In the previous two blogs, I addressed issues related to a change in clergy leadership. Part one [click here] was about the tendency of both clergy and congregations to move too quickly into assessing the new situation. Clergy do better in the transition when they take the necessary time to observe and understand the congregation. Congregational leaders do better when they are not caught up in the early assessments voiced by other congregants. It is important for congregations to spend time getting to know their clergy person.
Part two [click here] addressed what leaders can do during their first two years to establish good, working relationships. If done well, this ground work can be a solid foundation from which congregational leaders (clergy and laity) can build an important partnership in ministry. Being genuinely interested in the relationship system is key to being an effective leader in any organization.
Part three is dedicated to developing core principles and goals for self.
What is self?
The words “self” is part of a process that Dr. Murray Bowen called differentiation of self. It has to do with being more of a self in one’s family but what is learned is transferable to leadership skills in the congregation.
"The process includes experiences that promote new learning: becoming a better observer of reactivity in self and in the family system; containing and managing one’s own reactivity; defining operating principles for self in every area of life; acting on principles in the face of automatic reactions; and working to become more objective and thoughtful in relation to others and more responsible in one’s own life. Steps towards differentiation include making and maintaining contact with every living family member, increasing factual knowledge about one’s family and family history, being present at intense and anxious times in the family, and actively interacting with family to develop relationships in which thinking is engaged. The live learning in this process allows people to develop the ability to learn what they don’t already know and almost always involves an element of surprise, if not awe.” Harrison, Bringing Systems Thinking to Life, page 77
Common ways leaders get stuck.
Leaders can get stuck in the flight, fight or freeze response in response to heightened levels of anxiety in the relationship system. Leaders become stuck when they don’t want to rock the boat. Their energy goes into keeping the congregation happy and making sure everything runs smoothly. Their focus is on avoiding problems instead of engaging them. Other leaders become stuck when they rock the boat. Their energy goes into attacking the perceived problem with little to no regard of the impact on the relationship system. Then there are leaders who can’t decide whether to rock the boat or not rock the boat. They don’t want to sacrifice calm or change and wish they could have both at the same time. Their energy goes into coming up with plenty of good ideas but they can’t seem to put them into action. These individuals freeze in the face of challenge. This is as true for congregations as it is for leaders.
Anxiety is at work in all relationship systems.
I’m defining anxiety the way Dr. Bowen did when he developed his Bowen Family Systems Theory. Bowen defined anxiety as an organism’s response to real or perceived threat which takes place at an emotional level.
Dr. Bowen observed that as anxiety increased so too did what he described as the force for togetherness. Anxiety is part of nature. It is in all of us to some degree. Whenever there is a rise in the anxiety in a relationship system, the emotional reaction for some people is to automatically come together. There is no shortage today of communities living in fear. As they face their fears, there is often a strong pull to come together; sometimes in productive ways, sometimes in destructive ways. This pulling together of people in anxious times is a way to address the fear. While this automatic process can be helpful, when it becomes too intense, it creates more problems than it solves.
When congregations become increasingly anxious, there is an effort to get everyone on the same page.
Anxious congregations, like families, move towards thinking, feeling, and acting the same. However, this pressure to think, feel and act the same creates more problems. It can have a bifurcating effect. In place of any thoughtful reflection on the problem, some will simply go along with others. Likewise, in place of any thoughtful reflection, some will simply react to it and push back. Lines of division become clearer as people actively take sides for or against. This reality is so predictable, leaders often can accurately guess who will take what side.
At this point, leaders become stuck responding in more automatic ways as I described in part 1 and part 2. They too can easily take sides on an issue, blame others in the congregation, avoid the conflict, or struggle to find their footing. Some leaders may try to move forward by distancing from the conflict all together. This is as much a reactive move as any other.
Good leaders pay attention to two competing life forces.
The first life force that competes for our time and energy is what Bowen described as a force for “togetherness”. It is a force for emotional closeness with others. It can come from others but it can also be a demand we place on others. This is what I explained earlier as the pressure to go along with the group. Again, there are three basic responses. We can advocate for going along, sometimes in ways we are unaware. We can push back, resist and try to change others. This can be overt or it can also be subtle in ways we are not aware. We can also retreat, walk away, and declare that we are not going to participate in what the group is doing.
The second force is what Bowen described as individuality. It is an inner drive or thinking that guides us in the face of a strong togetherness force. It is what I described earlier as the self. It is different than being selfish or independent. Bowen’s genius is his idea that it is a connected, thinking self. It is the ability to thoughtfully stay connected to important others while at the same time being more of a self. Instead of going along with others, being a self means taking time to think and reflect. Becoming more of a self requires interaction with others, particularly one’s own family. This is a concept that requires more discussion and understanding. You can read about it by going to this link.
It’s important to have a self-motivated project.
One of the things I found most helpful when working with a congregation, is to find a personal project to focus on. The key is finding a project that does not require participation from others. It is something one is interested in, motivated by, and has a desire to work on. For my own effort, I scheduled specific time during the week to work on my project. As I focus on the project, I made sure others things and other people did not interrupt my progress.
This is what Bowen had in mind; the ability of an individual to self regulate their own attention and effort, requiring less and less dependence on the functioning of others. As one does this effort of defining a self, it’s important to pay attention to how others react. Can you observe the shifts in the relationship system (both in the congregation and in one’s family) that happen as you work on this project? Do other people, particularly in your family, get sick or does their functioning decline. Does it go up? More importantly, what happens to you? What are the challenges you face in working on this project? How does the reaction of others disrupt your ability to focus? Bowen observed that as one worked on being more of a self, the system would respond in ways that moved towards more togetherness. At first it was a change back response that he observed which would get more intense. But if one is able to stay the course while staying connected to others, the relationship system will shift for the better. Over time someone else will pick up the effort to change self.
Here are some steps in developing a project:
- Identify a project that is important to you. It does not have to be work related.
- Find a project that would not necessitate having to go through an approval process with your congregational leaders or receive approval from family members. It also means don’t remodel the church parlor all by yourself. Find a hobby or activity that you can do by yourself.
- Do not invite or accept help from others.
- Monitor the challenges you face in this effort and any changes you observe in the relationship system.
We each play a part in the way a relationship system functions, whether it’s a congregational system or a family system. Learning to regulate our own reactivity and responses in the system is an important step to taking more responsibility for one’s own functioning. Having a project to focus on that does not lean on others is a step in the right direction to learning how to be a better leader.
This effort is not about creating a separated self. It’s about creating a connected self. It is possible to work on your project and still stay in good, emotional contact with your congregation and family. In fact, in my experience, focusing on something that is important to me improves my ability to relate to my congregation and to my family.
One final note about this series.
Some clergy and congregational leaders have found it helpful to have a coach during their transition. An ideal coach would be someone who asks good questions and invites conversation about getting accurate about what is happening in the relationship system. I like to think of a good coach as a thought partner; someone who is a good thinker and resource. You can find out more information about the kind of coaching I offer in the “About” section of this website.