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Dr. G. & Friends  |  

Don’t question people’s motives

Years ago I read C. Ellis Nelson’s Don’t Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide ( New York: Paulist Press 1978).

At the time it was a counterintuitive challenge to a commonly held belief, that we should let our conscience be our guide.

Nelson sought to show that conscience is an unreliable guide to the Christian faith because it is formed during infant and child socialization.

He outlined a theory of how the conscience is formed that recognized the importance of both the “negative conscience” (with guilt as a central orientation) and the “positive conscience” (consisting of an ego ideal).


Nelson provided a helpful critique of an uncritical belief, namely, that one’s conscience provides a reliable moral center. That has been one of many correctives to uncritical assumptions over the years.

For example, there is a point of intersection between one’s emotional maturity, capacity for self-differentiation, and one’s spiritual maturity.

False piety is the last refuge of the willful, and the content of spiritual language often masks a multitude of sins.

Knowing how to discern the difference between the content of speech and function allows us to respond better to those whose relationship with the church is too wrapped up in issues of pseudo-self or unresolved family-of-origin issues they are trying to work out in the congregational system.


Because religion and beliefs do not trump biology, it is not very helpful to spend time questioning people’s motives.

Regardless of our desire to believe otherwise, most of us are driven more by our emotions than by our rationality.

The brain’s “Job 1” is survival, physical and then existential.

The amygdala is the first organ in the brain to be fully developed at birth, and is the only organ in the brain that is not connected to the cortex.

This walnut-sized organ at the base of our brain (just behind the eyeballs) stores emotions associated with memories and experiences (fear, anger, threat (fight/flight), etc.).

But because it is not directly connected to the parts of our brain that process cognition it is difficult to connect thinking with feeling when we’re anxious.


During times of acute anxiety reflecting on what we are experiencing, and how it influences our functioning, is almost impossible.

This is, by design, a good thing.

In the face of threat, we want our amygdala to induce alertness, get the adrenaline pumping, and startle us into flight, rather than allow our frontal lobe to engage in analysis or become fascinated or enthralled with the drama of whatever it is we are facing.


Most people are not aware enough of the cause (the internal emotional process) of their behaviors, feelings, or actions to understand their motivation.

Some years ago I heard one of the most mature, educated and rational church members say to me, after getting caught up in the passions of a church crisis, “I don’t know what happened to me. I just went crazy.”

Most of us aren’t smart enough to know what motivates us to do the things we do, either.

So, it is more helpful to focus on how a person functions than on what he or she says.

In other words, focus on emotional process and behavior, not on content (what people say), and allow people their right to go crazy every once in a while.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Program at Columbia 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.

His books on education include Academic Leadership: Practical Wisdom for Deans and Administartors, Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), and Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).


Dr. G. & Friends