Triangling in the Purpose: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 22, 2015

This re-frame, Triangling in the Purpose, has a similar feel to the last one, Triangling in the Text. The first re-frame about preaching, as I wrote, came in a flash while reading Brueggemann’s article. This one about leadership came gradually over a period of time.

As clergy we are “set apart” at ordination to serve the church. For years this sparked internal resistance. I was uncomfortable being “set apart,” as if it meant being special or better than. “Call me Mahan,” I would urge. “We are all priests, all ministers,” I would teach. “We all share baptismal vows to walk the Jesus way,” I would preach. These are true affirmations, I hasten to add. So, what is it about being “set apart”?

Functionally, to be “set apart” looks something like this: we, the congregation, set you apart to oversee activities at our church. We pay you for managing congregational life, leading worship including preaching, officiating at church rituals and being available for pastoral crises. Often ordination boils down to a contract for services.

I came to embrace a re-frame that transcends, yet includes these multiple services: we, the congregation, set you apart to keep triangling in our Purpose for being.

Every congregation I know has a Purpose (mission) statement. The good ones are crisp, short and portable. Each one is a variation on one theme: love God, love neighbor. Some I have known are “we are people of the Way”; “followers of Jesus;” and Micah’s version—“do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God.” Each version carries its own local accent. In fact, these identity statements are particularly forceful when hammered out by a congregation over time. But, in my experience, seldom are mission statements alive and active in congregational life. They are displayed somewhere on a wall and website or hidden away in a file labeled “Important Documents.” Rarely are they listened to … I mean really listened to for inspiration and guidance in decision-making, program-making, service-making, vision-making and especially leadership-making.

I submit that as ordained pastors we are set apart to keep reminding the congregation of its Purpose. Regularly we can triangle into our collective life the Purpose that knits us together. It’s primary, critical, though usually a role unnamed and unexpected. Why? Why is this so important? It’s because we forget who we are, why we are together, what’s our purpose for being. We forget. We experience memory loss. Amnesia sets in as a common malaise.

It’s not that others in the congregation don’t raise the Purpose question. I hope some do, but that’s not in their job description in the same way it is in ours. I like to imagine the church saying to the pastor:

We are setting you apart to study, reflect and meditate on the Purpose of the church in our time and place. We expect you to live the question and help us live the question: Who are we? What is our raison d’etre, our reason for being? How is our Purpose being embodied in our decisions and actions? By paying you a salary, we free the time required for you to keep the meaning and promise of our Purpose ever before us.

So when we are in the midst of a budget committee arguing over the best use of our money, we expect you to triangle in the Purpose question: How does this proposed budget reflect our calling, our mission statement? Or, in the midst of some conflict when we are locked into polarities, we expect you to raise the Purpose question: Where is the Spirit active in this? What new resolution is trying to emerge? What depth of loving is being asked of us? Or, in your preaching, teaching, and worship leadership we expect you to keep reminding us of the Purpose question: Who are we? Whose are we? What’s the shape of our participation in God’s movement toward Shalom, individually and collectively?

I hear an “amen!” from the research of Frederic Laloux in his recent book, Re-Inventing Organizations. Laloux, assuming that all institutions in our time of accelerating change are pressed to re-invent themselves, studied a few global organizations that navigated such difficult transitions. He particularly focused on the leadership required in these re-inventions. These leaders shared these qualities:

  • they focused on the clear, compelling Purpose of the organization while, at the same time, holding lightly any particular structures or programs;
  • they gathered around them colleagues who were equally excited about the Purpose;
  • they offered no clear future vision of the organization but rather trusted that from the collective listening to the Purpose new forms, directions, and programs would emerge;
  • they placed Purpose over profit or survival;
  • and they did their inner work (e.g. meditation) that freed them from inordinate self-interest.

Laloux notes one practice that I found intriguing. One executive when meeting with his leadership council would place an empty chair to represent the Purpose of the organization. During the discussion of organizational concerns and plans anyone on the council at any time could move from their chair to the empty chair and speak to the discussion from the perspective of the Purpose. They might say, “How does this decision fit with our Purpose? Here is how I see it. This where I see us veering from our Purpose.”

In congregational settings I’m saying that the pastor often sits in the “empty chair,” seeing, listening and speaking from the perspective of Purpose/Mission/Calling. And in addition, I’m advocating that pastors invite other members, especially lay leaders, to feel the freedom to occupy that seat as well.

Everybody I read these days either assumes or addresses the transition the church is experiencing in our time. All institutions, including the church, are in the business of re-inventing themselves. This paradigm shifting, as it is sometimes named, is true today in a way it was not when I began my ministry during post-WWII years. In those days the Purpose was unspoken, assumed and seldom challenged. Our purpose was to grow; our message was come. Now, with growth unlikely and fewer and fewer persons coming, we are driven wonderfully and painfully back to essentials—why are we here? What is our calling? What does it mean for us to allow the justice-love of God to incarnate in us? Or, in other words … we keep triangling in the Purpose.


Triangling in the Text: A Re-Frame That Mattered

June 1, 2015

Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. The reflections will be “re-frames” that have mattered in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m grateful that this astounding technology makes possible on-going connections with you and others. For this to be possible at my age and from my home is a gift beyond measure. I treasure your participation.  

 . . .

With this first re-frame, let’s go to a characteristic aspect of our work—preaching. Addressing regularly the same community over multiple years is unique among professions.

When I retired someone asked me, “Mahan, will you miss preaching?” Without hesitation I blurted out, “Yeah, I sure will. How will I know what I believe?” It’s true. Preaching was the opportunity to work out my sense of the gospel’s take on the meaning of life with a community of soul friends week after week after week . . . in my latest instance, for fifteen years. It became an on-going conversation that starts with the life and lives of the congregation and returns to the life and lives of the congregation. Each Sunday after stepping up to the pulpit I could have said, “Now . . . as we were saying.” There’s nothing like it: this on-going conversation about faith, hope and love with people you know and who know you. Preaching, while never losing its sense of audacity and chutzpah, came increasingly to feel like an unimagined privilege.

But privilege was not my word for preaching during the first part of my pastoral ministry. “Performance” was the word. I felt an enormous pressure to “make it happen.” My congregation deserved my very best. And more to the point, my competence was “on the line” week in and week out. More than I like to admit, it was about me, an awareness frequently confirmed by after-comments: “That was a great sermon . . . you really touched me today . . . you are getting better and better.” These responses, of course, just pushed me to try harder.

But along my learning curve of this art appeared a fresh, new concept that named what I was beginning to intuit. It is a re-frame that changed my understanding of preaching. The gift came from friend of preachers, Walter Brueggemann, drawing on an insight from family systems theorist Murray Bowen in an article “The Preacher, The Text, and the People,” (Theology Today 47 1990. 237–47).

Bowen noted that life requires homeostasis (balance and stability). For instance, a tripod requires three legs, not two, in order to be stable. Similarly, when two human beings feel unstable, they often “triangle” in a third person or issue as a way of reducing the tension and sustaining the balance between them. You know well the experience. Recall two parishioners in conflict who (likely unconsciously) “triangle” you in as problem-solver or maybe even as the “problem.” This reduces the tension in their relationship while leaving you holding the anxiety. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But the re-frame so helpful to me is a positive use of “triangling.” Brueggemann calls on the triangle concept in family systems theory to present his understanding of preaching. Preaching is generally seen as occurring between pastor/preacher (A) and people/congregation (B). It sure looks that way: preacher in the pulpit addressing people in pew; preacher speaking, congregation listening; preacher interpreting scripture, people agreeing or not agreeing. It’s an interaction between only A and B, it seems. And when the conversation is controversial, it’s predictably a win-lose proposition, some agreeing with the preacher, others not. In either case, the focus remains on the preacher and sermon.

(C) text

SilerTriangle

(A) preacher               (B) congregation

What if, as Brueggemann suggests, the voice of the biblical text is “triangled” in as “C”? I’m not talking about “tipping our hat” to the text, seeing the text as a jumping off place for our untethered imagination. Rather, in Brueggemann’s thinking, you as preacher (A), along with the congregation (B), come under the authority of the text (C). It’s the text that matters. It’s the sense of God’s Word through words—scripture and ours—that matters.

I found this perspective liberating. When I allowed it, I was no longer performing. It lifted the burden I felt to interpret brilliantly, to craft a polished sermon, to declare a memorable message. I was freed to realize that I am not the subject. My sermon is not the subject. The text is the subject. God is the subject. Christ is the subject. Spirit is the subject. The “triangle” makes it clear. The primary action is between the congregation and the text, not between the congregation and me.

We, as preachers, are left with the privilege to engage the meaning of the text out loud hoping all along that the preaching stimulates the member’s interaction with the text. My role becomes more prompter than expert. I was to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—in public—wanting my words to provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with Spirit. We say in effect: “Friends, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. Here is where it takes me. This is where it can take us. Where does it take you? What do you see, feel and hear? ”The shift occurs: the sermon becomes primarily about God and the congregation, not about you and the congregation.

I found this re-frame transformative. It re-shaped my vision of preaching. And more importantly, on occasion I could internalize this truth emotionally and spiritually.

This way of re-framing preaching is also a way to conceptualize leadership. That will be the subject of the next Re-frame.