Obstacles to Change – Church “Niceness”

Needless to say, once I started Friedman’s A Failure of Nerve, I couldn’t stop. The information that I’m processing with you now comes from Chapter 4 – “Survival in a Hostile Environment”, which discusses the reality of empathy versus responsibility. A huge light bulb went on over my head as I read this chapter in light of the previous one about highly anxious systems, and my 30+ years of experience in local United Methodist churches. I am a preacher’s wife, Christian educator, leadership coach, and life-long church member. None of what I write here reflects on any one congregation, but all of them through my experience with them have impacted my reaction to Friedman’s writing.

I have said in consultations, trainings and classes over the years that the church is experiencing “terminal niceness”. The way Friedman writes, it is empathy – the ability “to feel in” that is often doing the damage. The word empathy is a relative new one, born in the early 1900’s to describe how one could experience works of art by putting oneself in the painting, sculpture, etc. It wasn’t until after WWII that empathy started to be used regularly, but by then it had started to take on meaning in human relationships – projecting my self into the skin of someone else would help me to understand the other person fully. Friedman says that the increasing popularity of empathetic responses to others has become symptomatic of the herding/togetherness of a highly anxious society, because reacting in such a sensitive way to others will not enable them to mature or take responsibility for their own stuff. He goes on to state on page 137 that “Empathy is a luxury for those who don’t have to make tough decisions.”

Now before you start yelling at me, let me say that there is a place for empathy, sympathy, and compassion in the church, and every Christian can quote scripture to support this. The problem comes when we are so empathetic that we overlook the difficult behavior that keeps each congregation solidly stuck in a rut because of the emotional ties to that behavior. Take for example the person who typically rules the church because “if you don’t do what I want you to do, I will take my money elsewhere”. Or the woman who rules the kitchen with an iron fist and doesn’t allow anything to happen that she doesn’t approve. We give allowance to this behavior because they are lonely, or they had a difficult childhood, or because we are afraid of them, or because God wants us to love them. When the reality is their behavior has ruined the congregation’s reputation in the neighborhood and no one will darken the doors of the church because these bullies are in charge.

So, what do we do about this? How can we overcome the difficult behavior issues within the life of each system (family, church, community, etc.)? Friedman says that “promoting in others the initiative to be accountable is far more critical to the health of an institution than trying to be understanding or insightful.” (p. 147)

Now this is a real switch-er-roo, isn’t it! We all love to be empathetic, but we hate accountability! I had a friend tell me that accountability has a sense of not wasting anything – skills, talents, experiences, our ability to love one another. It is not a judgmental word as much as an encouraging one. I think this is a healthy view of accountability – it leads us to open, honest conversations about expected behavior within our community of faith. Accountability leads us to healthy ways of being together that encourages and values the work God has called us to do together. When we have a sense of God’s purpose for the congregation, then we truly have something important for which to be held accountable.

If you want to have coaching support as you work through the empathy and responsibility issues within your congregation, contact me at kshockleycoach@comcast.net.


Identifying Fear and Anxiety in Church Systems

I did a bold and unusual thing on a recent flight from Denver to Eugene OR – I read a “work” book, not a “fun” book! Mainly because I couldn’t open my ipad – long wait at the gate, waiting for take-off, etc. – I pulled A Failure of Nerve by Edwin H. Friedman (1999, 2007 The Edwin Friendman Trust, Church Publishing, Inc.) out of my carry-on. By the time we reached the proper altitude I was engrossed! The recently completed research “Toward Vitality” for the United Methodist Church (http://www.gbod.org/lead-your-church/toward-vitality-research-project) recognized that fear and anxiety are huge obstacles to change in local congregations, so Friedman’s chapter on “A Society in Regression” because of highly anxious systems captured my imagination.

Friedman is well known for his understanding of self-differentiation, and it is “a term used to describe one whose emotional process is no longer ultimately dependent on anything other than themselves. They are able to live and function on their own without undue anxiety or over-dependence on others. They are self-sufficient. Their sense of worth is not dependent on external relationships, circumstances or occurrences.” (http://www.ministryhealth.net/mh_articles/345_self_differ_essential_healthy_church.html). So, Friedman compares the failure of nerve of the leader that happens in a chronically anxious system, because leaders are not self-differentiated enough to lead due to the emotional wreckage of an anxious system.

There are five characteristics of the chronically anxious family, which I also notice in church systems. The five are: “(1) Reactivity – the vicious cycle of intense reactions of each member to events and to one another. (2) Herding – a process through which the forces for togetherness triumph over the forces for individuality and move everyone to adapt to the least mature members. (3) Blame displacement – an emotional state in which family members focus on forces that have victimized them rather than taking responsbility for their own being and destiny. (4) A quick-fix mentality – a low threshold for pain that constantly seeks sympton relief rather than fundamental change. (5) Lack of well-differentiated leadership – a failure of nerve that both stems from and contributes to the first four.” (pp. 53,54)

There were two other statements made in this chapter that I found interesting; when a family (society, congregation, etc) focuses its energy on data and technique instead of on emotional process and the leader’s own self, then pulling out of the regression is nearly impossible because it stops the leader from being able to lead without the emotional baggage of the system. (pg. 55) Friedman also states that a criterion for judging the anxiety level of a system is the loss of its ability to be playful! (pg. 201)

This learning has two implications for me: (1) the leaders of the congregations that were interviewed through our Toward Vitality research showed evidence of being led by pastors and lay people in leadership who had reached some level of self-differentiation, because they were able to lead change in positive ways – creatively, with great courage, and to positive ends. Also, every one of these interviews included laughter, expressions of joyfulness, and playfulness – they were delightful experiences! (2) congregations that I am coaching, or will coach in the future, will need to answer some questions about the fear and anxiety levels within the congregation: How does this congregation react to change? Where does this congregation experience placing blame for things that don’t go well? What is the time frame for addressing big issues? Where is this congregation stuck in its ability to move to the next levels of discipleship? How often do the leaders bow to an emotional issue (someone won’t be happy, those people might leave, maybe they won’t give anymore) when making decisions?

It is time to claim that fear and anxiety play an exact opposite role to faith and hope. As we experience the hopefulness of the Easter Season, may we see with fresh eyes the potential of new life for our congregations!

Kim Shockley Coaching

Let me introduce myself as a trained and experience coach for pastors and congregational leaders.  I have five years experience coaching congregations through culture changes, in order to help congregations become more vital and healthy in the way they do mission and ministry.  I recently completed a research project for the United Methodist Church – Toward Vitality – learning how churches change so that they can reach new people, younger people, and more diverse people.  I am a seminary trained Christian Educator, pastor’s wife, United Methodist researcher, and mother of young adult sons.  My husband, Gary, and I live in Castle Pines, Colorado.