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In the media, examples of school principals abound from (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off ) highly suspicious Ed Rooney, to the distant yet caring Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter series.
As someone who worked in public education for eight years prior to going into the ministry, I know a bit about principals.
Depending upon the age level (elementary vs. secondary) a principal’s role differs; at the secondary level a principal often has the role of disciplinarian and has to play the ‘bad guy’ with students, and sometimes their parents.
Sometimes I feel like the folks in the pew look to me to be the ‘principal’ for the congregation.
‘Joe’ will come and tell me that ‘Mary’ hurt his feelings, hinting that I should step in and make it all better.
But what Joe is really doing is trying to triangulate me and get me to do the hard relationship work which is really his to do.
As Israel Galindo writes, “…the pastoral leader must stay connected, but remain differentiated from the body as the head…”
As Galindo continues, “Emotions are contagious, and because relationship systems tend to take their emotional cues from the person in the leadership position…” (ibid, 173.)
As leaders, if we want our congregations to grow and flourish it is important that we recognize unhealthy behaviors, but also encourage healthier options for moving forward.
Had I taken Joe’s bait and talked with Mary, not only would I have been dragged into the mud of conflict, but I would have taken away Joe’s opportunity for growth and maturity.
As leaders in faith communities, it is most helpful to take a step back and look at the person (or persons) in the larger system we call a congregation and ask questions about the system such as:
Why has this conflict arisen?
What has shifted, either in the system, or in that person(s) which has brought about this unhealthy behavior?
What questions can I ask, or options can I offer, which will help bring about restoration and healing?
It is not a quick process, nor is the leader guaranteed that their questions and options offered will be answered or carried out.
However, it is also in the modeling of appropriate behavior (sometimes over and over again!) that offers others to see a different way forward than the way ‘things have always been.’
Interested in learning more about congregational dynamics and relationships, and a helpful way of examining your congregation from a different perspective?
Click here for more information on the upcoming online course, using Galindo’s book, The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics.
Toby Mueller has pastored in every state on Interstate 65, over 25 years of ministry. Currently she is pastor at Historic Franklin Presbyterian Church in Franklin, Tennessee. She and her husband Mark are often seen outside walking their black lab, Zoe. Prior to entering the ministry she taught elementary children for eight years. They have two daughters, both married, and four grandchildren who call her ‘Bibi,’ her favorite name of all.
 Galindo, Israel. The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics. Herndon: The Alban Institute, 2004). 152.