The Middle of the Story (and hurrying up to catch up)

The Middle of the Story (and hurrying up to catch up)

November 26, 2018—One of the most mystical concepts in Bowen Theory is that of the multigenerational transmission process of relationship systems. This multigenerational process is a powerful force at work in biological families and in congregations. The concept posits that relationship patterns repeat through generations in systems, like families. When pastors become leaders in their congregations (a relationship system) they inherit some things that have come down through the generations they likely cannot change, and some things they should not try to change—regardless of how un-aesthetic, un-theological, or un-sophisticated they may be.

Steven Sloman wrote about “the curse of knowledge,” our tendency to believe that other people know what’s in our heads. We enter a new church ministry with future visions, even plans, about the congregation. We assume other people know the vision in our head. When we get pushback we wonder “Why don’t they see it?” One answer is, it’s only in your head.

That conversation with the search committee you all got excited about? That exists only in your head and in the collective heads of the members of that group. The rest of the congregation carries little to no knowledge about what you and the search committee agreed about, got excited about, or envisioned for the congregation.You and the search committee may be on the same page, but now you have to get the rest of the congregation aboard.

It takes time to get people to see what you see. You stand at a different part of the organization, one that allows you to see a horizon beyond the immediacy of what people are comfortable with. In fact, what most people in your congregegation are comfortable with, and perhaps crave, is the sense of multigenerational stability–those rituals, habits of the heart, and traditions that are part of their identity. We should never be surprised to hear, “But we’ve always done it this way.”

Understand Your Congregation’s Culture

Culture is one of the most powerful elements in any system, yet it seems to be one of the least understood and most underappreciated areas that pastoral leaders address. Culture is a corporate dimension that develops over time—it is not “invented.” It is multigenerational, and it helps a congregation define “who we are because of what we do.”
Culture consists of things like: corporate values, norms, practices, rituals and rites, narratives, artifacts, and ways of being together. Culture, in part, determines how people enter a system and leave it, determines who belongs and who does not, and informs the roles and functions the members of the system play. Unless pastors understand that they carry out ministry within the contextual culture of the congregation I suspect they will never be able to effect developmental change in that system.

This multigenerational force is so powerful that often it seems to have the force of a tidal wave or tsunami. Author Edwin H. Friedman has been cited as saying how little change he’d seen in his congregation despite years of effort. Plus ce change, plus ce meme chose (“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” as the saying goes). If you perform your ministry with integrity you will leave legacies and may make some difference, but in the larger scheme of things, those changes will be minimal; perhaps inconsequential. Enter well and leave well. In the meantime, be a good steward and have fun.

Adapted from Perspectives on Congregational Leadership: Applying Systems Thinking for Effective Leadership.

The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in five locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, Kansas City MO, and Lynchburg, VA. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops. click on the link.


2 thoughts on “The Middle of the Story (and hurrying up to catch up)”

  1. Insightful comments about relationship systems and culture in congregations. I remember doing exactly what you are talking about, assuming the whole church would be excited about the vision the search committee and I dreamed of together. Getting the congregation on board was much more difficult with landmines along the way. Clergy do see things differently coming in as outsiders to the system. The challenge is to connect deeply and become part of the system while at the same time being able to stand apart at times and continue to be able to see the congregation from the outside looking in, then bring pieces of that perspective back. The hardest part, but probably the most important part, as you are saying here, is to be ready and able to leave when the time comes and to do that leave-taking in a healthy way for all.

  2. Interesting article to read, though I have not gone to link given. That intergenerational notion, idea, thought,or impression which is in the head of that individual and is affecting his effectiveness in Ministry need to be evaporated. The question is how can the individual that is plagued with this oppressive experience in the head be helped. Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.