Moving Away from Assessment to Observation
A change in clergy leadership is an anxious time for both clergy and congregations. There are many factors that contribute to the level of anxiety. As clergy and congregational leaders try to assess one another early on, they may miss out on unique opportunities to build a long-term partnership for ministry. Observing the levels of anxiety in others and in self, developing good relationship connection with individuals, and supporting a way forward that is based on core principles are all keys to laying the ground work for an effective tenure as pastor and congregational leader.
I’ve served four congregations over a 22 year period. Each time I entered a congregation, I had the opportunity to observe my own reactivity to anxiety and my own tendencies to move quickly into assessing others. Having a theoretical understanding of relationship systems makes a difference when navigating the complex behaviors of an active and anxious congregation. Core principles and beliefs provide a solid footing while one stands in a sea of emotional reactivity.
This blog is for clergy and laity who are in the midst of a change in clergy leadership. It provides a way of thinking about transition through a systems perspective, specifically Bowen Family Systems Theory. I had initially planned on dedicating one blog to this topic. However, given the length of the article, I made the decision to turn it into a series of three posts. This is the first of three.
Neuroscientists tell us that when we walk down a sidewalk, jog down a road, or even walk through a store, when we encounter another human being, we quickly calculate whether this person is a friend or foe.
Despite our Sunday School teachers’ best efforts to teach us to “love one another” there is a part of all of us that labels others. Anyone who has ever participated in a capital campaign project or sat in on a trustees meeting knows we are just hardwired to assess who is cooperating with us and who is competing against us. How many times have you experienced conflict and wondered, “Can’t we all sit on the same side of the table?”
Clergy and congregations begin their time together with a period of assessment. Depending on how connected clergy are in a denomination, it is not uncommon for clergy to seek out information about the congregation they will be serving. Clergy from the same region (such as a conference, synod, or diocese) often develop, over time, a narrative for each congregation. This narrative describes the church’s health and vitality. Denominational leaders also contribute to this narrative based on their own experiences. The narrative, which is not free of bias, contributes to the overall assessment a clergy person develops prior to the first weekend in worship. This assessment is also filtered through each clergy person’s sensitivity to anxiety and results in a perceptual framework of the congregation. This perceptual framework is formed prior to any firsthand experience and personal observation.
It is also true that clergy develop a reputation over time which can center on effectiveness. In a similar process, colleagues, denominational leadership and congregations all play a role in developing a narrative about clergy. These narratives, which carry a level of assessment and bias, are also shared without firsthand knowledge which contributes to a perceptual view of a specific pastor that may or may not be accurate. This narrative can make its way into the congregation prior to the arrival of the pastor.
Eventually, clergy and congregations have their first date – worship. What follows is often described as a honeymoon period. Any shortcomings, mistakes, or problems are not publicly acknowledged. Instead, clergy and congregations enter into a period of quiet, ongoing assessment which either confirms or challenges the perceptual framework created by the narrative. We’d like to think that our perceptions are always accurate, but, as I’ll explain in subsequent blogs, our perceptions are often filtered by our own sensitivities to anxiety. During this process of assessment we create a list of likes and dislikes about others. Because this is an emotional process, these likes and dislikes influence our ability to accurately assess. Without knowing it, what we are actually assessing is how comfortable or uncomfortable we are with the behavior of others. We are assessing our own level of anxiety based on our likes and dislikes of how others like or dislike us. Before too long, we are reacting to the dislike we have of others who dislike us, who dislike us because of the way we dislike them, which began when we liked someone else that they disliked.
We all have natural reactions to anxiety.
These reactions are automatic and often operate under the radar of our awareness. The key to developing awareness is to become a better observer of human behavior. Clergy, whether through their calling or training, tend to be excellent observers of human behavior.
It’s helpful for clergy and congregational leaders to move from a mindset of assessment to a mindset of observation, curiosity, and discovery. Congregational leaders, who have a long term relationship with people in the congregation, develop their own sensitivities to others. Different people receive different reactions based on these sensitivities. When a dislike about the pastor is voiced to a congregational leader, their reaction may vary depending on who is voicing the concern. In addition, certain individuals can ease the minds of congregational leaders by giving a “thumbs up” for the new pastor. These leaders may be unaware of how the expressed likes and dislikes of certain individuals in the congregation are influencing their level of anxiety and internal discomfort. Moving out of a mindset of assessment and into a mindset of observation helps one become more aware of these tendencies.
Clergy can also get caught up in the emotional processes already at play in a congregation. As an outsider to the relationship system of a congregation, there is a strong automatic pull to move towards an insider position. Each person varies in the intensity of the pull to be more connected to the congregation. Some clergy are more sensitive to the upsetness of a congregation or, more accurately, the upsetness of specific individuals, which then influences the way a clergy person will operate. As one assesses the expressed likes and dislikes of the congregation, they can feel compelled to resolve whatever feelings of discomfort may surface in others and in self.
This is the process known as triangles in a relationship system.
Dr. Murray Bowen developed the concept of the relationship triangle based on his research with families who had a schizophrenic member. A basic triangle is between three people where two people are in the inside position and a third person is in the outside position. He observed how tensions could shift between family members in the basic triangle between mother, child, and father. For Bowen, triangles were the building blocks of the emotional system. You can read more about his concept of the triangle by clicking here.
According to Bowen, when things are calm, the optimal position in the relationship triangle is to be one of the two insiders. The least desirable position is in the third, outside position. When anxiety is higher and individuals are more reactive, the outside position is more desirable with the two insiders experiencing the intense anxiety. In reaction to rising levels of anxiety, there is an active, fluid movement of moving towards or away from others in the triangle; it is an effort to determine who the two insiders are and who the outsider is. When the anxiety of the triangle becomes more than what the three can manage, interlocking triangles form. Interlocking triangles exist in all congregations and are active corollary to the level of anxiety in the system.
Clergy and congregational leaders are in a better position to lead when they move into the outside position of the congregational triangles. To do this, one needs to get out of an assessment mindset and into a framework of observation. Like any researcher, the most effective observers are those who are outside of the processes they are observing while also highly engaged and connected to what is going on around them. Effective leadership requires the ability to observe accurately what is happening in the relationships system but not be determined by it.
One of the key mistakes clergy and congregational leaders make in trying to solve a problem is to assess it without first understanding the underlying processes. Automatic responses to anxiety lead to problem solving that perpetuates and sometimes exasperates the underlying relationship problems. Thoughtful reflection on the problem based on observing how the relationship system functions is a much better guide to determining strategies for addressing congregational problems.
The next step is to learn to be a good observer, which I will address next week in part 2.