When I was an impressionable college student exploring “the ministry,” a well-intentioned someone gave me Good to Great by Jim Collins in hopes of helping me increase “my reach” as a future pastor. When I was a maybe less impressionable seminary student (who knew everything already thank you very much), several professors invited me to read books about “adaptive leadership” and “corporate strategy” as a way of keeping up with the organizational demands of leading fledgling nonprofit institutions in a down market. As a cynical associate pastor in one of those very fledgling nonprofits I was sent weekly links to articles and TED talks outlining how exactly corporate leaders “turned around” their companies, grew their market shares, and created “a culture” of innovation.
I guess the institution wanted the same from me, but I foolishly studied the humanities, spent three years mastering divinity, and struggled to see the similarities between CEOs making (in some companies) 150 times the average employee, and pastors working in an industry where the company owns your house and doubt is a fireable offense. So I eventually quit because I was depressed, anxious, and confused about how being a pastor had anything at all to do with working for a church in America. I’m now a psychotherapist and the father of a 4 year old who let me know the other day — in the midst of a tantrum because I asked him to use the bathroom — that I am “unnecessary.”
I, too, found it a bit on the nose.
If you have met at least one toddler, you might already be familiar with this sackcloth-and-ash approach to following directions they don’t particularly enjoy receiving. A hurricane force meltdown occurs, all while you recall the last time a tiny version of yourself yelled at you because you refused to let him or her sit in a pile of his or her own excrement under your favorite lamp. Speaking of which, do you know what’s funnier than being mercilessly yelled at for attempting to remedy a scorching case of self-inflicted diaper rash? Watching an adult version of yourself attempt to reason with a tiny version of yourself who is rather content to live the rest of his life with a trouser-full of whatever it is in your living room that currently smells like grocery store trash…generally speaking. It’s hilarious, once you get the smell out of the carpet.
However, do you know what’s even funnier? Watching people in their 40s and 50s attempt to convince other people in their 40s and 50s that there is a preferred style of “worship music” that our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ finds most amenable to his Sunday morning experience. And by “worship music” please feel free to insert: “new sanctuary carpet” or “new building plan” or “new annual budget” or “new ply of toilet paper throughout all church bathrooms.” (This one is depressingly true.) It’s hilarious, after the fact, when your mortgage isn’t dependent upon the outcome.
What I’m saying is that people arguing with one another in church buildings about things none of us know for sure is eerily similar to people arguing with their children about screen time at the grocery store, in that, rationality, creativity, and intelligence are almost never invited to the bargaining table.
In his book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, UVA psychologist and researcher Jonathan Haidt compares the power of our dis-regulating emotionality during a particularly tense argument to that of a 6-ton elephant, and the power of our higher level rational thought to that of a 150 lb. human riding atop the 6-ton elephant.
Meaning that when our emotions are under control, we can typically direct the movements of the elephant to accomplish tasks we would never be able to on our own. But if and when the elephant encounters a mouse or a tube of toothpaste squeezed from the middle instead of the end of the tube, YOU BETTER HOLD ON CAUSE PAPA BEAR IS GOING TO LOSE HIS TEMPER AND SHAME EAT ONE DOZEN ORIGINAL GLAZED KRISPY KREME DONUTS IN HIS CAR UNTIL HE FEELS BETTER…generally speaking, all the elephants I know love carbs.
As a psychotherapist trained in a school of thought known as “family systems,” my approach to working with one person exhibiting a dysfunctional pattern of behavior is to explore the network of relationships comprising the totality of this one person’s experience — because humans never learn who they are as individuals in a vacuum, but as participants in a generational, geographic, institutional, religious, and sociological approach to being human. It isn’t just the gills and the fins that make you a fish; it’s also the water.
A primary belief of this approach to understanding the complexity of humanity is the idea that dysfunctional patterns of behavior that are true of one person within a couple or family, are typically true of an entire institutional framework, as if that institution itself was but one person exhibiting profound dysfunction in a multitude of directions and personalities. “The Family,” in this example, is the client, rather than a short-hand description for a loosely connected group of individuals with the same last name who all have their own preferred dysfunctions. Which is probably why you’ve noticed, without maybe being able to articulate exactly why, some rooms, and buildings, and schools, and houses, and churches can feel incredibly anxious, and toxic, and like all the air has been sucked out of them.
Spaces — like brick and mortar kinds of spaces — can actually be conduits of the emotionally dis-regulating fear and pain of the people who gather in them. So when people say that “church” harmed them, or shamed them, or rejected them, or lied to them, I don’t correct their experience smugly with the reminder that: “No, people hurt you. Church is just an institution or a faceless ordering entity, because institutions become the incarnation and manifestation of the lives, souls, hearts, fears, and baggage of the humans within them, humans whom the Apostle Paul once called the eyeballs and toenails of ‘the Church.’”
When I come across resources for “fixing” Church, or “healing” Church, or “saving” Church that focus on data points, and statistical analysis, and sociological info gleaned from cold calling Millennials on their preferences for Christian cover bands before noon on the weekends, I typically delete those emails. Not because they aren’t well-intentioned or full of earnest ideas fueled by reading too many blogs on Twitter, but because they ignore the fact that when bodies (both collective and individual) are emotionally dis-regulated — which I think we can all agree that Church in America is a bit emotionally dis-regulated about its place in the world — higher level thought turns off.
The elephant has seen a mouse, and now we’re all just holding on for dear life.
As the budget dwindles, and the congregation dwindles, and the influence dwindles, and the professional staff dwindles, and the spirit dwindles, and when faced with red lines in every direction, churches (in my experience) haven’t typically produced their most creative, intelligent, and insightful work. They usually just argue about “the young people” and “worship music” and how the next CEO can right the ship because he (It’s always a he isn’t it?) practices the 5 Habits of Highly Successful People.
However, when a pastor is able to non-anxiously empathize with “church,” with its pain and its confusion and the fact that it used to have more money in the bank but now seems like it’s going to outlive its savings, we’re able to start getting a better handle on what the moment before us actually requires, which, for the record, is almost never an “alternative” worship service or more synergy. That answer usually comes from a place of pain, which is why you’ve heard it brought up at least once every five years whenever your institution’s budget comes up short. If we can, together, push through the pain and the fear and the anxiety stemming from the very real problems besieging our institutions and our world, we might find that our creativity and intelligence and insight starts flickering to life like the lights on the dash of my old Civic when she finally turns over on a cold February morning.
An example of this was when a historic Baptist congregation in North Carolina, instead of institutionally buying a corvette and marrying someone half her age, decided to donate a rather chest-pain-inducing-portion of their budget for the creation of a homeless shelter for LGBTQ adolescents (even though those adolescents are probably not likely to become tithing deacons anytime soon). This move didn’t “fix” their church, but it did give everyone who gathers within her walls a different sense of why they’re there and what they can do together for their community when they stop panicking about who isn’t showing up for group singing and a lecture on Sundays.
Another example of this was when a dwindling, aged, majority Caucasian congregation on the West Coast decided to join forces with a fledgling multi-ethnic church plant, because “we had the building and they had the spirit.” They recently moved, as one church, into the hallowed out carcass of a once mighty megachurch in their city, not by being a poor facsimile of the (now defunct) megachurch, but by being its opposite.
A final example of this was when a traditional church in your town decided that they were missing out on all the young families in their community, so they desperately started a “contemporary” worship service before “Sunday School” at 9:00am, had parishioners put signs in their yards, stickers on their minivans, and links to the revamped church website on their Facebook feeds. Rather quickly, the sanctuary was filled, everyone stopped arguing about the pastor’s sermons, and the TOWN WAS SAVED!
Just kidding, that almost never works.
In my experience as a churchgoer, a pastor, and now a psychotherapist to both churchgoers and pastors, sometimes the best thing we can do for one another, whether we’re 3 or 83, is — whenever one of us is rolling around on the floor screaming through the delivery of information they never wanted to hear —for all the non-anxious someones (occasionally there’s only one of you) to bend down, sometimes on both knees, get eye-to-eye, and say that you’re sorry, that you know this is hard, and that even though it seems impossible right now, we aren’t going to make anyone go through this alone. But we will go through it, even if there are more tears.
You do this, even when they’re yelling at you about a diaper rash they caused and now refuse to let you remedy. You do this, even when they threaten to leave, and stop paying your salary, and blame you for their family’s lack of spiritual maturity, and send you punctuation-less emails in the middle of the night.
You do this, because somewhere inside of you, like maybe at the bottom, you know that being a pastor (and a parent) isn’t about the lapel mic, and the board meetings, and the weddings, and the standing ovations, and the graduation slideshows, and the Subaru commercials we all imagine our lives to look like. But it’s actually about sitting with the thing you love the most, and unflinchingly, non-anxiously willing it to love itself enough to let you wipe the excrement off of it. (Succinctly, you do this work because you signed up for it, and if you didn’t, then please use this as whatever sign you needed to finally start selling life insurance.)
Arguably, at no other point in our lives than when we’re emphatically staring down a hurricane force meltdown by something we inexplicably love on a cellular level can we know more about what it means when the scriptures remind us that God isn’t an unflappable CEO, but is our Parent and our Partner and our Priest and our Prophet and our Spirit and our Soul and our Strength and our Savior and our Friend and the one thing that refuses to give up on us, even when we’ve soiled ourselves yet again.
God leads with empathy, God follows with solidarity, and God finishes with collective action, and when we do too, we might be surprised at what comes “out of the mouths of babes,” as the Bible once famously put it.