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.


On Time: A Re-frame That Mattered

May 4, 2016

As pastors we have time in our hands. Not a stethoscope. Not checks or prescriptions to write. No goods to sell. No papers to grade. No legal documents to consult. We have time, time to show up, be present, and invite others to find themselves in the Story as their defining story.

The congregation says to us: “We free you from having to spend part or all of your work time earning money. We are buying your time to lead us.” Then with no clear expectations, no structure, no supervision, no schedules offered, they walk away, trusting our use, not abuse, of this time given. It’s an awesome trust; it’s burdensome freedom.

Time, my relationship to it, was the blessing and bane of my pastoral ministry. I loved the freedom of choice; I felt the burden of its up-to-me stewardship.

A pastor was describing his thirteen-hour Sunday: the early review of his sermon; leading worship, including preaching; a pastoral response to a family crisis; a late afternoon committee meeting; a hospital visit; and then another meeting at the church that evening. Most disturbing was that, while driving home after a long day, his mind was still working, thinking of things not done and people not seen. “Always more, no endings, never enough,” he said out loud to himself. Later he left our vocation, in large part, he said, “for lack of time.”

Granted, such long hours are typical for many workers caught up in a job with high expectations, either self imposed or imposed by others. Thirteen-hour days are not so extraordinary. We all live and work in an environment that applauds over-functioning. “Not enough time” is a refrain sung by most adults I know.

But, and this may surprise you, for pastors the issue is not about having enough time. It looks that way. It feels that way. But insufficient time is not the problem. The truth is, we have time. Time is the gift that awaits us each weekday morning. It is ours to fill, to spend. We are paid to show up in time with presence.

This is the way I see the covenant between pastor and congregation:

We set you apart (ordination) to lead alongside us from a different angle. We give you time to understand, define, and offer yourself in the role of pastoral leader. We free you from some, if not all, the obligations to earn a salary outside the church. We pledge adequate personal and financial support for you to have the time you need to fulfill your calling. We make it possible for you to have time to study, reflect, and pray in ways that nourish your season with us as pastoral leader. Together, as pastor and people, we seek to embody in our historical moment the extravagant compassion of God, made most clear in Jesus.

Note the freedom. Let’s acknowledge up front the uncommon freedom we have as pastors. Yes, it can be a burdensome freedom, but it is freedom nevertheless. Most laborers, including professionals, have limited to no control over their schedules. Their time is carefully measured, sometimes in 15-minute increments. Most workers adapt to schedules largely set for them by others. Not so with us. We have an unusual freedom of choice.

This difference I felt keenly when I moved from being a director of a department within a medical center to becoming again the pastor of a local congregation. In my hospital context my work schedule had structure—office hours from 8:00-5:00 Monday to Friday, many standing committees, one boss, with weekends usually free. I could still over-function, but I knew when I was working beyond the agreed-upon boundaries.

In contrast, the congregation offers minimal structure, vague and conflicting expectations, and fluid boundaries. Apart from Sunday morning worship and a few fixed committees, I was on my own to figure out my best use of time. Unless our misuse of time is flagrant, we are our own “boss” when it comes to time management. It’s up to you. It was up to me.

That’s my first preliminary point: we are given time along with the freedom and responsibility to invest it. There is a second point to make before I record the re-frame, namely, we are employed by people who don’t understand our job.

I’m not complaining or blaming, mind you. I am naming a lack of understanding that comes with our profession. Most of our work is invisible to the congregation that employs us. How could this lack of understanding be otherwise when much of pastoral ministry is private? For instance, most lay members seem surprised to learn that preparation for leading a worship service, including crafting a sermon, usually requires at least twelve hours. And how would members know that a funeral service takes six to eight hours of pastoral care, preparation, and leadership of the service? And there is the care we give to individuals and families that is appropriately confidential.

Technically, in some situations, congregational members are not the employer. For instance, in the Methodist system the pastor is appointed. But functionally, I’m assuming that in all parishes the power that allows us to minister belongs to the people. If congregational expectations of the clergy are not met, then it is only a matter of time before the bishop or superintendent or representative lay leaders say, “We think it is time for you to move on. The match is no longer a good one. It’s not working.”

Furthermore, with each “employer” (member) a pastor has a slightly different contract, a difference in large part unacknowledged. For example, some members insist on certain standards in liturgical leadership, especially preaching, yet seem less demanding in other areas. Others, however, expect availability and effectiveness in pastoral care. These members can tolerate less quality in worship leadership. Still others look for efficient management. Above all else they expect effective oversight of the staff, budget, programs, and building. A few members give top priority to pastoral leadership in the community, expecting their pastor to be a connecting link between congregational resources and community needs.

Again, I feel the need to say that I am not blaming. Members do not intentionally participate in these competing pulls on a pastor’s time and energy. These overlapping member-pastor contracts are expectations that live beneath awareness and only occasionally are brought to the surface in conversation.

This is the nature of our work. We offer ourselves in the midst of conflicting contracts, unconscious assumptions, and unnamed expectations. Our vocation is not for those who require detailed agreements, tight structure, and precise boundaries. Simply, we are employed by those who don’t understand our job. To the extent that this bold statement is true, we are left with a daunting responsibility. Our relationship to time is left up to us.

Now, to my point. This is the re-frame that mattered: giving top priority to prioritizing my calling in order to prioritize my time. This may sound counter-intuitive—taking time, lots of time, to prioritize the focus of our ministry as prerequisite to decisions about our use of time.

I’m advocating that the place to start is not a to-do list for the day. That’s too late. The to-do list comes last, not first. To begin with a list of what to do today leaves us vulnerable to the immediate, pressing, short-term needs. Left out of the list would likely be the larger arc of our calling.

Perhaps, at this point in this reflection, my own experience would be helpful. I hesitate because, as I have admitted, my relationship to time was my greatest single challenge. I reference my efforts in managing time not as a model to follow but as a set of assumptions and practices against which you can review your own stewardship of this gift.

First must come the work of self-definition. The on-going defining of call precedes and informs defining the use of time.

This means setting down before us a set of questions and working them toward focus, not once but repeatedly. I offer these primary questions that invite clarity of call, which in turn clarify management of time. They fall into three contexts ranging from macro to micro perspectives: church and world, congregation, and your personal life.

These are balcony questions. Getting to the “balcony” happens when we leave the dance floor of the complex movements of congregational life and step back, way back, in order to see the big picture. From the balcony we look for patterns, noting the connections and disconnections in order to weigh our options for re-entering the dance floor.

Context: church and world. Balcony questions: What’s the call of God to the church in our moment in history? Within our time in American culture, what is the prime purpose of the church? How does our perception of our local community shape the church’s witness? What resources, including interpreters of our time, stimulate your balcony reflections about the church in the world?

Context: your congregation. Balcony questions: With congregation as partner in ministry, what am I called to give? What is being asked of me? Where do my gifts and the needs of the congregation meet? What is it time for in our congregation’s life and mission? What are the resources within and beyond the congregation that can help me clarify the focus of my leadership?

Context: your personal life. Balcony questions: What time is it in your life and the life of your family? What’s being birthed in you? How do you nurture your soul within this role? Where’s the gladness? Where’s the sadness?

Priorities of importance arise from working these kinds of questions. And from these ABC priorities comes direction for the best use of time.

Key to this process, as you can see, is setting specific “balcony” times for this inner work of discernment. This key is non-negotiable. I tried but never could do this inner work on the run. It requires a different space and sufficient time. Here is the plan that worked for me.

During the typically low-maintenance week between Christmas and New Year, I worked with these balcony questions. First I would read through my journals from the past year, looking for patterns and themes. Journals, kept regularly but not daily, served as a catcher for ruminations about where I sensed God at work, what I was learning from my reading and life experiencing. For me my journals became the place I tracked the changes in my call, both to inner transformation and to outer work of the church. Out of these annual days came a revision of priorities for ministry, self, and family to guide me during the next year, sometimes years. Every month or so I would review and update these priorities.

All the better if this discernment can include others, in particular, your spouse, close friends, colleagues, congregational leaders, and the congregation itself. They join you in living the question of calling or purpose or mission, reason for being. The question, of course, never gets fully answered. It’s the asking that distinguishes “good” action in order to discover the “necessary” action.

Finally, I come to the daily to-do-list. Each day, for around twenty minutes, with the priorities before me, I prayerfully asked, “What is the best use of my time for this day, for the rest of this week?” This meant that I could enter the day with a measure of clarity. Of course, unexpected interruptions, the “bread and butter” of ministry, would occur. But with my focus for the day in place I was more likely to respond, not react, to the events coming toward me. I had a frame.

And now a last word, lest my thoughts blind us to reality. Everything will work against what I have suggested. Sabotage awaits any effort to claim the time for prioritizing your call as prelude to prioritizing your time. You will hear the resistance in these questions: Where will I find the time to work with my call and time? Who cares enough to ask, to understand, to support this effort? Can I embrace the conflict this will bring? This inner work will likely create dissonance simply because the clearer your self-definition, the more precise your “yes” and “no,” the more difference will surface. Your clarity will call for the clarity in others. It’s the way of growth, with more and more people taking responsibility for their agency. The energy released invites maturation both within the person and within the congregation.

You and I are fortunate recipients of time with few strings attached. How to unpack and offer this gift from your congregation for your congregation is an exceptional challenge. This was the assumption that crystallized in my struggle: on-going defining of one’s call into priorities precedes the daily use of this gift of time. It is a re-frame that mattered and matters.

 


Hierarchy: Blessing or Bane?

April 14, 2014

“Hierarchy” is a loaded word. In my circles this word can spark fire in the eyes with quick examples of oppression that follow. Feeling uneasy, if not hurt from both coercive power and hierarchy, many in my “tribe” want to organize our lives and life together free of both. I submit, this is dangerously simplistic.

Hierarchy: blessing or bane — which is true? I argue for a “both/and.”

First, the “bane” side. Some of us know, up close and personal, the abuse of power from a parent, parents, older sibling, teacher or other faces of domination. Decisions are made, demands given; obedience is expected. Add to this, all of us have experienced working within domination-systems, including the church, where coercive force, directly or indirectly, is the norm. Particularly, women, gays, African-Americans and the less privileged among us know the sharp edge of subjection in a way that I have not experienced. And, daily we watch across the globe the countless instances of top-down decisions that benefit the few at the immense suffering of the many.

Because oppression often comes packaged in hierarchical structure, it’s understandable that hierarchy and coercive power become joined together at the hip. As we awaken to the freedoms inherent in partnership and inclusion and equality, the conclusion seems obvious — we must free ourselves of hierarchies as well. Yes, I agree but only if they are domination hierarchies.

But there are natural hierarchies that appropriately structure differences. Given their position in biological life, molecules function at a higher level than atoms. Given their position in evolution, humans function at a more complex level than monkeys. Parents, given their position in a family, function at a higher level of responsible caring than children, that is, until the children become adult.

A human body needs a head — the very image for Paul of the church. He plays off the metaphor, challenging the Philippian Christians to “Let this mind [consciousness] of Christ be in you. . . “ And he writes of the “body,” the church, as having separate, very distinct, unequal parts brought together in joint desire to embody the mind or Spirit of Christ.

Additionally, a favorite concept for church leader in the early church was “over-seer,” translated as “bishop.” Bishops are titular heads of large sections of the church, hierarchical in structure. But the original word, “over-seer” deserves a second look. An “over-seer,” sees over much of the body, not because of its superiority, but because of its position in the body. If the eyes were positioned, say, on the arm or leg, their capacity to over-see would be severely limited. Eyes in the body function to encourage cooperation, note growth, see dysfunction, and scan the environment — just what a good parent or good bishop or good pastor or good leader does. The role names the position; it does not grant powers of domination. The role as “over-seer” is for empowering, for powering-with, not for powering-over, not for coercive force.

The question for me, as I look at organizations, is — what kind of hierarchy? Those who, by their position in a system, are leaders will lean either toward being empowering or toward powering-over in controlling, coercive ways. By itself, hierarchy is neither blessing nor bane. It’s a matter of how power by leaders is understood and used: one with humility, challenge and support; the other with control, self-inflation and manipulation.

Don’t you find examples of both coming readily to mind?


Shepherd and Manager

March 6, 2013

Shepherding a family of faith; managing a religious institution. Two hats, two roles, two job descriptions. It seems that way. It feels often like a balancing act. But is it? Or, could these be separate tilts or bows from a single identity?

I hear this polarity in comments like these: “The church pays me to handle staff. The rest (the soul/spiritual work) I would gladly give free of charge.” Or, “You gotta pay the rent (organization management), so you can do what you love to do.”

I remember this self-talk during seminary days, “Just think, when I am a pastor, I will be paid to study/ponder the gracious mystery of God, teach and preach this grace, embody its hope in caring ways, and in following Jesus help a congregation put flesh and blood to this justice/love in the world. Incredible! Paid for that? What a deal!”

Then the rude awakening came at my first call as pastor of Coffee Creek Baptist Church for $50 a week and at all the subsequent congregational invitations to be pastor. There it was in the fine print of an unwritten contract: I was paid to help manage a religious institution. Yes, I was paid for more than that, but not less. And yes, I did not manage alone. But I was expected to work with budgets, funding, policies, records, staff supervision, membership loss/gain, and building maintenance, not unlike a manager of a Walmart or a Hardees or a Ford dealership.

I recall a conversation with a pastor in which I saw a glimpse of how shepherding and managing might be two stances from the same identity. I like it because it is a typical issue that comes to congregational leadership.

The church leaders’ were expressing appropriate concern for the security of the church building, and, in particular the safety of the secretary who is often alone in the building. The building committee took it upon itself to purchase a number of surveillance cameras without checking with the pastor and some other lay leaders. They saw what needed to be done, and did it.

The pastor spoke of being aware of both hats. Her management-head was concerned about the hasty action that left out other leaders, including herself. She knew the leaders would need to review their process in decision-making.

Her shepherd heart saw something else. Their building is a hospitable, anonymous, safe space for the 12-step participants in recovery who meet weekly. The multiple surveillance cameras might compromise this ministry.

What struck me about the story was the pastor’s integration of both process management and spiritual leader. She saw and lifted up what was missing, namely, the witness of their church in management decisions. The solution, a good business decision, might jeopardize the mission value of hospitality. As I saw it, she was bridging the false dichotomy between business issues and ministry issues. In this “bread and butter” management dilemma she saw embedded a faith opportunity, a possible teachable moment. What she saw is incarnational — God’s compassion for the invisible taking on flesh and blood in ordinary church life situations?

Maybe that’s what she is paid for — to keep showing up in institutional/family relationships and asking the faith question, the Jesus question, the mind of Christ question.


On Addressing the Angel

July 17, 2012

Do you remember the shock when, for the first time, you were in a position of leading an institution? If you are a pastor, it would be your first church.

In 1957, I was invited to be pastor of Coffee Creek Baptist Church in rural southern Indiana. The “call” was extended after a brief huddle of a few deacons one Sunday night. They approached me with this package: fifty dollars a week, along with eliminating the “annual call.” I didn’t know what an “annual call” was, but I could tell by the tone of their voices that it was some special fringe benefit to “seal the deal.” I said, “Yes, I can do that” (and later said yes to teaching fifth and sixth grades and coaching the high school basketball team). I dropped out of seminary for a year in order to try on the pastoral role, like a robe, to see if it would fit.

Initially, with this first attempt as leader of an institution, I saw only people and a building. You know the ditty: “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the door, and there are the people.” That’s was I saw — building, steeple, people.

But here is the shock: There were invisible forces at work in Coffee Creek Baptist Church. Like a free-floating planet pulled into the gravitational field of a solar system, I was pulled into the gravity field of this rural, Indiana congregation of century vintage. I kept bumping up against invisible norms that protected past routines, “Oh pastor, this is the way we do it,” such as, music or Communion or funerals or decision-making. I was bumping into the personality, the values, the habits of the congregation — mostly out of their awareness and certainly out of mine.

My “wet behind the ears” suggestion about changing the pattern of viewing the open casket during the funeral service made perfect sense to me, and, even to them in the abstract. But when it came to a real funeral, the viewing of the casket was done as it always was. It’s like driving a car down a road that you think is smooth and level, and suddenly you experience the wheels of your car being pulled into ruts established from previous driving. That’s the feeling. That’s the shock.

I was engaging the corporate personality of Coffee Creek church, the kind of awareness totally left out of my pastoral education. I was prepared to see individuals and families, but I was ill prepared to “see” the invisible spirituality of a congregational system.

It was Walter Wink who opened my eyes to engaging the supra-human powers of institutions, powers that work for both good and ill. He noted that the letters in the book of Revelation were addressed to the “angel” of each congregation. In contrast to the Apostle Paul’s letters to churches with individual leaders often named, the letters in Revelation are directed to the “angel,” that is, the essential core, the spirit, the collective personality of each congregation. Today we speak of this reality as the culture of an institution.

For systemic change to happen you must address the “angel” of an institution. You must understand the “angel.” At times, you align with the “angel” when its a force for good. Sometimes you call the “angel” back to its original vocation when it has become a destructive, dehumanizing force.  (Wink spoke of “angels” of institution originally intending good, but “angels” fall, yet can be redeemed.) Regardless, you quickly learn that “angel” is more powerful than you are, and, in fact, more powerful that any few persons in the congregation. The gravitational pull is fierce.

Here is an example of the positive power of the “angel.” Our congregation was facing a controversial recommendation, one, that if affirmed, would surely mean the loss of members. The power of the “angel” surfaced in the comments like, “Well, when this church took a stand for racial integration back in the 50’s, we lost members, but we made it through those rapids.” Other examples of past difficult decisions were given, each one affirming the congregation’s capacity to survive tough times.

Looking back, I realize that these comments were referencing the “angel.” They were lifting up the norm: “In our congregation, it is our nature to take risks out of conviction.” In one sense, it was our “angel” that carried us through that stressful, challenging time.

What clues give hints about the “angel” of the institution you are leading? I suggest pondering: What’s the message from your “angel” through the architecture of the building or through the stories frequently told (especially the founding stories), the favorite scriptures, or the norms attached to decision-making, rituals and policies? What’s the collective personality that comes through?

Being intrigued by this understanding, each January (in parallel with the President’s State of the Union), I would preach that day on “Addressing the Angel of Pullen (the congregation).” I was addressing, or, more hopefully, I was allowing the gospel to address the invisible, inner spirituality of our life together.

I think we are drawing on Paul’s wisdom: we struggle not just with flesh and blood (visible people) but also with supra-human Powers (invisible spiritual forces). Then, he adds, “Don’t even try it without the whole armor of God!” (Ephesians 6:10-17)


Non-attachment . . . But How?

January 3, 2012

Not to be attached to outcomes — was our subject last time. But how? How can we do that?

Those of you who responded agreed on the importance of not identifying with outcomes. But you likely said under your breath, as I did, “Sounds good, but it’s sure easier said than done!”

So, what practices help us find that inner freedom from detaching to particular outcomes? What helps us keep from “nailing” (attaching) our well-being on what we cannot control, like particular results?

I’m suspect you have some practices that work for you. Here is one that I practice occasionally. I encourage you to read it slowly, perhaps many times until it sinks in. It is all about detaching, or dis-identifying, and realigning with our deepest identity. This is my adaptation of the exercise from Ken Wilbur in No Boundary.

I have a body, but I am not my body. My body may be tired or excited, sick or healthy, heavy or light, but that is not my deepest identity. I have a body, but I am not my body. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

I have desires, but I am not my desires. Desires come and go, floating through my awareness, but they are not my deepest identity. I have desires but I am not desires. I am, beloved,  graced . . . unconditionally.

I have anxieties, but I am not my anxieties. I can feel anxiety and other emotions. They pass through me, but they are not my deepest identity. I have emotions, but I am not emotions. I am, beloved, graced . . .  unconditionally.

I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. Thoughts come to me and thoughts leave me. Egoic thoughts are not my deepest identity. I have thoughts, but I am not my thoughts. I am, beloved, graced. . . unconditionally.

I have a work/vocation, but I am not my work. Work comes and goes, sometimes exciting, sometimes discouraging. Work is not my deepest identity. I have work experiences but I am not work. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

I have hopes for outcomes, but I am not any outcomes. Outcomes come and go, sometimes realized, sometimes not. They do not form my deepest identity. My well-being is not attached to results. I have aspirations, but I am not my aspirations. I am, beloved, graced . . . unconditionally.

If you continue to repeat this exercise, you may notice subtle shifts in your sense of “self.” Our deepest identity, as I understand the gospel, is being a delight, graced, unconditionally accepted, a participant in the flow of divine compassion in the world — always gift, not our achievement. But to get to this core identity requires dis-identifying from other attachments (“idolatry” would be the biblical word). It’s the shift from nailing our sense of self to particular results to holding lightly hoped-for outcomes. It is the difference between “I have to” and “I want to.”

I hear a lot these days that spirituality is about “letting go” and “letting be.” And I agree. But how is that possible unless we are rooted and grounded in an identity already given? It seems we spend a life time learning to accept and live from what’s been true all along.

My dog, Katie, has no problem living in grace, from grace. I sure do.


Behavior Change: How Does It Happen?

July 25, 2011

Change. You and I are in the change business, more typically called by us—conversion or transformation or repentance. In our preaching, teaching, leading and pastoral care, we assume that, with God, positive/healthy/redemptive change is possible.

Yet, we lament how hard change is, how little significant behavior change actually occurs in ourselves and in others. Apostle Paul names it: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” (Romans 7: 18,19)

I found some help from the current research on the brain. Specifically, I pass along some findings noted in an article, “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by Jeffrey Schwartz and David Rock (Strategy and Business, Spring, 2009)

Let’s begin by understanding the pain in change. One part of the brain (basil ganglia) is hardwired for routine, set habits, and familiar activity. It will set up a fierce fight against desired changes in behavior. When the prefrontal cortex, the hard working part of the brain, wants to implement some important change, expect the basil ganglia part of the brain to rise up with a resounding, “No. Don’t do that! Stay with what’s comfortable and predictable!” This part of the brain makes strong efforts to sabotage. Because of this persistent resistance, Skinner’s incentives, “carrot and stick” approaches to changing behavior do not last. Neither do, according to Rock and Schwartz, the approaches to change from humanistic psychology that depend on empathetic listening and self-understanding.

From this brain research, what is required in change are three things. One, from the prefrontal cortex, there must be a sustained focus of repetitive attention on the desired changes. This means practicing this new behavior regularly, even daily. From such focused attention, even in the face of discomfort and impulse to return to familiarity and routine, new patterns and connections in the brain will be formed. And eventually, the new pattern drops to the basil ganglia, becoming habitual.

Think of learning to drive a car or learning to play a song on the piano. If the repetitive focus of the prefrontal cortex remains strong during the disorienting phrase and does not yield to the resistance, eventually our driving the car or playing the song becomes more routine and comfortable. That is, the behavior comes more from the basil ganglia than prefrontal cortex.

A second insight, relevant to our work, is the place of small peer-learning groups. For example, the Toyota company has fostered behavior change through workplace sessions in each unit that occur weekly, even daily. In these meetings, workers talk about how to make things better. In the interactive, collaborative process, they are training the brain to make new connections. In fact, Rock and Schwartz note, “These shop-floor or meeting-room practices resonate deeply with the innate predispositions of the human brain.”

A third finding I find significant is the importance of self-direction in change of behavior. Any pressure to change from others, as in advice-giving, will be resisted. So for lasting change to occur, a person must choose it. This is why coaching is effective. A coach supports and honors the self-direction of the client by asking curious questions and wondering with the client about options. The motivation for change must be from self, for self-chosen goals.

I take away from this article these three things to ponder: the crucial role of regular practicing; the importance of peer-learning; and the importance of self-direction, for our change and the change we hope for in others.


Leadership That’s Relational

February 8, 2011

Maybe its our cultural love affair with individualism that distorts our view of leadership. Say “bold leadership” to someone and I wager that on the inner screen of their mind will pop up an individual who sticks up and stands out. Leadership comes from within the individual, it seems. Not wrong. Just limited.

This, I submit, is a deeper truth: bold leadership is relational. It comes from human interaction. Most often leaders do not stick up and stand out. Leadership is taking a stand within relationships—“this is what I see;” that invites a stand from the other(s), “what do you see?” Or, often the reverse, “what do you see?,” then, “This is what I see?” From the interaction, synergy occurs, an insight surfaces, next steps appear, a direction forward emerges. Leadership comes, not primarily from within a individual, but from a community of interactive, respectful relationships.

For pastors, it may look like this.

In sermons, “This is what I see in this text or where I think the Spirit in this text speaks to us;” implying, “What do you see in this text? How is God engaging you through this text?” From the internal dialogue, not voiced, synergy is occurring, perhaps awakenings and new resolves. Through these faithful interactive relationships of text, preacher, people, I believe the Spirit is at work leading.

In committee meetings, “This is what I see [as the problem, as a direction to take, where this discussion connects with our mission, etc.]” An invitation is implied, “What do you see [making sense of our dilemma, possibilities, etc.]?” Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes as pastor you hold back, first wanting the insights from others before you offer you own. From the synergy, likely new options forward will appear.

In pastoral care, “Ted and Martha, this is what I see [or what I hear or wonder about, etc.]?” The invitation, “What do you see [getting clearer, becoming more complex, possible options for action, etc.]? From the synergy, new awareness, next steps, a direction may be discerned. It’s the way of “a leading.”

Little risks, undramatic, mutual “stands”—spoken and heard—within relationships is where I look for bold, creative leadership to break forth.


The Time of Your Life

November 15, 2010

It’s an interesting phrase: “I’m having the time of my life!” From a faint remembrance of NT Greek, I can identify that as “ kairos”time, “wonder-full time,” as in Jesus came “in the fullness of time.”(Galatians 4:4)

These “kairos” moments of wonder/awe/astonishment are huge surprises of joy that occasionally wake us up to abundant life. But they are occasional. We can’t produce them, plan them, manipulate them. Like accidents, they just happen. Yes, our intentional anticipation makes us more “accident prone.” But “kairos” moments remain gifts, not achievements.

So, let’s think about what we do have some control over — “chronos,” the other kind of time, as in clock time, calendar time. This we have to work with: our presence in time. “I’ll stop by at 4:00” . . .”Let’s make it at your place at 11:00” . . .”Does 7:30 work for you?”

Other professionals have tangible tools to yield, drugs to dispense, documents full of rules to follow. Much of their work is scheduled; most of our work we schedule. Their day is largely structured; we, for the most part, structure our day. Most leaders report their use of time. We don’t.

I felt the difference when I moved from being a director of a hospital department to becoming a pastor again. Oh, the freedom to plan my day! But soon I was feeling, oh, the burden of this freedom, so many demands and so little time. My to-do list, created in the morning, ended the day with maybe half of the resolves checked off.

e.e. cummings has a word for us: “To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best to make you somebody else, means to fight the hardest human battle ever and to never stop fighting.”

If that’s a human dilemma, and I think it is, then how much more this is true for us. We don’t have one contract about our use of time with an employer; we have multiple, ill-defined contracts with a congregation full of employers. And if our primary offering is our “presence in time,” then congregants rightfully have claims on our calendar. Their personal needs and the needs of the institution fill our schedule. Given the nature of our work, not from some evil intent, much of each day is spent responding to needs as they arise. Before we know it, we can feel defined by others, or in cummings’ words, these expectations can “make you somebody else.”

I’m interested in how you handle this freedom. As for me, this one practice helped me most in this “fight” to maintain the final word of self-identity: working at self-definition at the front end of a day or season or year.

My day was, and is, different when I can take at least an hour in the morning to remember. I turn to readings and prayer that call me back to the one mirror that reflects my deepest identity, as Abba’s beloved, as a follower of Jesus, as a graced channel of Spirit. I assume that the day will bring other mirrors that reflect lesser identities, so I try to start the day “rooted and grounded” in the Love/Life much larger than me. Then I look at the calendar’s day and week with this priority in place. What matters most about this day? How will I align myself with this Spirit today?

Also, periodically, usually every month or so, with calendar in hand, I would look at my investment of time through these questions: What does the congregation at this point in time most need from my leadership? And, what am I passionate to give?

And finally, once a year during vacation, Janice and I would review the next year, first penciling in a week of renewal for each one of us, then a week for us, and finally at least a week for the family.

I’m not discounting the truth that much of ministry is in the unplanned interruptions. To the contrary, because of this truth I attempted the ever redefining of calling, values and core identity at the front end of the day or season or year. This attention to “chronos” time made “yes” and “no” easier to discern.

I am interested in how you “fight this hardest battle” with the time of your life.


Preaching from Astonishment

August 2, 2010

“The way to faith leads through acts of wonder and radical amazement. Awe precedes faith.” (God’s Search for Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel)

I heard it first from Heschel: awe/wonder/ radical amazement precedes faith. Astonishment comes first.

Did you not find it so? At some point, and many points after, you were overwhelmed with the outrageous generosity of God. You got it! You realized with heart and mind that all living beings, including yourself, are enfolded in a gracious Mystery, most clear but not limited to Jesus. Amazing! You “saw” it, that the love you are wired for is already present, a gift to be received and lived from. In those moments that interrupted times of doubt and despair, you turned (repented), trusting yourself to this “hold on to your hat,” astonishing Presence. And your initial “turnings” led you to ordination then on to pastoral leadership.

But astonishment is hard to sustain. Like love, astonishment is both an effortless happening and the result of constant effort. We fall in love; we create love. Love happens to us; we make love happen. So it is with astonishment, awe, radical amazement.

With this in mind, let’s think about preaching. It can be difficult to sustain astonishment in our preaching. After all, as pastors, you preach—say, forty sermons a year, not counting the funeral and wedding messages. How can something so regular maintain its mystery and wonder?

Let’s get even more specific and practical. And personal too. I’m remembering a typical week of sermon preparation. For me it started on Monday. I loved, well mostly, I loved the discipline of wrestling with a text. It’s a spiritual practice I miss. Early in the week my pattern was to live with the text—think, pray and play with it, carry it around with me to the hospital and committee meetings. The text for the week was always just over my right shoulder.

Then about Wednesday I would pull out the commentaries and take some notes. Thursday, for me, was “fish or cut bait” time, because Sunday was a comin.’ With earnesty now, I looked for a path within the forest of possibilities in my head and notes before me. If sermons make one basic point, then by Thursday I was agonizing over the question, “What’s the point in this text that pierces? Where am I going with this? Where is it taking me?” This could be a very anxious moment for me. Sunday is coming closer and no clear point is emerging. No clear path could be seen. By now it might be Friday or even Saturday.

Over the years I developed this practice: With various ideas and the text before me, I kept asking over and over, “What’s astonishing about this text? Where am I being surprised and radically amazed by this passage? What about this scripture both summons and confronts me, and through me the church and community?”

Recently I was overhearing a debate about how much of the preacher’s life should show in the sermon. I think this is a confusing question. If this means lots of personal references, then we should wonder about ego promotion. But if this means the passion of the preacher about the text, then that is another matter. I assume the person in the pew benefits from our open and lively engagement of the Message. This invites their lively engagement with the text. They want to feel our passion, our curiosity, our questions, and, yes, our excitements.

I’m saying that the most important aspect of sermon preparation is your wrestling with the text—however long it takes—until it blesses you with astonishment. It’s the place to preach from.

How do you hear this?


Getting to the Balcony

July 5, 2010

It’s summer, a good time to reflect on “getting to the balcony” above the “dance floor.” This provocative metaphor is Ronald Heifetz’s way of challenging leaders to balance immediate action (the dance floor) with larger/deeper perspective (the balcony).

A congregation can look like noisy activity on a “dance floor.” Some members are into “line” dancing, others dancing in two and threes, or even solo. Everyone is attempting, sometimes successfully, to dance the same tune. Some sit along the sidelines, contented or discontented observers.

And there we are, (staying with the metaphor) moving in and out of these dances, frequently not sure of next steps. The pressure to stay focused on the immediate is severe: deadlines to meet; phone calls, text messages, e-mails to answer; visits to make; tasks to complete. All apart of the dance.

The metaphor is theologically suggestive. Only the Divine Music makes dancing possible. In multiple, creative responses, we dancers seek through movement to embody (incarnate) God’s vibrations of shalom.

Heifetz laments the failure of leaders to frequent the balcony. From the balcony, you can see the big picture — notice patterns, sense discordance, detect direction, gain perspective, observe movement.

This helpful as far as it goes.

As pastors, we go farther. Once in the balcony, we look within as well. We ask, are we still able to hear the Music? Just as the pressure of immediate demands can undermine larger perspective, so can the noise of the dance floor drown out our “ear” for the Music. In these moments, we allow into ourselves again the joy and gift of our calling. The balcony is for both: other-observation, self- observation; or, external assessment, internal renewal.

You know this practice. In sermon preparation you withdraw from the dance floor and place yourself in the balcony. You ask how does the Word in this text address these people at this moment in our life together. You have the congregation in mind.

But there is more. In preparing a sermon, you are prepared. You allow the Word in the text to address your longings for approval, for brilliance, for appreciation or other ego claims on the pulpit. The sermon in formation is rightly your soul in formation. A musician without an “ear” for the Music is a “noisy gong” or “clanging cymbal.”

Then, in rising to the pulpit to preach, you return to the dance floor, the dance with God.

This is the challenge: working this rhythm—moving between balcony and dance floor—into our way of leading. Sometimes it means removing ourselves physically to a different kind of space. At other times, it means removing ourselves for a moment in the midst of the dance in order for the outer and inner work to occur. Perhaps in time a “double vision” develops, keeping one eye on what is before you and one eye on the forces within you and the larger system. I submit this is a skill worth aiming for, one I wish I had treated as priority during my years of pastoral leadership.

Your thoughts and experience?

[The metaphor, “getting to the balcony” comes from Ronald Heifetz in his books, Leadership on the Line and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.]

For Pastors — Good Grief

April 5, 2010

You in grief ministry, how do you handle your own grieving?

As pastors we are knee deep in grief work. It may be our specialty. Isn’t death and dying our professional “turf”? While many other professionals, like doctors, nurses, chaplains, funeral home directors, are involved in the care for the dying and their families, the pastor is the “point person.” Ideally, we are the overseer of the continuity of care—alongside during the process of dying, sometimes present at the time of death, then designer and leader of the funeral/ memorial service, and afterwards, the follow-through care to the grieving family. This spectrum, I submit, is our arena of expertise. Our congregants expect this. We expect this of ourselves. We are general practitioners with a specialty. (I am also thinking of chaplains and counselors for whom grief work is a primary practice.)

It was Tom, let’s call him, who put his finger on an occupational hazard. He was in Raleigh on sabbatical leave from a congregation he had been leading for twenty years. He was feeling tired, slightly depressed. Tom turned to me as a fellow pastor to probe the source of his heaviness.

In our first pastoral visit, I asked him to tell me about his last years of ministry. I saw my question as a gentle way of easing into our conversation. To his surprise, and mine, losses came pouring out—the deaths of congregants, many of whom were intimate friends and leaders in the church; families with whom he shared life-changing events who moved away; resignations of close colleagues; and members who left the church in anger or indifference. Multiple “deaths,” I heard.

These were not the “necessary losses” from living described in Judith Viorst’s book by that title. Rather, my friend’s felt losses are peculiar to our vocation.

Tom’s focus centered on the mourning of others, shepherding them through grief’s movement in theirs lives. That was his role. That was his job. But few, if any, turned to assist him with his grieving. More to the point, seldom did he ask for assistance.

Tom saw the pattern. While fulfilling his role as comforter, he discounted his need for comfort. And after twenty years of neglect, he sat before me with layers of unprocessed grief. We began to peal off these layers, one by one, as he recalled, and in some sense relived, the loss of each important relationship. He left our conversations a little lighter.

I left more aware.

Tom’s vulnerability was a mirror in which I saw myself. I too, in the care of grieving parishioners, would discount my own grieving. I didn’t have the time, I would tell myself. Often I stuffed it down in my haste toward next tasks, responsibilities postponed due to the unanticipated, additional attention that crisis grief-care requires.

Today, in the catbird seat of retirement, I wonder what happened to my unacknowledged grieving. Did it contribute to the occasional heaviness I could feel, wanting to curl up before a fire-place, reflecting and digesting? Did my denials of death caution me from investing deeply in relationships, using my role as buffer? Did the pain of these losses spark the fantasies of escaping to another congregation or another job free of emotional entanglements? (I wonder if unprocessed grief contributes to short, not long, pastoral commitments to congregations.)

Yes, to all the above but . . . thanks to Tom, I see, more than an occupational hazard. I also see an occupational opportunity, even blessing. At the time of death, including the death of a relationship, I drew on my pastoral authority by insisting on private time with the persons, usually the family. I see now, this was one place where I could share my sense of loss along with theirs. My tears, my stories, my laughter, my regrets, my gratitude could join theirs. Invariably these were cherished sacred moments.

I think of Nouwen’s infamous description of our role as “wounded healer.” Yes, it surely means that we lead from our own vulnerability, weakness, and woundedness. But I am also thinking, as I write this reflection, that welcoming, not denying, our proximity to the wounds of those under our care carves out and deepens our capacity for compassion. In this sense, by their wounds we are healed.

Do you identity, as I did, with Tom denial of grieving? Would you name this as an occupational hazard and/or blessing?

I don’t see these questions raised in the literature about pastoral leadership. I hope you find them provocative, and, if you have the time, respond with your thoughts on the matter.


Graceful, Grace-fueled Practicing

March 15, 2010

With the word, “practice,” have I lost you already?

Spiritual practices can be heavy with expectation, especially self-expectation: “I should pray more, more Sabbath time, more rest, more exercise—more, more, more.” Practices, so subtly, become something you do to reach where you ought to be spiritually. This has a whiff of acquiring, accomplishing, “works righteousness,” to use a traditional phrase.

Wonder with me, can spiritual practicing be graceful, grace-fueled?

We were wrapping up another banjo lesson. Cary Fridley, my teacher, began describing the work involved in “cutting” her next CD: recruiting musicians, practicing privately, practicing together again and again—all in preparation for the final recording session.

“I get increasingly anxious as we approach the recording, she admitted. “Well,” I asked, “what helps you with your anxiety?” Her response was profound beyond her knowing. When I can get to that place where the music is more important than me, then I am not anxious.”

You have been to that place. Recall a time in the pulpit when an inner shift occurs. You get to that place where the “message” becomes more important than your delivery. Self-consciousness fades; “other”-consciousness arises. You feel carried by Something larger, unpredictable, mysterious. It’s no longer, you preaching a sermon. The sermon, it seems, is being preached through you. There is a flow, a freedom, a sense of participating in a Force not your own. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, in the midst of an intense pastoral situation, you find yourself at loss for words. Anxiety churns within. You don’t know what to say. Then, on occasion, from that silent place of emptiness and yearning, words come, right words, words that carry grace and truth. You walk away knowing you had received a gift beyond your wisdom. How often have I gotten to that place? Not often.

Or, even in the midst of a committee or congregational meeting “It” can happen. Anxiety is high. Differences are polarizing. Reactivity abounds. Then, miraculously it seems, enough people get to that place beyond self-serving. Here and there, listening happens; truth telling is risked; options surface. Something More than our selves, a Spirit, seems to be at work. The mutual possibilities, the hopes (the Music) become more important than personal points of view (the players). How often have I seen church members get to that place? Not often.

Consider this: spiritual practices help you experience that place more often. All of us from time to time, as noted, know moments of self-transcendence when we cease to be the center of the action. I’m saying that practices help move us from “time to time” to “often,” from occasional “peak experiences” to daily experiences. Spiritual practices develop an inner capacity for detecting and surrendering to the Holy. They sharpen our sensitivities to the Spirit at work in the world. Like with a musician, practicing doesn’t make the Music happen; rather, it allows the Music to be heard and played.

How then can this practicing be graceful and grace-fueled? Well, it’s a matter of where we start. A musician is first captivated by the music, then she begins practicing. We were first loved, then we began learning how to love. You and I were captivated by the Way of Jesus, then we began to practice our vocation of ministry. We start with Grace. You were brought to your knees before this amazement: you are, along with every living being, unconditionally beloved, valued, forgiven, and delighted in—- all gift, not achievement. Made in the image of God, your true nature is to love, to create, and give. This is who you are. This is who I am at my core. This news about you, and all creation, is the Music that resonates deeply and profoundly.

So, practices ring the bell that awakens us to what we already are. Again and again, they break through the amnesia, reminding us of what is given, not achieved. They recall us to our deepest identity as beloved of God. Practices in this sense don’t get us somewhere; they remind us we are already at home in a love from which nothing in life or death, now or later can separate us. Spiritual practices invite us to fall into that Love, regularly as a daily discipline.

Simple? Yes, radically simple, as simple as waking up or putting on a pair of glasses or remembering something forgotten.

Simple, but, oh, so costly. By waking up to our true identity in God’s love, we then begin to practice dis-identifying from every dependency on others to validate us, including ministry. By recognizing our given worth, we then begin to practice letting go of all the ways we attempt to earn our worth, including ministry. By becoming aware of grace, we then begin to practice dying to our ego’s claim as center of our lives.

Grace is the starting point. Grace fuels the practicing. But it is a costly grace. It costs the surrender of every effort at self-justification along the way of transformation.

Seems to me that it’s all about getting to that place where the Music is more important than me. How about you?


On Liberating the Preacher

February 15, 2010

Preaching may have been my chief cause of anxiety. I come from a tradition where the pulpit and pulpiteer hold a central place both architecturally and vocationally. People come expecting a lively, relevant Word of the Lord. I never shook the audacity of preaching. And I never found a deaf ear to the responses to “how I did.” Often, too often, it seemed to be about me.

So, I see liberation in the idea from family systems’ theorist Murray Bowen, filtered through friend of preachers, Walter Breuggemann (“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 is more stable than a dyad. When two human beings become anxious they will likely “triangle” in a third person or issue or symptom as a way to reduce the tension. You know all too well the experience: two persons in conflict “triangling” you in as problem solver or the “problem” or the one left to worry about their problem. If it works, you hold the anxiety, they walk away feeling lighter. These lethal triangles are “bread and butter” challenges for pastors.

But here is a positive use of “triangling.” Often preaching is seen as what happens 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, people agreeing or not agreeing. A two-way conversation, A-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.

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 pet ideas. 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 is the sense of God’s Word through words, scripture and ours, that matters.

I find this perspective liberating. As I confessed above, I can become overly preoccupied with my voice, feeling the pressure of crafting a correct interpretation, a polished sermon, a brilliant message. Yes, quite a burden to carry.

But can you feel the burden lifting when you turn up the volume, both the voice of the text and the voice of the people? Your voice becomes more prompter than expert. You are free to honestly struggle, play and fuss with the text—out loud—hoping that your words will provoke a similar engagement between listener and text, “B” with “C,” parishioner with God. When it works, or better, when the Spirit works, your interaction, “A” with “C (text)” stimulates the congregant’s interaction with “C” (text). We say in effect: “Folks, this is what I see, feel and hear in this text. What do you see, feel and hear?” The shift occurs: the sermon becomes about God, not you.

I see in this idea an addendum. It occurs to me that “triangling” in the “text” can also be a way of pastoral leadership. Note situations of potential win-lose debate between “A” and “B”—e.g. differences over budget figures or couples in conflict or controversy on health care reform, homosexuality, illegal migrants or any controversial topic. Can you feel the difference, when in such a situation, you intentionally “triangle” in the “text” as “C” (i.e. church mission, God’s love, mind of Christ, covenants, etc.) and ask, “How does our faithfulness to our mutual commitments speak to this problem? What would faithfulness to the “text” look like?” Recognizing that beyond differences is the common desire to love as God loves, your ask, “What shape would this Love take in this situation?”

Maybe we do our best work when we “triangle” in the “texts” of our mutual calling in a variety of conversations, including preaching. What do you think?


The “X” factor: Danger and Opportunity

January 18, 2010

Let’s think about the dynamics of transference or projection in pastoral ministry.

To be human is to experience transference; the projection of authority on to others, and being the recipient of projected expectations. Who doesn’t hyperventilate slightly at the sound of a police siren signaling us to pull to the side of the road, or the pressure the surgeon feels when introduced as the very best in the country? And how about the knot in our stomach when we are called in for a conference with our child’s teacher, or the relief we feel when, in the midst of a tragedy, the leader—whether physician, parent, or president—comes before us with words of assurance?

For pastoral leaders of congregations, the force of transference is particularly tenacious and pervasive. I don’t understand why, in contrast to psychotherapists, working with transference and counter-transference  is not more apart of our training, because becoming a ‘‘reverend’’ impacts virtually all relationships, for good or ill. We are human beings with a difference. Once you and I assume the role of pastora/leader, this “difference,” this “X” factor, kicks in.

This difference is appropriately accentuated in the ways we fulfill the role. We don the robes. We bear sacred symbols. We risk interpreting Mystery. We preside over rites of passage, from birth to death. Even with our more unknowing than knowing, we still dare to represent God, God’s people and God’s purposes in the world. With “fear and trembling,” we allow maximum transference.

Lucy, a rabbi friend, gave me a book that describes this “X’ factor for me. Jack Bloom, in The Rabbi as Symbolic Exemplar, says that, as ordained leaders of congregations, we are both human beings and living symbols of more than we are. Both are true and remain in tension. Yes, in every sense we are “human beings” with our particular personalities and peculiarities. Also, we are walking, talking, embodied representatives of more. We are living signs pointing beyond ourselves to the larger Reality we name God. And this symbolic identity deepens with each passing pastoral visit, funeral, wedding, and worship service.

And more than symbol, Bloom insists that we are symbolic exemplars. As the ordination of Episcopal clergy words it, we vow to be “wholesome examples” of the gospel. Leaders in other fields are also symbols of more than they are, but few leaders carry such moral freight. Pastors, and in some sense their families, are expected to show, as well as tell, what loving God and neighbor looks like.

There’s opportunity with the “X” factor. You know the privilege of standing by a member’s bedside in solitary. Intensive Care, putting a face to a caring God and praying congregation; or, sitting before a person consumed with self-hatred, confronting the lie with all the authority of your position, saying, “No, the truth is you are God’s beloved”; or, claiming the very force of God’s character by proclaiming in concrete settings that domination of some over others is wrong, evil, violent and counter to the God movement of shalom; or, placing bread into the open hands of a celebrant, saying, “The body of Christ for you.”

Privilege, yes, but also audacity, in accepting the pastoral authority to name, bless, and heal, to express at times a power we don’t feel, to convey an outward boldness with our “knees knocking” out of sight.

Seduction is the danger. With the courage it takes to be a living symbol of more than we are, we assume the perilous risk of believing we are more than we are. Projections are ingested. You tell me that I am wonderful, then I must be wonderful. You tell me that I am not enough, then I must be not enough.

I found this the most severe temptation: moving from having a ministry to becoming my ministry. Our work, intended to be penultimate, can become ultimate. ‘‘Difference’’ can become “special.” “Set apart” can become set apart as “better,” “superior.” Ordination vows can trump the baptismal vows we share with all disciples of Jesus. Our sense of well-being can, ever so gradually, stick to our role, then harden, so much so that the role ceases to be a ‘‘robe’’ we wear for symbolic purposes, then remove. It defines our core identity . . . idolatry, that is.

I am wondering what helps you have a ministry, without being your ministry? What supports your offer of ministry from your center of “being enough,” Graced, grounded in Being, loved unconditionally? If Bloom’s description resonates, what helps you embrace the tension from being both a human being in every way and a living, symbolic exemplar of more than you are?


Leading in the In-between Time

January 4, 2010

“I feel both like a hospice chaplain and mid-wife.”

The pastor was responding to my question: “Your current ministry feels like, looks like a . . . . . what?” His answer resonated with our small group of clergy, so much so, we began to unpack his metaphors. Let’s continue the conversation.

Being a hospice chaplain meant to this pastor more than the standard, expected grief ministry — responding to personal losses (e.g. death of a loved one, marriage, house, job, reputation, etc.) That’s huge by itself. Grief work is at the core of what we offer, demanding attention, indeed, skillful and caring attention.

But this pastor was referring to other losses more characteristic of our time in history. You and I see and feel this truth: We serve a church losing social status. The mainline church, firmly established as a major institution for fifteen hundred years in Western civilization, is being disestablished and sidelined. A survivalist mentality, like a dark cloud, hovers over denominations, including many local churches. (Personally I welcome this disestablishment that brings us closer to the pre-Constantine Christian movement of the first centuries. A topic for another reflection.)

Some members lament, “With all these changes — in status . . . in membership . . . in worship . . . in structures . . . in programs . . . in communication — well, I feel less at home. Sometimes it seems like I’m losing my church.” Others decry changes, not only in form, but also in ideas. The familiar ways of speaking of faith are being reshaped or even displaced, as implied in one parishioner’s comment: “Pastor, it is not so much what you say in your sermons that bothers me. It is what you don’t say.”

Thus, on one hand this pastor defined himself as a hospice chaplain who honors and works with dying and death on multiple levels.

Yet, on the other hand, he sees himself as a shepherd of innovation, a midwife assisting in new birth here and there. There are new programs, new members (often with little religious background), new forms of mission, and new ways of understanding God’s movement in our time. He offers a steadying, supportive hand to these births, each carrying the promise of a new life.

Does this resonate with you as a leader in our time? Do you see yourself standing in this breach, offering leadership in a “transitional period, when it seems that something is on the way out and something else is painfully being born?” (Vaclav Havel) In what ways do these metaphors fit? In what ways do they not?

And, I am thinking, you are pastor or priest of one congregation. Where then is the source of oneness amid diverse pulls on time and energy? You must be asking where is the glue that holds us together? What convictions do we gather around regularly that we wager with our lives?

You seem to be in a position not unlike the one Jesus faced. He was revering and fulfilling the Torah, yet with interpretations that were like “new wine in old wineskins.” His respect for heritage that he expressed in new ways was confusing. No wonder the stewards of his tradition (in positions like ours) pressed him for clarity about essentials. Some sample responses we know like the back of our hand: “Love God and the other as yourself;” “Love as I have loved you;” “I have come that you might have life, life abundantly;” “I am the way, the truth, the life.”

Maybe there is this blessing in our time of chaotic transition. We are forced to keep clarifying the faith around which we circle. We are compelled to name our integrating core, knowing full well that the gracious Mystery we worship also defies precise definition. We are challenged to covenant and re-covenant around a Way of living, all the while resisting its codification into hardened beliefs.

I am suggesting that times of rapid change push us back to basics. They challenge us to live the essential questions: What does it mean to follow Jesus? What does faithfulness look like in our lives and life together?

How would you add to the conversation begun with the pastor’s self-understanding as hospice chaplain and midwife?


Two Functions of Religion: Meaning and Transformation

December 21, 2009

Ken Wilbur, contemporary philosopher, psychologist, mystic and student of human consciousness, proposes that religion has two primary functions: offers meaning (his word, “translation”) and offers transformation. Both he deems important, even critical, contributions to the human enterprise.

For most people, according to Wilbur, religion provides a way to establish meaning. It helps us, as separate selves, to make sense of our lives, cope with difficulties, strengthen our resolve, and endure “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Through rituals, symbols and narratives people find beliefs that grant purpose and place and perspective. Finding meaning in life is a function of religion that is absolutely necessary. We humans require a strong sense of self.

But some reach for another level of consciousness, a higher (or deeper) way of seeing. They come to that place in the maturation process where the strengths of separate self are insufficient. A strong ego is not enough to hold life together. Our inner eyes are opened. We see God, no longer as separate object, but as subject, God alive within and through us. We see Christ, no longer as separate, but as subject, Christ within us. And we see other humans as part of us, no longer totally separate, neighbors that we love as ourselves (not “like we love ourselves). The music, the orchestra, the violin and violinist cannot be separated. They all belong together. We understand this mutuality on this level of spiritual awareness.

This is the way of transformation. I, the ego, is a mistaken identity. We are so much more. At our core we are God’s beloved. On this level the separate self is transcended, not fortified. There is a dying again and again not to ego but to ego-centeredness, the separate self. In Paul’s words: “Nevertheless I live but not I, but Christ lives in me,” or, “No-thing in life or death, things present or things to come, can separate us from the love of God,” or Jesus’ words, “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies (breaks open) …” With each act of surrender, separate self-consciousness is broken open like a seed, yielding to the larger creative force of fruitfulness far beyond our efforts or imagining. This spiritual level of consciousness transcends, yet includes the level of egoic functioning, just as the music (divine love, justice) transcends, yet includes the participation of orchestra (faith community), violin and violinist (self).

If my reflection on Wilbur’s proposition is on target, I see three implications for pastoral leaders.

One, you cannot assume, as I did at the beginning of my ministry, that people come to church wanting transformation. Truthfully, neither was I seeking self-transcendence at that point in my life.

Second, we can assume that our members are living at different levels of awareness (consciousness). Some see and interpret symbols, rituals, narratives of Scripture literally, unable to acknowledge truth through metaphor. Some see and interpret rationally, unable to understand truth that appears illogical and contradictory (e.g. lose your life to find it). Still others, likely a minority, see, through repeated gestures of self-surrender, the unitive, non-separation, interdependent vision of the kingdom of God. For them, religion is less about the meaning of their lives and more about the Music of their lives. (No wonder there are such diverse responses to the same sermon.)

The challenge becomes to love people where they are, interpret the gospel in ways they can understand, and be ready to assist their spiritual growth when cracks appear and openings occur.

And third, how about us? In what sense is our religious vocation a source of meaning and/or transformation?

. . .

See Ken Wilbur, The Essential Ken Wilbur, pp.140–143. For more on levels of consciousness, see Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening, Wisdom Jesus and Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ.


Ministry as a Research Project

December 7, 2009

Try this on for size. Particularly when passion drives you to over-functioning, over-investing, over-attachment to results, consider this reframing: treating your work as a research project.

This idea of ministry as a learning project is another leaf from Edwin Friedman’s notebook. Friedman describes the way he offers therapy to clients. He takes with him into the therapy session a yellow legal-sized pad with a line drawn down the middle of the page. On the left side of the pad he writes process notes that might assist him at a later point in the therapy. But on the right side of the pad he records what he is learning that might assist him in his life, either personally or professionally. Later, he discards the process notes while preserving for himself the learning gleaned from the experience.

I attached this picture — a yellow legal-sized pad with a line down the middle — on the inner lining of my mind. It goes with me.

As I approached the time to announce my retirement in 1998, my anxiety spiked. Self-talk was lively: When do I tell? Who first needs to know? How will I say, “good-bye”? How will I feel? How will they feel? What will they say?

My “yellow pad friend” came to the rescue. “What if I treat my last months at Pullen [Memorial Baptist Church] as a research project?” After “drawing a line down the middle,” I began to ask: What will I learn about how I do endings? What will we (both Pullen and myself) learn about our life together during these past fifteen years? Where were noteable evidences of the Spirit at work? What, I wonder, will be the surprises?

During those intense months, there were times I stepped back and worked these questions. And when I did, I tasted the excitement, playful curiosity, and objectivity of a research scientist.

But don’t save it for the end. This practice of reframing works even better during the “everydayness” of pastoral ministry. Without fail, this “yellow legal-sized” image could pull me back from my intensity, with the question, “Let’s see, what am I learning here?”

Pastoral work gives us a ringside seat in the arena of human striving, an up close look at the blows, bruises and knockdowns people experience. Or to shift the metaphor, what better laboratory for observing and researching the ways people find meaning in their lives.

What if we viewed the people involved with us in ministry as our teachers. Beyond showing us how they make sense of life, they will also trigger our emotion-packed addictions, call forth our latent gifts, and open spaces for grace to happen.

We cannot always be effective or faithful. We can always be a curious learner, disciple that is.