Discovering Patterns

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Nine years into being a pastor, I got a phone call from a middle aged woman who was not a member of the church I was serving. She wanted to arrange to come and “do her fifth step” with me. I had very little idea what that meant, and asked some questions about what that meant. She was in Al-Anon (support group for those who have addiction in the family) because her husband was an active alcoholic, and in that group they work through a version of the 12 steps of AA. She had completed her fourth step: “made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.”

She needed to now speak that inventory out loud to God (as she understood God), to herself, and to another human being. I had not known that in those groups they recommend doing so with clergy. I did a bit of reading up on what might be expected of me, and was sort of ready (there is no seminary course on this) when she came.

She read off what she had prepared, and some aspects of it really stood out for me. I like stories, and I naturally listen for patterns in them. This is partly why I think I liked learning Biblical Hebrew more than Greek. It uses “patterns” and repetitions as part of its communication. When she was finished, I asked her how she felt, she answered, and then asked if I had anything to observe. I didn’t know quite how to get at what I thought I was hearing, so I asked her, surprising myself, “What are some of your earliest memories?”

She told me this story: I remember my Mom taking me to school for the first time, and it was a school I didn’t want to go to. So as soon as my Mom left I went back outside and sat on the steps until the kids came out, then I went home.

That story confirmed a pattern I thought I heard as she shared what she had written. It seemed that many of her life stories seemed to me to have a repeating theme of “not being where you belonged.” She was in her third or fourth marriage—because they hadn’t been right—and had a pattern of keeping jobs for about a year and a half before quitting for some rationale or the other. I had wondered where that pattern began. Her earliest memory already had that pattern. She was shocked, in a revelatory way.

She had never noticed that pattern.

As Regional Pastors, we have an opportunity to help those in our care “see” patterns that they might be blind to. We can get there simply by asking narrative-soliciting questions such as “What are some of your earliest memories?” and then listening for possible patterns to explore. 

Other such questions I’ve found useful are:

  • Where do you think God is in what you are telling me? Is God communicating something through these circumstances/events? For a concrete example of what I’m meaning: I have increasingly experienced people outside of the church responding well to pastoral messages the church seems to sleep through (exaggerated a bit). Repeatedly. So I’ve been pondering if God is calling me in that direction.

  • What is this experience doing to your soul, your inner life and being? Where is the soul-joy in it, where is it soul-draining?

  • When someone gets very intense in the conversation (angry, hurt, vengeful etc) you can ask “tell me about some other times you have felt this way?” or “When was the first time you remember feeling this feeling?” When it works, the person you are conversing with will see that the intensity of the feeling today is often rooted in a life-narrative incident from the past and may be revealing a pattern they never noticed.

  • “To my ears, you tell your story from the perspective of a helpless noble victim a lot (give examples), where do you think that idea comes from? (other options are “hero,” “villain,” “martyr,” “provocateur,” or “saboteur.”) Victim ones lean toward things being described as “happening to” or “being done to” the teller. Martyr could be a description of this great vision the pastor came up with for the church, and how nobody got on board and they got pushed out.

I’ve leaned toward “provocateur” a lot. Grin.

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