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Along the Journey  |  

What’s haunting our leaders?

Leaders new to a system often have to contend with the “ghosts” in the system, things that go bump in the night and block progress, defy explanations, and create corporate habits and practices that make no sense. 

Ghosts and their secrets can foster behaviors and attitudes that inhibit openness in communication. Something is going on, but no one is telling. Some systems are more haunted than others, and benign and malevolent systemic forces are at play in any system. However, when a leader finds him or herself inhibited by a haunting that impedes progress and health in the system, it may be time to become a ghosthunter and exorcist.

The Leader as Ghost Hunter

New leaders must determine how to deal with the ghosts in their systemevery system has them. Some leaders set out to be ghost hunters; others try to be exorcists. Those ghosts may be beloved former pastors elevated to sainthood or the demons of generations past who still haunt the system through legacies.

Dealing with secrets in a system is a challenge, not only because the issue is complex but also because organizational leaders, especially clergy leaders, are expected to be the official designated secret-keeper in the system. How often does a conversation start with, “I am telling you this in complete confidence, Pastor…,” or “Just between you and me…”.

Regarding “secrets,” we do not mean betraying confidence or the indiscriminate release of sensitive, private, or potentially harmful information. In other words, distinguishing between secrecy and privacy is essential when ghost hunting. As a transactive dynamic in a system, secrets tend to be willful, unhealthy, anxiety-driven, and potentially toxic. What is “private” is not necessarily harmful and, indeed, may be healthy. 

For pastors in a system that uses its leader as a confidant to secrets that bind anxiety, it can be helpful to refuse to carry the secret or its burden. The pastor may even find a person who can help navigate how to handle secrets without being left powerless. In other words, pastors, or any leader, can use the power of the confessional to bind the anxiety of the secret.

The ghosts that leaders are content with inside a system are secrets that are intentional concealments of information by one or more persons in the system whom they impact. Secrets are a form of information control in which some information is controlled by a person in the system who purposefully hides this information from someone else. In this type of secret, the information withheld is critical to the one whom the information is concealed from because it impacts his or her life or ability to function. It is common for systems to withhold information from new leaders about sensitive issues, thereby setting up an immediate pattern of secrecy and leaving the leader powerless to address the issue.

Often, leaders as ghost hunters must seek out the intergenerational ghost in the system passed on through multigenerational transmission. It can be the lingering influence of a founding pastor, unresolved issues from a crisis with a former staff member, or a secret in the system based on shame or guilt. In a theological school, it may be a “faculty of origin issue.” A painful church split can leave several lingering ghosts in the system. In a former congregational ministry context, it was four years until I discovered, quite by happenstance, that the church had previously dismissed a staff member in my position. No one ever mentioned the incident, not during the hiring interviews or the intervening four years of personnel reviews, staff meetings, committee meetings, or other numerous conversations.

Symptoms and Manifestations of Ghosts in the System

It takes a lot of energy to feed a ghost and keep a secret, which can take a toll on a system and its individuals. Look for a symptom bearer who exhibits the manifestations of secret-keeping: stress, anxiety, depression, and shame. Sometimes, a symptom is misplaced distrust and anger toward the leader. Check if the blowback on particular questions and issues is disproportionate to other inquiries and feels like a personal attack. Organizationally, ghosts and secrets in the system create difficulty in maintaining intimacy in relationships, maintain chronic long-standing cut-offs, and even result in psychosomatic symptoms. Characteristically, secrets in the system leave people feeling powerless.

Evan Imber-Black identified four main ways that family secrets may shape and scar us:

(1) they can divide family members, permanently estranging them;

(2) they can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family, inhibiting the formation of intimate relationships;

(3) they can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity;

(4) they can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt. Since secrets can serve the same function in any relationship system, any leader may find herself or himself dealing with these in an organization as well.

The Leader as Exorcist

Sometimes, it becomes necessary for a leader to play exorcist when ghosts impede progress or health in the system. One way is to uncover the narrative of the secret. Often, it is not the secret that holds power in the system; it is the narrative built around its origin and subsequent interpretations. Like the parlor game of “telephone,” over time, the secret gets corrupt and convoluted to the point that what really happened hardly matters–it is the fact that the secret is maintained and serves a transactive function in the system that matters.

In this case, the leader or exorcist can ask persons to “tell me the story about what happened.” Listen for both content and emotional process, though it’s the transactive process that will be most telling (do people maintain the secret, protect the ghost, share the “secret” readily, or keep the leader in the dark?). One way to get the ghost out of hiding is to compare narratives. Sometimes, playfully challenging the narrative in a non-threatening way can challenge recall, misinterpretation, or dig deeper. The conversation may go like this:

Leader: “That’s interesting. Someone told me that the reason was ________.”

Staff person: “Well, that’s what I heard.”

Leader: “Does that ring true to you?”

Staff person: “Well, no, come to think of it. It does sound a bit strange.”

Leader: “What do YOU think might have happened?”

Another way to exorcise ghosts is to reinterpret the narrative around the secret. Leaders enjoy the privilege of having the platform to not only envision the future narrative of an organization but also to reinterpret its past–including re-weaving and reinterpreting the narratives around ghosts in the system. It can be as simple as sharing, “You know what I think really happened?” Interviewing the “ghosts,” like a former pastor or boss, will yield a different perspective that can be shared as a corrective to a toxic narrative: “Let me share with you how ___ remembers it.” Indeed, you’ll want to ask permission to share, not to violate a trust.

Another powerful and redemptive way of exorcising ghosts is to absolve the IP or the scapegoat at the center of old secrets that keep the system stuck. The function of blame fosters irresponsibility, and ghosts and secrets often enable that. Long-dead family members can be blamed for the lack of success of individuals in the family or for a whole generation! As long as they are kept “alive” as ghosts in the system, people can choose not to take responsibility for their fate.

I know of one pastor who, after some ghost hunting, chose to exorcise a shame-related secret that kept the congregation stuck on issues related to anyone occupying the position of “pastor” in the congregation. This pastor invited a former pastor, who functioned as a “ghost” in the congregation’s narrative about its annual church homecoming. Merely naming the pastor’s presence and place in the church’s history shifted the story and “outed” the negative demonizing narrative maintained by some members.

Engage in Selective Disclosure

I like Peter Rober’s concept of selective disclosure as an approach to dealing with secrets in a system. It can help invite others to participate in exorcising the ghosts. “The concept highlights that what we are dealing with is a multifaceted continuing process in time: a process filled with tensions, small decisions, and good intentions. It refers to a selection process as to whom to tell what, how much to tell, when to tell, and so on,” wrote Rober. It considers the reality that what is needed is not just more information; instead, it is attention to the emotional process that creates a dialogical space in which questions can be asked, and things can be said without requiring or demanding that everything be revealed.

The concept of selective disclosure takes seriously the potential destructiveness of “outing” secrets while making space and opportunities for a safe way in which people can deal with sensitive “family” issues. This approach removes the toxic element of willfulness and coercion on the part of the leader and helps create a more open, safe, and honest environment to talk about the ghosts in the system.

In this way, leaders can provide “a dialogical space in which people listen to what is said, accept that not everything can be said, respect that there are good reasons why things cannot be shared, and are open to whatever is said that has not been said before. Such a view based on the concept of selective disclosure invites compassion and empathy and recognizes secret holders as well as those who do not know in their struggle to find stories they can live with” (Pelias, 2008, cited in Rober et al. (2012)).

All leaders need to deal with “ghosts” in their system at one time or another. Those that impede the leader’s effectiveness and maintain pathological patterns of dysfunction in the form of “secrets” are often the most toxic to a system. Leaders do well to respect the power of secrets in a system and the potential consequences of unlinking them from the functions they serve. Leaders are to foster health and responsibility; occasionally, functioning as ghost hunters and exorcists to bring about release and redemption in the system.

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


“The emotional burden of secrets. Consequences for somatic health and implications for health care,” by Wismeijer AA, Vingerhoets AJ. Journal Tijdschr Psychiatr. 2007;49(6):383-9.

“Family Secrets,” Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 25th 2007.

“The Power of Secrets,” Evan Imber-Black. Psychology Today 31.4 (Jul/Aug 1998): 50-53+.

“In Search of a Tale They Can Live With: About Loss, Family Secrets, and Selective Disclosure,” Peter Rober, et al. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy 38.3 (Jul 2012): 529-41.

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