After listening to the episode, I couldn’t help but wonder if congregations can change their behavior or if it’s somehow fixed on a certain type of personality. Rabbi Ed Friedman described congregations as either pills or plums. “Plum” congregations have only a handful of clergy over their lifetime. “Pill” congregations, on the other hand, have one clergy person after another. Congregations appear to be fixed in their behaviors, unable to change or do better. Except, occasionally, you do find a couple of congregations that do better. How do you account for the difference?
I would argue that the same is true for clergy. Some clergy never seem to do well. They struggle going from one congregation to the next until finally they are forced out into a different career. Some clergy are just the opposite. You can place them almost anywhere and they not only survive, they thrive. And then there are the rest of us who vary from location to location. In some settings we thrive and in others we struggle. Is this a reflection of personality traits for congregations and clergy that are fixed? It turns out the answer is no.
What do you call a group of stressed out individuals? A congregation.
You’ve probably taken a life-stress inventory. It’s a simple questionnaire listing common stressful life events. Even positive experiences like having a baby or getting a new job are on the listed. The inventory is weighted so some life experiences are acknowledged to create more stress than others. The death of a loved one is at the top of the list, and taking a vacation is somewhere near the bottom. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been on vacations that were pretty stressful. The point is, stress has a way of adding up.
We all have the capacity to tolerate certain levels of stress or tension. We chug along in life while everything is going fine. We stick to our core beliefs and make good choices. But then more stress is added and the tension increases. Everything becomes more challenging. We think less about our beliefs which leads to poor choices. When we reach our threshold for tension, we abandon our principles and become reactive. Like the game of hot potato, the reactivity serves as a way to alleviate our anxiety by giving it to someone else.
If the people in a relationship system, like a congregation, are stressed beyond their tipping point, their reactions to one another are more automatic. Murray Bowen described this as the force for togetherness. When anxiety goes up (and not just in the person but in the relationship system) people tend to be more sensitive and reactive to others in the system.
Take, for example, Abu Ghraib. Over ten years ago, during the Iraq War, military personnel committed large numbers of human rights violations against Iraqi detainees held at Abu Ghraib. Pictures began to surface of the horrific acts of torture and treatment. In an interview with a general during the crisis, he commented that every morning, military personnel need to ask themselves the question, “At the end of the day, what kind of person do I want to be?”
Why would a general have to say this? Because he knows that in tense situations people change their behavior as a way to manage the anxiety they are experiencing in the relation system; be it a platoon, congregation or family.
Behavioral changes based on our relationship with God and each other.
We often associate change with God. We can claim that God never changes. Every congregation leader either has a story or knows the story of someone who made a dramatic change based on their relationship with God. For example, someone gives up drinking. In families where one person has made a life-change, it’s not uncommon to hear how others in the family have followed suit and changed something in their life, too. I’ve heard stories of individuals becoming Christian as part of their recovery. Not long after they start attending a congregation, other members of the family start going with them. In some cases, entire families start going to church.
In a relationship system, each person behaves not on their own but in reaction to the other parts of the system. Like magnets, they move closer together or further apart depending on the positive or negative charge they receive from others. In a sense, there is less autonomy in a system and more interplay. So, when studying changes in a system, it doesn’t make sense to only study individual parts. You have to look at the interplay between people in the system to understand why individual parts behave the way they do.
Consistency is a product of the system.
Systems are hard to change because of the amount of force the system places on individuals. To change a system, it requires energy to counteract the tendency of the system to remain homeostatic. Because we find homeostasis more desirable, we tend to do what’s automatic to keep the system unchanged. In other words, our behaviors are often consistent with maintaining the system because it’s what we know.
Each relationship system has at its disposal several options for maintaining the status quo. Each individual plays their part as the system responds to stress and tension. When stressful events occur, individuals respond in predictable ways. The reactivity is designed to return the relationship system back to a consistent way of functioning.
Congregational profiles stay the same from year to year because of the relationship system. Even if new people are brought in, they too learn how the system functions, adjust their behavior, and play their part. The reason a congregation never changes is often because the same group of individuals continue to lead year after year. Those who are new either go along with the current system, react to it negatively, or participate but from a distance. In all three cases, behavior is influenced by the system. I’m not advocating that congregations turn over their leadership in order to change. It’s possible that even if you turn over all of your current leaders, the system may continue to function in the same predictable way. To change the relationship systems, at least one individual in the system needs to change the way they relate to the system; behaving in a different way that is less reactive and more based on beliefs and principles.
In this way, leaders can be more responsible for their behavior. It does not need to be influenced by the relationship system but can, in fact, influence the relationship system in ways that lead to positive changes.
So, how do you change the congregational profile?
Dr. Michael Kerr, former director of The Bowen Center, suggests a series of steps that can change the system. This is less of a technique and more of a process based on one’s best thinking.
- The first step is to change one’s perception of the system. This requires stepping back and observing the congregation. (By the way, you can do this in your own family, as well). Things look different when you move out of the immediacy of the moment and take in a broader, systems perspective.
- As one’s perception of the relationship system changes, something happens in our brains. One does a better job of integrating the emotional system with higher level thinking. This leads to discovering facts and knowledge about the reciprocity that is active in the relationship system. Consistency in the system is the result of reciprocal patterns. Discovering how this happens is the beginning of change.
- In stepping back, one begins to see how they contribute to the problem. They begin to see what others are up against and have a better appreciation of what others are going through. One can move from blaming to understanding by seeing how their behavior is influencing others.
- Being able to see how the whole system functions as one unit can lead to thinking about the problems in the relationship system in new ways. One begins to see how they can modify their responses to the problem and to others in the system. These subtle changes can shift the way the entire system functions for the better.
- There is a realization that one is bigger than the problem they are facing. They begin to develop the confidence to deal with the problem. It is no longer so scary or overwhelming. They are no longer afraid. It is this change in perception that comes from gathering knowledge and facts, and modifying one’s reactivity in the relationships system that creates the possibility for change.
It is amazing to me, when you consider the massive amount of money individuals invest into training to be clergy and congregational leaders, that very few institutions or programs teach this reality of human behavior. We continue to send clergy, often young clergy, into challenging congregations without providing them a way of thinking about relationship systems. Congregations continue to be told the only way to do better is to be more welcoming or caring for others without providing them a way to think about the relationship system they live in every week.
When congregational leaders do the important work of becoming more of a self by taking responsibility for the way they interact with others, the system will shift, and the congregational profile will change. Yet, congregations are still bombarded with consultants and trainers who continue to tell them what they are doing wrong. The recommendations are diagnostic. It is a diagnostic view that continues to view people’s behavior as individualistic with very little room for understanding the congregational context. Congregations change their profile when leaders do the important work of understanding the system and then taking responsibility to change the way they behave in light of the new perspective they gain. It’s that simple and that challenging.
If you are interested in doing this work in your own congregation, you can go to the contact page of this website and send me a note, or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.