The purpose of Thinking Congregations is to explore the connections between Bowen Family Systems Theory and congregational life. My effort to be curious, objective, and engaging can result in an adventurous journey that takes me to new places. This week is no exception.
I dedicate this blog to a new idea. I’m interested to see if this idea resonates with your experience. I’ll be asking for your input at the end. I hope you’ll respond either in the comment section or on social media. #thinkingcongregations
How long does it take on average for clergy to be effective in a new congregation? What does effectiveness mean? Good question. I’ll save that for another blog. But, for now, I’ll define it as the ability to lead change through the relationship system of a congregation. I’m not the first person to think about the dynamics of relationship systems on one’s effort to create change.
Rabbi Ed Friedman, in his book Generation to Generation, stated clergy were effective after their first six months. It takes half a year for clergy to be engrafted into the emotional system of the congregation. I disagree with Ed on this point and will explain why in a moment. Some have compared the first year to a game of poker. During the first year, you build up relationship chips which can be cashed in to create changes. You are limited to one or two things, depending on how big the change is. So, choose wisely! This idea of social capital, which I also disagree with, is what Robert Putnam talked about in his book Bowling Alone.
Effective change can begin after four years. Changes can be made in the first four years. However, long-lasting, systemic change can only come when a leader has participated in the emotional process of a congregation for four years. I base this idea solely on observation. What I have observed are changes in the ways I relate to the congregation, and the ways the congregation relates to me. Each time I begin my fourth year in a new congregation, I notice that I am more confident in my ability to relate to each person in the congregation. Why is this? I’m not certain, but it’s possible that by year four I know something about each person in the congregation which is enough to have a working knowledge of the triangles in the congregation and the family triangles of each person in the congregation.
It’s also my observation that individuals in the congregation relate to me differently going into year four. I’m aware of more cooperation, more openness in communication, and more common goals and directions. Notably, I find that those who (when I first arrived) were eager to talk to me each week are less eager by the fourth year, and those who were less likely to initiate a conversation with me during the first four years are now willing to chat at a moment’s notice.
One explanation I’ve come up with relates to nominations and the process of inviting individuals to serve in leadership positions. Perhaps it takes four years for the people who were nominated under the previous pastor to rotate out and for a majority of leaders to begin serving at the invitation of the current pastor. In other words, by year four, those who are in leadership positions have said, “yes” to the current pastor.
There is room here for research. The hypothesis I’m present is that there are changes that occur in the relationship system of a congregation after three to four years that create the context for more effective change going into year four or five. How can this idea be observed, measured, and verified? I don’t have an answer. However, the word I use to describe my experience is bumpy. The first four years are bumpy. Some congregations are bumpier than others. However, it’s always there to some degree. And while the bumpiness does not vanish after four years, my observation is that it significantly decreases by year three or four (sometimes year five). I’ve run my own experiment on this idea, but I can only offer stories and anecdotal evidence based on what I’ve observed.
I’m interested in your observations. Have you experienced changes in bumpiness in the congregation that can lead to more effective change after year four? I had considered setting up an online survey but decided to leave it to you to leave your comments. So, I invite you to share your observations in the comment section below or on social media. I look forward to reading your thinking.