Category Archives: The Church today

Who is your “spiritual teacher”? Do you even need one?

“The missing element in many spiritual quests is the spiritual guide. … When a person finds out that all his efforts at self-improvement are movements around a circle, that the ego does not really intend to give itself up in surrender to the Spirit and therefore only pretends to do so, he realizes that left to himself he cannot succeed in really changing his inner center of gravity. Help is needed from some outside source if he is to free himself from such a hopeless position.”
– Paul Brunton

We use different terms for it in our various circles, but do you have a spiritual teacher, or guide? Is there someone who is helping you grow in your spiritual life by modeling that kind of life (even if imperfectly), by teaching you about it, helping answer questions, and showing you things about yourself that you might not have seen otherwise? Who is the person who helps you make sense of the deeper questions about meaning and purpose in life, who helps you sort out the problems and questions that you run into?

Some circles use the language of “discipling,” others spiritual direction, still others “shepherding” or pastoring, and others spiritual teacher or master. In Jesus’ time, serious spiritual students had “rabbis” or “teachers.”

Ever since coming back into church ministry in 2011, after going through a time of spiritual disillusionment and then renewal, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role of the pastor in churches and in people’s spiritual lives. I’ve come to believe that, all too often, what churches look for from their pastors, does not really encompass this role (of “spiritual teacher”).

Churches look for pastors to do three things: (a) provide teaching from the Bible in the form of sermons (b) provide leadership for the church organization, and (c) be available and compassionate in crisis situations, like hospitalizations or deaths. Depending on the congregation, (a) and (b) are sometimes switched in order of priority, and (c) is usually a distant third.

The role of spiritual teacher (or “discipler” to use the language some use in Christian circles) doesn’t really fit here. The “teaching” part of being a spiritual teacher — at least as I’m thinking of the term — is more than just preaching. It’s not about simply presenting concepts (like a preacher does from the pulpit) … it’s about helping people apply those concepts to their lives. If the church numbers in the hundreds or thousands, there’s no way the pastor can have enough interaction with people in the church to know what’s going on in their lives and help them with their questions and challenges.

Here’s my concern: If the pastor is not fulfilling this role, who is? Most pastors I know will say, “I’m not able to provide that kind of personal attention and care to each person in my church … that’s why we have small groups. People get that kind of care in their small groups.”

But do they really?

Let’s assume a church is divided into active small group Bible studies, or support groups. Can the small group leaders — who have other jobs, and often get very little training or preparation for their role as small group leaders — really fill this role of being spiritual teachers for people in their groups?

I’m sure that sometimes they do … but usually not. Usually the leader’s role is more that of facilitator or host. Plus, small groups shift around so much, and fizzle out so often, that the percentage of church attendees with a long term relationship in a small group — let alone one with a small group leader who functions as a spiritual teacher for them — is rare indeed.

I’m not sure what to think about this … and I really do want to know what others think. Do you think this is a problem? Do people even want to have someone who functions as a spiritual teacher in their lives? Or is it enough to have a pastor who is more of a figure-head and example at a distance? I’d love to know if it’s just me who thinks this role is really needed.

 

The Bible is a menu, not the food itself

I want to know God as a follower of Jesus. The Bible helps me do that. The Bible points me to the Source of spiritual life, but it is not the source. The Bible points me to the One who I worship, but it is not what I worship. I’ve recently come across two quotes that have helped me out by articulating this in helpful ways. Enjoy …

In his book Integral Christianity, Paul Smith writes this:

Christians have sat down at the Restaurant of Life and the waiter has come to give us our particular designated menu, the Bible. Christians have studied their menu in every detail until they have understood what was offered. And, for hundreds of years, they have not ordered from the menu. Instead, they had tried to eat the menu!

No wonder they have been grumpy, under nourished, and doctrinaire. Eating the menu instead of ordering from it is the traditional church’s idea of having a spiritual experience (except for a conversion experience among evangelicals and worship among charismatics). When we learn how to order from the menu we can get a nourishing, great-tasting, wonderful meal. A cognitive framework is of great help and encouragement, but it alone is not enough. The map is not the territory. The menu is not the meal.

On a related note, Barbara Brown Taylor has this to say about the Bible:

I know that the Bible is a special kind of book, but I find it as seductive as any other. If I am not careful, I can begin to mistake the words on the page for the realities they describe. I can begin to love the dried ink marks on the page more than I love the encounters that gave rise to them. If I am not careful, I can decide that I am really much happier reading my Bible than I am entering into what God is doing in my own time and place, since shutting the book to go outside will involve the very great risk of taking part in stories that are still taking shape. Neither I nor anyone else knows how these stories will turn out, since at this point they involve more blood than ink.

The whole purpose of the Bible, it seems to me, is to convince people to set the written word down in order to become living words in the world for God’s sake. For me, this willing conversion of ink back to blood is the full substance of faith.

Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol

Teen drug use freaks parents out more than just about anything. Parents desperately want to keep their kids safe and healthy, and when they find out – or even suspect – that their kids are using drugs, they don’t know what to do. The two most common mistakes are the opposite extremes:

Some parents under-react, making excuses for their kids and/or denying reality. They may not be sure what’s going on, and may choose to not learn more, because they don’t want to know. They may try to pretend nothing is happening, while their child is headed down a very destructive path.

Other parents over-react. Their fear causes them to lash out, react with hysterics, and try to enforce punishments that are either too unrealistic to be followed through on (like being “grounded” for a year), or so serious and damaging that they escalate hostility and push the kids further away. Parents who over-react tend to make decisions that harm their children, damaging their relationship, and driving them into addiction, rather than steering them away from it.

There’s got to be a better way. Continue reading Great advice for parents of teens experimenting with drugs and alcohol

Is it Time to Remodel How We’re Living?

simplify-your-lifeI’ve been reading a lot lately about simplifying and streamlining life. One interesting book is The Not So Big Life by Susan Susanka. She is an architect, and the author of “The Not So Big House” series of books on home design. So when she talks about adapting to our increasingly overloaded lives, it’s not surprising that she uses a house analogy: “remodeling.” Here is how she opens her book:

We are facing an enormous problem in our lives today. It’s so big we can hardly see it, and it’s right in our face all day, every day. We’re all living too big lives, crammed from top to toe with activities, urgencies, and obligations that seem absolute. There’s no time to take a breath, no time to look for the source of the problem. We are almost desperate for a solution. If we stop and consider what our lives would be like if things got much faster, we might feel overwhelmed by hopelessness and futility. We just don’t have any more time to give. We’re at the end of our rope.

We need to remodel the way we are living, but not in a way that gives us more of the same kinds of space we already have; that would simply create an even bigger life. What we need is a remodeling that allows us to experience what’s already here but to experience it differently, so that it delights us rather than drives us crazy.

That’s the world we are living in, and that’s the primary challenge people in our churches are facing. People are overwhelmed. Overwhelmed with the pace of life, overwhelmed with challenges of making a living, overwhelmed by the problems they are bombarded with in the media, in their neighborhoods, and in their families. They are working crazy hours, commuting to work on congested roads, and coming home to chaotic homes with spouses and children struggling to manage their own overloaded schedules.

People who are overwhelmed are looking for help — they are searching for direction, encouragement, and insights about how to navigate  the world of stress and overwhelm. On amazon.com, for example, you can find 777 books on “simplifying your life.” A search on google for the phrase, “simplifying your life” creates 2,470,000 results. People are looking for help.

People struggling with overwhelm come to churches, hoping to experience peace and strength there, and hoping to hear wisdom from spiritual teachers about living well in the face of busyness and stress.

And what do they find?

All too often, people find that, instead of offering a place of refuge from the epidemic of stress and overwhelm, churches are just another place that adds to it. They find leaders who themselves are stressed out and overwhelmed. They find leaders who can offer no genuine wisdom for how to live differently, because they are as harassed and rushed and anxious as their parishioners (and in some cases more so). So people are really lost … they are like sheep without a shepherd.

My study and the writing project of “The Not So Overwhelmed Leader” is based on belief that this issue gets to the heart of our integrity as a church. We promise that people can experience an “abundant life” (as Jesus promises in John 10:10), a life where we experience joy and peace, even in the midst of the ups and downs of our fallen existence. But if we can’t live that ourselves … if our lives are as burdened, anxious, and stressed-out as anyone else’s … then why should anyone listen to us?

Overcoming overwhelm is not just a good idea for pastors. It’s not just something optional we can try to implement that will help us feel happier. It is essential for us to learn to live differently, so we can help people in our churches to live differently. It is the need of the hour.

If we fail to subdue the three-headed monster of busyness, anxiety, and stress in our own lives — we have no credibility in trying to help others deal with this issue.

And make no mistake, this is one of the essential issues of our time. Failing here, we fail everywhere.

I’m not saying it’s easy, and I’m not claiming to have mastered this myself. It’s an ongoing priority in my life to balance an active and engaged life with a heart that is serene, joyful, open, and loving. If people come to church and find the pastors are stressed out, anxious, overwhelmed, and resentful … they will filter the teaching that comes from the lips of these pastors. There will be part of them that realizes that these pastors are not able to help them with one of their greatest sources of pain.

Facing the epidemic of suicide

suicide_imageToday there are growing numbers of suicides — especially among military veterans. I just came across a great article from Jennifer Michael Hecht in The American Scholar about suicide. It’s written from a secular, scholarly, but wise perspective. It’s so well-written that I’m doing to quote some sections at length. Here are some excerpts:

Today’s military faces a tremendous crisis. We are losing more soldiers to suicide than to combat. Some of this is attributable to PTSD—posttraumatic stress disorder—but a recent Pentagon study covering the years 2008 through 2011 showed that some 52 percent of those who committed suicide had never been deployed to a combat zone. Last year, military personnel killed themselves at a rate of about one a day. Veterans are killing themselves at a rate of almost one every hour, about 22 a day. Recently the rise in military suicide was so extreme that it made the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Time magazine. The rate is higher this year than it was at this point last year.

The suicide rate is also escalating in the U.S. population at large: 10 years ago it shocked observers by reaching 30,000 a year. Now it is almost 40,000. Around the world and in the United States there are more suicides than murders. For those under 40 years of age, it is one of the top three killers. For older people it is one of the top 10, though their rate of suicide is the highest (other diseases begin to compete for numbers). Women attempt suicide more, but men succeed more often—probably because they have greater access to guns, which is one of the surest methods.

In the civilian population matching the demographics of the military (considering age, sex, and race), between 2002 and 2009 (the latest year for which we have reliable numbers) the suicide rate increased by 15 percent. According to Pentagon numbers, the military suicide rate in the same period increased by 80 percent. Even this disparity may understate the problem, since the Pentagon counts as active duty people who were active for only a few days in a given year, making the rate far lower than it would be if officials counted people who were active for at least six months, for instance.

Why this rash of suicides?

Many soldier suicides come in response to a bad situation: a broken marriage, a financial crisis, legal trouble,  or some other reversal. A recent Pentagon study showed that about half of military suicides had experienced a failed marriage, frequently just months before the victims killed themselves. Another report showed that most suicides occurred in people under the age of 25. Family and friends who have lost someone to suicide often report that the person had legal or financial troubles, or both; that they were struggling with drugs or alcohol; that they came back from the war deeply changed; or that they were frustrated at not being deployed.

By and large, people kill themselves today for the same reasons Ajax (a figure in Greek Mythology that she references earlier in the article) does: because life can be disappointing, unfair, and painful, and we often respond by doing things that make us feel ashamed in the morning. The extent of the misery Ajax experiences is in large part because, as a great hero, he expects so much of himself. These days we expect a lot. We live in a culture that makes us all want to be special, and the math on that will never add up. We all feel terribly let down sometimes.

What to do about this rash of suicide?

If someone is besieged by suicidal thoughts, it is important that he get help from a mental health professional. Talk therapy can work, bringing real insight. Antidepressants can take the edge off the pain as a person figures out her life. But we can also draw on the inner resolve of the individual, and on the history of ideas.

To save our future selves from suicide, we have to do some work now. Boot camp and additional training get a soldier ready for war. In situations where most people would freeze and give up or run away, soldiers are trained to fight the fight and try to get out alive. People do not often speak of it, but the inner life of soldiers and civilians alike can be so brutal that it too requires training in advance of a crisis. We need a boot camp of the heart and of the psyche.

Beyond the moment of crisis, people do not want to die of suicide any more than the person who freezes up in a firefight wants to die in battle—they are both just overwhelmed and undertrained. The German philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once wrote that suicide is always a matter of taking oneself by surprise, a rushing of one’s own defenses. Like other defenses, those against suicide can be strengthened. Abundant data show us that the suicidal impulse can be of remarkably short duration. The mood passes. One study followed up on 515 people saved from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge more than 20 years earlier and found that only between five and seven percent actually went on to end their own lives. Other studies have shown that an overwhelming number of people who have attempted suicide are unambiguously glad they did not die.

An untrained person experiencing profound disappointment or depression may let the part of him that wants to die win the day. Any of us might get to a place where the sliver of ourselves that wants to die is in control for a while. Don’t let it happen. Inculcate into your very being the idea that killing yourself is not an option. This is work everyone should do. Those who have never felt intense inner pain should not scoff at its power. As the 17th-century doctor Robert Burton wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy: “Hope, ye miserable. Ye happy, take heed.” Everyone suffers; no one escapes. When the bad time comes, it will feel like it is never going to end. But it will. We must think it through now so that the training against suicide kicks in and saves our life and the lives of our fellows.

People considering suicide should keep in mind how it will affect others

As Hecht points out, suicide not only really hurts the people around us by causing them grief and guilt, it also creates a situation where the people we leave behind are much more likely themselves to commit suicide:

The reason I say “the lives of our fellows” is that one of the principal predictors of suicide is knowing someone who has committed suicide. We influence each other to an extraordinary degree. Parents who kill themselves leave behind children who are three times as likely to kill themselves as children who make it to age 18 with living parents. It’s not just parents. According to sociological studies, one suicide in a community very often leads to a rise in suicides by people who knew the deceased, or knew of him, or felt themselves like him in some way, especially with regard to age, sex, and occupation. In my new book, Stay, I compile a large number of studies showing that suicidal contagion is real. It shouldn’t surprise us, because studies have shown that with weight, smoking, recycling, and other choices, people do what they think the people around them are doing. Even with choices as permanent as getting tattoos or having a third child, people follow each other. After one suicide, the suicide rate in a given area increases. It happens at schools; it happens within professions; it happens after a celebrity suicide; and it is happening in the military right now.

Because of this phenomenon, suicide is also homicide—you take somebody with you. When you take your own life, you normalize suicide for people who liked you and who are like you. Once the numbers reach a critical mass, as they have in the military today, it is a massacre. We have to take better care of each other by insisting on sparing ourselves in periods of emotional agony. What I want to tell our soldiers and veterans is this: If you want your buddies to live, you have to find a way to live, too. Living through your misery is a colossal gift to the community. You may now or someday feel as if you are useless, as if the world would be better off without you. But that is wrong. You may have made some mistakes, even some terrible mistakes, but you would do even more damage—immeasurable damage—if you were to kill yourself. It is not an option.

True, someone cannot simply decide not to feel miserable, or just choose not to have suicidal thoughts, but people can choose not to go through with it. Consider, for example, that the powerful cultural taboo against suicide for women with small children corresponds to a low suicide rate for such women. They are no less depressed—50 to 80 percent of women experience some postpartum “blues,” and between 10 and 15 percent suffer from postpartum depression. Nothing suggests that they have fewer suicidal thoughts, but they resist them. If women can do this for their children, then soldiers can do it for their comrades, their families, and their own future selves.

It takes courage to live through feelings of despair

Many great minds in history have spoken of the courage required to stay alive. It may seem like a very different kind of courage than what war requires, but similarities exist. In some cases, courage on the battlefield is observed by many others and can lead to a medal, but even on the battlefield the greatest courage is often witnessed by only a few other people. An act of heroism can nevertheless be deeply satisfying. The courage to live through suicidal feelings and stay alive will not earn a medal, but it will bring the respect of those close to you and may well bring tremendous satisfaction.

And beyond satisfaction, it can bring wisdom. Most people feel at times that they have dug themselves into a hole out of which they cannot climb. No one wants to be humbled in this way, but it is an essential ripening. From military heroes, leaders we admire, and deep thinkers of all kinds, we hear over and over that real knowledge comes from pain. Living through inner pain is how we lose our arrogance, our selfishness, and our ignorance. It is how we acquire gentleness and a sense of responsibility, maturity, and the capacity for leadership.

Our view of suicide is skewed today because of our tendency to expect that life should always be easy and happy

The way we talk about suicide today is off balance. We are so caught up in the language of illness that we end up stigmatizing misery, when in fact misery is a part of everyone’s life. As a nation, we take millions of pills to deal with our sadness, yet we strive to seem fine all the time, such that everyone ends up alone with his or her struggles. We read and write about all sorts of weakness and heartache, but the stories are almost all recovery tales. We are willing to talk about it when it’s over, but while people are at their lowest points they are often isolated by shame about their troubles. We need at least to know that inner pain is common and always has been.

Closing thoughts:

We need to think these issues through and take a stand now so that when we are feeling anguish, we have a commitment to avoid taking our own lives. We need to know that suicide is wrong. We need to read it, and hear it, and speak it, one-on-one and in gatherings.

Ideas are never the whole story: people face biological depression, cataclysmic financial loss, maddening drug addiction, and awful luck in love. To fix the national problem of suicide, among soldiers and civilians, we need better access to mental health care and a better economy. But ideas do matter.

History and philosophy indicate that people can gain strength from knowing of the suffering of heroes, historical and mythical. When we are miserable, it is hard to remember anything positive, so we have to memorize some things before those moments come. Life is meaningful, and it is meaningful for reasons to which we do not always have access, because of our youth or because of our mood. Trust the wisdom of the ages and wait for greater knowledge and better times. Life will raise us up again. Practice having some faith in it.

What leaders can learn from Diana Nyad

DianaNyadOver the weekend, when you and I were eating hamburgers from the grill and watching TV, Diana Nyad became the first person to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. What makes this even more impressive is that she is 64 years old, and this was her fifth try (her first attempt was in 1978). She swam 110 miles in 53 hours, through the Florida Straits, notorious for its strong currents, sharks and swarms of stinging jellyfish. Amazing!

You can read the NY Times article about her trip here. Also, I’ve included a video at the end of this article of her super-inspiring TED talk — from a few years ago (after an unsuccessful attempt … and prior to another unsuccessful attempt) — that talks about her motivation, and some of the personal struggles that such an undertaking involves.

When she completed her swim on Monday, here’s what she said:

“I have three messages…

One is we should never, ever give up.

Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams.

Three is it looks like a solitary sport but it takes a team.”

Never Give Up

Each of these three lessons is worth reflecting on, but I’d like to emphasize the first, especially as it relates to leadership. Never, ever give up. Anything worth doing is hard. Anything worth doing will take more time, effort, and money than you expect. Anything worth doing will likely involve setbacks and times of discouragement.

I read an interesting book on this subject last year called “The 10x Rule: The only difference between success and failure“. Essentially, the message of the book is that when we embark on some project or important task, we should assume that it will take ten times as long, ten times as much money, and ten times as much work as we expect. The author was an entrepreneur, so he focused on starting new companies and other business projects. It applies to leadership in any setting.

As a church planter who’s started two churches, and now pastors a new church started three years before I came here, I can testify that this truth applies in the spiritual world as well … it’s always way harder than you think.

I’m not sure if I would say it’s ten times as much work, time, etc … but certainly three or four times as much. More than double, for sure. Most of us tend to be optimists, and most of us are naive about all the things that can go wrong. When engaging in challenging tasks, we are often surprised and dismayed by the resistance and obstacles that need to be overcome. Keep going. Don’t give up.

Learning instead of quitting

Diana Nyad tried – and failed – four times to complete this quest. Each time she was discouraged, and wondered if it was time to give up. Especially as she was getting older, I’m sure it must have been tempting to let go of the dream. But instead she learned from each of her attempts, and kept trying.

On one of her attempts, she was derailed by jellyfish stinging her face. She was eventually taken out of the water with swelling that raised serious concerns for her health. Instead of giving up, she developed a special mask to protect her face on subsequent trips. One time she was derailed by the currents pulling her off course. She adjusted to that in future trips as well, by having the lead boat establish the direction for her.

I love that tenacity, and want to see it more in my own life, and in the settings where I work (mostly in churches, and mostly with pastors). Let’s be honest: it’s not always there. In fact, in some settings we see just the opposite … people using their spiritual ideas as a reason (excuse?) to give up when things get hard.

This is simply spiritualizing laziness. Some people assume that “if God is in it” … then it’s going to be easy. If some project encounters setbacks, they rush to second guess the project, trying to read the circumstances like people trying read tea leaves in a cup, to discern if they are “doing God’s will” or “running ahead of God.”

Just shut up and do what you are called on to do. Nobody said it was going to be easy. And if, in the end, it turns out that it wasn’t what God wanted you to do, then that will become clear as time goes on. In other words, don’t take difficulties and challenges as spiritual signs that you’re off-track. Difficulties and challenges are just part of life … and part of leadership in any endeavor. “God’s blessing” doesn’t function like an umbrella to keep you from getting wet.

How I’m putting this into practice

Right now I’m in the process of writing a book, and establishing a network of Leadership Communities. I am hoping to make peer support and coaching groups available to a wide variety of pastors, and help them grow their leadership. It’s not always easy. People wonder “Is this going to work?” “Will pastors actually take the time to participate in these groups?” I think they will. I’m going to keep going, excited by the good response I have from pastors, and looking forward to these groups starting up.

Diana Nyad has a lot to teach all of us. Make adjustments as needed. Take setbacks as feedback to learn from, and alter your course accordingly. But keep going.

 

Here’s Nyad giving a TED talk about extreme swimming. Like everything else about her, it’s inspiring (especially when you realize that this talk was given prior to one of her failed attempts.

 

Bullying – on the playground and in the pew

bullyWe’re paying more attention these days to the subject of bullying. Maybe we’re just more sensitive these days, but more likely it’s because the problem is getting worse. Kids’ participation in social media means that they are exposed to more of their peers, and therefore more bullies. Not only that, but the dynamics of electronic communication lend themselves to bullying. (If you don’t believe me, just observe the “discussions” that happen in blogs and message boards for a while … notice how the level of discourse quickly devolves into name calling and snarky comments.)

Bullying doesn’t just happen among kids … adults do it too. In fact, some would argue that kids are doing it more these days because it’s being modeled more these days by people like us. This is really sad when you think about it … especially when you think about it happening in church.

And it does happen in church, doesn’t it? Does it ever! I see it a lot. Sometimes people lash out because of insecurity, sometimes because of fear, sometimes simply because of pride and a desire for power. Sometimes people use bullying tactics under the guise of exercising spiritual authority.

You’ve maybe heard the story of kids who are playing outside, while their moms is working in the house with a window open. She hears them yelling and name calling, and decides she has to intervene. She calls out the window: “What are you kids doing?” One of them responds: “It’s okay mom, we’re just playing church.”

Ouch!

Dr. Louise Hart on Bullying

There’s a great article in a recent Hazelden newsletter about bullying, which is an excerpt from Dr Hart’s new book on the subject. I’m going to quote it at length here, because she does such a great job at describing the characteristics of bullies and their victims. As you read this, see if you can identify any of this in behaviors you see in your church:

Characteristics of Bullies
Bullying refers to words or actions expressed to gain power over another person, as in the saying “Might makes right.” This urge to dominate, to be superior, underlies child abuse, date rape, domestic violence, workplace violence, and hate crimes. The need to dominate contributes to the imbalance of power.

Bullies can be characterized in a number of ways:

  • aggressive bullies who are hot-tempered, strong, impulsive, and confident
  • passive bullies who are insecure and have personal problems; they tend to follow the lead of aggressive bullies
  • bully-victims who have been bullied, then bully others
  • pure bullies who are well adjusted but just enjoy dominating others

Some bullies are children who themselves have been bullied, although that’s not true for all. For some, bullying might be a way of dealing with situations at home that they’re having trouble coping with. For others, they may have poor social skills or learning disabilities, making it hard to fit in with other kids; for these children, bullying provides a sense of control to satisfy their own sense of powerlessness.

Characteristics of Targets
Any child can be bullied, but there are often some common characteristics of targets:

  • passive victims who are anxious, fearful, and socially withdrawn (sometimes with good reason), making them appear vulnerable.
  • Experts have named many types of passive victims, such as: –vicarious victims who feel vulnerable, sympathetic, and guilty when there is bullying around them –false victims who feel they are being bullied, even when they are not –perpetual victims who have been bullied so much that it becomes part of their psyche
  • provocative victims who arouse negative responses from those
  • around them
  • bully-victims (see above)

 

School Principle Ron DeBoer writing about bullying

Another great article on bullying just came out in The Banner, written by school principle Ron DeBoer. Listen to his recommendation for  how schools need to deal with this:

Schools need to develop deliberate strategies to both prevent and respond to bullying. Schools need to communicate clearly to parents that no forms of bullying will be tolerated; they need policies and processes with escalating consequences for bullies. That may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often adults in a position to respond to bullying don’t acknowledge it as anything other than a teenage rite of passage.

Good stuff. I agree completely. But it also makes me think: WHAT ABOUT CHURCHES?

Read DeBoer’s paragraph again … and this time substitute “churches” for schools. Do you agree? Do you think that churches need to take more of a stand against bullying in all its forms? I do.

Stepping up our commitment to fight bullying

I’m working on a book right now about Overloaded Leaders. One of the reason for pastors being overloaded is that they get burdened by dealing with conflict … including conflict that is directed at them. One of the important — but often overlooked — tasks of church leaders is to protect the community of the church. The church needs to be a place that is safe and loving. When people violate standards of love by gossiping, criticizing, name-calling, and general intimidation … it’s time to step in.

We can talk more about “How” and “When” to step in later. But right now the most important issue is this: do we agree that it’s an important issue? Do we agree that it is our job to protect community health? Are we willing to make that an important part of our task as leaders?

If pastors agree to this, then the next step is to ensure that they are not alone in that conviction. This needs the ownership and commitment of boards and councils (which are, unfortunately, often the places where we see bullying behaviors in churches!). Deal with that by teaching, intelligent confrontation (when necessary), and sometimes just holding on until some destructive “leaders” end their terms on the board. Then, when the church leadership can be united in its commitment to healthy relationships — and no tolerance for bullying in the church — then the community can be much stronger, more united, and more fruitful in ministry.

 

The sociology of friendship, groups, and church size

Small groups (like home Bible studies, Care Groups, and the like) have an upper size limit of 10-15, depending on the people involved. The reason is obvious, and it’s pure sociology. We can only relate meaningfully to a small group of people. Beyond that size, relational dynamics get too complex and we naturally sub-divide into smaller “groups within the group”.

Churches without associate program staff rarely grown beyond 200. The reasons are more complex, but sociology also plays a big role.

Listen to what John Agno has to say about the sociology of groups, and think about what this means for churches:

According to “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell, to be someone’s best friend requires a minimum investment of time. More than that, it takes emotional energy. Caring about someone deeply is exhausting. At a certain point, at somewhere between 10 to 15 people, we begin to overload. Mostly, it’s a question of our available time and energy.

For example, if you belong to a group of twenty people, there are 190 two-way relationships to keep track of: 19 involving yourself and 171 involving the rest of the group. That’s a twentyfold increase in the amount of information processing needed to ‘know’ the other members of the group. Even a relatively small increase in the size of a group, creates a significant additional social and intellectual burden.

The figure of 150 seems to represent the maximum number of individuals with whom we can have a genuinely social relationship, the kind of relationship that goes with knowing who they are and how they relate to us. To have more than 150 people in a group reduces the ability of each member to be sufficiently familiar with each other that they can work together as a functional unit.

Above 150, you have to impose complicated hierarchies and rules to command loyalty and cohesion. Below 150, it is possible to achieve these same goals informally based upon personal loyalties and direct person-to-person contacts.

When things get larger than 150, people become strangers to one another. When your group gets bigger than 150, you begin to get two or three sub-groups or clans within the larger group. Above 150 people, there begins to be structural impediments to the ability of the group to agree and act with one voice.

How the 150 number applies to churches gets complicated, because church size is also heavily affected by facility space, the nature of the church programs and organizational structure, and the leadership and communication skills of the pastor. If nothing else, it’s helpful to keep in mind that people gravitate to a medium sized “communities” (ranging from 40-75) in churches, regardless of the worship attendance of the church. This is because people probably have 50 to 100 people outside the church who already play a key role in their lives … and if the social limit of most people is about 150, that leaves space for 40-75.

Interesting.

Culture Trend: The Move Away From Church Viewed From Political Perspective

I just read a fascinating article about the GOP’s connection — and lack thereof — with American voters regarding spiritual issues. While probably not ground-breaking, the article is a good summary of where we are spiritually in our society, and why churches are having such a hard time making inroads into reaching the unchurched.

The article points out the huge shift away from church in our culture. Here’s a quote:

“Studies suggest the number of unchurched has doubled in the past two decades and shot up by 25 percent in the last four years. The shift has taken place across the country and across economic classes, most notably among the young; one fifth of adults and one third of Americans under thirty now declare themselves religiously unaffiliated.”

The author makes the point that the GOP is having a hard time trying to rally its voter base with a “let’s get back to traditional values” kind of message. Here’s another quote:

“Young evangelicals don’t look at the country as a battlefield, but rather a mission field. They’re are less scared than their forbearers: They see the ‘War on Religion’ narrative as nonsense; they see churches thriving, the outlets they have, and the extent of religious pluralism in this country. The new generation sees community activism, rather than electoral politics, as the means for their faith to shape the world.”