About These Reflections

November 30, 2009

I will be updating these Reflections on Pastoral Leadership on this site each month with content that relates specifically to pastoral leadership. These topics are designed to be useful to clergy and lay leaders alike.

Public comments to the Reflections are welcome. The comment period will be open to discussion for two weeks after each post. While I cannot personally respond to every comment, I will be following the discussion.

This is to be part of a ongoing community conversation on leadership in pastoral ministry that I will maintain. I hope you will take a moment to subscribe. Note to your right, on the side bar, the place for you to sign up. I welcome you come back often. If you prefer to comment personally, please write me at my email address.

. . .  2015  . . .

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. 


The Power of Rituals: A Re-Frame That Mattered

May 2, 2017

To lose ritual is to lose the way. It is a condition not only painful and pathetic but also dangerous… As for the whole society, sooner or later it will find rituals again … Rituals have much to do with our fate.
–Tom Driver, The Magic of Rituals

My fascination with the power of rituals, more than any other one factor, summoned my return to congregational leadership. Like Tom Driver I was feeling the loss of empowering rituals. Take, for instance, the rituals of initiation into adulthood. For most youth the ritual is reduced to getting a driver’s license. For a few it’s joining the army or walking the Appalachian Trail or some comparable clear, challenging transition event. And still fewer experience a meaningful bar mitzvah, baptism, or confirmation. Even weddings and funerals have become more private, seen by many as necessary but not embraced by a larger community of friends and family. Driver’s conclusion became mine: “To lose ritual is to lose the way … Rituals have much to do with our fate.”

At mid-life I took a second look at the church and observed rituals all over the place. I took a closer look and saw, as if for the first time, how the very core of the pastor’s call is to create and lead rituals. I took an ever closer look and noticed the lack of transforming power in most of these rituals most of the time.

Let’s review the array of rituals. As pastors you design and lead the standing rituals of the church that mark the major life-cycle transitions of birth, adolescence-adulthood, marriage, and death, as well as the occasional ordination. All these markers of human development are in addition to weekly rituals of worship with sacred song and story, bread and cup, Word and Sacrament. Then, add to this abundance the rituals in pastoral care that seldom are named as such. Pastors create private ritual space for those experiencing personal and familial crises. Both are called for: the established rituals you lead repeatedly; the rituals you establish as needed.

I returned to parish ministry with the desire to accentuate the potential of rituals. I brought with me a frame that became a re-frame that mattered. This new pair of glasses came from the early tribal wisdom of “initiation” or “rite of passage” available to us from the research by anthropologists Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner. A rite of passage calls for three stages: separation … open to challenge … return transformed. Victor Turner highlighted the in-between period of challenge as “liminal space.” Limen is Latin for “threshold.” They observed young males being separated from their mothers, taken by older males across a “threshold” (limen) into an open, unknown space where their capacity for manhood was tested. Then, they returned to the village, crossing back over the “threshold” (limen) as men, no longer boys, picking up adult privileges and responsibilities.

Note the movement: crossing one threshold from the familiar and comfortable to a time of uncomfortable questing and questioning within a contained space both protected and empty. Then, in time the initiated would re-cross the original threshold as a different person. In short, from separation to liminal space to re-entry changed. Or, another description: from order to dis-order to re-order.

Try on these glasses with me. Let’s start with corporate worship. In public worship, as leader, you create liminal space by drawing from your tradition. Congregants, by walking through an entrance into the church building, are crossing a threshold (limen). As they do they are invited to leave behind the pressing concerns of their ordinary, day-to-day lives. They are welcomed into another kind of inner and outer space where it’s “open season” on the meaning of their lives. They position their lives as vulnerable to the awe of divine Mystery experienced through silence, symbol, and story. For an hour or so the cell phone is muted along with other external distractions. Congregants are encouraged to relax into sanctuary, to settle into a protected community and be alert to any sign and surprise of grace. Within this liminal space, you are liturgical guides that call on a range of symbols — written, sung, spoken, silent, embodied — all of which kindle experiences of the Sacred. In some small, mostly unconscious way, everyone is asking once again the big, existential questions: Who am I? Who are we? What really matters? What can I let go of? What am I to do? What are we called to do?

Then, after this Service of Worship, congregants cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives but not totally the same persons. To some degree, likely a degree not definable, worshipers re-enter their familiar lives slightly transformed.

Or take a look at funerals. Here you are not only creating liminal space, you are naming the liminal space that the grieving family and friends are already experiencing. Framing the event as safe liminal space is the gift. For a brief but “full” time, family and friends leave their normal lives, cross a threshold into an intentional numinous place where the meaning of life and death is faced in intense, raw, profound ways. Then, following this extra-ordinary time, everyone returns to their daily lives, changed. You and I cannot contemplate our relationship with a loved one’s life and death without reviewing our own. We cannot remain untouched. We are changed.

Weddings follow the same pattern. The engaged couple enters the liminal space (sanctuary) from separate directions, meeting at the altar standing before the priest/pastor. Within this sacred space they ritualize their union to be broken only by death. Then they exit down the aisle together, crossing the threshold, re-entering their community as a new unit, a new family. Transformation has occurred, visible and irrefutable.

Confirmation, baptism — whatever the tradition — follows the same pattern: separation from ordinary time into liminal space in which a new identity is declared, and then the return with the new identity to be embodied. For the Apostle Paul, the rite of baptism mirrors vividly this ancient wisdom: the person separating from or dying to ego-centeredness as immersed under water. And under water the person is out of control, trusting and then finally lifted out of the water, rising to “walk in newness of life.” (Romans 6:1-5) Notice the movement: separation, surrender, and re-entry as a changed person, or if you prefer, from order, to dis-order, then re-order.

In pastoral care this three-fold pattern is not so obvious. Let’s make it obvious. There are dual aspects: you are both creating liminal space and naming crises as liminal events. It’s what pastoral care is.

On one hand, you create sacred space. There is the crossing of a threshold — whether the door to your office or front door to a home or coming from the outside and sitting down at a restaurant table. The person or family are invited into an out-of-the-ordinary, separate place for conversation and prayer. Within this secure, protected, and confidential space, the crisis or challenge is explored. This place of non-judgment and assumed confidentiality allows for life experience shared, questions raised, healing invited, decisions made. Then, with the time completed, persons cross back over the threshold, returning to their ordinary lives altered to some degree.

In addition, as pastors with these ritual lenses, you have the authority to frame a person’s crisis as liminal. The crisis itself thrusts them out of their ordinary lives into a place of disequilibrium where questions of identity and meaning are raised in bold relief. In these instances, you help them structure their disruptive experience as liminal, that is, offering a holding space that is pregnant with birthing possibilities.

For example, consider a person grieving the loss of a job held for decades or a marriage broken after many years or the loss of health not to be regained or the death of a loved one. This grieving itself is liminal. It is heart-breaking and possibly soul-making. The suffering, not to be denied or even relieved, can be embraced as a painful invitation to deeper places of acceptance, forgiveness, grace, and new life. This is your gift: framing the situation as liminal where new questions are engaged, new possibilities surface, and letting go is invited. You are given the pastoral authority to structure intentionally your care in this way. You mark the separation, set the boundary of liminal space, and assist in the birthing of new life.

This is an example of naming and structuring ritual space. Lois, let’s call her, was still experiencing profound grief. It had been three years since waking up one morning to experience her husband’s dead body beside her. She had been processing her gift with a psychiatrist, close friends, and me. But the grief remained heavy within her. She so wanted to move on with her life but couldn’t. She asked me one day, “Mahan, this may be a silly thought, but since there is a ceremony for putting on the wedding ring is there a ceremony for taking it off?” “Not silly at all,” I was quick to say. “It makes total sense.”

Lois and I set up a time in her home for the ritual. Slowly she recounted the history of the ring: shopping for it; the moment when Jack placed it on her finger in the wedding celebration; her refusal to take off the ring even during a couple of surgeries; and a few other memories I cannot recall. We talked about a place of honor where the ring would be placed. This was an attempt to acknowledge that her relationship with the ring, as with Jack, is never ended. The ring changes its place, just as her relationship with Jack changes, but neither relationship is terminated. In time she was ready for me to remove the ring. I did. We remained in prayer and silence for a while. Then she placed the ring in its new place along with other prime treasures.

You see in this ritual that Lois and I separated from our daily pursuits, created together a safe, sacred space in her home, and eventually left to return to our ordinary interests. But the ritual itself also incorporated all the marks of a rite of passage: preparation of separation through story telling, then the separation of the ring from her finger, and finally the placement of the ring in its new place. This home-made ritual embodied her desire to take another step away from what was but no longer is. The ritual provided concreteness.

I’m lifting up this dual perspective of pastoral care: often we invite people who know they are in crisis into liminal space, as we do by making appointments; at other times, we create tailor-made rituals to frame some disorienting crisis, as I did with Lois.

In this reflection I want to re-kindle, if needed, the appreciation of your role as ritual creator and leader. This is your privilege, one that is unique to your profession. If, as theologian Tom Driver says, “To lose ritual is to lose our way,” then you are uniquely positioned to help us find “our way” through carefully crafted rituals. And to aid you in this call, I’m pointing to the early wisdom of indigenous peoples who can teach us about the power of rituals. Their understanding is timeless, namely, the movement in rites of passage through separation from the ordinary order … to liminal disorder with openness to challenge … then to the return, re-ordered or transformed to some degree. For me it became a re-frame that mattered.


Collegial Friends: A Re-Frame That Mattered

April 3, 2017

The growth of any craft depends on shared practice and honest dialogue among the people who do it … when any function is privatized, the most likely outcome is that people will perform conservatively refusing to stay far from the silent consensus on what works — even when it clearly does not.  — Parker Palmer, The Courage to Teach

Isolation is your vocational reality. Being a pastor, embodying this role, colors the water of every relationship, including neighbors, family, and particularly, of course, church members. In these relationships the role is a significant factor. Our ordination sets us apart as different, inviting projections, mostly unconscious. Expectations unnamed are always in play. Indeed, you are living symbols of More than you are. This question inevitably lingers: How will I manage this isolation?

I have come to believe that there are two kinds of pastors: those who conclude, “It’s up to me,” and those who say, “I cannot do this vocation without collegial community.”

Pastors in the first group offer their ministry in virtual isolation. They are on their own to give shape to their work. It is up to them. It’s up to them to interpret the gospel, read the “signs” of our time in history, intuit feedback, determine their use of time, judge appropriate responses to congregational crises, establish practices of self-care, worship while leading in worship, and integrate the learning from the plethora of resources available to us. No doubt these pastors have warm and effective relationships with members but, as is the case with all pastors, there is so much of themselves they cannot share. This includes the secrets they carry with confidentiality. These pastors, I observe, tend to be competent and self-confident, qualities that, while strong, can undermine the need for colleagues. For these pastors, their isolation, already a component of our vocation, will likely harden and over time encourage a fusion of personal identity with vocational role.

Those in the second cadre intentionally form relationships in which they are out of role with colleagues who understand the role. That’s a critical distinction: being both out of role and closely connected to others who understand the role’s promise and complexity. These deliberate relationships take form in various ways — unstructured cultivated relationships with peers, structured small clergy groups that meet regularly or in scheduled meetings with a coach, spiritual director, therapist, or consultant. All these examples meet the criterion of this re-frame: out of role with those who know the role.

Many of you are in this second category. You meet this criterion. You have deliberately sought out peer relationships in which you are both not in role and yet experience the support needed for exploring your role. This might happen with a friend, perhaps a clergy friend or others you meet with regularly over coffee or phone or internet or time-away together. Many of us have benefited from therapy, coaching, and spiritual direction. Consultants are another resource. I developed a relationship with a consultant, a former parish priest, with whom for twenty years I would occasionally review a pastoral or congregational dilemma. Perhaps you are fortunate to have staff colleagues with whom you can be open and trusting, but note the limit — you are still in role. The common factor in all these relationships is this: the isolation is broken; you feel not so alone; and your ministry seems less on your shoulders. Some of you have initiated such relationships. It may be enough.

For me it was not enough. I became inspired to reach for a deeper expression of collegial friendships during my decade on the staff of the Department of Pastoral Care at North Carolina Baptist Hospitals, Winston-Salem, N.C. The department had developed over the years a strong program of Clinical Pastoral Education. I am not a CPE supervisor but I was an active participant in this model of theological education. I experienced its genius: a small community of practicing clergy peers committed to each other’s mutual learning under skilled facilitation. During those ten years I kept asking, “Why is this model reserved only for preparation in the practice of pastoral ministry? Why is it not the way of doing pastoral leadership and ministry?” The question, never answered to my satisfaction, kept buzzing around my head like a persistent mosquito.

I took this question with me when, in 1983, I moved from being a director of pastoral care in a hospital setting to being a pastor again, serving Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N. C. The immediate contrast was striking. In my former role the boundaries and accountability were clear. Not so in my new role. At first I reveled in the freedom to construct my own life in ministry, but soon unspoken agreements and unnamed expectations had me scrambling for a clearer role definition. Within broad limits I was on my own to create its contour.

With my question of collegial community in mind I joined a circle of friends, a small group of men who had been meeting for over ten years. For two hours every other week we gifted each other with an acceptance close to unconditional. It was a container I needed. With these friends, I found support for my life — but less so for my life as pastor.

I needed more. I wanted to be with pastor friends who could focus with me on our efforts at priestly and prophetic leadership. The question was still alive from my years with Clinical Pastoral Education: Could some variation of this collegial learning be possible in parish ministry? I began the search for peers who might be interested in this experiment. After a year or so, I sent this letter to a circle of clergy friends:

I fear we have internalized the hallmark of our American culture — individualism. For all our talk about communion and indeed for all our efforts in building community with others, we tend to craft our work by ourselves. What Alexis de Tocqueville said of our forebears in Democracy in America could be said of us: ‘They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.’

Instead of continuing like this, I wonder whether you would be interested in being part of a clergy Sabbath Day — a time to nurture our souls with colleague-friends, a time to return to our first love, God, a time to be reminded that the ministry of the church belongs to God and not to us.

Three pastors responded. Another joined us later. Each Wednesday for several years we set aside a Sabbath day for silence, prayer, conversation about our work, rest, laughter, celebrating Eucharist, and walking in the woods. Never in my years as pastor have I felt so balanced between inner work and outer work, contemplation and action, play and work, self-care and self-giving. We were not alone in our need to step back and tease apart our tangled ministries. Together we reflected, played, prayed, and imagined by learning off of each other’s experience in ways that yielded clarities that surprised.

Yet, over time, the full day became a half-day, then an occasional half-day, and finally no day at all. Our clergy Sabbaths, like sand castles, gave way to wave after wave of pressing congregational needs. This fragile container of sacred space cracked, and finally crumbled after four years or so.

Absent was a clear covenant among us that could have withstood the pull of competing commitments, both from church and family. Absent was a covenant with church leaders who would support and appreciate this expression of vocational and self-care. Also absent was a facilitator, which I came later to regard as important. Although we felt its value, we stopped short of declaring that this way of offering pastoral ministry, namely, a few pastors committed to mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability, is non-negotiable.

The question, now a tested possibility, stayed alive within me until retirement. In 1998 I retired a bit early at sixty-three in order to continue the experiment. And I have. During these two decades of retirement I have tested this hypothesis of collegial communities that I came to name AnamCara, Celtic for “soul friend.” This was my working definition:

AnamCara as a network of small collegial circles of five to eight clergy leaders of congregations who meet regularly to offer mutual nurture, collaboration, and accountability in their practices of theological reflection, leadership, and soul care.

The experiments took different forms. From a Lilly grant I organized and either led or co-led four ecumenical, inter-faith clergy groups, each of eight to ten participants, who met in retreat settings regularly (monthly or bi-monthly) for either a year or eighteen months. I was consultant to three other clergy groups. For twelve years I have led a group of Episcopal clergy who still meet monthly for three hours. All in all I have worked with approximately sixty clergy leaders of congregations.

My underlying question in forming these collegial groups was this: Will these clergy leaders complete this way of practicing ministry saying, “This has been another valuable continuing education experience, thank you very much.” Or will they say, “Being in some expression of collegial community must be a primary context from which I offer ministry.” In other words, will they regard the experience as an educational “add on” or will they see and embrace another way of being in ministry?

A small minority, about twelve of the sixty, continued to commit to a practicing community of peers. Steve spoke of this shift in his self-understanding:

“I can no longer imagine doing pastoral ministry without my group of soul friends. Our time together often feels like a taste of the Kingdom, a feast of deep laughter and friendship among competent peers who respect each other. In a wonderfully paradoxical way, the worship, study, and conversation we share make me a better pastor and remind me there is more to my life than ministry.”

Briefly, this is what I learned:

  • The recruitment and organizing requires a person or two called to this possibility.
  • A skilled facilitator frees the pastors to be completely out of the leadership role.
  • Pastors are more willing to participate fully if the facilitator knows pastoral leadership personally.
  • AnamCara is a radical alternative to the deeply internalized individualism in our culture.
  • Once trust is felt the hunger for collegial friends is intense and generative.
  • Ecumenical groups of clergy, with their commonality of serving congregations, offer the richness of differing traditions.
  • To be led in worship and common prayer is an experience some pastors seldom experience.

In 2009 this vision was published as AnamCara: Collegial Clergy Communities, which can be purchased through this website.

In this reflection I have traced my engagement with the isolation that accompanies our vocation, both as a pastor and a pastor in retirement. As I have noted, this way of being in pastoral ministry is only one context in which to define our vocation. Its appeal is limited. But for me this model — a small community of practicing clergy peers, gathering together in a facilitated environment — has been a re-frame that I have explored through the years. It has mattered.


Covenant Promises: A Re-Frame That Mattered

March 13, 2017

This re-frame started in the most unlikely place. A conversation yielded an insight that morphed into a frame through which I saw most of ministry.

Martin was an exchange student from Germany. At the end of his year with our family his parents came for their first visit to our country. After their whirlwind tour of our nation they ended their vacation with us. I asked Fritz, the father, “You’ve covered a lot of our country, exploring an amazing amount of territory. With all that travel, what surprised you the most?” His surprise surprised me. “I’m surprised by all the churches.” Fritz went on, “It’s remarkable; each church is on its own. Not so in our country. We all pay taxes to support the church whether or not we attend.”

His observation had never occurred to me. Even now, I must admit, when I see a church building I often, like Fritz, marvel at that congregation’s existence. You and I pass probably twenty or thirty churches as we drive through our communities. Has it ever struck you as remarkable that each congregation, whatever the size and flavor, consists of enough people who give and keep promises? That’s the glue. When congregants stop keeping their promises, trust erodes, and soon the building is empty with locked doors to prove it.

After this surprise I began to notice that all relationships are held together by this rather fragile thread — the willingness and capacity to make and keep promises. If you look closely, they are kept alive by ordinary, simple everyday interactions. “I will be home at six. If not, I’ll call you. I promise.” … “Agreed. Let’s do it.” … “I’ll tell you about it when I get to the office.” … “Will you give me a ride?” … “How about coffee at ten, our usual place. Will that work?” … “I forgot. Our meeting was right there on my calendar but I didn’t see it. I’m so sorry. Can we re-schedule?”

Everyday acts of making and keeping promises, and dealing with broken promises, were largely unnoticed by me. But once noticed the formula became clear: promises-made, both small promises and big life-defining vows, risk commitment; promises-kept embody faithfulness, building trust; promises-broken sow seeds of distrust and, if continued, result in the death of the relationship. It is as simple as that, as fragile as that, as profound as that. Relationships live or die by promises-made and promises-kept and broken promises healed … or not.

The growing awareness made its way into my opening statement for wedding ceremonies:

  The wedding ceremony is a joyous occasion … a solemn occasion … and a worshipful occasion. This is a joyous occasion because the possibility of joy from marital life together is one of the deepest we can know on the earth. This is a solemn occasion because the implications of the promises spoken this day will have a ripple effect — for good or for ill — upon countless others down through the years. And this is a worshipful occasion because we worship a God who delights in promises-made and promises-kept.

This statement seemed adequate enough until my divorced friend, Leo, attended one of the ceremonies that I was officiating. He offered how he felt alien in the service, like someone looking in from the outside. How could he worship this God, he wondered, with broken pieces of his marital promises in his hands … and heart?

So for the next wedding ceremony I added a phrase:

 And this is a worshipful occasion because we worship a God who delights in promises-made and promises-kept … and who delights in the healing of broken promises.

That seemed satisfactory. I wanted those, like Leo, to feel the possibility of reconciliation within primary relationships strained and even broken. But Leo continued to feel left out. My words still excluded Leo and those with his life experience because Leo never found any healing in the relationship with his former wife. No reconciliation; no friendship; no contact. They had promised faithfulness “till death do us part.” Well, death happened. In the relationship death-dealing kept increasing, life-giving kept diminishing.

So I added another phrase to the litany:

And this is a worshipful service because we worship a God who delights in covenant promises-made and covenant promises-kept … and who delights in the healing of broken covenant promises … and who delights in the healing of those broken by broken covenant promises.

Note that I also added the word “covenant” to deepen the biblical, theological dimension of exchanging promises. Covenants, in contrast to contracts, include the exchanges of promises among humans within the larger covenant of God’s promises. In covenants God’s promises are triangled into the relationships.

You and I share familiarity with the biblical concept of covenant. From my study this is what has remained significant for me. God’s covenant with Israel and New Israel (church) is the covenant promise to be with us and for us, exposing the pain and consequences of broken promises, while at the same time ever summoning us with a forgiving, healing “love that will not let us go.” Relationships, formed by implicit or explicit promises, can die, that is, cease to be life-giving. Faithfulness, in those instances, might require leaving these relationships and leaning into the grace to continue in other relationships, always, once again, formed by promises-made and promises-kept.

This is not “cheap grace” that bypasses the hard work of accountability. It invites the inner work of confession that can flow into forgiveness of the other and oneself, again and again, “seventy times seven.” Forgiveness, according to Jesus’s actions, was often the first declaration in a troubling situation. By letting in this divine gift of forgiveness we have the security necessary to face our brokenness and offer it up to the assurance of grace. It’s breathing in the breath-taking generosity of God that undergirds both our capacity for risking mutual promises and our freedom to detach from dashed promises.

Covenant is at the heart of relationships. This makes our promises sacramental, a “means of grace.” They light up the grace (gift) of life and love in the everyday exchanges of promises made and kept; they make possible the grace (gift) of life and love in the healing of broken promises and in the healing of those broken by broken promises. All grace. All gift.

The philosopher Hannah Arendt, author of The Banality of Evil and The Human Condition, makes central the requisite of covenants. The capacity to make and keep promises provides islands of security as one faces into the future of uncertainty. And the capacity to forgive the consequences of broken promises grants freedom from being held hostage to one’s past. She placed side by side both the power of promise and the power of forgiveness.

Seeing pastoral ministry through the eye of covenant promises — made, kept, broken with the possibility of restoration, and always the possibility of grace — became a major re-frame that mattered during my last ten years or so of being pastor. I offer a few examples in addition to the marriage covenant already noted.

Church membership can be framed as a covenant. The person promises; the church promises. I gave effort to clarifying these promises. But disappointments and unmet expectations will occur. So I included this promise: when the covenant isn’t working as expected, then the disappointment or failure would be named, heard, and confessed in the hope of a new, deepened covenant. To see membership as covenants increases the likelihood that these differences and disappointments along the way, including the ending of the covenants, can be redemptive. Even a member leaving in anger is sometimes willing to see it in covenant terms. By reviewing the covenant both parties can acknowledge the good, confess failure and disappointment, call upon forgiveness, and bless the future covenants with another congregation.

To see staff relationships in covenant terms is another example. It means spending time making covenant, that is, clarifying expectations, rooting out assumptions, writing the promises down, and committing to review them periodically. The challenge for me was confronting or allowing myself to be confronted when the promises were broken, the little ones as well as the larger promises. For re-covenanting to have integrity it must include naming the failure, asking for forgiveness, and re-promising. Otherwise the covenant softens, accountability diminishes, avoidance of conflict sets in with the opportunity for growth being lost.

I recommend a clearer covenant between pastor and the elected lay leaders. I wish I had put more energy into this crucial partnership. While lay leaders and I did talk about mutual expectations in general terms, I would now advocate specificity. Since we are called to different but complementary roles of leadership, a covenant can define these roles, becoming an agreement that can be reviewed and modified as needed. This enhances not only accountability but also the permission to address broken or unfulfilled promises before they fester and enlarge.

The covenant lens is particularly relevant when addressing congregational conflict and challenges. Every congregation has a covenant or mission statement, a stated reason-for-being. There is some purpose around which a congregation gathers that’s both explicit and implicit, formal and informal. For the purpose of illustration, let’s assume that some heated differences arise around a budget or property or personnel concerns. The concept of covenant promises provides a way to frame a conversation that invites faithful listening and creative problem-solving. Given the frame — we are held together by covenant promises — then we can ask what are our responses in light of our mission, in light of being the body of Christ, in light of being bound together in faith, hope and love — in other words, in light of our promises.

The most volatile challenge I faced as a pastor was when in 1991 a member of our congregation requested for himself and his partner a public service of blessing — in essence, a wedding. What kept our congregation from splitting over this heated possibility was framing the process in terms of our covenant. How will we be in covenant with members who are gay (LGBTQ) persons? By being the body of Christ what is our sense of what Jesus would have us do? What’s the mind of Christ? Given our covenant grounded in God’s generosity, how will we speak our truth to each other in love and listen to the felt truth of the other? The language of covenant promises provides a theological and ethical framework for proceeding with highly charged conversations. Covenants are the containers for difficult speech and collective discernment.

In summary, the church is called to embody covenantal relationships with each other within God’s larger covenant with us. If so, all relationships can be viewed in this covenantal context. That means promise-making (risking commitment), promise-keeping (trust), confronting broken promises in the hope of re-covenanting (reconciliation), and the healing grace offered to those broken by broken promises (confession/forgiveness).

Arendt helps me taper this gospel truth more precisely: promise-making and promise-keeping provide communities of trust, hope, and love for facing into an uncertain future; the radical giving and receiving of forgiveness grants the freedom to release the hold of brokenness from our past. This became a re-frame that mattered.

 


Engaging Death as Practice: Two Re-Frames That Mattered

February 1, 2017

Let’s allow the word “practice” to entice us with its double meaning: a profession, as in the practice of medicine or psychotherapy; and practicing for learning, as in piano practice or spiritual practice. In both ways, I submit, pastors engage death as their practice.

We begin with the first meaning — pastor in a professional practice that specializes. If, let’s say, Alicia practices law and Alice, a therapist, practices psychotherapy, then Helen, a pastor, specializes in death and dying. Death and dying are her specialty, her practice.

With that point named I can hear the quick rebuttal, “Why, don’t you know, Mahan, that pastoral ministry is one of the last generalist professions?” I have made the same observation. It’s true that we are more general practitioners than specialists with broad competence expected in multiple roles: preaching, teaching, designing and directing rituals, leading and managing, caring and counseling, writing and speaking, and offering leadership in the wider church and community.

Nonetheless I want to make a case for engaging death as our specialty. The presence of death is always close by. If the shaman Don Juan challenges Carlos Castaneda to heed death’s wisdom as a companion just over the left shoulder, then for pastors the presence of death is more in front of our nose, not to be missed. Most people can keep at bay the reality of death, denying its inevitability most of the time, out of sight, out of mind. Not so with pastors.

For us death is present. While we scamper from appointment to appointment there is on the edge of our consciousness a member experiencing a profound loss — the loss of a loved one, job, health, marriage, home, hope, status, memory, or even a worldview crumbling from the weight of irrelevance. There’s so much diminishment in the air we breathe. Death stalks the halls of hospitals we regularly visit. In nursing homes you see its presence in the gaunt, vacant eyes you pass by, faces registering gratitude for the briefest recognition. In the homes of grieving members there’s unspeakable grief in memories noted and photographs exchanged, reminding everyone of what was but is no more. In every service of worship, whether funerals, weddings, or weekly gatherings, some are always there with moistened eyes, feeling the pain of a particular loss welling up from deep within. The security and privacy of a church sanctuary provides the sacred space for felt grief to surface. My point: for the pastor death is close, ever near.

I name as well the special role of pastoral presence throughout the dying and death journey of a parishioner: present during the dying whether extended or short term; present during the days around the death, including the preparation and leadership of corporate rituals; and present during the after-care of continued grieving. Other professionals — physicians, nurses, chaplains, funeral directors, financial planners, therapists — have their unique roles but the pastor is, or can be, the over-seer of this lengthy process. Pastors, given the constituency of the congregation they serve, will have many or few deaths of members in a given year. In my first congregation, a church of young families, I led about two or three funerals a year. In my last congregation, there were as many as fifteen funerals each year.

But regardless of the number of funerals, the death and dying that pastors confront far exceeds the circumstances surrounding physical deaths. Grieving is so much larger. If you were to stop reading for a moment, you could quickly recall recent conversations with parishioners about some loss they are experiencing. Most pastoral care is grief work in some manner. Death and dying, in its multiple forms, is our specialty. It’s our forte.

I will amplify one example of this larger dying, usually not understood as grief ministry. I began as pastor in the post-World War II era when progress, growth, and advancement seemed everyone’s potential. Economic growth and rising national prominence in the world were assumed. Larger Protestant denominations shared in this expectation of progress with numerical growth being the gauge of a successful ministry. With marketing savvy the church became another attractive commodity of choice. During my forty-two years as an ordained leader of the church I have experienced the gradual breakdown of this prominence, privilege, and exceptionalism. I have watched our churches move from main-line to side-line. And along with the loss of external status has come for many the internal loss of meaningful beliefs and church programs that no longer nurture them. These losses are also deaths that demand pastoral attention. As I presented in another reflection on a re-frame that mattered, in our time most pastors are hospice chaplains caring for the dying in its many forms and mid-wives assisting in the birthing of the new.

I rest my case. Death and dying define a specialty practice. And this practice must be done with effectiveness. Like no other pastoral function, the skilled care offered around losses will either deepen or distance the relationship between pastor and people. Faithfulness in this specialty is not forgotten; unfaithfulness is not forgiven. No one told me this during my formation years, or if it was said, I wasn’t listening. I learned it on the job, an awareness that became a re-frame that mattered.

. . .

The second re-frame is more personal. As I turned into my fifties, entering my last decade or so of being pastor, another shift occurred. As a pastor being so often near death experiences they began to be for me my near-death experiences. As I allowed it, I could hear each one whisper, “You too will die! So will your loved ones and friends. So will your vocation. So will your energy, health and mobility. It’s only a matter of time.” I’m reminded of what I have been told about monks whispering to each other, memento more (remember death).

This may sound bleak, if not morbid; for sure it’s sobering. Note my disclaimer, “if I allowed it.” Most of the time I didn’t allow this awareness to linger, but when I did — and when you do — it can be paradoxically life-giving. You know this truth: to survive a near-death experience enhances the preciousness of life. You have watched this miracle in others. In every religious tradition it’s a practice: contemplating intentionally your death that in turn ignites the joy in the gift of being alive, breathing in, breathing out. Could it be that this is one of the fringe benefits of our work — the consistent near-death reminders of our dying?

The weighty theological word “eschatology” (acknowledging the “end times”) can help us. Let’s pull it off the shelf, dust if off and seize its life-giving benefits. What if we lived with the end in sight? For instance, imagine yourself at the end of your pastoral leadership with your current congregation — let’s say, three or five or ten years in the future. With that ending or death before you, ask what does this congregation most need from me (or not need) and what do I want to give (or not give) during this time?

When I turned sixty I imagined myself serving my congregation a few more years until retirement. I asked these questions: what was most needed from me, and what gifts would I enjoy giving before resigning. It turned out that these were my most enjoyable years, no doubt in part because my eschatology brought clarity.

Now at my current age of eighty-two my sense of eschatology still asks the same questions: what is most needed that matches the gifts I have to offer. What’s clearer?

. . .

My last illustration is the challenge of living with our end in sight, namely, our ending, our dying. What’s the picture? Likely you see yourself, as I do, in a bed at home or in a hospital. Though research tells us that most of us will not be conscious let’s assume we are conscious, very present, feeling only moderate pain. I’m guessing that you and I have a similar fantasy: loved ones around the bed amid blessing, tears, and laughter. At this moment, this truth crystallizes: love is what really matters — profoundly painful in its absence, deeply joyful in its presence.

No wonder, in light of our many near-death experiences, you and I offer at every funeral some form of “love is what really matters.” We express in some way how our taste of love is a part of a larger divine Love that never ends and from which nothing in life and death, now or later, can separate us. Maybe it’s easier for us, having journeyed with others so often through “the valley of death,” to hear and even heed on occasion the summons to live from that part of us — Love — that never dies.

So I say, why not maximize the vocational advantage given to us — regularly engaging, as practice, the mystery of death and dying, including our own. I do not minimize the truth that as pastors we are generalists fulfilling a broad range of expectations. But I’m proposing a correction. We are generalists with a specialty. Death is our practice: as a unique role of care to the dying and death of congregants, and as a spiritual practice of personal transformation. These are twin re-frames that mattered.

 


Seeing Under Water: A Re-Frame That Mattered

January 10, 2017

I was trying to shoe-horn one worldview into a shoe that didn’t fit. It took me a while, and not without some blisters, before I realized it. Here is what I think happened.

My formation as a person and pastor took place within Newtonian thinking. This map or worldview pictures reality as a machine with individual separate parts that, if working well, hums along with clockwork precision.

This map accents the importance of individual development, individual rights, and individual salvation, with individual teachers and professors providing guidance. My seminary was divided into separate, individual departments: biblical, historical, theological, and practical. Even theology was broken into parts — Neo-Orthodox, feminist, liberation, process, Old and New Testament theologies, etc. Very able and caring specialists, all ordained, were preparing me to be a generalist practitioner with non-ordained laity.

It was just assumed that I would be able, largely on my own, to synthesize this huge body of knowledge coming from separate disciplines. When I came to my first post as pastor, on one hand, I had never known so much; on the other hand, I had never known that so much was not integrated.

So I began my pastoral ministry as I had lived my life. I envisioned the congregation as a functioning machine with individual members. It looked that way. In committee meetings I would lead with clear agendas but, more often than not, I left these meetings frustrated over unexpected interactions that colored outside the lines. I encouraged a long-range planning process with goals and objectives precisely negotiated, only to find that after a few months this crafted plan had lost its steam. Similarly I would begin each day with a carefully thought out to-do list and end the day with only two or three “to-dos” crossed out. In those days I was scratching my head. The congregation was far from a smooth humming machine. There was something missing and it wasn’t more oil.

Like a slow dawning I began to see beyond the Newtonian map. Church work, I realized, is all about relationships; more like family and friendship, less like a machine with separate parts. And relationships are unpredictable — from order to disorder to order again, ever changing, full of surprises, all happening within a general frame of commitment.

A shift began to occur. In a committee meeting, for instance, a person might introduce an idea that sparks other ideas and synergy occurs. Yet this synergy would dismantle any tight, straight-line agenda.

Long-range planning that projected our life together five or ten years in the future was laid aside as a futile exercise. Yes, dialogue about direction is critical and can be energizing, but precise plans will always evaporate beneath uncontrollable, uncertain forces of change. The context of church work is always about ever-changing relationships within ever-changing environments, with no semblance of machine-like precision.

And let’s don’t leave out my frustration from interruptions to a carefully scheduled day. The common thread of these interruptions to daily planning was relationships — a member in crisis needing to talk now; a colleague needing some “time”; someone wanting to join (or leave) the church; a prolonged hospital visit; a call, “Have you got a minute?”; a death, a job loss, a birth, a complaint; a question about your sermon. The list of possible interruptions is endless. But each one happens within relationship; each one is about relationships; and each one opens the possibility for more life-giving relationships. Engaging the interruptions, in this sense, was my work.

The mystic Rumi names this awareness: “You think because you understand one you must also understand two, because one and one make two. But you must also understand and.”

That’s it. That is what I am raising with you, namely, understanding the “and,” the invisible, in-between energy in relationships. This was not simply for me an on-the-job learning. During those years I was being awakened by other forces pressing for a post-Newtonian worldview — quantum physics, feminism, systems theory, chaos theory, the Buddhist truth of inter-being, the South African “ubuntu,” Buber’s I-Thou, and the recovery of our contemplative tradition with its accent on the unitive, non-dual, non-separation consciousness of Jesus, as in “love your neighbor as yourself” (not like you love yourself) and Paul’s vision of the church as Christ’s organic body.

I am raising with you what you already know and experience. You too have moved from a strictly Newtonian worldview. But we tend to forget. Non-dual awareness is not our general way of seeing unless we intentionally choose to be conscious of the unseen reality of “and.” Marcel Proust wrote that “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes but in having new eyes.” I am writing about new eyes.

A metaphor can help us. The nature mystic Loren Eiseley suggests that we humans are like the Brazilian amphibian fish whose eyes have two lenses, one for seeing under the water and one for seeing above the water.

Above water you and I see individuals and marvel at their distinctive personalities and peculiarities. We differentiate, separate, compare, distinguish. To live in our culture is to be immersed in these waters of individualism. The French social critic Alexis de Tocqueville named this characteristic early in our history: “They form the habit of thinking of themselves in isolation and imagine that their whole destiny is in their hands.” This heritage is in our bones, our DNA. It’s a map of reality — a Newtonian map — that has benefited us greatly. But it’s limited, oh so limited.

Under water we see through another set of lenses. We see relationships and individuals within relationships. We see the invisible “and,” the in-between spirit, the Kingdom of God that Jesus announced that is within and between us. Through these lenses (this map or worldview) we see this deeper truth, the underwater truth — everything is inter-connected, inter-being. According to this map separation into parts is an illusion.

Imagine holding a banana in your hands. Above water seeing recognizes its distinctive texture, color and other separate features. But to see under water is to realize all the relationships that make possible this banana’s presence in your hand at this moment — the connections with the tree, soil, rain, and sun, with the harvesters, transporters, and sellers, and now with the banana in your hand. Suddenly, when you see this, you are caught up in banana wonder.

Love, the core and point of our faith, is invisible, relational energy. God is Love; Love is God. But love makes no sense apart from relationships. To see this is to unwrap a different map than the familiar Newtonian map that names separate locations, separate persons, separate institutions, separate parts. It’s the map or worldview that Thomas Merton unfolds: “We are already one. But we imagine we are not. And what we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to do is be what we already are.”

The problem, it seems, is that most people only see above ground. Their vision of life is binary with its separation thinking — you-me, either-or, right-wrong, in-out, up-down. For many, perhaps for most people, the map of distinctions and differentiation is the only map they live by.

In a poetic moment Merton marks his waking up from a dream of separateness only to see everyone walking, shining like the sun. And he later writes, “We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent and God is shining through it all the time … in people and things and in nature and in events. But the problem is — we don’t see it!”

So what if we see it as pastors? What difference would it make if this awareness of relational synergy was the way we went about our work? I have already referenced committee meetings, long-range planning, and our daily “to-do” list. I’ll suggest a few more.

Take feedback for instance. I found feedback, at its best, to be direct and relational. At any of the numerous church meetings, what if you saved ten or fifteen minutes to ask, “Well, how did we work together? What helped? What got in the way?” You are assessing the strengths of collaboration, not primarily individual contributions.

Or a member may comment, “Pastor I really liked (or didn’t like) what you said.” At that point you could shift to, “Can we get together and talk about it?” Or, in a strained relationship sometimes a bold question is needed: “Sam, can we talk about our relationship? It’s important to me. What’s working? What’s not?”

Marriage is obviously a relationship. Seeing above water we focus on the growth and well-being of each individual. What is frequently left out is the under water, invisible “and” dimension — the growth and well-being of the relationship. It’s not so obvious.

Or, consider your congregation’s way of making decisions. This assumption you can bank on: relationships will either deepen or diminish in every decision-making process. During challenging congregational decisions I kept declaring, like a mantra, that the way we make this decision (how we relate) is as important, maybe more important, than what we decide.

And there are always issues to deal with. Problems and challenges are often couched as issues. I submit that issues can be and should be re-defined as challenges to relationships. For example, the “racial issue” can be re-defined as “How will we be in relationship with those of different skin color?” Or the “gay or LGBTQ issue” is more appropriately “How will we be in mutual relationship?”

Then, note that all the church rituals tap into this relational synergy. If done well, relationships — the in-between part, the “and” — will strengthen. At the wedding the two individuals enter separately from different directions, meet to make covenant with each other, God, and family, and finally exit the ceremony as one in community. Baptisms are not about individuals being sprinkled or immersed. Rather, we are sprinkled or immersed into community, a web of relationships, a body working together at embodying the mind of Christ. At funerals we celebrate Love from which we cannot be separated and remind ourselves that while loving relationships change they do not end. And the Eucharist is relational energy through and through, re-member-ing who we already are — a Communion, a Body.

So over time I came to appreciate two maps. One, the Newtonian map, which highlighted individual effort, differentiation, separation, and binary thinking, I inherited. The second post-Newtonian map with its awareness of relational synergy came to me as a gift along the way. Gradually, not abruptly, the new awareness took hold: Love — the business of church — is all about unpredictable, messy, creative, destructive, exciting relationships that carry the yearning for Shalom, the inter-abiding dream of God.

And yes, God is alive in all these relationships — luring, challenging, healing, forgiving, dancing with joy. God is present in and around and between and under and behind and ahead. In every relationship God is shining through, whether we are aware or not. Whether we know it or not, we are all in relationship with God, with each other, and with all that lives. The Spirit is relational synergy; the relational synergy is the Spirit.

Life is all about relationships. Ministry is all about relationships. It took me many years to see it, to see under water. It became a re-frame that mattered.

 


Dealing with Chronic Anxiety: A Re-frame That Mattered

November 17, 2016

“There is more chronic anxiety to deal with,” was his answer to my question during a recent visit. John, let’s name him, is approaching the end of his pastoral ministry. In contrast, my ending has now been eighteen years. So my question: “How is it different?” His response: “There is more chronic anxiety to deal with now.”

I remember precisely when I first heard the phrase “chronic anxiety.” In a lecture on leadership Edwin Friedman, referencing his mentor Murray Bowen, said, “Our society is functioning like a chronically anxious family.” I perked up and took notice. What does that mean? Understanding this manifestation of anxiety changed my functioning as pastor. It became a re-frame that mattered.

During seminary days I learned about anxiety. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote about the angst of being human, the inherent anxiety of being finite, uncertain, not in control. Paul Tillich, in The Courage to Be, identified the recurrent human anxieties as fate and death, guilt and condemnation, and emptiness and meaninglessness. He believed that the form of anxiety dominant in our time is meaninglessness, the lack of a compelling purpose for living. Then there is acute anxiety. Much of my pastoral care training was learning skilled, compassionate responses to persons and families in acute crises, the kind of anxiety in loss of life, faith, jobs, health, and relationships.

But chronic anxiety is another matter. Here’s the difference. Acute anxiety is definable and pin-pointed; it results from a specific loss and has a beginning and ending. In acute anxiety the loss is keenly experienced, but over time the acuteness or intensity of the felt loss usually subsides. The loss of relationship, the loss of a job, the loss of faith — the familiar arena of every pastor — are examples of acute anxiety. Chronic anxiety, on the other hand, is systemic. It lives within and between us with no clear boundaries. It’s in the air we breathe, invisible and potentially explosive like gas fumes.

There are specific behaviors that signal chronic anxiety at work, whether in family or congregation or society.

Blaming: The fault is not mine; it is out there, someone or something else. Blame for difficulty is displaced, distancing us from painful acknowledgment.

Reactivity: the vicious cycle of intense reaction to events or persons that by-passes the cortex (thoughtful thinking), like billiard balls bouncing off of each other.

Herding: the polarizing instinct to retreat into camps in a posture of “us” against “them.”

Pushing for a quick fix: the urge to relieve the painful anxiety by finding quick solutions.

Do these behaviors look familiar? Of course they do. At every turn, whether in the public or private arena, we see and feel ample examples. In fact, this behavior is so prevalent that some just presume that’s the way life is.

The connection to pastoral leadership — the subject of our conversation — is striking. Leadership, let’s understand, calls for the opposite of each of these chronically anxious behaviors. When leading, in contrast to blaming, we call for taking responsibility for our participation in both the problem and its resolution. When leading, in contrast to automatically reacting, we call for thoughtful responses. When leading, in contrast to herding or polarizing, we call for collaboration across differences in the pursuit of shared goals. When leading, in contrast to quick fixes, we think long-term and call for the willingness to accept short-term pain for future gain.

No wonder — I want to shout — it’s so challenging to be a leader in our day! No wonder it feels like swimming against the tide! No wonder there is the current level of burn out, loneliness, and despair among many leaders! The atmosphere of chronic anxiety makes creative leadership almost impossible. My admiration goes to you and other leaders who dare to assume this role, placing yourselves intentionally in the midst of toxic anxiety and from that place attempt to lead with courage, wisdom, and vision.

Friedman goes on to speculate why there is such a high level of chronic anxiety in our day. The rapid rate of change is one. All of us feel, to some degree, overwhelmed by the amount and speed of change. In previous eras change came at an arithmetic pace — 2-4-6-8-10. Now the pace is exponential — 2-4-8-16-32. At the end of World War II, the complete knowledge of humankind doubled every 25 years. Today knowledge doubles every 13 months. Change at this pace keeps our heads spinning, generating the anxiety of never “catching up,” feeling “behind” much of the time.

A second source of chronic anxiety is the release of anxiety binders. Friedman notes that the anxiety around difference has traditionally been bound in tight, discriminating stereotypes such as racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and hetero-sexism. While we celebrate the cracking open of these binding prejudices, we are also left with the anxiety of uncertainty. In relationships of diversity we find ourselves in unfamiliar, uncharted territory, feeling the challenge of learning new ways of relating on multiple fronts across differences that are honest and mutually respectful.

How then do you deal with increasing chronic anxiety? How can we approximate being an open-hearted presence in the midst of chronically anxious situations? Here are a few of my practices that I hope will stimulate a review of your own.

First, notice without judgment expressions of chronic anxiety. Perk up when you experience either in relationships or in yourself the alarms, that is, reactivity in the form of blaming or polarizing or pushes for quick fixes. Notice. Notice these behaviors and remember that when they reign, creativity and reasonableness are sabotaged.

Second, if you notice these behaviors in relationships, with either one or more persons, consider ways to invite the lowering of anxiety. The most essential gift that lowers anxiety is your own non-anxious presence. This does not mean you are not anxious. It means you find ways to reduce your own anxiety so you can be non-anxious within your role as leader. We know from experience that leaders, like thermostats, by their presence and actions, will either fuel more heat or lower it.

Other lowering responses in a group might include these. When noting the “not listening” occurring, you might call for a few minutes of thoughtful, prayerful silence. Or, “triangling” in the mission/purpose of the meeting can sometimes return the attention to the larger, mutual reason for gathering. Offering or joining lightness and humor will also lower the tension, because we can’t be anxious and playful at the same time. Even simply slowing down the interactions by a careful, respectful summary of what is being said will reduce the pace and stress.

This leads to the third point, the most important and challenging one: working with your own anxiety. You have your own ways. Know them, use them, and expand your repertoire. Again, noticing is the first step. Notice when and how you are being triggered into reactive behavior — blaming (including yourself), polarizing (binary thinking), and over-identifying with quick, specific outcomes.

Fortunately we live in a time when there is a plethora of technologies being rediscovered and offered as resources for our chronically anxious time. These include contemplative prayer, other meditation traditions, stress relaxation techniques, chanting, yogi, and other body-work practices. All of them are practices that help you over time develop, like a muscle, the capacity to let go of anxious reactivity sometimes even in the midst of it.

Theologically I see these practices as surrender, a letting go, a dis-identifying of these anxious thoughts and feelings, then returning to my deepest identity as rooted and grounded in Love, in God. I am fond of Martin Laird’s metaphor: “I am the mountain, not the weather.” My identity — the grace of Being, being loved — if I allow it, is as solid as a mountain. All else, the array of thoughts and feelings, comes and goes like the weather.

Self-regulation is the widely understood word for this inner work. Whatever the particular practice you might employ, it’s a process of releasing our energies squandered through egoic re-activity and returning to a non-anxious center, sometimes even within chronically anxious settings. There’s no quick fix here. This is long-term inner work. More accurately, this is life-long inner work.

In summary, naming chronic anxiety gifted me in two ways. It unveiled the energy source of ruinous chronic behaviors ever so present in all our institutions, including congregations and family. Also this understanding framed the spiritual, inner work required for leadership, namely, how to be in chronic anxiety without being of it. It is a re-frame that has mattered.

A comprehensive description of this inner process of self-regulation as prayer can be found in the chapter “The Welcoming Prayer,” in Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening.

 


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.