None will lead. None will follow. None will get out of the way.
I first heard this phrase at a conference hosted by the Center for Family Consultation. The speaker was Dr. Dan Papero whose thinking inspired this blog post. For those in the Chicago area, you can hear Dr. Papero again this October. Learn more by clicking here. This phrase typifies what it means to be emotionally “stuck”. Congregations, political institutions, and families can all experience being stuck. While everyone can identify with the problem, we continue to struggle to find appropriate solutions. We can see it playing out in a number of different ways in congregations:
- Very few decisions are ever made.
- A lot of discussion at meetings but very little is ever accomplished.
- Leaders avoid the problem and struggle to engage others in solving the problem.
- Leaders hope someone from the outside will come in and solve their congregational problems.
- There are rifts in relationships that make it difficult for certain people to talk to each other directly.
- Leaders have limited awareness of how the congregation is viewed by its members.
- Leaders have limited awareness of what individual members of the congregation are trying to accomplish in their own faith development.
Congregations are functionally helpless.
Why is it when a congregation has lost hope and views themselves as helpless, they will continue to move in that direction as opposed to becoming more capable? We see this even when congregations have motivated and experienced clergy. Dr. Murray Bowen described this phenomenon as functional helplessness. He originally observed it in families with children diagnosed with schizophrenia. In his research, he described with great predictability, what happened when anxiety went up in a mother. The child became helpless, which immediately drew the attention of the mother who then assumed an over-adequate role in order to help the child. The result was a calmer mother. Bowen never blamed the mother for this and never saw the child as a victim. He called it functional helplessness because he did not believe the child was constitutionally helpless. Instead, both were caught up in an emotional process, driven by reactivity to anxiety. Efforts by both the child and the mother to do better were unsuccessful because each was sensitive and reactive to the emotional needs of the other. (Bowen, FTICP, 61) You can read more about over and under reciprocal functioning by clicking here.
Becoming stuck in a relationship with someone happens in the context of a system. Helplessness is not the result of individual deficiencies and is not created in a vacuum. It is the result of a system. By observing everyone’s behavior it is possible to see how the system functions as a whole and not simply as a collection of individuals. All reactive behavior is reciprocal in nature. It is also true that anxiety motivates behavior. While it is difficult to see anxiety at work, one can observe it at work in the ways the relationship system behaves.
When a stressful event occurs, tensions develop between the relationships. If the problem is resolved satisfactorily, tension dissipates. However, some relationships are vulnerable to being unable to adequately resolve tensions. This is due to higher levels of tension which are sustained over a long period of time. With the focus on relieving tension (instead of solving the problem) congregations become stuck, unable to move forward in their mission. Thus, we come to the leader’s mantra that I began with: no one leads, no one follows, and no one gets out of the way.
"When anxiety increases and remains chronic for a certain period, the organism develops tension, either within itself or in the relationship, and the tension results in symptoms or dysfunction or sickness.” (Bowen, FTICP, 361-362)
Congregations with ongoing, heightened levels of tension:
- struggle to receive and process new information and are more likely to filter new information and experiences through a perception bias shaped by anxiety.
- end up with leaders who are reactive to others, who struggle to self-regulate their own reactive behavior.
- desire short-term relief by transferring the tension around the congregation through basic relationship patterns (over/under functioning, conflict, and/or a focus on a third person).
- focus on the immediacy of problems instead of the long-term goals and the mission of the organization.
In response to these experiences, leaders may attempt to force some kind of change on the congregation or they may give up. Both responses represent a focus on the tension in the relationship system, instead of the actual presenting problem, which adds to the tension. For example, the Christian church in the US continues to decline. An enormous amount of time, money, and energy has been poured into fixing this problem. At the same time, tensions within denominations and local churches have increased. All levels of the church are experiencing tension - from worshipers to Bishops. The research continues to shows things are getting worse, not better. From a systems perspective, is it possible that efforts to address the initial signs of decline have in essence created functionally helpless congregations? In our efforts to “help” congregations do better, we’ve become stuck in the underlying emotional processes. The only way out of the quagmire is for each congregation, and its leadership to do their best thinking about a path forward. So how do leaders go about this effort?
Becoming unstuck happens when a leader gains traction by being more thoughtful and less reactive.
The first step is raising one’s own level of functioning, which can result in being less reactive around anxious others and less tense about perceived problems in the congregation. To get there, one has to shift their thinking from perception to reality. When you see a gaggle of geese, notice that one or two always have their heads up keeping watch. Their function is to spot danger and warn the others. When danger is perceived, they sound the alarm by squawking and flapping. This response sets in motion a chain reaction of survival behaviors. Within seconds, all the geese are squawking and flapping. This is how I think about congregational meetings. One person perceives danger and starts sounding the alarm. Before you know it the whole committee is up in arms, flapping and squawking. One way out of this mess is to rely less on others to perceive danger and work towards being more objective. In other words, unless the committee is in the throes of a life and death situation, don’t squawk and flap. To do this, leaders need to engage thinking. One way to do this is to ask questions that try to get more factual about the problem. Differentiating oneself from the group requires “I” statements that reflect one’s best thinking about a situation.
Before you can address the functional helplessness of the congregation, you have to address your own participation in functional helplessness.
What I’m talking about is improving one’s basic level of differentiation. This is a long term effort. It's developing the capacity to do a better job of regulate oneself. The ideal context is the work one does to understand one’s family of origin through observing patterns in the family, researching facts of functioning for each member over multiple generations, and creating a plan to function differently in the family.
In the work I do as a coach with clergy and congregational leaders, I’ve discovered that the problems leaders face in the congregations they serve also show up in their own families. Observing the patterns in the family and developing awareness and insight into the nature of these patterns is a transferrable skill into the congregation.
The effort to learn about the family through an intentional multigenerational study can bring about changes in the way one functions as a leader. Collecting facts about the functioning of each person in the family includes things like level of education, vocations and careers, general health over their lifetime (physical, psychological or social problems), cause of death, date of birth, date of death, location of the family at different times of their lives, and making notes of hobbies or other independent activities. These all contribute to understanding the level of functioning for the family across generations. To learn more about the family diagram, you can read an article about it by clicking here.
As one does this work, one begins to consider alternative ways of responding to tension in others and in the relationship system. One begins to experiment with being less anxious and more thoughtful, and observes how others react and respond to this change. In the short term, this effort may not be welcomed by others and may be seen as problematic. However, long term, this type of effort does have positive outcomes for the individual, their own family, and the congregations they serve.
This is the work of differentiation of self. When one engages this effort, they develop the ability to separate feeling from thinking. Because feeling and thinking are separate systems in the brain, understanding when one is feeling and when one is thinking is helpful to being aware of the emotional system. When congregations are stuck, it is because the emotional system is being engaged more than their thinking system. The thinking system has the capacity to down regulate the emotional system. When thinking is engaged, problems can be solved.
At the same time, it is also possible to separate out one’s own feelings, thinking, and actions from those of other people. The ability to distinguish between what I feel, think, and do from what others feel, think, and do is an important step in pulling oneself out of the muck of congregational stuck-together-ness.
Here are some specific steps you can take:
- Develop beliefs that are not borrowed from others, but represent your best thinking.
- Take responsibility for your own tendencies to feel helpless or the need to rescue others by stepping back and observing the system.
- See yourself as capable of this work, and become factual about what you are able to do and not do.
- See the congregation as capable, and become factual about what the congregation is able to do and not do.
- Find the motivation to do this work, and develop the courage to persevere in it. What interests you or fascinates you about the work you are doing?
- Observe how anxiety moves through the relationship system and how you respond to it. Apply these observations to your family of origin and then decide what you want to do with it.
- Continue to question and be curious about how all relationships function as a system.
- Be open to trial and error. It takes time and requires a willingness to keep at it.
What are your thoughts about stuck congregations? How have you experienced this for yourself? What is useful to you in thinking about this issue? How would you think differently about the nature of feeling stuck? Please share your thoughts below in the comment section.