Agent of Change: A Re-frame That Mattered

October 18, 2016

Change is at the core of our vocation. We hear it in the weighty words like repentance, conversion, redemption, transformation, and reconciliation. But how change occurs is complex, more mystery than not. During my walking around in this mystery I came across a pair of glasses that helped me see from a particular angle.

I came out of seminary excited, feeling ready to be an agent of change. The Search Committee that offered my first pastoral opportunity shared a similar expectation. They proposed: “Here is where we are as a congregation. Here is where we want to be.” The subliminal message I heard: “Your leadership can change us.” So I set about to be an agent of their change?

But along the way — about five years actually — I began to question my capacity to change “the other.” It didn’t work. A particular change might be willed for a period, but when the pressure was released the behavior went back to previous patterns. It didn’t work with my wife, not with my children, not with friends, not with the congregation, and not with myself. Any willful effort to change always invited the counter force of resistance. Clearly, something was missing in my view of change.

What was missing — and it became a re-frame that mattered — is understanding change from a systems’ perspective. It speaks counter-intuitively: focus on yourself, not your congregation, and that, to some degree, will change the congregation. You work on yourself — your clarity of vision, your learning, your integrity, your transformation, your responses, your relationships, your questions, your calling, your presence. It all sounds totally self-serving and selfish until you see the paradox: by working on changing yourself you change the system. By focusing on our functioning in relationships we change the relationships. This perspective — centering in on changing self not congregation — felt like a 180-degree turn.

Let’s review the systems view of change. Imagine a system as a mobile with various hanging, dangling parts. We know from experience that if the height of one part is changed, then the total mobile is changed. All the parts of the mobile are thrown out of balance until the force of togetherness (homeostasis) brings the parts into balance again … but in slightly new positions.

Remember a sermon in which you took a stand that challenged the congregation. It was a new position you were taking, like changing your part of the mobile. The sermon was unsettling. The congregation, like a mobile, was thrown out of balance, however slightly. But you also noticed, either immediately or over time, there was a power in the congregational system at work pulling toward a new stability. The mobile-like congregation eventually settled down into a new balance, somewhat changed.

Or, imagine a number of separate parts connected to each other by rubber bands. Let’s say that you take one part and pull it upward to a new position. Note what happens. All the rubber bands, not just one, are stretched. Then, three possibilities emerge. One, all the rubber bands connecting the other parts could pull the deviant part back to the comfort level of what had been. Or, the deviant part will stretch so far that the band will break, causing a “cut off,” a disconnection. Or, the pull of the adventurous part could invite all of the parts to change in that direction to some degree.

Think again of that same visionary sermon you preached. Notice the options: Did your vision get no traction, no movement of change from the system, with congregants saying in effect, “We are not ready for that”? If so, you go back and wait for another opportunity. Or, was the vision so “far out” it was rejected, “cut off” like the break of a rubber band? Or, was there enough curiosity and excitement from congregants for there to be significant movement toward the vision articulated in the sermon?

Each metaphor illustrates the central point: changing yourself, your position in any relational system changes in some way the relational system as a whole, whether it’s two people or an entire congregation.

While we cannot change the other, we can offer with clarity the changes occurring in us in a way that invites the possibility of significant change happening in them. We challenge by defining our self in relationships. Note this difference. To try to change another is to say, “This is what I think you should believe or do or be.” It’s a “you” message. To focus on our self is to send an “I” message. My message, “Here is where I am with … (issue, situation, belief, conflict). This is what I see or feel,” contains an inherent invitation, “Where are you with this? What do you see or feel?” By focusing on defining yourself and offering that self-awareness, you challenge the other person or persons to do the same, namely, to take responsibility for defining themselves. And these mutual self-expressions create change, hopefully change toward growth and maturity.

This is the essential interaction: This is what I see; what do you see? It’s present in preaching — this is what I see in this text; what do you see? Or in a committee meeting, “This is where I see the connection with our mission; how about you?” These interactions strengthen mutual capacity to take responsibility for our thinking, feeling, and doing.

But this is an important clarity. This focus on self is not to be confused with autonomy or independence or self-differentiation alone. In systems’ thinking, according to Murray Bowen and his interpreter Ed Friedman, a self is a connected self, a self in relationship. The self is always in relationship, like the parts of a mobile and the rubber bands illustrated in my two metaphors. There is so such thing as a separate self. I once heard Friedman muse, “Maybe life is all about how to be a self in relationship.” That’s the heart of it. That’s the challenge of it. It’s the essence of leadership.

I found in this re-frame both a gift and cost. The gift is the energy saved in efforts to change the other. Simply put, willful leadership is exhausting. There is relief in realizing that we cannot motivate people to change, as if we know what others need to become. It’s freeing, not wearying, to stay focused on questioning, challenging, offering, and inviting.

While the gift of this re-frame is huge, I experienced cost from it as well. I did so in three ways. First, because you and others will inevitably “see” differently, conflict can be expected. And if the differences become heated then your work is how to stay connected without agreement. It is costly, hard work to stay in relationship when differences are being mutually voiced and felt. This takes time, emotion, patience, vulnerability, and detachment from outcome.

A second cost. Don’t underestimate the time, maturity and effort it takes to find the space within yourself to clarify your responses. This work of self-definition is demanding. To react from our oldest “reptilian” part of the brain is quick and easy; to respond with thought-through, non-anxious words and presence reflects years of inner work.

A third cost. Challenging others with what you see, along with the invitation for them to do the same while staying in relationship — well, that’s a tall order. It’s an unrealistic ideal to expect such maturity from everybody, including yourself. Leading from self-differentiation will elicit multiple responses: some will be unable to respond with “I” statements; some will experience your self-definition as coercive; some will misinterpret your intent and content; and some will blame you for challenging the status quo. The stretch of the “rubber band” may be too much, too fast, too threatening. No one told me that this expression of intentional leadership could reap so much misunderstanding and loneliness. While systems’ thinking altered my understanding of change, I had to look elsewhere to find the inner strength required to adopt it.

Being a part of change within our multiple relationships is at the heart and in the heart of our call. We are about transformation. In this reflection, like a pair a glasses, I’ve offered one aspect of change I came to see more clearly. For me it was a shift: from focusing on changing others to focusing on changing myself, and from that place stimulate and engage others in their choices. It became a re-frame that mattered.