of this happens in a vacuum. There are real pressures on clergy and congregational leaders to do better, particularly as membership and participation continues to decline. As clergy and congregational leaders experience the weight of responsibility for these problems, each looks to the other for care. The demands of each side for more entitlements will increase until both become stuck and frustrated over the behavior (or lack of behavior) of the other. So, the question becomes, how does a congregation or denomination get unstuck?
The demands for entitlements are driven by an automatic reactivity to anxiety. As anxiety goes up and reactivity increases, one’s automatic tendencies are accentuated. This would suggest that a desire for entitlements is somehow built into our response to stress and tension. How does one think about this in the framework of a system? The short answer is found in what Dr. Murray Bowen called the overfunctioning and underfunctioning reciprocal process. When anxiety goes up, an automatic response is for one person in the system to increase their level of functioning while at the same time another decreases their level of functioning. It doesn’t matter how it starts. The point is that it’s a system response. Therefore, it’s difficult to put the blame on one person or the other for the problem. You can’t have one without the other. One person overfunctions, and the other is perfectly content with it. One person underfunctions and the other finds meaning and purpose in taking care of them. Both will resist any changes to this reciprocal process.
BEING MORE RESPONSIBLE
Instead of talking about entitlements, we really need to talk about responsibilities. What are individuals responsible for when it comes to their own level of functioning? And what are realistic expectations? The answers are going to vary depending on the person, the relationship system, and the situation.
When person A gets frustrated that person B is asking for an “entitled” the issue is not only B’s functioning but also that A is reactive to the problem by being frustrated. When A is concerned that B is getting more than they deserve or need, A’s thinking is driven more by fear than a responsible position. Again, if one side gains an entitlement, the other side feels that they too deserve an entitlement. The process can escalate as both sides demand more until the expectation of the other becomes unrealistic.
How, then, can we talk about responsibilities?
When we are afraid, there is a tendency to blame others or blame ourselves. There is a way not to blame others, to see both sides of an issue, and to form a belief that helps one navigate the problem. Emotional neutrality is a third way. Being emotionally neutral does not mean being neutral on issues. Instead, emotional neutrality is about staying in good emotional contact. When one is emotionally neutral, they are able to take a position without it affecting the quality of the relationship with others in the system.
The challenge to being emotional neutrality is not being automatically reactive. There is always pressure from others to take a side. When one is able to hold a more neutral position, without reacting back to others, the relationship system will calm down. When the system is calmer, individuals are able to do a better job of taking responsibility for self.
The degree to which we are reactive or thoughtful is influenced by the relationships system in our family of origin. The family is the place we work on being more emotionally neutral. For some, this idea of going back to our family of origin, to work on developing emotional neutrality, seems ridiculous. It will result in encounters that are challenging, but, in the effort to be more of a “self” in the context of the family, one develops emotional neutrality.
My point here is that one can trace the desire for entitlement back to one’s family of origin. To understand how we got to this point, you have to go back and understand how the family functions.
If we want to end entitlements (if that's even a good option), we will need to create policies that support and encourage the best possible functional level of the family. These efforts will need to support and encourage family leaders to step up. In other words, before we can talk about the problems with entitlements, we need to look at the challenges in the family system. Any policy that does not take into account the realities of the family system is doomed to fail. It’s that simple and that complicated.
If leaders want to be more emotionally neutral in their leadership role, then they will need to go back to their family of origin. It is an effort to carve out one’s beliefs and thoughts about the family. It is an effort to look at one’s level of functioning in relation to the family system and being responsible for one’s level of reactivity to anxiety in the system. It is an effort to engage others from a place of thinking (not reacting) and to develop a one to one relationship with each person in the family. It is an effort that requires one to take a stand when important without arguing or being defensive.
A good coach can make a difference in this effort. I and others trained in Bowen Family Systems Theory are ready and able to help anyone interested in pursuing this effort.