The Death of CongregationS
Both Bowen's Family Systems Theory and Jesus in the above Bible passage tell us that triangles in relationships are less than helpful. They are normal human behavior and none of us can avoid them all of the time. However, there is a more helpful way that we can learn. "People are saying" and lack of direct communication is the death of congregations. Not owning your own feelings as a member of your congregation is often normal, but also causes triangles. Let me give you the nitty gritty of HOW to do this, and then below explain WHY it matters so much.
Training for CONGREGATIONS
Especially for those in leadership and church councils, but applies to everyone. This is a scenario where someone comes to the church council with a complaint about the Pastor that is not in the exception category. You can apply this to several other situations. This is a training I often do with church councils.
Steps in Direct Communication
As a Pastor, I sometimes fall into the triangle trap. I hope that if you catch me complaining about someone else to you, past getting advice for dealing with the situation that I'll take back to the person, you'll tell me to stop. I hope you'll hold me accountable for not causing triangles, too. It'll be healthier and more Biblical for all of us.
What Are Triangles?
A relationship triangle is when we offload stress, or in family system's language, anxiety. We offload this stress between us and another person by involving a third person. For example, if I'm mad at my spouse, instead of telling my spouse, I might complain about my spouse to my child. I've taken the stress between my spouse and I, and turned it into a triangle involving our child. Often, our child will then yell at his other parent. The stress between me and my spouse has now gone through our child. I hope it is obvious that this isn't healthy for anyone in my household, and that it would have been better for me to talk to my spouse directly. (Ok, let's be real, "talk" might be code for "fight" or "yell". I'm human, ya'll.) In our household situation, it increases my child's stress to be put in the middle, which causes my child to act out, which then increases the stress of everyone. So much stress and behavior could have been prevented if I'd talk directly to my spouse. In the short term, it might seem easier to triangle our child into our relationship, but in the long term, that just makes our house a less pleasant place to live. Direct communication is good for families, churches, friendship groups, sports teams, clubs, or civic organizations. By using triangles -- complaining about something to the people who have no power to change it in hopes THEY'LL take it back to the person you're upset with, only spreads stress and anxiety through a group. Jesus invites us to a different way, especially in congregations.
We create triangles in congregations, too, often, and especially, when it involves the Pastor or leaders. If we have stress with our Pastor, or with our church council leaders, we often complain to everyone EXCEPT the person who can do something about the complaint. Don't like something Pastor said in her sermon? Instead of calling her directly, talk to several others to offload your stress in your relationship with your Pastor. If you can remember the game of telephone, you might be able to notice how this could go badly. Several times when I've realized someone was mad at me through someone else, and I went directly to the person who was mad, it turned out they were mad about something I never said, only what they THOUGHT they heard. The stress could have been so much lower if only they'd come directly to me so I could clarify what I said. By spreading the stress, more people were worried about what they thought I said. It wasn't a healthy move for the congregation, or for my relationship with the person who was most upset.
This is why anonymous complaints in congregations are not healthy. They only spread stress and anxiety. If the complaint is anonymous, there's no telling if the Person is complaining about something that actually happened or was said, or if they were complaining about what they THOUGHT they heard. One time, I had a person come into my office, after several others pushed her to do so, to complain about my sermon on Job. She was clearly complaining about someone else's sermon, as I had a manuscript and audio recording showing that I never said any of the things she was upset about. What she needed was for me, her Pastor, to listen to her, and to help her think through some spiritual and theological issues. By finally coming directly to me, we were able to get at the root of the problem. We had a much better relationship after that.
In other cases, people have come to me, after being reassured that I'd listen to them, with things I did need to apologize for. Sometimes, I, a human Pastor, say things I shouldn't, or act in ways that are not contextual for the community I'm with. I can only apologize if the person is coming directly to me. In other cases, I've been able to explain my position, and we've left the conversation on much better terms, even if we've agreed to have different ideas.
Anonymous complains do not allow for following up, building up relationships, or clarifying miscommunications.
Very Rare Exceptions
Ethics or boundary violations are exceptions. Those should go straight to the executive committee or top leadership. A person should never have to meet with someone who has sexually harassed them, done racial violence to them, or abused them in some way. If someone has been harassed by the Pastor, the executive committee should meet with the Pastor as a group. In these situations, there should always be witnesses from the beginning, and a protection plan put in place. Reach out to your synod and research how to become a Consent Culture Congregation in these situations.
More on Step 5
I think of being a church community like taking turns. We don't have to have conformity. So, for example, if current events in sermons are not your thing, perhaps you'll get more out of the sermons without current events. That might work better for you, and less well for others. Part of being in a community and being in relationship is taking turns, so I try to balance current event sermons with more spiritual ones, since the Jesus I read about in the Bible clearly cared about both, and my goal is to model Jesus as best as I can.
This is also true for more emotional sermons, interactive sermons, intellectual sermons, or sermons with sports references. Or even activities around church. Maybe some of us prefer meditations and silence, and others prefer discussion, and others prefer more active running around. Part of being community is making sure that we're all moving in the same direction toward our goal of sharing the Gospel of Jesus and responding to the invitation of Jesus to deepen our discipleship. When we are committed to our goal of being church, taking turns and letting go of centering our personal preferences becomes easier. Yes, your church community should encourage your spiritual needs and growth and bring you closer to Jesus. Remember that getting closer to Jesus is not the same as having everything the way you want it all the time. We take turns in community so that all are welcome in the Body of Christ.
Pastor Jess is all about sharing the life-saving love of Jesus with the world. How she does it is up to the Holy Spirit.
This work is licensed by Rev. Jessica A. Harren under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
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