New Clergy as Detectives

Well, one to two weeks are under the belts of newbie clergy who just moved to new parishes and, if they are like me, they’re pondering potential changes. Of course, someone wisely suggested to new clergy that, “You shouldn’t change anything for the first six months except your underwear!” Some may be wondering if they can wait that long. You’re probably wondering if you don’t make some strategic changes now, your “Honeymoon Advantage” may run out and be for naught. What are we to do as we make these first critical and highly analyzed/criticized decisions?

For me I have to first remember that every church is its own unique organism, family system, and culture. Therefore, what works in one place may or may not work in another. I also know that I need to find people that I can trust to tell me the unvarnished emotional history of the church. The factual history is easy enough to find in available documents, but find someone who can give you the “skinny” on the emotional processes that have occurred at nodal points in the church’s life.

How does the church handle decision making and crisis? What gets stirred up when there’s tension? Do people fight fair? Is passive-aggressive behavior the norm? Bottom line, become a church psychological detective and connect the dots of the family system.

Family systems theory, as in Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, is fascinating. There’s no way that I can summarize such an important tome, but here’s one quote that is illustrative: “One’s life course is largely determined by the amount of unresolved emotional attachment to family of origin, the amount of anxiety that comes from it, and what to do with it.” The question for newbie clergy is to discover the hidden wounds, the unresolved emotional attachments embedded in the psyche of church members and even their larger community.

You have heard the story of the young bride who marries a guy and cooks her first pot roast. She does everything just right, but her new husband is visibly disappointed. After a heated discussion he admits that his problem is that it’s just not the way his mother made pot roast, so she dares to go talk to his mother. The mother-in-law is clueless and assures her new daughter-in-law that she didn’t do anything special. But she does admit that she learned how to make pot roast from her husband’s mother. So she suggests that she go see her mother-in-law explaining that maybe she would have some insight.

The bride goes to see the grandmother and tells her everything that she did. The grandmother nodded approvingly and with a quizzical smile and asks the bride to step into the kitchen because she had made a pot roast that very day. The bride immediately sees what the difference is. The grandmother’s pot roast is square! When asked why she had a square pot roast the grandmother said that she and her husband were so poor when they got married that the only pot that they had to cook a roast in was square so they cut off the edges of the roast to square it up to fit the pot.

Wow! This was an unresolved emotional attachment that finally made sense when the bride connected the dots and did some research. Upon explaining this to her new husband, he was okay with the change. The discovery is that a family’s, and, I daresay, a church’s emotional processes are much more important than the facts or content of the issue(s), but once the emotional processes are uncovered you can more easily accept the content of the facts or the way things are.

Some new clergy have inherited churches with “square pots” and emotional operational systems that are begging for illumination and exposure. The risk is in when to do it. Two analogies come to mind in this whole endeavor that separates emotional process from content: one about doctors and medicine and one about “river babies.”

The doctor and medicine one is pretty straightforward. Tests and procedures provide facts about a person’s condition, but we don’t rely on facts alone when we are in the throes of illness. Whether or not we trust the doctor is of huge importance. A doctor can have all the facts (content) straight but have the bedside manner of a frog run over in the road (emotional process) and we are not happy, and say that we want a second opinion when what we really want is a second doctor who really cares and takes it personally that we survive!

The story about “river babies” is also helpful to ponder in a who-done-it assessment of our new churches. In this story many of townspeople are down at the nearby river and they notice a toddler floating by about to drown. Many rush in and rescue the child, then another child starts floundering by, and then another, and another and on and on. They call to get more townspeople to come help pull all these babies from the river when two men desert them. As the deserters are heading up the riverbank someone calls out and says, “Why are you leaving us? Where are you going? We need you here to help us save these babies!” The guys reply, “We are going upstream to stop whoever is throwing them in!”

In our decision to let things slide for 6 months or not, do we keep pulling babies out of the water reacting to the tyranny of the urgent, or do we try to figure out what the systemic cause is of our under-functioning? Every situation, family, church, and community can be better. The biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. God bless us as we determine whether or not to tread water or go upstream against the flow and do something about the real issues. Happy detective hunting as we separate the facts from the emotional processes at work in our new places of ministry.


Church Conflict and United Methodist Zeitgeist

Church conflict hurts the Gospel. Duh! Who would want to be one of Jesus’ followers if this is how we treat each other? As a District Superintendent I spend a lot of time dealing with disgruntled pastors and church members. It is the infamous triangle: “We can’t talk directly to each other so we’ll dump our issues on you.” Well, in our connectional system that’s the way that the dots connect, and DS’ are major dumping grounds. A healthy outcome largely depends on how I respond to the conflict.

If I get reactive there’s more tension. If I take one side or the other, things get worse. If I do nothing, I come across as either uncaring or incompetent. What’s the answer in a Rabbi Edwin Friedman Generation to Generation sort of way? Non-anxious presence. If I can relate directly with the conflicting interests and coach either to view the situation from a new vantage point, there’s hope. All it takes is a little bit of change to deflate the tension. Reactivity doesn’t help. I have to remain as neutral as possible defecting in place with the different sides while modeling Christ.

Would it have helped if Jesus had got into a shouting match with Pontius Pilate? Of course not. He was quiet. He was secure in himself and it showed. Oh, if we could act like that when things get hot. If we could just chill out and trust the Lord and speak from his perspective to each other. Even better would be to listen to each other with Jesus’ ears.

This isn’t just about local church conflict or conflict in general. This speaks to some of our United Methodist scorched-earth tactics and intractable rhetoric that threatens to divide the denomination. I’ve been reading through Gil Rendle’s book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement. I am vividly reminded of our utter failure to conduct holy conferencing at General Conference 2012.

Rendle speaks about our legislative attempts to enact change: “We enact or we deny change through democratic practices. Changes are pushed or resisted by strong voices, interest groups, and caucuses. It is critical to note that in the United Methodist denomination there is no authoritative head leader with positional authority to make declarations and change the balance of competing legislative preferences (pp. 21-22).” What I get from this is that we are a group that likes group-think, but places a high value on arguing about everything.  We have a system that purposefully includes challenges to every issue and all discussions. However, there is one Book of Discipline and only the General Conference can change it. Our last General Conference clearly exposed that we are many conflicting constituencies, and every four years we try to make sausage out of all of the inputs.

No matter how much you agree with the statements coming out of the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions about “Gospel Obedience” over obedience to the actions of General Conference, this regional diversity of opinion is a problem in a covenantal, albeit argumentative, body like the UMC. Gil Rendle accurately points out that groups who attempt to legislate change cannot do it! He puts it this way: “It has taken a good bit of time for leaders to understand that additional rules will not set a rule-bound people free (p. 23).”

His suggestion to foster our denominational return to being a movement is a starting place, but comes up short in my analysis: “Rather than additional rules, we need bold people. While organizations do not have the capacity to break their own logjam of rules and norms, individuals do (p. 23).” He spends the rest of the book asking questions and offering guidance for how individuals can break the rules while honoring them – no small task. He admirably says that rule-breakers who help nudge the UMC back to movement status must question our whole system of rules in light of our mission. The mission is the driver of everything. My problem is that “bold people” are still people, and, in the words of my late father, “There ain’t nothing original about original sin.” Bold people can sin boldly. Everybody needs redemption.

Now, I don’t want to make short shrift of Rendle’s book. It is engaging and has great images from another favorite book, The Starfish and the Spider, but it leaves me ill at ease. Rendle basically says we need enough differentiated leaders who will break our rules for missional purposes. Yes, how nice, but that’s not how we do things. I have stated before that I believe the UMC needs to have a one or two-month constitutional convention and do what Rendle’s book title suggests and get Back to Zero, in other words, start over. However, when I hear the notion of bold individual rule breakers I foresee internecine warfare over what the mission of the church is exactly. I see reactivity going nuclear. I see schism without a mission because we can’t agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day.

Ah, now maybe this is where I find hope. Where Rendle comes up short is where most of us, especially me, miss the mark. “Individual” rule breaking is all about “me, me, me, and my agenda.” Where is the “United” in our denominational name in that? Sounds more like “Untied” than “United” Methodist Church. It all depends on where the “I” is placed, doesn’t it? I want to get back to zero and start our denomination over, but want to keep from turning the endeavor into a my “I” against your “I” issue war. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “missional” or not, if we’ve shot each other up in the process. That’s an oxymoron that can’t be fixed.

It may sound simple, and I know it’s not, but I want to suggest that every denominational and local church conflict does not hinge on our personal determination of what’s missional, or what is God’s preferred cause de jour. It strikes me that we may need to follow the example of Christ and take up a cross and crucify every one of our causes until we discover what is Jesus’ cause. Until we do that we’re just going to keep going around in circles arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong, and letting the Judicial Council sort it out. I’d rather preach Jesus without any elaboration than hear the mixed signals of 9 million individual rule-breakers. If we don’t have a single voice about anything, even General Conference, maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!

Jurisdictional – Fear, Trembling, & Leadership!

In preparation for Jurisdictional Conference and the episcopal election process, I have been reading a lot of N.T. Wright, novels, and Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Friedman, famous for his work on Family Systems in his book Generation to Generation, attempts to tackle universal and especially American dysfunction about leadership. He says that we are overwhelmed by anxiety in our culture and that a key to overcoming this toxic state is “clear, decisive, well-defined leadership.” His assumption is that when a system, be it family, religion, or state, is driven by anxiety, there will often be a failure of nerve among its leaders.

He states that a belief that having the right data or technique has been valued over personal responsibility and leadership. His diagnosis of our current state of anxiety and chronic tension is perpetuated when systems sabotage the initiative of leaders. Friedman suggests that we need to ponder the emotional processes that focus on “issues” or “identified patients,” rather than on the challenging self-differentiation of leaders. Often in counseling situations it seems appropriate to “fix” the problem child, adult, or issue, when what one really needs to do is coach the strongest element of the emotional field to differentiate. Sounds a bit like Gil Rendle saying a problem without a solution isn’t really a problem.

Success comes when leadership is able to stay connected to the rest of the system emotionally while at the same time remain separate. Integrity is the word Friedman uses for this concept. Integrity is an interesting word. Its French roots, in tegere, mean “in touch.” A person with integrity is “in touch” with those with whom community is shared, but more importantly, for leadership and the dissipation of anxiety, persons of integrity are “in touch” with their own self/core. From that core of strength a leader can manage their own anxiety and can maintain challenge and connection with those to whom they relate as leader.

Good leadership doesn’t react to troublemakers or the emotional processes of a group. Leadership offers vision that is an emotional rather than cerebral approach. In other words, leadership depends more on a person’s capacity to deal with his/her own anxiety rather than quick-fix gimmicks that only mask the latent tensions. A leader, according to Friedman’s experience is someone who, “generally turned out to be the one who could express himself or herself with the least amount of blaming and the one who had the greatest capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny.”

Wow! This is exciting material, thought-provoking and challenging. This is the kind of leadership I want to exhibit as a bishop. Therefore, in preparation for the possibilities of the next two weeks I am trying to avoid reactivity and stay centered in God. I want to continue working on my own self-definition, and practice non-anxious presence. It will be a challenge. These coming days for our denomination demand leaders who are grounded in Christ and able to both still and stir the waters of a tumultuous yet yearning world.

I have been pigeon-holed as a Moderate, a Liberal, and a Conservative, and I can’t be boxed in. Bottom-line, my call to the episcopacy is at the intersection of 4 quadrants: one has been an extremely successful Local Church ministry and Denman Evangelism Award; another has been as a Teacher in two seminaries and Candler Distinguished Alumni Award; yet another has been as Servant of the Annual Conference as Parliamentarian, District Superintendent, and much more; then finally as a Bridge Builder and Worker on the General Church level via the General Council on Ministries, Connectional Table, Worldwide UMC Study Committee, and 5 time delegate to General Conference.

These opportunities have meshed over time into an episcopal call. Now it’s up to the church to confirm it, and I say that with more than a little fear and trembling. I want to do all I can to be an effective leader for Jesus Christ! All the more reason to keep reading Friedman and simply, not so simply, being me – an interesting mixture of leadership opportunities and perspectives – trying always to be faithful to the task.

Conflict Training

This is a photo of me as a “Fighting Gamecock” USC fan, not of my leadership style! This week has been spent in a Lombard Mennonite Peace Center “Conflict Mediation” Seminar. Well, that’s a mouthfull, but the training has been good. Conflict can even be good, “Iron sharpens iron,” says the Psalmist, but it’s tough work to look for the good in a stressful situation.

As a District Superintendent I spend an inordinate amount of time dealing with people who want me to “straighten out their preacher.” Sometimes they might be right, but I know enough about Edwin Freidman and Murray Bowen (I hope) to not buy into their triangulation. I hope to be non-reactive and stay objective as I mediate. For me, that means cutting down on my facial expressions, no nods up or down, and mostly grunts and innocuous words that state that I have been listening adequately to both sides.
This is exhausting. But community is worth the effort. Scott Peck’s book on peacemaking A Different Drummer has long been a favorite. He sums up life, church, work, and home, etc. as falling somewhere on a continuum between the following stages of community: pseudocommunity, chaos, emptiness, and real community. Some want to avoid conflict and stay in a fake community. To get to real community you have to dare to confront, speaking the truth in love through emptiness.
I hope to do better at listening to people, being objective, empowering people to come to the table and work through their differences. To do it, I’ve got to nail my feet to the floor, and maybe superglue my mouth shut. The main thing is to love, love, love; and listen, listen, listen. Every day is an adventure.

Setting Sun or Beginning of a New Day

The sun in setting on summer. I rushed off to Mt. Mitchell for one last solo trip Sunday afternoon and got back yesterday around lunch. The photo is a shot from just beyond my campfire looking south toward Old Fort and East Asheville. The temps dropped down to the upper 40’s but were absolutely wonderful during the day.
It was a great time to process the whole episcopal election experience and spiritually prepare for my return as Columbia D.S. The sun is NOT setting on my ministry in Columbia and S.C. I read some helpful books during my time around the fire. Of course they are follow-ups to Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation and Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. This weekend I read Peter Steinke’s Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What, and two of Roberta Gilbert’s books on Systems Thinking: Extraordinary Relationships and The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory. Before you begin to think I’m a nerd of sorts, I did read a mystery novel The Woods by Harlan Coben. It was a good read.
Actually, all of the books meshed well. Even The Woods had a lot of systems thinking in it, the interrelatedness of life and how to stay connected and be an individual at the same time. Sounds like our United Methodist system. Our polity gives title to church property to the local church, but it is held in trust for the denomination. Our Connection is a family system!
Here’s the rub, how do we keep from becoming separate silos of ministry doing our own thing without losing our sense of who we are as an integral part of the United Methodist Connection? Paying apportionments certainly isn’t the best way to be connected. Better ways in my mind include fellowship and worship/mission opportunities for laity and clergy to connect and share, in a class meeting-like style, what works and what doesn’t in any given setting. My hope in the Columbia District is to provide lots of these opportunities. We will build a community of faith that proves that the Connection is real. Read Paragraph 701 of the 2004 Book of Discipline for one of the best summations of who we are as a family system. So, the sun isn’t setting on us as a denomination, especially if we will embrace our shared identity and live it!