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1001 UU University Keynote Address

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Part 1—Congregations as Emotional Systems

Peter Steinke, noted congregational systems consultant and educator, was the keynote speaker for the first "UU University" presentation for lay and professional leaders of Unitarian Universalist congregations held in St. Louis, MI. UU University drew more than four hundred attendees at a day and a half of programming which occurred prior to the start of the 2006 Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly.

Steinke said, "All systems tend to keep what is familiar in place, which is why it is difficult to make change." He referred to The Wisdom Paradox, a new book by Elkhonon Goldberg in which the author cites conclusions that what we think of as left and right hemispheres of the brain is not really correct.

The real processing, Goldberg points out, that is going on in the left and right brain has to do with familiarity and novelty. The right brain processes what is unfamiliar and new, and the info rmation is then stored in the left brain. The right hemisphere also processes negative emotions, and the left hemisphere processes positive emotions.

New things, negative emotions, are processed in the same part of the brain as that which is new. When people have brain damage, if you upset their closets or desk, they panic, because the right brain has been disturbed. This helps us to understand, he said, why we resist that which is novel or new.

Steinke explained what brain processing function has to do with church systems:

"I did an intervention with a Presbyterian church in Florida," he said. "I did the interviewing. I came back with them, I told them what I had heard and observed. I heard that the Senior Pastor, who fills the pews on Sunday three times, is destructive in his relationships. Staff are ready to resign. When I laid this out to the congregation, they said, 'Let's send him to managerial training and tweak this.' I said, 'I think this is a personal issue, and as long as he is your pastor, he is going to have trouble understanding relationships.'"

He continued, "The president of the congregation had trouble understanding this...then I found out his wife was the head of the search committee that brought the pastor to the church. We know about cognitive dissonance. This is deeper, because it gets us at an emotional level. For this reason, it can be difficult to change systems...when they are in deep at an emotional level."

Steinke explained that in an emotional system, "you function better if you can handle anxiety." Anxiety is an interesting word, he said. In Latin, the word is angurra, or choking, and in fact, in all languages are about the same root—anger, choking, angst, anxiousness. "It has an effect on every part of your being. For me, anxiousness is a root human emotion. Without some anxiety, we would never make change. Pain at one level is a motivator, a teacher, something without which we cannot live. Anxiety arouses us to make some change in our lives. If it is prolonged, it will prevent the thing it might have provoked. It is needed for us to make shifts, but it is also paralyzing, and it puts us at risk, because we will not hear or do new things. And this congregation in Florida was paralyzed because of its level of anxiety. 'If we ask him to resign [they said], what will happen to the three services, will someone preach as well? What about the pews? What about the money?' [But] at the same time, he has been abusive, he has humiliated people, the congregation may be legally liable because of his behavior."

Steinke said, "When I started working with emotional systems I was under the impression that clarity would be comforting. I am a slow learner. I discovered that there is anxiety out there, and people don't know what to do. When you are the messenger and you bring the message no one wants to hear...it's not always easy."

He explained that when a system gets more anxious, there is less clarity, and people do not respond to love. When you are anxious, you are less motivated to hear anything new. You want your anxiety removed. The anxiety in churches generally goes to two functioning positions: to the person who is in the most responsible position—the president of the congregation and/or the clergy, or to the most vulnerable position—the new leader, the new member of the staff.

Steinke then turned his attention to communication patterns, focusing on triangulation. He said that in every dyad, or pair, there will at some time be some bumps in that relationship. In order to stabilize this dyad, he said, "someone brings in a third party. That is the basic molecule of all relationship systems. Triangles are natural, they happen all the time. What is dysfunctional is to then allow yourself to be triangulated...you start taking responsibility for these two people—the person being the switchboard or receiver for this information has a problem with capacity. Most people get defensive and start reacting. Rather than saying, 'Joe, people say the same thing about you. What do you think about this? How do we get out of the triangle?' people tend to accept responsibility for the triangulated conversation."

He suggested, "Don't take responsibility for other peoples' issues...enlist them in the solution. Pastors are especially vulnerable to this...and very likely to be pulled in to a conflict. This is natural. The triangulation is what is difficult. And congregations in conflict have interlocking triangles all over the place."

Steinke went on to discuss differentiation. "Differentiation occurs in relationships. You become a self, but a self in relationship to other forces. At times, these forces will be difficult to balance. I have both self interest, and the interest of the community. What happens is that if you are anxious about being separate, using 'I' statements, the tendency is to get too close to people...emotional fusion. When you meld metals together, they reach a certain temperature and begin to lose their properties. In emotional fusion, two people give up their self for the sake of the relationship. A good example is romantic love...you mistake the ordinary love of a man or a woman for a god or a goddess."

Steinke pointed out that in communities like churches, emotions are played out even more because we are 'nice' to each other. It's also true, however, that systems are always potentially going to be aroused by someone's anxiety. Steinke said, "I try to get congregations to see what is going on rather than being blind to it or refusing to deal with it."

Leaders are in the best position to affect the emotional system, he said. If leaders aren't doing certain things, they won't happen—because leaders are in the position to make things happen.

What Do You Do with Chronically Anxious People?

Everyone has acute anxiety, Steinke said. With time (after being involved in an 'anxious' situation) we can be rational. "If you have three or four highly anxious people in your congregation, they don't have anxiety, they are anxiety. If they are anxious or paranoid or sloppy or whatever, it is only significant if it affects your function. We want to say to these people, 'Why don't you get lost, or find another church,' but this is where we learn to differentiate. How do you stay connected? The impulse is to shun these people, to move away. They will still be cantankerous, but you don't let them get into leadership, and you don't let their functions determine yours.

Differentiation is about determining your behavior regardless of what the other person is doing, he said. You can maintain contact and not lose self. This is best done through play. Play is crucial to community. In play you take turns, there are rules, and no one gets hurt. Paul MacLean said, "All people have trying ways, and need to be nurtured..." The mid-brain is where we play and bond. "If play and bonding are in the same brain, it's important that you and I find ways to play together," said Steinke.

Part 2—Tending to Mission in a Time of Anxiety

Deprivation influences brain development. The brain needs good relationships in order for it to develop. If child grew up in abusive or neglectful home, they can often overcome it by developing a narrative, explained Steinke. If there is some kind of coherency, they can get beyond the deprivation they experienced.

The left pre-frontal cortex is sometimes called the "vault of heaven," or "angel lobes," or "holy tissue"—it is an area set aside for a special purpose, that which makes us human.

When you have an anxious congregation, noted Steinke, people tend to not have a lot of this part of the brain available. Behavior is based in the lower brain, and we often see this in the nastiness and mean spiritedness present in our churches during times of conflict.

Steinke said that author Deborah Tannen, in her book The Argument Culture, observes that today we don't know how to do dialogue, and that it's important to win the argument. He cited cable television news programs as examples—programs like "Hardball" and "Crossfire." He said, "The people on there are talking at the same time, and often with a lot of lower brain activity. Any time you are intellectualizing as a defensive mechanism, you use the lower brain.

"Emotions are pieces of information, and better thinkers don't deny or make light of their emotions, but understand that they will help them make better decisions. The better you know your own feelings, the more successful you will be in negotiating life's challenges.

"If leadership doesn't have a lot of left pre-frontal cortex operating, it's almost as if your system is leaderless. If as a leader you are as anxious as the people you are serving, your congregation doesn't have leadership. You need the capacity to regulate, modify, put in check your own emotionality, because anxiety will flow down. If you are anxious, the rest of the system will be affected by your anxiety.

"Calm reflectiveness is also infectious," Steinke said. "It takes some time. In healthy systems, you are going to have people who are able to be more imaginative...respect the future."

Steinke discussed the role of pain in growth: "The degree to which you can tolerate pain in others is the degree to which they will grow. If you attempt to modify someone's pain, you are in effect limiting their growth. Most helpers are too sensitive to their pain and feel uncomfortable about it and want to alleviate it. We try to alleviate it not because we are caring, but because we feel awkward in its presence. To the degree you can tolerate pain in your own life it influences your own growth."

Leaders need to have some capacity to tolerate pain in themselves and others if they are going to grow, continued Steinke. There has to be toleration of pain if there is to be growth.

The feelings of envy and revenge tend to weaken the immune system. Gratitude tends to strengthen it. Thankfulness opens up one's life and emotions. Conflict evidences a failure of leadership (or failure of nerve)—no one has the courage to say, "This is evil, this is inappropriate, this is dangerous to the community." Therefore the behavior becomes invasive. In churches we are too often afraid of saying, "This is damaging to the community and we can not tolerate it." But, Steinke pointed out, "We are the leaders elected or appointed in the system. If the system doesn't have immunity, it is more susceptible to pathogenic invasion."

No one can influence a system more than the leader. No one in the system can give it a better focus than the leader...someone who says, "This is who we are, this is where we've been, this is where we are going."

Steinke emphasized that it's important to be caring enough to confront someone. You can soothe people you care about, but you can also challenge them. He said, "You are the ones who can most bring focus, change, and challenge [to a situation]. When a congregation is in disarray and is upset, you are the one who can most bring calm."

Steinke said, "If you feel a situation isn't right, you should trust that instinct. If something feels off to you, pay attention to it: it may tell you something isn't right." M. Scott Peck, author of numerous books, including People of the Lie, suggests that you can sometimes discern evil because you are repulsed by the person—something is not right. If so, you may want to bring in someone who can give you help in interacting with such a person.

Steinke asked, "Can putting a coherent narrative on trauma that occurred in the congregation help?" He suggested that the answer was yes: we always learn more when there is an emotional component to it. Movement helps learning...art, physical education, dance. Storytelling may be the most effective way to teach. That is important for learning capacity.

Steinke then discussed qualities of leaders. He explained that the original meaning of the word 'Leader' was to go forth and die; to suffer. He said that as leaders, we make a mistake in thinking that if we change conditions a situation will change. Instead, we should do what is most important, which is helping people learn to be responsible for their own lives. The more responsible you are for your own life, Steinke said, the more mature you are in the system.

Leaders separate themselves enough from the emotional process so that they can see things differently; they can get an aerial view to see the big picture. They pursue their vision and persist in the face of sabotage. A leader feels challenged where others feel anxious, because as a leader you have a spirit of adventure, are willing to deal with challenge, and you choose it over trying to survive. Leaders focus on strength, define yourself, but stay connected.

Steinke introduced the term "societal regression," which refers to the periods of chaos, disorderliness, and irresponsibility that occur in society at large at times of greater anxiety. In such a period, people increase their complaining and criticizing; demand instant solutions, immediate gains, and quick fixes; can't get beyond emotional barriers; demand certainty, black and white situations, with no tolerance for the grey zone; and diagnose each other perpetually and critically.

When doing an intervention, Steinke said, it's important to list resources and options, and identify one's capacity to tolerate differences. Congregations that have strength are willing to learn. No one person can know it all; we need to be learning and looking at things, having the capacity to grieve and mourn over losses taking place as systems change.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

This work is made possible by the generosity of individual donors and congregations. Please consider making a donation today.

Last updated on Friday, July 20, 2012.

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