December 17, 2018—One major trap for clergy leaders is the demand for them to take responsibility for things that rightly are not theirs. This is exacerbated by the propensity of pastors to accept that demand. After all, they are in the business of “salvation” and redemption, right? As any given member may remind the pastor when challenged to step up to ministry participation, “That’s what we hired you for, pastor.”
In this regard, it’s helpful to remember that a congregation is an example of a chronically anxious system. The issue is not that a congregation will experience acute anxiety every once in a while, it’s that it is an anxious system. Chronically anxious systems take form when the system is structured for it: when someone in the system (typically the leader, or, an identified patient (IP)) is made responsible for someone else’s functioning. For example, when pastors are made responsible for the functioning of the staff; when youth ministers are made responsible for the behavior and spirituality of teenagers; when the staff is made responsible for people’s attendance and participation in church programs; or, when a committee is made responsible for how much money people give.
The fact of the matter is that the leader can only take responsibility for his or her own functioning, not that of others. To attempt to do otherwise is to set oneself up for burnout, for being willful, for falling into patterns of overfunctioning, or for dramatic and invasive boundary violations.
Needless to say, the insecure, the less differentiated, and immature leaders will not be able to appreciate this stance, especially during times of acute anxiety. The call to “do something about” a staff person, or a church member, or a committee, will often be the demand placed on the pastor of a congregation, followed by the insistence that “it’s your job to ensure that people do what they’re supposed to.” The wise leader knows that his or her job is not to think for, or micromanage, others, rather, it is to challenge persons toward responsibility and to hold them accountable for their behaviors and choices.
The trap in this rule is that lazy people have great capacity for using good theory for poor ends. For the lazy leader, it’s too easy to say, “That’s not my responsibility.” So it’s important to get clear about what is your responsibility and your appropriate function as the leader in the system.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. This peer-learning experience focuses on helping clergy leaders take better responsibility for their leadership (and to stop trying to get other people to do things). To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.