The Leader’s Journey

An excerpt from “The Leader’s Journey”

The Leader’s Journey

The full title is: “The Leader’s Journey; Accepting the Call to Personal and Congregational Transformation” by Jim Herrington, R. Robert Creech & Trisha Taylor.

I read this book as part of a course about “Pastoral Identity” which I audited in Feb ’07. I read it at a providential time when the lessons in it were very very relevant to me and my situation. Though eye-opening, the new understanding happened too late to make appropriate timely change, and besides I could only begin to change myself, not the whole system. What follows is a key quotation from page 45, in a context where the authors have put forward two forces that are at work on any church leader, namely “individuality” and “togetherness.” They begin to introduce a “systems” approach and give two example stories, one of John and one of Steve. Of course I grinningly leave it up to your speculation and interpretation which patterns apply to whom.  

         “Seeing the emotional dependency and immaturity of a people-focused leader like John is simple. Emotional reactivity to the group governs every decision; the approval and disapproval of others is the determining factor in all that happens. Feeling liked, accepted, and loved can take precedence over goal-directed activity to the point of allowing the mission of the organization to wither. The leader’s hypersensitivity to the demands, wants, needs, desires, and whims of others paralyzes both the leader and the organization.  

On the surface, relationships look smooth and calm, which is the leader’s driving goal. The organization, however, operates without the benefit of vision. Moreover, people are so highly dependent on each other emotionally that they cannot engage in the healthy conflict that is essential for any group of people to identify and pursue a shared vision (Acts 6:14).
The congregation grows susceptible to the anxiety produced by any financial, social, or relational crisis among them, in their own lives, or in the life of their leader. In their anxiety, they attempt to justify and explain the actions they take by focusing on issues such as preaching, pastoral visits, or the amount of time devoted to a hobby. The emotional process is ignored.
When we see things through a systems perspective, however, we find these actions generated not by objective evaluation of the pastor’s performance but by the anxiety of the congregational system. The evidence of this is that fixing the particular issues raised does not change things. John can react to congregational complaints by working more diligently on sermon preparation, giving more time to pastoral visitation, and cutting back on his fishing, but the anxiety in his home and congregation will not diminish.
The reason is that in our anxiety we react to one another and then later devise what we call a rational explanation for our behavior. An aphorism in the recovery movement defines rationalizing as telling rational lies, and that is a fairly accurate description of our behavior. The supposed content of our explanation diverts our attention from the emotional process that is at work. Alleviating the symptoms does not cure the disease. So, most likely, the congregation’s blaming will take some other form, and the outcome is eventually the same: the pastor is out of a job.
A task-focused leader like Steve might contest the thesis that he is operating out of a lack of emotional maturity. From all external appearances, the leader is strong, autonomous, and independent. What is not usually observed, however, is the leader’s dependence on others for his or her own functioning.
Emotional dependence on others drives the autocratic leader. Others are there to serve the leader’s purpose. The compliance of others makes the leader appear successful; the overfunctioning of the leader is matched perfectly by the underfunctioning of his or her constituency. They are looking for a strong leader, rather than thinking for themselves. The autocratic leader is looking for willing followers who allow him or her to think for them.
Difference of opinion is a threat to be met with anger and to be cut off should it persist. Relationships are distant (when one opposes the leader) or close (when one supports the leader), but always tenuous. The task-focused leader is as emotionally reactive to others in the organization as is the people-focused leader in another system.
The followers of such leaders play their part in keeping the dependence alive. When the leader stumbles in life or becomes anxious, the anxiety spreads quickly to those who are dependent upon him or her. All of this happens in people well outside their awareness. Issues such as ill-prepared preaching, infrequent pastoral visits, or excessive time devoted to a hobby surface as a rational explanation for the congregation’s action, which is actually generated by the members’ anxiety. 

Seeing the Systems Paradigm

John and Steve’s stories illustrate leadership types you have likely encountered more than once-perhaps you recognize some of John or Steve in your own leadership style. Their stories reflect the tragedy of the struggle in many a congregation that has left the lives of both pastor and church in turmoil. Leaders often experience the tension of staying connected to the system and offering responsible leadership without being done in by it. Leaders struggle with finding a way to disengage the system sufficiently to foster their own personal health and growth, without cutting off from the congregation the person is called to lead. The challenge is always to stay in the system yet do the right thing.
Effective leadership comes from someone with enough emotional maturity to call a congregation to discern and pursue a shared vision, to remain connected with those who differ with the leader or the majority, and to remain a calm presence when the anxiety rises. This represents a model of leadership demonstrated by both Jesus and the earliest leaders of the Church. Such leadership requires learning to understand the principles by which a living system operates and the context in which we exercise our role as leader. The presence of chronic anxiety and the tension between the forces of individuality and togetherness are key variables in how the system functions.
Such leadership requires a maturity that comes through practicing disciplines that allow one to differentiate self from important others without attempting to control them, cutting off from them, or being determined by them. In other words, we leaders can deliberately incorporate some actions into our lives that over time radically shape how we are able to relate to those we lead. It is possible to lead without controlling. It is also possible to learn to resist the demands to surrender vision and principle without giving up our connection to those who exert the pressure.
I (Robert) recall the anxiety I felt as I opened the box that contained my first computer in the early 1980s. It contained pieces I did not recognize and could not name. But if I were going to put this system together and unleash its power to help me accomplish my tasks, I was going to have to learn.
The same is true for the powerful emotional systems to which you belong. Unpacking the box and being able to match the various components of the system with their names-anxiety, reactivity, maturity, the togetherness force, and the individuality force-this is a good beginning. But if you want to harness the power inherent in a living system, if you desire to grow in the capacity to lead with- out compromising your principles, you must learn to see your world anew-with a systems paradigm. You must learn to be able to see what is going on around you, observe the anxiety, note your own part in it, and manage yourself amid the pressure. You need to learn the skill of “thinking systems and watching process,” which is the subject of the next chapter.”


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