Recently I’ve been reading a lot about how to view problems in ministry and leadership through a different lens. A concept developed in the late 50’s and 60’s by a psychologist, Murray Bowen, has shed some brilliant light on the subject for me; so brilliant, in fact, that I wish I understood this concept 25 years ago. Had I learned it and applied it then, I could have saved myself a lot of grief as a pastor and as a father as I respond to critics. The concept is called family systems. Don’t let the title fool you, though. It’s not all about your immediate family. This concept has profound implications for leadership in the church.
One of the best writers on the subject, Peter Steinke, a Christian psychologist, wrote the book How Your Church Family Works. It’s a great primer on family systems that directly applies to churches.
At the core of family systems is understanding emotional process and specifically, how we manage our anxiety, a term used for any negative emotion. In one of Steinke’s chapters he writes about those who criticize us. When I read his two paragraphs I paused and said to myself, “Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way before.”
Read it below and tell me how it hits you.
Pursuit behavior is any behavior that overfocuses on another person….
By far the most difficult form of pursuit behavior to recognize is criticism. How can those who act adversarially be said to be in pursuit? We feel alienated, not close. But the criticism is characterized by overfocus. The “stinger” and the “stung” are emotionally connected. Whenever a gnawing critic gets inside our brain cells and we can’t expunge him, we are connected, even if negatively. Whenever someone gets under our skin, we are infected with anxiety. If we are reactive to a pursuer, the pursuit behavior achieves its goal: connection. Strange as it sounds, the critic wants to be close. After all, if we can’t be close through play, ecstasy, touch, and nurture, our only option to accomplish closeness is through angry outbursts, specious charges, or harsh accusations. People feel close to us when they know we are thinking about them. What we think is not as important as that we are thinking of them. We play into the hands of the criticizer when we react to their invasion rather than define ourselves to it. (p 88 of How your Church Family Works).
I’d love to hear your thoughts.