Thanksgiving will be celebrated by millions of people in the United States this week. We were taught that the holiday is a commemoration of the first meal between Europeans and Native Americans. More recently, some have reshaped the narrative towards a story of immigrants and refugees. What new ways of thinking might emerge if we place our current reality within a context of historical patterns of migration?
Since the time our ancient ancestors left Africa, humans have always been migrating. Archaic humans, like Homo Erectus and Neanderthals, made slow progress over millions of years out of Africa, ending up in places like Western Europe and Southeast Asia. Something significant changed 100,000 years ago during the late Pleistocene period. Humans began to disperse across the globe with unprecedented fervor, making the Mayflower look like an afternoon of sailing on the lake.
I presented a paper last year constructing a case that the mass migration that took humans to every corner of the world was driven by reactivity to conflict. Archeological evidence reveals how it may have happened. As tribes headed out of Africa, problems between tribal members would inevitably erupt into conflict. Not unlike today, the complexities of the conflicts would include things like allegiances, spoken and unspoken rules, hierarchical structures, and kin relationships. If the relationship system became too intense, tribes would face a dilemma. They could blame one person or group resulting in ritualized punishment. Or, they could ostracize one group by forcing them out (or letting them flee). Those who left would have to learn to fend for themselves wherever they ended up. The archeological evidence suggests that some groups settled in hostile terrain making the idea plausible that it was easier to learn to survive in adverse environments than risk inhospitable conditions back home. (You can read Penny Spikins article on this subject)
Fast forward 99,500 years. Is it possible that a similar phenomenon played out in the journey of Europeans to the North America continent 500 years ago? Hundreds of thousands of people would leave Europe to live in rugged terrains and endure harsh winters. Was it to flee tribal conflict at home? The conflicts are often categorized as religious. Faith may have been the context. But how do you explain the process? If you want to read more about my thinking on how religious beliefs do not adequately explain family tension, read my blog post “Interfaith and the Family.”
Many of the early refugees from Europe did not survive, and in some cases, entire communities perished. It’s as if the desire to escape the tensions at home disrupts one’s ability to assess risk accurately. I don’t want to rule out the possibility that some people left Europe in the pursuit of adventure. But based on my observation of human behavior, it seems much more likely they were fleeing tension in the relationship system.
The Concept of Cutoff
In order to understand the complexities of our current social situation, having a historical view of migration is useful. A helpful theoretical idea comes from Dr. Murray Bowen who proposed the concept of cutoff. A good review of the concept is available here.
When the relationship between a parent and child becomes too intense (what Bowen described as fusion), adult children may distance and run away from the family with little to no contact for years to come. Parents play their part in the distancing effort, too. There are short term benefits to distancing. It reduces tension in the relationship system. However, the long-term consequences include an increase in the level of intensity in the new family configuration which makes it more than likely that the next generation will also move towards distance and eventually cut-off. And thus, a pattern is born.
What if some Europeans saw North America as a way to manage the intensity of the relationship system at home by hoping for a fresh start? As they started new families in a new world, would the patterns they sought to avoid in the old world repeat themselves in the new? Would the family in the new world exhibit more or less intensity? Bowen Theory suggests that the problems in the relationship system would get worse in the subsequent generations, not better.
Leaving The Church of England
Included among the Europeans who fled to Norther America were Methodist coming from England. John Wesley and his brother Charles launched a movement to reform the Church of England in the 18th Century. While this movement would eventually create a new denomination, John Wesley’s earliest efforts were to transform the Anglican Church. However, Methodist who settled in North America banded together on Christmas Eve in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1784 to form what would become the Methodist Church.
Many of the early pastors of this movement were assigned circuits (some with 12 churches). They rode horseback, spending only a week at a time with each congregation. This experience of congregational leaders having limited contact, coupled with the cutoff many experienced from their families in England, became the foundation for the development of this new Methodist movement in North America.
United Methodist and Cutoff
It has long been understood that pastors who are leaving a congregation must, as a professional courtesy, cutoff their professional contacts with the congregation by refusing to perform weddings, baptisms or funerals unless given permission by the incoming pastor. Such policies were created to curtail the interference of the previous pastor. Continued contact with the congregation after the appointment is over is thought to limit the ability of the incoming pastor to been “seen” as the pastor.
This rule makes sense in a historical context – individuals running away from families in Europe and elsewhere, circuit riders having limited interaction with congregations, and a world migration pattern of cutoff. When faced with challenges in the relationship system, we lean towards cutoff. I know some will be quick to give examples of how former pastors have interfered with the work of the incoming pastor. I don’t think these instances are numerous and I don’t believe policies that encourage cutoff are the answer. There are other ways to handle these situations that can lead to better outcomes for everyone.
Dr. Bowen’s ideas about emotional cutoff are relevant to the coming and going of clergy from one congregation to the next. Whether the same emotional process found in a family is active in larger relationship system like a congregation is debatable. Specifically, the degree to which the emotional process influences behavior. Bishops and District Superintendents see variation in the functional level of clergy as they enter and leave a congregation. Some clergy are better than others in managing their anxiety during these times of transitions. Some have a smooth entry while others seem unable to make vital connections which are essential for a long-term partnership with laity in ministry. Some clergy can countdown their departure and lift off effortlessly when the appointment ends. Others struggle to find the door, continuing to provide pastoral care to a “select” group in the church to which they feel a particular kinship.
The extent to which congregational leaders manage their anxiety that accompanies welcomes and goodbyes is connected to the level of cutoff in their family of origin. I have yet to read any research connecting these two ideas, and yet the relationship between the two makes sense. If one is cutoff from the family (namely parents – one or both), it means more of the anxiety is focused on the current relationship system, which includes clergy and other congregational leaders. This level of focus makes leaving more challenging and welcoming more intense. For some, particularly clergy, leaving may not appear to be a problem at all and their ministry could be defined as one of superficiality or distant interactions with the congregation.
For those who have difficulty connecting with a congregation or who find leaving difficult, it’s worth exploring the pattern of cutoff in one’s family. One way to do this is to make a list of all the people in the family. Who do you know? Who don’t you know?
Thanksgiving and Cutoff
I originally wrote this blog about a month ago. As I was preparing to post it, I realized it could also be relevant to those who are celebrating Thanksgiving this week. The original intent of this blog was to shed light on how the current practice for United Methodist clergy leaving and entering a congregation could be seen from a historical perspective. But the reactivity from the election is also relevant and could even be worthy of a separate blog post.
As families struggle with how to be together this Thanksgiving, it’s worth considering that they are in good company. Not just from a national perspective, but from a historical one. The pattern of cutoff has been passed from one generation to the next for thousands of years. How does one interrupt their automatic tendency to cutoff with family members? How can one be present with the family and manager their own reactivity? Is the struggle to be present with certain family members something new or is it being accentuated by post-election rhetoric? How is this election an opportunity to work on self-regulation and what Bowen called differentiation of self? It is easy to blame the other and to distance from them than to step back, reflect, work on awareness, take responsibility for one’s part in the problem, and change the way one interacts with the family without controlling others or avoid them.
Bridging Cutoff in the Family
The following are examples of what differentiation of self looks like and doesn’t look like when working on cutoff:
It is working on developing a one to one relationship with each person in the family.
It is not contacting people to learn what’s happening with other people in the family.
It is initially about short contacts with a clear purpose.
It is not staying overnight or for long weekends. This may come later, over time.
It is working at understanding what is; looking at facts.
It is not letting false assumptions or perceptions go unchallenged.
It is about regulating one’s own reaction.
It is not telling other people what to do or staying away.
It is being clear about why each relationship is important and focusing on that importance.
It is not about leaving it up to the other to decide what is important for you.
It’s about making contact.
It is not about leaving it up to the other to make contact.
It is about engaging the thinking of the other.
It is not about sharing feelings with each other.
It is an opportunity to increase one’s functioning.
It is not cathartic.
Each person gets to decide what direction they want their life to go. Especially when it comes to having a relationship with the family. If one desires to have a more open relationship with the family, the question then becomes, at what point does one find the courage to begin this effort? If not now, when? The only way to develop more open relationships in the family system is to slowly begin the work of engaging each member through the process Bowen described as differentiation of self.