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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Ask The Matriarch: boil, boil, toil and trouble?

First call pastor has strategy questions about how to deal with potential issues.
I am in my first few months of my first call and I am finding that there quite a few major issues brewing. I could be worrying about stuff that will never happen, but then again... Many of the church issues have a family systems component on the side because my church is dominated by a few families. In fact the newer (grandparents not from here) people call the established families the blue bloods. I find myself wondering frequently how to best address or not address some of these issues. Is it better for me to try to address something in my timing in order to try to frame the question/potential conflict before it erupts or better to wait and see what actually happens? How do you handle problems that would arise in any church but further complicated by family dynamics?

Jan responds:
It might be helpful to have regular free-wheeling discussions - as part of the whole "I'm trying to get to know you" piece as their new pastor - with a question to open meetings (e.g. elders' meeting, etc.) These come to mind:
- What would you say are the sacred cows of our church?
- Who or what are the pillars of our congregation?
- What is the one thing people never talk about?
- What could we not live without in this community?

Your job woud be to ask more questions in hopes to unpeeling the layers of assumptions, etc. Your job would be to call them on how real their answers are:
Q: What could we not live without in this community?
A: The Bible.
Q: Really? If we didn't have the green memorial Bibles in the pews, we couldn't carry on?
etc. etc. etc.

Blessing to you. Sounds like you might be called to be a prophet. It will be more interesting (and dangerous) than being a chaplain.

Rector in Hawai'i steps back a bit from issues to view the overall health of congregation:
I don't know how big this parish is but as a new pastor I wouldn't spend a lot of time looking for problems. As a new pastor, the job is to get to know parishioners on a personal basis -- both the bluebloods and the newbies. Read far back in vestry minutes and the parish newsletter to see if you can learn anything about the internal dynamics of the parish. Look at the church registers; examine the pattern of membership and attendance figures. Bring in a matriarch or two and ask them to tell me parish myths and to educate me about skeletons in the closets. Not because I was nosy but because those things affect a parish on an informal, social level. The pastor needs to know those things to have a better context for addressing whatever issues evolve. Identify the matriarchs and patriarchs as well as potential archs-in-training. Have coffee with some of the newbies. At our church, we've just decided to set aside two vestry seats (out of four available) for new people (with us for less than 18 months). New voices, better integration of new members, and a dispelling of the comment, "They haven't been here long enough to run for vestry."

If this parish hasn't done some intentional reflection on its history, this would be a good time.

Long time rector writes:
I would love to be better at family systems. I think I know enough to diagnose the problem - but never feel qualified to actually address it confidently! That being said, I generally do two things in terms of systems work. One is about laying the groundwork in advance and the other is about responding to issues (that sometimes surprise me) as they arise.

On the groundwork side - I often try to see where potential conflict might arise - usually around some change that people are considering. Then I try to process in advance - including as many voices as possible - considering what the "best" solutions might be. When I do this, I have to be pretty open to not getting my way, or pushing my particular idea/agenda, but rather seeking consensus rising from the group. It has always been worth it to me to let go of being the "decider" in favor of being able to hold people accountable because they actually were the ones to make the decision.

On the response side - there are plenty of times that systems conflicts slap me up the side of the face completely by surprise. When this happens and it looks like everything is imploding - I try not to get to worked up, but rather see the occasion as a "Teachable Moment". That becomes sort of an inner mantra to me. "teachable moment, teachable moment, teachable moment" How can we shine light on what's going on right now in a way we can learn something from it? Then, regardless of the potential bad outcome that system conflict can bring - we can feel like we actually "won" because it was a learning time for all of us.

Systems theory overlaps actual family dynamics in this situation or so it seems. If you are in a small community - there are so many land mines between long term relationships and feuds as well as the added interpersonal blood family stories. As others said - listening is your best ally at this point. Advent and Christmas and Epiphany and the New Year often exacerbate issues in churches. What do you want to add to our Matriarchs' thoughts?


  1. An article that speak to this issue. How can telling the stories tend the soul of a congregation?

  2. Edwin Friedman was standard fare in my seminary pastoral care classes. The fact that you are even observing the things that you are tells me that you may be familiar with him as well. If not, Friedman's Fables could make a wonderful gift under your Christmas tree this year.

  3. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a friend right before my first call is this: "For the first year or so, become the church historian. Ferret out the myths and fables and beloved stories of the church."

    Another piece of advice that I will pass down to you--something that recently has become even more important in my ministry is this: "Pay attention when the universe thunks you on the head." Don't obsess, but maybe take notes when unusual things or things that make you go 'hmmm' happen. You may eventually notice a pattern.

    In the meantime, enjoy this first adventure in ministry!

  4. There is good wisdom here - just listening, hearing stories from several diff perspectives is helpful. Esp listen when someone starts by saying "well, it was so long ago now..." or "i guess it really doesnt matter, but..."

    Also, I dont know your comfort level with this, or their availability, but I was greatly helped in starting my first full-time call last fall by getting to know a couple former pastors. I felt blessed that there were 3-4 who were local! Usually I would bring a question or concern and then just listen. It was very illuminating.


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