As long as I can remember, congregational consultants have talked about the need for congregations to reach out to people beyond the four walls of the church. In the face of declining membership, how do you motivate people to build relationships outside of the church? Walls are constructed for a reason, and most congregations like to pay more attention to what’s going on inside the four walls.
Rev. Peter Steinke, who wrote the book Healthy Congregations, said congregations are always living with the tension between serving those who are insiders and those who are outsiders. This tension can lead to arguments over funding and the use of the building. It can also stir conflict over whether the pastor should spend time visiting the home bound or meeting people in the community. It’s a false dichotomy which pits one against the other. When anxiety is high, having the pastor spend time building relationships with people outside of the congregation can feel like a threat to the future of those inside the building.
We are by our nature territorial.
We are by our nature possessive, especially when it comes to physical space. We strive to define a space and then protect it. When neighbors, for example, get along with each other, they are able to manage their differences. But not all neighbors are able to get along. The tension between neighbors can escalate. What may have started out as a minor disagreement can result in building fences and walls. The escalation of the problem exposes the emotional immaturity of each neighbor and their families. Attempts by each neighbor to justify their position is fueled by an emotional process in which the thinking system is hijacked by the the feeling system.
Relationship space is also an emotional trigger. If we feel that someone important to us is distant, we might move emotionally closer to them. You might pick up the phone and call them. If someone is “up in my grill,” we might ask them to back off. Space matters because our brains are highly sensitive to space as it correlates with safety. If we haven’t heard from someone we love in a while, we become concerned that something bad has happened to them. But if someone is too close, we fear they might attempt to control us.
Our efforts to manage the spaces between us reveal our own biases. Take, for example, the automatic effort to keep certain people at a distance. While we may think the problem is in the other person, keeping a distance from someone illuminates our sense of inadequacy related to our ability to resolve the problem, and the confidence we lack to find a solution. It may feel easier to walk away and keep our distance.
Keeping a Distance
In every congregation I have served, there are people I have felt close to and people (not very many) I have kept a distance from. This is part of the human condition. Think about fellowship time in your congregation. Who are the people you are addicted to? Who do you migrate towards in a crowded room? Who do you enjoy spending time with? Whose presence makes you feel relaxed? Also, who are the people you are allergic to? Who do you avoid? Who do you keep a distance from and avoid making eye contact with? Who do you ruminate and worry about? If you are not sure, consider doing an experiment before or after worship: pay attention to how you navigate groups of people. Who do you move closer to and who do you avoid. To some degree, we all have people we are attracted to and allergic to.
If you find yourself avoiding someone at church, it’s helpful to observe and identify how you react to this person instead of focusing on their problematic behavior. For myself, I have noticed times when someone’s behavior can get me revved up inside. But then there are other times when the same behavior doesn’t bug me as much. What makes the difference?
Two things. One the one hand, it has something to do with the other person’s level of intensity. They may be upset about something or agitated about life in general. There may be more oomph behind their behavior. On the other hand, my internal state may be calm, or it may be revved up. This creates four possible variations that may or may not lead to my need to distance from someone else’s behavior. 1) The other is calm, and I am calm, 2) the other is calm, but I am revved up, 3) the other is revved up, and I am calm, or 4) the other is revved up, and I am revved up. All four of these variables have different behavioral outcomes. When both are revved up, psychological and/or physical walls are constructed.
Build your capacity to think, instead of building walls.
All living things contain walls. Whether it’s tree bark or fish scales, walls protect organisms by controlling what comes in and what goes out. For humans, the largest organ in the body, the skin, is a wall. However, we also have other walls that are more permeable. They include our sensory organs that transmit experiences of touch, taste, feel, see, and hear. Our neurological system helps us regulate and control the spaces between us. Our brain filters these sensory experiences as we move closer to or further away from others. Current research suggests that our perceptions of what is real is often inaccurate and filled with biases. Bias is an automatic function of the brain to help determine what sensory input to focus on and what to ignore.
Without intellectual oversight, we respond automatically to perceived threats. These automatic responses are rooted in the emotional system. The emotional system is what motivates our behavior. It’s what motivates us to build fences, walls, to chase after a potential mate, or to run away from a barking dog. How we behave in the relationship system is based on the reactivity of the emotional system. Building a fence to keep out a neighbor says just as much about our own emotional system as it does about theirs. We can point the finger at the other and declare that they are dangerous, but we can also discover how our own reactivity to a perceived threat can become hypersensitive and overreactive; essentially adding fuel to the fire.
Are humans able to work out their differences and not construct walls? Yes, without a doubt. Do we have the capacity to work out our problems and find creative solutions moving forward? Yes, no matter the circumstances. The issue is not capacity. The issue is self-regulation.
While we spend enormous amounts of time and money trying to regulate the behavior of others (often by regulating the distance between us) we spend very little time and money trying to regulate our own reactivity. We accuse others of bad behavior, but often excuse our own and justify it as right or righteous.
I’m not saying that others aren’t capable of committing heinous acts. But do I think it’s possible to live in a society where there are no prisons? Yes. Particularly if we think of the ways prisons are run today. Crime will always be a problem, but our response to irresponsible behavior can look radically different; taking into account a systems perspective.
Do I think it’s possible to live in a world with open borders? Yes. I think there will always be individuals who act irresponsibly, but I think the response to irresponsible behavior can look radically different. Our inability to conceive of a world without walls says something about our own level of reactivity and inability to engage our thinking system in the brain.
I understand the need for boundaries, the need to define space, and the need to set up the rule of law. However, the response to irresponsible behavior doesn’t need to be punishment. Addressing a grievance is about finding a solution within the context of the problem through a process of engaging one’s best thinking about the problem.
When Dr. Murray Bowen began to think about the emotional process and how it works in the family, he noticed that individuals could either relate to each other out of their maturity or immaturity. The effort towards differentiation of self was to engage one’s mature level, what he came to call the thinking system. Bowen found that time and again when one made an effort to respond at a more mature level, the other person would eventually shift to respond in at a more mature level. When one is able to have their mature self relate to their immature self, problems in the relationship system subside.
Instead of erecting fences or walls, we might consider ways to increase our capacity to think and engage our mature self. Fear is what drives immaturity. Fear is what can lead congregations to huddle in place and eventually die. Stepping out and engaging a community signals to others that one is making an effort to be their best possible self.
Breaking down barriers at home
As always, it’s important to go back to one’s family of origin. The automatic ways we move closer to some and farther away from others is a product of the family. The family is where we learn to manage our discomfort with others. By going back to the family, we can observe how people managed their discomfort and then think about options for responding differently. And, as always, having a good coach can make a difference.