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.


Subconscious Reality – Oxymoron or Good Theology?


Important dates stick in your mind whether you want them to or not. I have had days when I was out of sorts only to finally realize that it was the day that Uncle Homer died. You know, stuff that’s literally buried deep in the subconscious, but bubbles up for good or ill. Now, I know that it’s hard and maybe more than a little morbid to carry around a calendar with all the important dates marked, but whether we do it or not, our minds know. Maybe the calendar will help the emotions at least be recognized quicker, and maybe even dissipate without too much spillage. In Family Systems Theory one knows that cross-generational transmission of certain things is more than inevitable, it happens. So, it’s good to talk to the elders who remain, get their story, ask all the questions, make sure the secrets see the light of day.

For instance, tomorrow would have been my Daddy’s 94th birthday. I’ve been thinking about him all week. I have pictured and participated in memories, little vignettes, with him for days: driving in his lap on the way out to his homeplace in Red Hill; feeding the cows; fishing in the john boat on the pond with crickets; him daring to camp at Lick Fork Lake with me; not killing me when I drove his car down the lawn and hit the fence post; and so much more.

I have also thought about his last 2 weeks dying at Providence Hospital; his waking from his coma and asking me if he was going to die and I had to tell him “yes.” I was always honest with him. He could read me and see right through me anyway, so I always told him the truth. He was a good father. He taught me all that he could, and I find myself more and more like him. Even more weird in the approach of this date is that maybe a month ago I put his ring back on my finger, no reason, but I guess it was the subliminal way of remembering or of him saying “Hello!” This ring has gone from youngest son to youngest son for at least 4 generations.

This cross-generational transmission stuff is real. I went yesterday to get a light haircut and beard trim. I don’t have much hair, and the beard is only there until I get back from Africa at the end of August. Nevertheless, I got buzzed. My beard, though trimmed, has more hair than my head. I had no idea until the barber turned me around to face the mirror. Too late to ask for your hair back, but my mind once again went to Daddy taking me up to the Bartley’s Barber Shop on the Edgefield town square, having to put my feet up on the extender on the barber’s chair. I could hear Daddy saying to Mr. Bartley, “Give him a buzz cut.” Well, Daddy, I hope you’re happy, got one yesterday.

Another for instance: I thought Cindy and I got married December 20th because we were too enthralled with each other to wait until summer – which was true, but then lately I got to thinking about all the other family wedding anniversaries. My mother’s parents, Will and Milbria Jackson, lived with us. They got married on December 25. My Mother and Daddy got married on December 23. I checked others in the family tree and there’s a bunch of December weddings. Uncanny. I cannot remember thinking about that being something we did in our clan, but it happened. The unseen tug.

But here’s what’s really on my mind. I’m still at Emory teaching – three more classes and grading papers, and I’m done, but last night I went out to see a movie: “Charlie St. Cloud.” Corny name but it sure fits the movie’s theme. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but you’ve probably seen enough of the movie’s trailers to give most of it away. Charlie keeps seeing his dead brother 5 years after the accident, plays catch with him every evening for an hour. The whole time I was sitting there I had my own flashbacks to long-ago days with Mother and Daddy.

I remembered (re-membered) the vignettes, put them back together, and thought of one of the most important parts of the Apostles’ Creed for me: “I believe in the Communion of Saints.” I believe that those in the Church Triumphant co-mingle with the Church Militant, those in heaven with those duking in out on earth, and they’re our cheerleaders, prayer warriors, trail-blazers. They’re in another mysterious dimension but if you’ll look just long enough at the periphery of your vision, there they are – not ghosts or phantasms – more like sacred memories, memories of God being made incarnate to help you out.

They are God’s gift and a vital witness of His faithfulness through all generations. Knowing this gives me peace for the past and hope for the future. Happy Birthday, Daddy! Thanks for the memories and still being there for me.