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Flourishing Update - December 4, 2019

Current Musings

Collaboration seems to be emerging as one of several current buzz words/concepts that is gaining currency. I am seeing this more and more within the ecclesiological arena as much, if not even more than in the corporate world. There appear to be some encouraging, albeit gradual shifts from a rigid competitive or dogmatic spirit to one that demonstrates a more cooperative willingness to engage with others outside one’s tradition. That is not to say there are not any residual evidences of territorial mindsets among churches and their leaders, but Berlin-like walls that have histories that are centuries deep, mercifully are starting to crumble, at least in certain sectors.

I am not suggesting that traditional distinctives and convictions should be ignored or purged altogether, since I believe that such elements can serve useful purposes. Because of the variegated demographics of the Canadian culture-scape, it is impossible for any one church, parish, denomination or religious society to connect with and meet the needs of all people. Quite impossible! The challenge for us all too often is that we allow such differences or diversity to dominate in our thinking and our conversations (or lack thereof!). The result typically is a silo mindset in which the container in which the Gospel of Christ is presented becomes more important that the content of the Gospel.

Leonard Sweet suggests that in an ever-changing postmodern climate “Every leader needs to create his or her own map. But no leader dare create a map in isolation. Leaders learn from other explorers about their maps.” In other words, collaboration, wherever possible, is much more likely to enhance the possibility of flourishing than isolation for any congregation or parish.


Tasks of Great Leadership: Responding to Stress

Rev. Tim Keener is Director, Leadership Centre, at The Presbyterian College, Montreal

Health is Membership to a Whole

Henri Nouwen observed a simple movement in Luke 6:12-19. Jesus went from solitude to community to ministry[1]. He spent the night in prayer, sought out disciples to join him in the morning, and in the afternoon, he went out with his disciples to preach the Word and heal the sick.

Congregational leaders follow these same disciplines: being alone with God, joining Christians in community, and moving into mission and calling together. But, when we move from individual to community, we are no longer just individuals, we are a part of a whole. This includes emotional responses, relationships, and even power and anxiety, between individuals.

In his essay, “Health is Membership,” Wendell Berry writes, “I believe that the community—In the fullest sense: a place and all its creatures—Is the smallest unit of health and that to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms.”[2] In the context of congregational ministry, we are often only as healthy as our most vulnerable members and we are only a healthy body when we are healthy together.

Although coming together brings our anxieties out into the open, it is important to note that coming together is not our problem—it is our solution. Margaret Wheatley, in her book, Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future, put it this way:

Everything in the universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else. Nothing exists in isolation. We have to stop pretending we are individuals who can go it alone. We humans want to be together. We only isolate ourselves when we’re hurt by others, but alone is not our natural state. [3]

Promoting the emotional health of the system is in fact a high calling of congregational leaders, it means we are answering the call to bringing individuals into community and on mission with Jesus.

Responding to Anxiety

Anxiety is triggered in the congregational system when any threat is present. Threats can come in the forms of: relational conflict, change and transition, financial challenges, or sex and sexuality issues. Stress is the bi-product of the presence of a threat in the organism. This is often a self-protecting instinct. [4]

A healthy congregational emotional system has adequate resources to respond to threats, bringing an appropriate response to the hostility in the environment. This, according to Edwin Freidman, requires self-differentiated leadership—the ability to, “handle the natural tension between individuality and togetherness, their ability to maintain their identity during crisis, and their capacity to produce well-differentiated leadership.” [5]

This requires a tolerance for discomfort that many leaders may not be used to. Self-differentiation is a mark of emotional and spiritual maturity however. It allows leaders to avoid the extremes of either ‘emotional fusion’ (an unhealthy togetherness with the anxious) or ‘emotional cutoff’ (separation from the anxious). [6]

In the groundbreaking work Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf describes differentiation as, “the creative activity of ‘separating and binding’ that results in patterns of interdependence.”[7] Healthy differentiation is an ability to help individual members develop responsibility for themselves while remaining accountability to the group as well. In the book Leadership on the Line, this is described as externalizing problems, i.e. not absorbing responsibility of problems of others and helping the ‘people with the problem’ become the ‘people with the solution.’ [8]

Knowing how to refocus members on appropriate solutions requires discernment. Steinke points out that the leadership response changes according to the type of anxiety that the congregation is facing. Leaders provide calm when there is crisis. They bring focus when there is bewilderment. They challenge when there is stagnancy. Finally, they help members process change when they are faced with new and challenging situations.

Responding appropriately requires reflection and not simply reaction. As author Tod Bolsinger put it, “don’t just do something, stand there… then do something.”[9] This requires what Heifetz and Linsky call, “getting on the balcony,” or, getting an objective perspective of your situation that allows the necessary observation and interpretation.[10] In short, it is reflecting rather than reacting. This means congregational leaders must spend time working “on their ministry” and not only “in their ministry.”

Congregational specialists Pete Steinke, summarizes:

The leaders capacity to be in conscious control over (to respond to) automatic functioning (reaction) affects the well-being of the whole community… Rather than reacting to the reactivity of others, leaders with self-composure and self-awareness both exhibit and elicit a more thoughtful response.[11]

This is this first critical task of healthy leadership: responding to stress and promoting the emotional health of the congregational system.


[1] Henri Nouwen, “Moving from solitude to community to ministry: Jesus established the true order for spiritual work,” Leadership Journal, Vol. XVI, no 2 (Spring 1995): 81-87. [2] Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2002) 146. [3] Margaret Wheatley. Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future (San Francisco: CA, Berrett- Koehler Publishers, 2002) 23.

[4] Edwin Freidman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985), 63.

[5] Friedman, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), 56.

[6] Brian D. Majerus and Steven J. Sandage, “Differentiation of Self and Christian Spiritual Maturity: Social Science and Theological Integration.” Journal of Psychology and Theology, 38 (2010), 41-42.

[7] Miroslav Volf. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 65.

[8] Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky. Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (Boston: Harvard Business Review Press, 2002) 127.

[9] Canoeing the Mountains, 108.

[10] Leadership on the Line, 51.

[11] Peter L Steinke. Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), 1.


What We're Reading…

Aqua Church

Leonard Sweet

Written on the front edge of the plethora of books that were published during the ‘80’s and 90’s responding to the growing influence of postmodernity, Leonard Sweet’s book Aqua church presents a series of leadership skills necessary for the church in such a culture. Though written in an American context two decades ago, there is much in his offerings from which we in our Canadian, twenty-first century context can benefit. Using nautical imagery, he reminds us that strategies once designed for more static contexts and challenges will likely prove less than effective in an ever-changing fluid culture of our age.


Upcoming Opportunities

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