Wise to Elephants in the Room

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Boundaries, Dysfunction and the Wisdom of Leadership

No elder will ever get through a period in office without facing the dynamics of family dysfunction. Knowing about it is a matter of gaining wisdom.


As long as there is sin, its effects will be with us. As long as we are sinned against, we will be hurt and become sensitive to the particulars of that hurt. For many years, I played sports. My knees were injured on more than one occasion. At first, I ignored it hoping the injury would go away. But denial has a way of catching up to us. Then I tried to compensate: avoided some situations, did not play certain sports, and generally adjusted my activity in the light of my injury. But even then the consequences of my injury were noticed. My body had developed a sensitivity. Sometimes one injury leads to another. A knee injury leads to back problems as we adjust our stride to compensate. In protecting ourselves from one harm we create another. Hurt, changed behavior, sensitivity and the hurt from compensation are among ways we experience sin and its effects.

In any congregation there is hurt, changed behavior and particular sensitivities because of the history and experience of people within the congregation. This is not surprising. But because of these there also exist heightened sensitivities, fears and anxieties which may or may not be obvious that influence the relationships in the congregation. Understanding these dysfunctions help us gain relational wisdom in congregational life. It essentially comes down to a few questions:

1. What is the particular dysfunction we are experiencing?
2. How does this effect the relationships and behaviors in family and community?
3. What is the best set of strategies to deal with the dysfunction?

What are the particular dysfunctions we are experiencing?

This is the proverbial elephant in the room. The often invisible elephant. It is something that has happened but is rarely talked about. Whatever the it is, it has had profound effect. The elephant takes a seat in the room and everyone moves over. But what is the elephant? This is harder to know precisely because the “it” is not talked about. The silence and the secrecy are part of the invisibility.

We can name the big ones: abuse (verbal, physical, sexual), fraud, abuse of power, bullying, and addiction. Or maybe we should start with unrelenting anger, selfishness, pride, greed, sloth, lust, and do we dare gluttony—the deadly seven sins in various forms. Or perhaps we should start variations on the ten commands. Sin can be named. While naming them in general helps, the “it” is more particular: a particular dysfunction in a particular family. In that way the “it” is unique.

That we sin does not mean that we have a dysfunctional system. Another element is necessary—that the sin persists over time (duration) and has an emotional intensity that drives it. Pornography is sinful. But when it particularly becomes problematic relationally is when it is driven by an intense emotional need that persists for a longer period of time.

A further point is important. The dysfunction becomes even more important in terms of congregational life when a person’s dysfunction spills over into many relationships. So for instance, anger can not only affect the immediate family, but many relationships of friendship and business within the community. And when others significantly change their behavior to avoid the emotional spilling of anger, then the effects in congregational life become a significant dynamic.

Naming the particular sins and dysfunctional behavior of a congregation can be healing. What is named can be forgiven. What is named can be observed more carefully. What is named can be given appropriate boundaries and discussed for healing. But secrecy and silence often prevent the public naming.

How does this effect behavior in a congregation?

When the elephant takes his seat in the room, everyone moves and adjusts to the new reality. It is this changed behavior that is often the best indicator of a dysfunctional system. When this change persists over time, we develop a new way of living together. It becomes part of the congregation’s culture.

There are many ways in which people adjust in the face of a problem they feel inadequate to deal with or frightened to deal with. Here are a few:

  1. Avoidance: I will walk on the other side of the street.
  2. Persistent peacemaking: Try to make sure a particular person or family won’t get upset.
  3. Compensate for bad behavior:  Be extra good so that everything will be alright.

There are many others. The point is simply that when faced with significant behavioral problems because of dysfunction in the members of the community, our strategies are often attempts to minimize the issues involved.

What this simply means is that certain behavior is an indication of possible problematic dysfunction. Observation becomes an important tool for discernment. It also indicates where possible interventions are necessary.  Wisdom means that we pay attention to these situations.

What can we do?

There are basically two interventions that any council can begin to work on.

First, deal with the person. Usually this means encouraging counseling. This kind of intervention can be helpful, but is often difficult. It means breaking the silence and removing the secrecy. Many find this particularly difficult.

In our day, “breaking the silence” has been an important part of engaging the issues around sexual abuse, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (around veterans), and bullying. Yet the very need to “break the silence” still means that in many families and communities the silence is pervasive. As elders we can have a unique role in the pastoral care of members by beginning difficult conversations.

Second, with the congregational system. All interventions are essentially designed to affirm and maintain appropriate boundaries between people and within the organization. We can maintain healthy boundaries in an organization without necessarily having healthy people. We do this in two ways:

  1. Insisting that people follow proper procedures and respecting people’s responsibilities.
  2. Addressing those times when boundaries and procedures are ignored.

It seems simple. In many ways it is. Insisting on the right way often means channeling behavior in the appropriate way. That often leads to a healthier community life in which the person issues can be addressed in safety.

I like to think that there are many times we can develop health within the congregation—not by addressing the particular problems—but by maintaining health. Much like good nutrition can help our physical bodies fight disease and increase joy, by insisting on healthy organizational dynamics and godly practices of respect and honor the elders can fight dysfunction within the congregation.

Here are some books I have found helpful:

The Emotionally Healthy Church – Peter Scazzero
The Family – John Bradshaw
Cloud/ Townsend have written numerous books on the subject of Boundaries.

Here are some additional resources:

Safe Church Network

Church Resources from Safe Church Ministries

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Great article, Sometimes the elephant can be caused by guilt and lack of forgiveness between layman or leadership.

Thanks Neil

Sorry neil, this statement doesn't make sense. What I was trying to say that guilt and forgiveness are factors that feed these elephants. They exsist in all levels of the church structure. 

Thanks,

Ken

I appreciate the wisdom in this piece.  Thanks, Neil.  

Hi Neil. This is Ken again. I read a trailer for this article at Safe Church by Beth. It got me thinking about the different white elephants. It was then I realized I am a white elephant. I have MS etc. and everytime I vary from the scripted service like remaining seated during the song that everyone has been asked to stand or when I walk out during the last song to avoid the crowd. I feel my trunk growing! I hold my head down to avoid the stares. I finally stopped going to church because of this and other physical issues, but I remain a white elephant with my church. Now a few friends  tell me people ask about me but nobody calls except my elder when some people ask him about me. I have a good elder who tries his best but is not equiped with time to be a consistant friend. So your right about elephants in the room, but you need to add that white elephants are not always dysfuntion of the individual but of the people who judge by observation or hersay.  Thanks Ken

Thank you Ken for sharing your experience. It gives us deeper insight and broadens our perspective on this issue. Anytime someone "deviates " from the norm it challenges everyone to respond and deal with their own discomfort.