December 28, 2015—Twelve years ago I caught a plane to Colorado Springs to attend the Leadership in Ministry Workshop. I had just completed reading Ed Friedmans’s book, Generation to Generation, and I was eager to hear from others who were on a pilgrimage to understand their family of origin and how they became who they are now. After three days of seminars, small group time, and reflection, I knew that I was embarking on a significant journey of spiritual and emotional growth. I was on an adventure! For the first time in years I had a real sense of hope! As I looked out my room window at the magnificent Pike’s Peak, I knew that I was climbing toward a peak experience of my own. This time, however, I knew things would be different. There would be no more making excuses or blaming others for the way my life was going. I was going to have to carry my own backpack. I was being challenged to take responsibility for myself.
Growing up I had a tendency to discount myself and my abilities. I had often heard from others that I had a lot of potential but didn’t quite measure up to what I should be. I had been a good student until I reached middle school. Then all hell broke loose! I discovered girls and football, but I forgot school. As a result I had the opportunity to repeat a grade. In others words, I had failed! I was humiliated! To make matters worse my younger brother, who was a grade behind me, was now in the same grade as I was. I began to believe that I really was stupid! ‘Stupid’ was a word that I had heard often as a boy from my father. Now I had proved it true. Even today that feeling still lingers when I find myself falling short in life whether it be in my ministry or in my marriage. It doesn’t seem to matter that I went on to graduate from college and seminary. Achievements and degrees can never compensate for a lack of self worth. Even as I write these words my box of tissue is close by to wipe away my tears.
I have spent a lot of time over the years hiding from others and from myself. At times I have pretended that I was smarter than I really was. I wanted others to think that I was special and that I had my life together. In fleeting moments, being a follower of Christ has helped me to know that I was beloved by God. But, if the truth be known, that little boy in middle school still lives in me. However, there has been a change in me since I began attending the Leadership In Ministry Workshops three years ago. I think I might be morphing! And I have never been more excited about learning. To my amazement, I was not the only person who grew up feeling inadequate and with poor self-worth. As we shared our stories and case studies in our small groups I discovered that failure is a word that was familiar to almost everyone. I have not been the only one who has been hiding. Nowhere has hiding more evident than in the church. That is why being a part of this kind of community offered through this workshop is so important to me. Traveling from Virginia to Colorado is no obstacle for one who is hungry for authentic spiritual community.
As I took a deeper look at my own family of origin I began to have a series of ‘aha’ experiences! Some were joyful and many were sad. I became saddened as I examined my own father’s family and childhood. He had also grown up in a family feeling little value as a son. He had been wounded emotionally by his father. And it is probable that his father was wounded by his father. As a result my father was passing on to me what his father had previously passed to him. It really is generation to generation.
I have become a much more hopeful person. I can bless my father. And I have been eager to communicate to others what I have been learning about myself and family systems. For the last three years I have offered a seminar at our church based on Ron Richardson’s book, Family Ties that Bind. The response to this seminar has been overwhelming, particularly among people from our church’s Divorce Recovery Ministry.
On a spiritual note, I have begun reading the Scriptures much differently. They have become much more alive to me! Using the lectio approach to reading Scripture has allowed me to glimpse the human side of the personalities and stories in the Bible. Anxiety and stress continue to be a part of my daily life. But in many cases I have found a new freedom in having the same attitude that Jesus had when dealing with people who are unloving and unreasonable. It is what I call the “I don’t give a damn” attitude. By letting go of trying to change or overfunction for others, I am able to move toward freedom.
I have noticed several things about myself. First, I have become interested in reading the stories of the great explorers such as Magellan, Columbus, and Sir Francis Drake. Secondly, I have a greater desire to become a person of grace. The reason being is that I am in need of so much grace myself. Besides it is kind of fun being a grace-giver, especially to people who don’t expect it! Thirdly, I have been reading everything I could related to Bowen theory and family systems. One of the books that caught my attention was Peter Steinke’s book, How Your Church Family Works. There is a section in his book that has become almost a Rule of Life for me. Steinke suggests seven responses related to our lives that can provide health and wholeness to all of us. Briefly they are: Focus on Self, not Others; Focus on Strength, not Weakness; Focus on Process, not Content; Focus on Challenge, not Comfort; Focus on Integrity, not Unity; Focus on System, not Symptom; Focus on Direction, not Condition
Our challenge is to learn how to be responsible for ourselves and responsive to others. By taking responsibility for ourselves we can invest our time and energy in areas we have some control over. Indirectly, we can have some influence on the systems we live and work in. In this way we allow others the freedom to choose what they want to become.
Ralph Starling is Associate Minister at First Baptist Church, Richmond, VA. This article was originally published in the Leadership in Ministry Newsletter (Summer 2005).
Registration for the Leadership in Ministry Workshops at the Center for Lifelong Learning is now open. For more information, or to register for the workshops, visit the information and registration page.