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A Systems View of Congregational Life Workshop

45-Minute Workshop

Suggested Participants

  • Congregational Leaders
  • Ministers
  • Religious Educators

Goals

  • Explore how systems thinking can guide leaders
  • Learn how our position in a system can shape and determine our behavior
  • Experience how our family of origin can shape our leadership role
  • Discern how family of origin expectations and sibling rivalry may affect the dynamic of a leadership group

Materials

  • Copies of “A Systems View of Congregational Life” for all participants
  • Copies of Singing the Living Tradition
  • Chalice or candle and matches
  • Newsprint and markers

Preparation

  • Appoint workshop facilitator(s).
  • Distribute “A Systems View of Congregational Life” and ask everyone to read it before the session begins.
  • Draw an inverted triangle on newsprint. By the upper left corner, write “persecutor.” By the upper right corner, write “rescuer.” And at the bottom, write “victim.”

Session Plan

Gathering and Centering      2 minutes
Light the chalice or candle. Turn to “Prophets” by Clinton Lee Scott, reading 565 in Singing the Living Tradition, and invite everyone to read responsively with you.

Focusing       2 minutes
Review the goals of the workshop and the workshop process with the group. Invite participants to discuss and agree upon the group’s guidelines for openness and sharing. Say something like,
There is much potential for open sharing throughout this program. On many occasions we will invite participants to share what may be intimate material. Therefore, it is important that people speak only when they are comfortable; it is always okay to pass if people choose not to share. By establishing a norm of respect for each other and our expression within the group, we want to ensure safety and right relations for all participants.

Engage participants in discussing the value of respect and confidentiality in a group and the destructive effects of sarcasm and put-downs. Print your group’s guidelines for openness and sharing on newsprint, and post it as a reminder for each session.

Reflecting      10 minutes
Divide the group into three parts: firstborns, middlers (with at least one older and one younger sibling), and youngests.

Place the firstborns and youngests at opposite ends of the room; place middlers in the middle of the room. Ask only-child participants to join the firstborns.

Ask each group is asked to draw up a list of ten traits as follows:

  • Firstborns: Write five things you admire and five things you dislike about your youngest sibling.
  • Youngests: Write five things you admire and five things you dislike about your oldest sibling.
  • Middlers: Write five things firstborns don’t understand about youngests and five things youngests don’t understand about firstborns.

Exploring       25 minutes
Ask firstborns to share their admiration list. Then ask the youngests to do likewise. Ask youngests to share their dislike list, followed by the firstborns. Next ask middlers to evaluate each list. Ask only what they learned about having an older sibling.

Ask the whole group to discuss the following questions:

  • How do these traits play out at our group leadership meetings?
  • How free is any one not to fulfill the expectations of their family position?
  • What conflicts can we predict?
  • Which group includes our most visionary leaders?
  • Which group can see both/many sides of an issue?
  • Which group includes take-charge leaders?
  • Which group includes “get it done” leaders?
  • Which group makes it all fun?

Closing      5 minutes
Read aloud and quietly ponder the following quotations:

Our siblings push buttons that cast us in roles we felt sure we had let go of long ago—the baby, the peacekeeper, the caretaker, the avoider...It doesn’t seem to matter how much time has elapsed or how far we’ve traveled. —Jane Mersky Leder

Our siblings. They resemble us just enough to make all their differences confusing, and no matter what we choose to make of this, we are cast in relation to them our whole lives long. —Susan Scarf Merrell

If we are not our brother’s keeper, at least let us not be his executioner. —Marlon Brando

Having a sister is like having a best friend you can’t get rid of. You know whatever you do, they’ll still be there. —Amy Li

Big sisters are the crabgrass in the lawn of life. —Charles M. Schultz

Extinguish the chalice or candle.

2-Hour Workshop

Suggested Participants

  • Congregational leaders
  • Ministers
  • Religious educators
  • Safety and Response Team

Goals

  • Experience the interconnectedness of relational systems
  • Learn about triangles and how they work to allay anxiety
  • Practice the art of differentiation

Materials

  • Copies of “A Systems View of Congregational Life” for all participants
  • Copies of Singing the Living Tradition
  • Chalice or candle and matches
  • Newsprint and markers
  • Copies of Handout 3, The Seven Laws of an Emotional Triangle, and Handout 4, Letter to the Minister, for all participants
  • Index cards

Preparation

  • Appoint workshop facilitator(s)
  • Distribute “A Systems View of Congregational Life” and ask everyone to read it before the session begins.
  • Print the following quotations on newsprint:

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs, perhaps you don’t understand the seriousness of the
situation.

—Anonymous

When in doubt, don’t just do something, stand there.
— Murray Bowen

A sailor of uncertain destination cannot discern a good from an ill wind.
—Seneca

Session Plan

Gathering and Centering       5 minutes
Light the chalice or candle. Turn to “Prophets” by Clinton Lee Scott, reading 565 in Singing the Living Tradition, and invite everyone to read responsively with you.

Focusing       5 minutes
Review the goals of the workshop and the workshop process with the group. Invite participants to discuss and agree upon the group’s guidelines for openness and sharing. Say something like,
There is much potential for open sharing throughout this program. On many occasions we will invite participants to share what may be intimate material. Therefore, it is important that people speak only when they are comfortable; it is always okay to pass if people choose not to share. By establishing a norm of respect for each other and our expression within the group, we want to ensure safety and right relations for all participants.

Engage participants in discussing the value of respect and confidentiality in a group and the destructive effects of sarcasm and put-downs. Print your group’s guidelines for openness and sharing on newsprint, and post it as a reminder for each session.

Reflecting and Exploring      65 minutes
Remind participants that the essay discusses the interlocking, mutually influencing dynamics of an “emotional field.” Tell them that as with a gravitational field, the characteristic dynamics of the field shape personal behavior far more than the inherent nature or traits of a given member. Their position in the field, more than their intention, will determine much of their action as a leader.

Explain that in this exercise, participants will have opportunity both to observe and to experience how the “togetherness force” of the relational field governs their actions and can be at odds with their “self force” ambitions.

Form a circle of seven to twelve people. Ensure that there are at least two observers remaining outside the circle. With larger groups, repeat the exercise as necessary so all can both participate and observe.

Ask the group to form a circle facing inward. Then ask each person to choose two others as partners without indicating who they have chosen. Each participant’s goal is to move so that they create an equilateral triangle with their chosen two people.

Begin the game. For five minutes (or as an equilibrium has been established, which rarely happens), each participant should try to find their proper place in relation to their partners, taking care not to give signals as to whom they have chosen. The circle will move and break apart in unpredictable ways. Ask observers to speculate as to which three people constitute a partnership and to listen to others’ comments as the group tries to work things out.

After equilibrium has been established or the time has run out, stop the game. Ask people to share aloud from wherever they end up. Pose the following questions to those in the circle:

  • What did this experience feel like?
  • Did you find yourself trying to encourage the group to balance? Did you move in such a way that the group could not find equilibrium?
  • Did you try to rule that the triangle has to be equilateral? Were you successful?
  • Could you predict what was going to happen next?

Ask observers outside the circle the following questions:

  • What did you notice? What stood out for you?
  • Had you not been told the rule, would you have been able to figure out why these people acted as they did?

Repeat the exercise for five minutes to allow observers a chance to be in the circle. The same rules apply. After the second round, ask these questions:

  • How might this experience be different if the goal were to link up with four people?
  • What would happen if the rule were to create unequal triangles?
  • As a member of this group, if you had wanted to change the way the system worked, what might you have done?
  • Can anyone suggest ways in which our congregation is controlled by similar emotional field rules?
  • How do our congregation’s norms define our emotional field? (You might want to ask for an example of a norm and lead a brief discussion of how it is enforced.)
  • The U.S. Constitution specifically forbids the use of titles as honorific (earl, lord, baron, duke, etc.). Why is this and how does this define the American experience as different from the European experience, where such titles are commonplace?
  • Remind the group that the essay argues that triangles create an emotional field involving three people so as to stabilize the tensions between the self force and the togetherness force within a dyad. They are automatic and inevitable, and inescapable. The art of managing a triangle is to know you’re in one, modulate your own anxiety, take clear stands that define your psychic and ethical boundaries, and avoid taking on others’ anxiety.

Form groups of three and distribute Handout 3, The Seven Laws of an Emotional Triangle, and Handout 4, Letter to the Minister. Have one member of each group read the letter aloud.

  • Ask participants to imagine themselves in the minister’s place and answer the following questions: As the congregation’s minister, you have been very clear with the membership that you do not respond or reply to anonymous complaints. How do you handle this one?
  • The following Sunday, you are talking to a parishioner. Over her shoulder you notice Methuselah and Persnickety engaged in conversation with much laughter. What thoughts cross your mind?
  • You are mindful that some significantly powerful members are not pleased with your ministry; what do you wonder about the origin of this note?
  • Do you feel a need to determine whether the accusation is true?
  • While the church has a policy with regard to sexual behavior vis-à-vis adults and children, it has none with regard to adult and adult behavior. Do you think this is a reason to create one?
  • Pondering what to do, you discuss the letter with a colleague, who insists that you immediately take it to the Committee on Ministry. Why is this a good or a bad idea?
  • Your partner notices that something is troubling you and asks, “Honey, is there something going on at church again?” What do you say to them?
  • Although the letter is unsigned, you have a pretty good idea who wrote it. Do you confront the suspected author? Why or why not?
  • How does this letter reflect anxiety elsewhere in the congregational system?
  • What, if anything, do the Laws of Triangles guide you to do?
  • Who is the victim here? The persecutor? The rescuer?
  • Who has been triangled in? Who has been triangled out?
  • Systems theory suggests that this kind of thing is rarely an aberration in an emotional field. Assuming this tattling is not new, what keeps it going? How do tattling and other forms of gossip stabilize congregational tensions?

Open an unstructured conversation with these questions:

  • In what ways do triangles appear in our congregation?
  • Are there predictable patterns that reveal the emotional process?
  • Present an example and suggest a “best” way to deal with it.

Integrating        35 minutes

The essay discusses how important it is for congregational leaders to have clear heads and to be well differentiated. It further argues that leadership is an emotional process by which leaders concentrate on self-regulation: “Leadership as self-differentiation suggests that the leader’s job is to be connected to but not defined by the emotional field of her family or congregation.”

Ask participants to count off by five. Separate them into smaller groups so that all of the ones are in one group, the twos in another, etc. Once organized, direct their attention to the quotations you have prepared on newsprint.

Ask group members to create a list of at least five ways that church leaders (such as the minister, chair of the board, board members, and president) can:

  • set clear limits on what behavior is expected and proscribed in your congregation
  • be present to anxiety in the congregation without getting upset themselves; that is, stay connected to the membership without taking on their worry
  • support one another when all “are losing their heads”—how can a leadership team collectively serve as the “head” of the congregational body?
  • take a stand with the congregation about living our words in our practice together.

Call the groups together and ask for one act of leader differentiation from each group. Ask the group to name common themes or trends and then to discuss this concluding question: How would a clearer mission or vision statement or covenant of right relations empower leaders?

Ask each person to write on an index card one thing they will practice from this workshop to strengthen their ability to be a congregational leader. Collect the cards, either to present all suggestions to the group at a future meeting or to mail back to each participant three months later.

Closing      10 minutes

Ask everyone to form a circle and join hands. Then say,

In this moment, we experience the self force in our unique inward and outward expression. We know also the togetherness force in our desire to be intimately connected. Like PushMePullYou, we are deeply connected. Our goal here has been to introduce some shared ways of thinking that will empower us to be better leaders. As you go on your way today, remember these words:

  • Asking the right question is more important than giving the right answer.
  • No decision is without uncertainty, ambiguity, and the potential for error. What makes a good decision is what you do after you’ve made it.
  • Leadership is the art of hiding your panic.

Sing together “For All That Is Our Life,” hymn 128 in Singing the Living Tradition.

Extinguish the chalice or candle.

For more information contact safecongregations @ 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, April 22, 2011.

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