Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Lord, Is It I?

The nature of my job is to work as part of a group. Each admission team has 4-8 members who meet 90 minutes a day, then separate to do our own work. Throughout the day, each team member re-engages briefly and singly with the others: nursing with rehab, social work with MD. Teams are relatively stable – aside from temporary coverage, I have worked with the same cast for over two years. I have been working according to this model for twenty-five years.

Thus I am fairly automatically attuned to group dynamics at this point. When things are going well, team members give similar answers as to why they are going well. When they are not, there is an unspoken (usually) consensus as to who is gumming up the works. When the players shift over time, we get to see if our theory about who the culprit is was true. Change reveals, usually in predictable fashion.

Which is to say, the problem is usually an obvious jerk, whose removal improves matters greatly.

Yet not always. Group dynamics can be tricky and subtle, and occasionally the removal of an obvious jerk fixes nothing; things remain dysfunctional for reasons no one can quite understand. Sometimes it is a particular combination of not-especially pathological people, or a hidden factor of when the group meets or a structural factor imposed from outside that creates the dysfunction.

Our church has not thriven (thrived? thriven) in its dozen or so years. I have been there since the beginning, well-involved in most of its activities. I would not, at first glance, be the person everyone would identify as The Problem. Not that I am universally beloved or never have a negative effect, but that in organizations, people who show up to do work are generally regarded as solutions, not problems.

Yet I wonder. Lord, is it I? We have had a changing cast of characters and I am one of a very small number of constants. We have been different sizes, in different locations, with different pastors. If one were to step back and take a longitudinal view and do research, I would have to be one of the pieces under special scrutiny. Factors not especially related to single individuals remain the most likely explanation for why we have limped along for most of our existence: location, dispersal, makeup of the congregation, style of worship, and such.

Everyone has an idea how the problem came to be. Everyone has some thought of a solution to try. If I harbor ill-will at all, it is directed more toward denominational headquarters, which keeps telling us they have good advice. This advice keeps taking the form of programs, all of which focus on process. The default solution of those who have no actual evidence but like to talk about What Could Be.

Tangent: One of the worst things you can do to people with a problem (as I know from bitter experience at work) is to continually hold out the idea that you have a really good solution, which after much agony, turns out to be a way for them to approach problems, based on no evidence whatsoever. If you can couch it in terms of dividing all the problems of the world into four categories so much the better - the four elements: earth, water, air, and fire-signs; the four humors: sanguine, melancholic, choleric, phlegmatic; the four personality colors: Gold, blue, red, green; Kretschmer, Myers-Briggs (4x4), Eysenck, Personality Style Inventory, and now Veritas! Social workers love this sort of stuff, which should tell you how much hard science is behind it. /Tangent

The intellectual dynamics provide complications over the merely physical; the emotional brings in more complications still; spiritual dynamics can be the least-visible and most complicated of all. Two years ago and more, I considered stepping out entirely for a year, to see if that changed the dynamic, and asked God for guidance in the matter. I received no answer (that I know of), but eventually decided not to er, suspend myself, for practical reasons. The loss of me might be an interesting experiment; the loss of my wife from this congregation would be devastating – too great a risk without clearly divine guidance.

But every week I wonder: Lord, Is It I? Have I been stepping on each new shoot as it emerges, covertly sabotaging each good work?


karrde said...

Another question: what do you consider a sign of a better, healthier church?

How does it relate to the dicta and perceptions of the Denominational Masters?

Retriever said...

Really good post. In a gloomy mood this last week, worrying "Is it I?" about my family's problems (perhaps just hubris on my part? Or narcissism to think their difficulties are ALL about me...)

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I was perhaps too negative about them, karrde. They are nice people who wish us well, and give the knowledge that they have. But the Arts & Humanities Tribe is too caught up with how they think the world should work to observe objectively how it actually does work.

As to your first question, it is one many of us have attempted, singly, in small groups, and as a congregation. We are perhaps too skilled at coming up with the theologically right answers to that. Forswearing the shallow answers, we have likely cut ourselves off from the great majority of people we would like to reach. None of us is that deep or fine on this planet, and attempting to be so may estrange us from our simpler selves.

karrde said...

There's also the question of how much of the second-guessing is a non-sport version of "The End Of The Season" mentality, applied to more normal aspects of life.

I don't know if that plays a role among the players involved (members of the church), but it likely plays a role in the minds of the team-owners (Denominational higher-ups).

There's also the question of whether any of the people involved in the church can figure out the path between point A (current state) and point B (desired state). I'm not sure there's a church on this Earth that contains such wisdom, even if they are already in the place that you'd like to go to.

Lastly, you've reminded me of a song. One video provided here.

terri said...

The question has been rolling around in my mind lately as to what exactly church is for.

I mean...really...at it's core....what is it supposed to be about? Once it's established things begin to take on a life of their own and the church activity calendar can spiral out of control with all sorts of seemingly meaningless minutae...like book clubs...or christian exercise groups....or christian movie night.

One part of me thinks these types of things are quite dumb and don't really have much at all to do with God, Jesus, or any sort of engagement with spirituality. ANother part of me thinks that the church is only a community of like-minded individuals attempting to live in a way that they believe is honoring to God...in which case, if such meaningless programs help forge that bond...then I guess they are OK.

I think churches struggle because the people who attend them are a very peculiar sort of people who want to do things the "right" way. ....and with any collection of individuals....there will always be disagreement about what that "right" way is, even among like-minded people.

It's a recipe for dysfunction in some ways.

People who are passionate about implementing the "true way" into their lives and the lives of others tend to be less flexible because they care so much about the outcome.

As far as shallowness...a religion/church must be able to function at several levels in order to be accessible...it must be both simple and complex--

Simple enough for those who have never been exposed to it to be able to apprehend the value and truth in it, and feel comfortable participating in it....and complex enough for those who have been on their journey for a long time to still have new facets to discover and new questions to answer.

That's a hard balance to achieve.

Re: you as the problem

You could be...but the very fact that you are even considering the question is a good indicator that you're not trying to be. It's doubtful that everything is all your fault! ;-) I don't think pulling out of things would create any solutions...as if God was just waiting for you to step aside so He could finally do what He wanted to.

If God wanted you to do a particular thing...it would seem most logical that He would want to do it through changing you into who He wants you to be, rather than merely casting you aside as a stumbling stone.

But then....what do I know?

I haven't had any visions lately!


Anonymous said...

Perhaps something to consider (based on past experience) is to what extent your (or any church) is a club of nice, comfortable, middle class people who - aside from the praying and God-talk - act much like any other folks belonging to an association of nice people who share a common interest, like the Elks or Parrot Heads.

GraniteDad said...

Well, here's an idea- put some empirical basis behind it. Go somewhere else for 2 months. Do things improve?