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Can we talk about church like it is a machine?


When a congregation or a church runs into difficulty, we usually collectively long for someone to give a quick assessment and then offer the "quick fix" solution so we can get back to "normal." Just like a mechanic might diagnose our vehicle and fix it. We also prefer the person giving the diagnosis to be actually knowledgeable, not just opinionated.

Tongue-in-cheek side note: I have huge skepticism about so-called Experts. An "Expert" in my experience, is often a person who formerly --"Ex" was pertinent--"pert." For example, a pastor who succeeds in growing a large church, writes a book about it, and then becomes an expert on growing churches... even though every year that he does that he is no longer growing a church.

The problems with the belief in the possibility of a quick diagnosis for one's church and then prescription for a cure are many. Here are two of the bigger ones:

  • First, there is the fact that it reflects a secular cultural value expecting instant gratification and instant relief from problems and struggles. That is not a value reflected as proper reality or expectation in scripture.
  • Second, it tends to view the church as a machine that needs a technician to identify the fault and then replace a part or reset the tuning.

This second is the one I need to write about. Think about how often we use language that describes church problems using machine-related language, as in: "squeaky wheel," "tune-up," "fix," "greasing the wheels," "tweak," "Jump-start" and so on. A machine is a collection of parts designed to work together, each part having specific functions, and most of them not having decision-making capability, values, memory/history, or feelings. If a machine part is not working right, a technician can replace it and we are off to the races.

A congregation, or church, is not a machine. It is a living organism. Yes, it too is made up of many parts, parts that at best work well together -- sort of like a machine -- but each part has its own decision making capability, its own values by which it makes choices, its own memory/history and its own feelings. This makes a church and its parts vastly more complex than a machine.

If a "part" is not functioning well in a church, there are likely very complex reasons for that. These reasons may not be healthy things, but they are there. For example if a person feels powerless for some reason, and believes deep within themselves without conscious thought that they regain power by arriving late for everything -- thereby drawing empowering-feeling attention to themselves -- that is a malfunctioning part with an inner cause behind what looks like defiant or lazy behaviour to most of the others in the event.

For another example, going back to the guy that threw a tantrum in a council meeting back when they smoked in the meetings, he may have been living in deep real fear of God's wrath on him and the rest of us for not taking God's KJV seriously. Even though his outburst was delivered in a very immature way, the issue he was trying to communicate was truly dead serious for him. Yet he was showing himself to be a malfunctioning part of the whole.

The mechanical view wants to just swap out the malfunctioning part for a new one. In fact there can be a "good riddance" belief if a malfunctioning part leaves a particular church. That is mistaken, partly because the whole made it possible for the malfunctioning part to be there in the first place.

The organism view -- which sees each living thing as part of a connected system --combined with a Christian view, asks how it can restore the malfunctioning part to healthy function within the body, thereby making the whole body stronger and healthier as well. Sometimes the restoring happens best by the rest of the body changing first!

This is why, in my work among you as STM, I do my best to avoid jumping on board in pointing out the malfunctioning parts, and saying tsk tsk tsk, and instead I am constantly asking: "What in the whole made room for the malfunctioning part in the first place?"

And that is where I also try to remember to hold up mirrors. Because a living organism can be pretty good at restoring itself once it sees the problem as something residing in the whole, and not just in seemingly malfunctioning parts. 

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RI and churches held "hostage"


In last week's post I gave an example of emotional immaturity in an adult leader, which I experienced when I first became a Deacon. There are many more examples that could be given, but I'm hoping you each thought of your own as you read that post.

When you combine emotionally and relationally immature behaviours like those with a church context that believes we are to be "nice" to everyone, it gives those emotionally unhealthy people tremendous influence, and robs them of an opportunity to grow, and grow up.

I'm struggling to find an example that is far enough from reality yet will illustrate this well. Some churches have had struggles over the oddest things. I choose to continue with the example of the man who was convinced the KJV of the Bible was THE Bible everyone in the church should be trusting as God's true word. In reality the presenting issue could be anything from carpet colour to stained glass (or not) to bulletin format, to wine or grape juice (or pizza and beer for communion), and so on.

So the man very publicly in a council meeting has made it known that he believes this, and that he also believes that he can't trust the rest of us on council if we don't use the same Bible. (Here I will move to fiction) He prints off an article about the failings of the NIV and the correctness of the KJV and without asking permission, puts it in everyone's mailbox and has one of his children email it to everyone as well. He then asks for it to be discussed at council, with the pastor being called on to justify moving away from the KJV. The pastor writes an explanation of why it is a good thing to move away from the KJV, and it is discussed in a council meeting. The man remains adamant. His response makes clear he has not listened to the careful explanation at all, and is fearful of God's wrath if we no longer use that translation and its kind of language. He is not able to make careful reasonable explanation for why it should be the main translation we all use, except for pointing to that fear (which legitimately does terrify him within his own way of seeing things, giving urgency to his arguing, because he believes in arguing this he is saving the church).

The "kindness approach" or "the Christian thing to do" approach, if that is the culture of his congregation, will then keep using the KJV in public worship and meetings he is part of. In choosing that response to his lack of maturity, the whole is being paralyzed and held back. The spiritual growth of others in the congregation might be held back, because the Bible they hear in church is so hard to comprehend. That is what I mean by "held hostage."

Because of the man's clear lack of emotional maturity, the better approach, the harder one, is to start a conversation about that seeming (we could be mistaken) lack of maturity. The manipulativeness of his approach needs to be called on the carpet, and the fact that it is manipulative and fear-driven exposed. Privately, and maybe later publicly, if he does not change, he should be challenged on those aspects. With an emotionally immature person, continuing to argue the issue they present will be futile. But mirroring back to them how the behaviour of a tantrum in a council meeting is not unlike a child's tantrum in the grocery store might break through. Only people who have good relational intelligence can have this conversation with the person. Getting them talking about the fear behind it all, and the view they might have of God that creates the fear, might be productive. If no progress is made, then a conversation should be had about the lack of emotional maturity, and the lack of acknowledging how problematic it is, as something raising questions about the person's qualification to be in leadership.

This is, as I said, the harder approach. But it is leadership. It is actually also church discipling, or discipline. Allowing the negative behaviour to rule the day is not leadership, but it is easier.

I know that I have imagined a example situation that may have generated some objections. Comment about them below for us all, or send me an email and I can respond in a future post.

So I'll finish by stating that I am not throwing out making concessions on some questions. What I'm trying to point out is that this kind of immaturity needs to be challenged for what it is. 

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More on Relational Intelligence

In a previous post, I introduced the notion of Relational Intelligence as an essential element in being a balanced human being. It is different than IQ, and mainly consists of Emotional Intelligence though there is more to it than that. The "more" is a kind of wisdom built on self-understanding, life-knowledge, people knowledge and, in Christians, faith in God working things out.

In this post I want to give a specific example of Emotional Immaturity in adult leadership in the church, so you have a clearer picture. We all tend to know what emotional immaturity in children looks like, but don't often recognize it in adults.

Example: I was a newly minted Deacon, attending my first ever council meetings of 24 to 27 men around a table, several smoking cigarettes and one guy had Dutch cigars. So you got an ashtray with your agenda. My first few council meetings were a matter of taking it all in and watching to learn how things worked. A few other stories -- such as one about how well some people were manipulating Roberts Rules of Order to emotionally sway what was supposed to be rational decision making -- come out of those first few meetings. Well, in about my third meeting (where whether to disallow smoking was an agenda item, which passed, leading to two break times for the next few meetings!) we were talking about some matter or another when suddenly one man stood up, slammed his Bible on the table and ranted (I won't try duplicate the accents)

"If this is not the true word of God for all of you here then I can't be here with you"

Unnamed Elder stormed out of council meeting and stormed out. We were all stunned. He was off agenda, for one. But it was pretty extreme behaviour for another. For a moment I felt the personal insult of it, and then realized I knew nothing of what he was upset about. We were talking about something else, so this was out of the blue beyond the blue haze in the room. For me, a few seconds later, his leaving was ok, so though I was surprised at his behaviour, I was not upset that he was gone. He had proven difficult in a few previous meetings, so I was thinking "Good riddance!"

But I was shocked that with a few glances and nods between some of the men someone went after the guy, settled him down, and brought him back in -- with no apparent reprimand or even comment on his tantrum being inappropriate! I vaguely remember that maybe the chair said that issue was not on the agenda, but my memory is not clear on that. I later saw that the Bible he slammed on the table was a KJV edition. He was one of the people who believed that the KJV had been given us directly by God himself and that other translations were "of the Devil."

This man's behaviour was extremely immature, and I can say in hindsight, revealed a very low emotional intelligence and low ability to manage or properly express his own anxiety. In his own mind, anyone who used another translation of the Bible was disobeying God, but he had no calm or rational way of communicating that, and instead did the "if you all don't conform to what I believe, then I can't stay with you" manipulation move.

The same end result can be accomplished with a calm explanation and an expression that it has now become too difficult to remain in a body that he believes is straying from God-ordained ways. That would be a more emotionally intelligent (and respectable) way to do it.

That is a prime example of low EI in an adult who was respectable enough to make it onto a church council in those days.

Anytime an adult makes those kinds of low EI rash challenges and starts threatening to leave for this or that reason, without being able to be calm and reasonable, without being able to self regulate, that is a time when leadership needs to double down on their own RI and recognize what is happening.

I have done it once in my ministry (before being an STM) where when someone started talking that way in a council meeting, I got up, walked to the door, and opened it, inviting the man out. Fortunately, that crazy impulse led to the man "waking up" to what he was doing, and apologizing for his threats to leave.

This is an approach or understanding of mine that it is important for a church I'm in to understand. As an STM, it is not my place to necessarily get up and open the door that way for someone making anxious threats, but is is my responsibility to help any church I'm in to understand how such folks can hold a church hostage. My next planned post will talk about that some more.

You can also click this link to view this post on the actual blog page.


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