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.

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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.

Holy Conferencing and Criticism

I just got back from the United Methodist Pre-General Conference News Briefing. As part of the briefing there was instruction on “Holy Conferencing.” The issue is how to be civil when we disagree and have appreciative inquiry about what others are saying. At our South Carolina Delegation meeting on Sunday we heard one of our very effective clergypersons share 10 leadership principles. One of those reminded me of how to do holy conferencing. It was a lesson I learned a long time ago as a Little League baseball coach: Praise in public, and criticize in private.

Criticism really cuts doesn’t it? Even when it is supposedly constructive, by its very nature, it has to dismantle something before it can build back up. Have you ever been approached by someone asking your opinion about something and you know that if you really express how you feel that person will be slighted? We have all been in this position. What do we do? Do we lie and say what we think that the person wants to hear? Do we hedge things a bit and word our response in such a way that it goes down more smoothly? Do we dare ask, “Do you really want to know?” By asking the question we have already telegraphed our disapproval.

Caring enough to confront is a difficult proposition at best. If we don’t speak the truth we’re shirking our duty, and if we do we risk losing a friend. Aren’t we supposed to be critical sometimes? Without some judgment the world wouldn’t have standards of acceptable behavior. Christians are supposed to “speak the truth in love.” This is the key to a proper response to unacceptable behavior. Whatever we say or do must be infused with love!

How do referees stand the criticism that they take? Instant replay doesn’t seem to help. Second guessing has increased. The announcers take sides on which way they think that the call will go and exacerbate the controversy. A referee’s plight reminds me of what former hockey goalie, Jacque Plante, said: “How would you like a job where, if you make a mistake, a big red light goes on and eighteen thousand people boo?” Does this imply that there is some truth in the adage: “If one person calls you a donkey, pay no attention to him. But if five people call you one, go out and buy yourself a saddle.”

Some of us, however, referees included, have been saddled with unfair criticism. What to do? Here’s the answer: Glean the truth from it, learn from it, and do something about it. What’s new? Criticism is often the way we human beings communicate. It doesn’t make it right, but it certainly is the way things are. And criticism is often the very thing that we need to hear. Thank God for Moms and Dads, teachers, and supervisors who have lovingly instructed us in what’s right and wrong. However, as Norman Vincent Peale put it, “The trouble with most of us is that we would rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

So, learn from the experience. However misguided or vile the source of the criticism, let it work for you rather than against you. Get whatever you can from the suggestions and do what is pleasing to God and not necessarily the person who is criticizing you. This response to criticism gives you both a listening ear and offers a higher allegiance to honor. You take the criticism, but you have the God-given grace to do what you will with it. Criticism always comes more easily than craftsmanship. It’s a lot easier to tear down than to build up. Some people find fault as if it were buried treasure.

So hear your critics out and then move on in graceful action. Thousands can offer their public opinion polls about you and they might still be wrong. Change the worst, improve the best, and don’t take everything so personally. Remember the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement. The ultimate answer to criticism is that you only answer to God. God is the final Judge. If you dislike criticism so much, don’t do it yourself. Guard your thoughts and assessments. Triangling other people into your spat with a common friend only makes things worse. Sure, triangling can give much solace when you find out that you dislike the same thing, but is this really helpful when it tears down a third party? Advice: Mind your own business, “Speak the truth in love,” and maybe more importantly when you feel unjustly criticized, “Hear the truth in love, too!” That is a both a sign of holy conferencing and leadership!

United Methodist Leadership and Football

Whether you are a Blue Hose, Paladin, Bulldog, or Terrier fan, you have got to admit that Clemson and South Carolina’s football teams have made dramatic improvements over the past several years. Why? The players are much the same, so what’s different? Both schools have lost a few headliners as specialists, but the big difference to me is in the coaching staffs. South Carolina has added John Butler as Special Teams Coordinator and Shawn Elliott as Offensive Line Coach. Clemson has added Chad Morris as Offensive Coordinator. All three of these are known to have proven success, vision and the ability to articulate it so that their players are motivated and enthused. Both teams are in the top 25 and are 4-0!

Leadership matters whether we’re talking about college football or the church. Lay and clergy leadership from bishops to the pew is so very important. It’s more than just showing up! It’s having expertise for sure, but in my mind it’s mostly about relationships whether with coaches and players, bishops and the annual conference, or clergy and local churches. Leadership has to be real, relational, and relevant.

Take Bishop Francis Asbury, for instance. I’ve been reading John Wigger’s biography of Asbury, American Saint, and I’ve noticed that Asbury wasn’t known for his preaching but for his time spent with people. African-American Harry Hoosier was the better preacher and got a better response than Asbury. What Asbury did well was stay in people’s homes and share the Gospel in authentic relational ways. He was a great story-teller and he met people where they were. This is one reason why, up and down the eastern seaboard, there are homes with Bishop’s chairs, Bishop’s rooms, and Bishop’s tables in them. People remembered him for his presence in their homes and their lives.

Wouldn’t it be great if coaches and current church leaders had that kind of feel for people’s pulses? Talking about being relevant! It would take motivation to a new level, wouldn’t it? Charles Schwab, former president of U.S. Steel, had a mill manager whose men were not producing their quota of work. “How is it,” Schwab asked, “That a man as capable as you cannot make this shift turn out its quota?” “I don’t know,” the manager replied. “I have coaxed the men, pushed them, but nothing seems to work. They just will not produce.”

This conversation took place at the end of the shift, just before the night shift came on. “Give me a piece of chalk,” Schwab said. Then, turning to the nearest worker, he inquired, “How many turns of the furnace did your shift produce today?” “Six,” he said. Without another word Schwab chalked a big figure “6” on the floor, and he walked away. When the night shift came in, they saw the big “6” and asked what it meant. “The boss was here today,” the day shift said. “He asked us how many turns we made, and chalked it on the floor.” The night crew talked among themselves, “We can do just as good a job as those guys, even better!” The next morning Schwab walked through the mill again and noticed that the night shift had rubbed out the “6” and replaced it with a big “7.” That inspired the day shift not to let up, so by the end of the day they left behind an impressive “10” for everyone to see.

Shortly, the mill which had been lagging way behind in steel production was turning out more work than any other company plant. Without yelling a word or making any threats Schwab had made his point. He said, “The way to get things done is to stimulate a desire to excel.” Good coaches inspire others to dream big and get the job done. My hat’s off to Clemson and U.S.C. Would Jesus “tip his hat” for us as church leaders? One has to be real, relevant, and relational!

Questions:

What is your dream?

Is it God’s dream for you?

What is your strategy to fulfil your dream?

How do you connect with people?

Leadership, Elections, & The UMC

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The mid-term elections are over except where they’re still counting or recounting, and what does it mean that the Republican Party was so successful? What does it mean that the UMC is still losing members and we have a Call to Action Report that hopes to turn the tide the other way? I’m still reading Sergio Zyman’s book Renovate Before You Innovate and it has interesting segues between the US election results and the UMC. He advocates that assertiveness in your market niche is extremely important. He says, “Customer loyalty is one of the most perishable commodities in the world.” Just ask Democrats. We just saw Blue States flipping Red, and I know a lot of people who either used to be United Methodist or are now “nothing” – irreligious but spiritual.
Zyman states that reminding people about why you’re so great is important, but you better build on your strengths so well that you garner people’s preference. His descriptor that fits some politicians and the UMC: “You’re an also-ran in a stagnant category.” He uses the rental car business as an example, but listen for the ramifications for the church and politics. “The top-tier players have essentially turned car renting into a commodity business, leaving customers without any real way to tell them apart.” Sounds like Main Line denominations, huh? Or the politics of the same-old-same-old? For instance, have you ever heard the story of the person explaining the difference between Capitalism and Communism. He said “In Capitalism, humans exploit other humans. In Communism, it’s the other way around.” You just trade one set of fat cats for another, UNLESS there is real renovation, building on strengths and leading. It’s called the Church, built on the foundation of Jesus Christ and the traditions of the faith expressed in relevant reasonable ways so that people experience new life: Sounds like the Wesleyan Quadrilateral to me – renovation at work!
Zyman continues his thoughts on stagnant businesses by saying, “Whenever this kind of stagnation happens, the market leader has the most to gain, mostly because when everything else is equal, people go for the bigger brand – it makes them feel they’re getting a deal.” Sounds like part of the reason why non-denominational mega-churches are outpacing us. Maybe it’s because they’re seen as hip, relevant, and they preach the time-tested Gospel. When we try to “Rethink Church,” it sounds like we’re more into heresy than offering certainty in uncertain times. “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” said about the same – we stand for nothing and all things. What???
Zyman says, “In politics, it’s a very similar situation: Sameness doesn’t change votes, which is why leaders win about 90 percent of the time. Faced with no significant difference, voters pick the devil they know over the devil they don’t know.” You have to differentiate! You have to give people a reason to do business with you more often so that when they compare you or your congregation/denomination to theirs or none at all, you will prove to them that “Anything they can do, we can do better.” That will take some work, marketing/evangelism, discerning essential core values, and expressing them in ways that people will get, and proving that you can deliver. I’m all for the t-shirt test for church mission statements: If it doesn’t fit on a t -shirt, it doesn’t cut it or qualify. For instance, how about “MD4C” for the UMC – Making Disciples For Christ. Beats the heck out of “Rethink Church” that makes me ponder my doubts more than my faith.
The UMC and the two primary political parties have no one else to blame but themselves for the sad state of their market-shares. Why do you think a Tea Party Movement actually had traction? They marketed well and tapped into people’s emotions against stagnancy. Now I haven’t met a Tea Partier yet that can adequately explain “Constitutional Government,” but they don’t have to if somehow it means “new and improved,” which means homage to the past but relevancy for the present. So the question hits me, “Who is new and improved?” – the UMC, the Democratic Party, or the Republican Party? Interesting thoughts, and I know I don’t have all the answers, but, you better believe this, I am going to do all that I can to present a Relevant Gospel in a Wesleyan Way to our world. There’s no better deal anywhere! We better get with it, and fast!

Original Sin – I’ve Seen It!

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Ain’t nothing original about original sin! I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that one-liner, but I’ll bet you’ve witnessed it. Just when I think there’s nothing new under the sun, wham! With unsuspecting naivete I’m hit with something new, unexpected, unanticipated – a new tear in the fabric of civility, even among Christians. Good grief, we don’t handle it well either. After my momentary shock at this new appearance of original sin, I usually stumble through searching for some easy balm to try a quick patch on the opening wound.
And that usually NEVER works! Rabbi Edwin Freidman’s book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, says it all! Quick fixes don’t usually work because it has taken a lot longer than we think for the junk to float to the surface anyway. So maybe this is why we need Roberts’ Rules of Order and an unbiased, objective leader presiding in tense situations. Roberts’ Rules actually help defuse anxiety, except for those who don’t know anything more than yelling, “Point of Order!” Okay, I’m a parliamentarian, been elected one for nearly 2 decades now, so I’m prejudiced. I do like Roberts’ Rules, and I don’t care for everyone bashing them. Truth be told, I think they do help contentious bodies of people have a little breathing room so they can think through an issue rather than get into a shouting match. But, indeed, because so few people know the process, they sometimes just add to a sense that the know-it-all’s are controlling things so we the ignorant masses are purposefully left in the dark.
Ah, this is where leadership can help by reframing a person’s comments in an assembly into a suitable motion; i.e., the person’s suggestion that the previous motion to do something potentially divisive should be put off and decided by more people can be reframed by the presiding officer as “I seem to hear you saying that this should be postponed to a later date with a larger gathering. Therefore, it seems to me that you’re making a motion to postpone to a definite time when more people can be present at a duly called meeting. Is this your motion?” If it isn’t their motion, then you’re in deep trouble, but hopefully you’ve restated their intent well enough to give a little breathing room for the issue to defuse itself or give ideas to clearer heads to think in new ways.
What’s this got to do with everyday life when we’re not in a situation where you use Roberts’ Rules? For me, it’s about leadership and emotional process. Original sin’s perpetual lack of originality makes people react, blow up, and blast others. Blame-shifting has been going on since the Garden of Eden. In everyday life I have to remember that the issues at hand are not as much about facts as they are about personalities.
Therefore, information over-kill isn’t as important as understanding the emotional process we use in dealing with the so-called facts. In Roberts’ Rules fashion we need to track what emotional forces are at work, restate them, stand our ground in a responsive rather than reactive way, and try to air everything out in a neutral environment.
This is hard as heck to do when people are showing their fangs, and you are tempted to show yours,too. That doesn’t help anyone. Find a calm place within from which to speak. Don’t wimp out and say nothing. That just gives ammo to the lions and bears. Do what St. Paul said, “Speak the truth in love.” Leadership risks saying what people want to say but don’t feel like they can, and restates it in such a way that everybody walks away a winner. They don’t walk away “winner-take-all,” because that’s not reality. In our non-original sin-filled world, the best we can do is win-win-lose-lose; i.e. everybody gets something and loses something. Hey, I’ve been married 35 years and that’s as good as it gets from my experience. Going nuclear and winning is still losing.
Chill out, lead with calm authority, and give peace a chance.