May 27, 2019—Bill Wilson, founder and director of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, wrote about “4 Traps for Clergy Moving to a New Congregation.” He named them as the trap of expectations, the trap of agendas, the trap of talking, and the trap of silence. I thought his points were insightful and helpful.
Wilson’s post got me wondering what emotional process traps one may face (from a systems theory perspective). So, here are “Four Systems Traps For Clergy When Entering a Congregation” (with apologies to Dr. Wilson).
1. Unresolved issues.
We enter a new congregation or a new job in the middle of the story. While we may entertain fantasies about a “fresh start” or a “new beginning,” the fact is that we will inherit numerous unresolved issues, problems, and challenges on Day 1 of the job. These unresolved issues will become impediments to new initiatives. Unaddressed, they may block progress or sabotage initiatives, whether one is aware of of them or not. Admittedly, some unresolved issues will never reach resolution. Some will fester, some will re-emerge during episodes of acute anxiety (and may become a presenting issue when it fact, they are not the issue at all), and some may remain inconvenient nuisances. One important discernment for the new leader is to decide which of these unresolved issues are worth taking responsibility for.
2. Hidden triangles.
As soon as we sit in the leader’s chair on Day 1 on the job, we occupy one point of pre-existing systemic triangles, most of which we will be unaware. Many we will inherit merely by virtue of the position we occupy in the system–they come with the job. Other triangles may be the product of unresolved issues with the former leader (see no. 1 above) as people project on use. We understand that one cannot “de-triangle,” meaning, we can’t disengage in the structural triangles that come with the job. But we can choose how to position ourselves in triangles, and, we can learn how to navigate triangles in non-reactive ways.
3. Systemic Anxiety.
With the arrival of a new minister or leader, systems often experience a lowering of anxieties as the honeymoon begins and hope for a good future shines bright. New leaders know to enjoy the honeymoon, and extend it as long as they can. But each system has its own set point for anxiety. Some churches have a high set point, and can tolerate a high level of anxiety before becoming reactive. Others have low set points, leaving them very sensitive to even the slightest of perceived threat, change, or discomfort. And chronically unhealthy systems have little tolerance for a new leader who poses the threat of health. What are the particular anxieties of your new context? Granting that the experience of anxiety is real, are the threats real or imagined?
4. Systems secrets.
It can take three years before a new leader learns important information about their new context. This is natural in that it takes a long time to earn trust. Also, systemic secrets tend to have a perverse hold on the system–it can withhold even the most important information a leader needs to know. Hang around long enough, earn people’s trust, and you may learn (or overhear) some secrets. In the meantime, there will be plenty of episodes that raise the question, “What the heck was that all about?” One of the best ways to get information is to “tell the story wrong.” Playfully telling someone “So I heard that . . . ” and intentionally getting it wrong more often than not results in an unintentional disclosure of information just to “set the record straight.”
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.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice Press).
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.