Friends, I have revised my website and blog to reflect this time in my life. As a way of leaving this vocation that always exceeded by grasp while filling me with purpose, I’m going back and picking up some tools (re-frames) that I found useful in the gardening we do. These “re-frames” mattered to me in my years of pastoral ministry. I’m passing them along with the hope that some will serve you as well.
“Ministry as a research project”—a phrase I first heard from Ed Friedman, the rabbi connecting family systems theory with leadership. But the antecedents for this re-frame go back a way. When I allowed it, this re-frame could change the way I viewed my work.
First, let’s understand Friedman’s point. He spoke of taking with him into a session with a client a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he wrote factual notes from his conversation that might assist him at a later point in the therapy, e.g. age, work, family members, hospitalizations, medications, etc. And on the right side of the pad he recorded what he was learning for himself from the interactions. Much later, he reports, he would cut the paper down the middle, discarding the process notes while preserving for himself the personal learning gleaned from the experience.
The story stayed with me as a metaphor—the “yellow pad with a line down the middle” with new ideas on the right side to be harvested. For me it was a fresh slant on ministry, asking, “What am I learning here?”
The antecedents to this stance go back further for me. Early in seminary the classic Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl came to my attention. I suspect you know the story. Frankl, a young psychoanalyst, was abducted and taken to a Nazi concentration camp, just for being Jewish. Everything was confiscated from him: his family, his friends, his synagogue, his community, his work, his book manuscript, his clothes, his hair, potentially his life, and even his name, now a number. Everything. Everything . . . except one thing. He discovered that the one thing that could not be taken from him was his freedom to respond. He claimed this freedom. He chose to treat this horrific prison experience as a research project, observing how inmates found meaning or failed to find meaning in this death-dealing existence. The project—what he was learning—kept him alive, gave him purpose, and became the basis of a new approach to psychotherapy that he later developed as Logotherapy or “meaning” therapy.
Let’s review a characteristic frame of ministry. Drawing on the “yellow pad” metaphor, most of ministry is preoccupation with the left side, that is, focusing entirely on the work itself, the people involved, their needs, their possibilities. That’s the way I framed it initially. I was to be available to help, not to learn . . . show up to give, not receive . . . present to serve, not to be served . . . eager to change, not be changed. You can guess where that frame led me. Yes, to over-functioning, over-attaching to results, and eventually to bone weariness of heart and body.
Later I began to experiment with the re-frame—what am I learning here? What am I clinging to that I need to release? What am I seeing in the other or myself or situation that I want to savor, perhaps digest for growth, my own and others? Something is trying to grow here, something trying to emerge, something of the Spirit happening here—where and what?
This re-frame could change my angle of vision. The very question, like a crowbar, could prize open my emotional over-investment in a person or situation. It could release my grip on forcing some quick solution. Just by asking the question—what am I learning?—would grant distance and perspective. Raising the question, either in the moment or later, created space for exploring options. Even better is the question that invites mutual insights—what are we learning here?
An example. The closer I came to my retirement as pastor the higher the level of my anxiety. The prior endings of my predecessors were problematic, so I felt the pressure to help configure a good ending, both for myself but especially for the congregation. By that time I was schooled, as you are, in the impact of pastor endings upon a congregational system for years and years, for good or ill. So I was full of angst, asking: When to announce my retirement? How long between announcement and last Sunday? How will my preaching be different during the last months? What will be my agreements about requests for weddings and funerals? How will I say goodbye? With whom do I need personal time? How will “ending” gatherings and rituals be handled? You get the picture. I was feeling a huge amount of responsibility. And all this anxiety, even before my announcement.
Then the re-frame inspired by Frankl and Friedman came to mind. I began asking myself, “What if I treat the ending process as a research project?” Immediately curiosity peaked. My energy shifted. My anxiety lifted a degree or two. My thinking was invited in another direction. What if I framed the question: “In our fifteen years with you as pastor what have we learned about being church together?” What if I kept journal notes about what I am learning about my leadership over these years? What if I selected an “ending” committee to be with me and share all the planning that must happen?
You can sense the shift from this re-frame. For me the difference is noteworthy. I entered my last months with less anxiety, less sole responsibility and with more curiosity, more inner freedom. There were times when I could pause, take a deep breath, and ask, “What am I learning here? What are we learning here?”
And, you may be thinking, this could apply to other areas of my life—marriage or illness or friendship as research projects, occasions for learning and growth. Try it out and see.
I pass along this shift for your consideration. Occasionally seeing ministry as a research project gave perspective, sparked curiosity, invited playfulness and provoked transformation. It’s a re-frame that mattered.
I love this Mahan and it makes so much sense of how I experience your wisdom in our group. The line down the middle is so clarifying and shifts the emphasis on details to energetic self-disclosure. Thank you.
I love this strategy. The act of writing down what is learned makes it less likely to slip by unnoticed.
What a wonderful reflection with much food for thought… It also applies to me as I transition from one congregation to another. The letting go… the saying good-bye… dealing with contentious members of the current congregation… in the midst of it all as my transition continues. Thank you for sharing!