For a church which has as one of its core doctrines the transition from death to life of our savior, we don’t do transitions very well. Oh, everyone “knows” that special sacramental moments such as baptisms, weddings and funerals are moments of transition. Birth, marriage, and death. What could be more basic that these three? But what do they mean?
For a priest, the bishop calls you into his office, he hands you a new appointment, you leave (happy or sad or whatever) and you have your marching orders, you announce your departure, you arrive at your new assignment. Life goes on. What is so hard about that?
My recollection, for example, is that I floated in the seminary system from high school to college to major seminary without much anxiety. It was movement toward a goal, priesthood ordination. My first appointment as a priest was a wonderful assignment, my second much less so with some significant problems, my third exhilarating, challenging and affirming.
I was not yet a pastor when Msgr. Jack McCarren introduced me to a tremendous resource, Edwin H. Friedman’s Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. Rabbi Friedman used Murray Bowen’s family systems theory to shed light on the effect of a leader on a congregation. In particular, Rabbi Friedman focused on the transitions of a pastor, bishop or rabbi, and the emotional waves sent throughout the systems.
I say “systems” because any person (religious or not) who becomes a new leader in an organization has to pay attention to the emotions of three distinct groups: 1) the personal multi-generational family system of the leader; 2) the organization itself as a system; and 3) the family system of those persons within the organization.
This idea of monitoring my emotional well-being, as well as that of those around me, was completely new. Brought up in a “left-brain” thinking system, I had little or no skill in understanding the “right brain” emotional aspect of persons, much less systems. But in my first pastorate I had lots of opportunities to test out Rabbi Friedman’s insights.
I followed a pastor who was not well regarded by the parishioners, but revered by the staff, almost all of whom he hired. I quickly found myself ying-yanged emotionally between the relief and acceptance of the people and the mistrust of the staff. Fortunately by using Bowen family system theory, I focused on my self-differentiation. That is, I didn’t take it personally when the staff stayed distant. They were still grieving the loss of a beloved leader. It didn’t matter whether it was I or Father Joe Blow who followed. I disarmed the professional staff when, after only two months, I announced that I understood that they had signed on to work with the former pastor, not me. If anyone wanted to leave the parish and seek a new place of ministry, I completely understood. I would give them a positive letter of recommendation, and hold no recrimination against them. They were flabbergasted. Yet it helped them to emotionally readjust and focus on me as their new boss. Within weeks all professional staff told me they would stay. (All were excellent ministers, and I was secretly glad they stayed and wanted to work with me.) Because I acted in an emotionally healthy manner, they too could come to their own decision and move forward.
In that same pastorate I merged two parishes and followed a charismatic pastor. Not being charistmatic myself, I allowed my anxiety to get the best of me when a small cadre of parishioners rejected me, attacked me for changes I made, and my staid conservative ways in general. How did I respond? With screaming angry sermons, rude and unChristian verbal rebuttals, a generally lousy disposition to all. Only when friends pointed out these unhealthy behaviors was I able to get a handle on the situation. I focused on getting control on my behavior, and allowed anyone to voice criticism of me or praise of the out-going priest. I listened a lot more, talked less. In time, as I calmed down, they did too. Some parishioners left the new parish, but some stayed. We weathered the storm and moved to calmer waters, so that we, parishioners and me as leader, could focus on the more important work of doing ministry together.