Ronald W. Richardson helps us to understand how congregations function emotionally. Without being simplistic, he gives clear directions on how to improve the quality of life together in the church for the purpose of achieving mission goals.
An insightful understanding of interpersonal dynamics, this writing affords an insightful look at relations in the church. Using as a point of reference, the author describes two churches that meet a situation within the church from two opposite positions. Using the Family Systems Theory as a basis for the writing, Richardson tells that the dynamics of relationship, "specifically in the church, are based in cultural, structural communication, decision, and economic systems. These systems are fairly easy to change if necessary. The system most difficult to change is the emotional system." (p.29)
Using the model of a mobile, he speaks of the delicate balance with which it hangs. There will always be times of imbalance in the churches emotional system. "What is important is how these times of imbalance turn out. The out come as to whether they are positive or negative depends upon the action and reaction of the church leadership as well as the lay leadership." (p.30). Differences in these emotional systems are more difficult to address as persons begin to personalize the issues. "The skill for learning how to deal with these systems is the ability to be a good observer. Stepping outside of what we feel is happening and being able to see what is actually taking place."(p.31)
Anxiety can bring unbalance to the system. This is intensified in proportion to sense of threat that persons feel within a given situation. When there is the sense of not having control, the feeling that one does not know what is going on, there is a higher sense of anxiety. As the leadership is able step outside of the subjective to the objective side of the situation, they will be able to bring a sense of calm to people around them. Anxiety spreads from one person to another. It is the place of the leadership to as much as possible minimize levels of anxiety and create the sense that church is a safe place.
Apparent differences in people bring differences in the way that they relate to each other. To this the author tells that individuals have their own comfort zones. Abandonment and Engulfment are two terms used for the opposite ends of the spectrum of these comfort zones. As persons move up and down this continuum toward or away from the other person, there will be acceptance or rejection. Differences in others are met with patterns of reactivity. There is the pressure for sameness. Richardson in one of the four patterns of reactivity identifies this: compliance, rebellion, power struggle and emotional distancing.
In addition to ways that people act and react to situations, because of their own comfort zones, the author also identifies the triangles in relationships that can happen as a result of these differences which are allowed to because threats. "It is difficult for any two persons to maintain a one to one relationship for any period of time." (p.115) When one person has an issue with another, and first person seeks support against the opposing person a triangle is formed. "Generally triangles serve two purposes: (1) absorbing anxiety, and (2) covering the basic differences and conflicts of emotional systems." (p.116). "Whenever one takes a side in the triangle, regardless of how righteous the reason, they become part of the problem."(p.123). It is necessary to notice warning signs which could help to identify these possible triangles; "The best clue is our own sense of confusion. When you find yourself in situations that do not seem to add up, there is an issue that is missing. Another warning sign is when someone talks to you in a negative way about someone else in the church and you have not particular need to know."(p. 119)
Richardson's approach to those things that bring balance and imbalance deal with structure, systems, leadership styles and personal comfort zones. The terms used for the explanations of moving in and out of these different systems seemed to be a bit redundant. The strength of his writing however was his identifying and defining of the personalities involved in the given setting.
Richardson does a fabulous job of applying Bowen's theory (family systems theory) to church congregations. He illustrates the differences between two congregations dealing with similar problems. In 1986, Richardson offered courses for clergy based on the Family Systems Theory (FST) after clergy reported how his application of FST was revolutionizing how they dealt and thought about problems within their own congregations. Yet, the most notable change that they reported was "their own role in relation to these problems" (22).
Richardson clearly states that his book is not about the one and only correct way for leaders to lead. Instead, he suggests that his book can be a tool to assist clergy in thinking about their function within their churches and how they relate to others. Leadership is any kind of decision-making position or role and therefore, FST is not just for the top clergy or leaders (20).
The questions Richardson addresses are:
1) What is happening when a church gets into difficulties and the leadership seems to be making things worse rather than helping resolve the problem?
2) How can we explains things going well at one church where leaders are able to avoid the emotional outbursts and turmoil that is common in another church?
3) What in our human nature including our strengths and liabilities, and in the way we organize ourselves in groups make things go well or poorly as we deal with difficult situations?
Richardson addresses these questions and offers the reader the following resources. First, he provides a theory about human behavior that will enable the reader to understand how situations can get out of control in the faith community, resulting in emotional outbursts and turmoil. Second, he offers a practical set of leadership ideas, guidelines and behaviors as a plan to prevent situations from becoming negative and instead turn out positive. Thirdly, he provides guidelines for how to behave in the midst of upsetting and conflictual circumstances. And, lastly, he gives personal steps so that the leader can become more positive and cooperative in assisting healing and developing a healthier faith community (20).
Richardson has framed the book specifically either for personal study or for group discussions. He has incorporated thought provoking questions at the end of each chapter, in order to guide the readers into an in-depth examination of themselves and their congregations.
Richardson identifies two unspoken theories of human behavior: the individual model and the systems model. In the individual model people have little sense of their interconnectedness, or of how their own behavior affects that of others. In the systems model, there is "a recognition of the connection between people. Where no one lives or acts in isolation, and we are all affected by each other's behaviors" (25).
One key to "functioning in a healthy manner as a church is for the leaders to look at the church as a system rather than as a collection of isolated people"(26). Thinking systemically is very difficult, because we are taught to think linearly, and systemic thinking is more circular. Richardson uses the illustration of delicately balanced mobiles to prove his point. "Any movement by any part of the mobile, toward or away from the center of gravity, affects the balance of the whole mobile. This is most true of the parts closet to the tope of the mobile (the leadership), and only somewhat less true of the parts closer to the bottom" (30).
While each part of the mobile is an individual component, it is still connected to the mobile as a whole. Richardson sees this as a metaphor for the two deep and basic life forces: individuality and togetherness. Although, these forces are at the core of our emotional system, they are not at the opposite ends of the continuum. Instead, they coexist within us, each having it is own level of intensity at different times. The togetherness is the force that drives us to want to be connected to and affiliated with others; whereas, the individual force impels us to become our own person, to become emotionally independent, and to act in ways that make sense to us.
What unbalances systems? Anxiety. Richardson says anxiety is different from panic attacks. Anxiety is threats of the unknown.
Anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling. Anxiety is less tangible and more amorphous than fear. And just like individuals, churches experience different levels of anxiety. Therefore, anxiety, collectively and individually, is a powerful force for the church and leadership to understand and deal with. Therefore, the task for church leaders is to slow down the process before it gets out of hand. Effective leaders help people minimize their levels of anxiety so they can accomplish their goals. Leaders do this by managing their own anxiety by simply bringing their own calmness to the situation.
I highly recommend this book for anyone in a position of leadership, for it is an excellent resource.