Learning from Previous Shepherds

what I see now, I wish I had known then

In one interim congregation, I met an unusual number of men who had served as elders. Some were still in the congregation. Others were in the community. Only two were in other cities.

As I was getting acquainted, I kept meeting men who told me, “I used to be an elder here.” Or someone else would point to a man as a former shepherd.

After several of these encounters early in my tenure, I said during an elders’ meeting, “I think every baptized man in this county has served as an elder of this church at one time or another.”

I wondered if we could gain some wisdom by talking with these men. The elders of the church I was serving gave me permission and encouragement, along with names and phone numbers. I was able to interview 26 of 27.

I called for appointments and visited each man. I assured his information would be confidential, not sharing names with specific answers. I was thrilled with the cooperation of former elders and the willingness of the present elders to meet for several hours and discuss these observations.

Questions I Asked

  1. How long were you an elder?
  2. How was your experience?
  3. While you were serving as an elder if you had had a magic wand, what would you have changed to make the eldership better?
  4. In what ways and how often did people express appreciation to you for your service?
  5. What appreciation did you receive when you resigned?
  6. Why did you leave the eldership: personal issues, good of the church, forced?
  7. Did you see alliances, division in the eldership?
  8. If so, how was this handled?
  9. What suggestions would you have for the present eldership?

Observations from Former Elders

  1. Of 24 who answered this question, there was a total of 143.58 years of service. Average was 6 years.
  2. Good experiences: fellowship with fellow shepherds, better relationship with the congregation, able to know God and people better.
  3. Unpleasant experiences: doing the work of deacons, board of directors, some elders did not live up to their word, politicking.
  4. Ways to improve shepherd service: fewer decisions — more visiting, change focus from administration to spiritual matters, more shepherding — less firefighting, continue training of elders.
  5. What appreciation did you receive for your service?: 81% said they received regular and adequate appreciation while they were serving; 19% said they did not. When they resigned, 50% said they received appreciation, 50% said they did not.
  6. Why they left the eldership: moved, frustrated, asked to leave, personal and family issues, burned out, finished what I came to do.
  7. 84% said there were alliances and divisions in the eldership when they served. 16% said there were none.
  8. Most said alliances were not handled. Several reported there were meetings before meetings to decide what was going to be decided in the meetings.

Answers provided excellent insight gained from Bible study, prayer, experience, and time in reflection.

There were many good suggestions for the present eldership. I am not reporting those. To do so might reveal individuals commenting to some who are in that congregation.

For this process to be effective, the person asking questions and recording answers should do it for information only and not explain, prosecute, or defend present or former elderships.

Consider this, or a similar exercise, to tap the wisdom of men who have served, still love the Lord and His church, and can give good perspectives when asked.

What are some other ways to gain wisdom for shepherds?

Please leave a comment by ...... clicking here.

Interim Ministry Workshop

September 21–23, 2017

What do you plan to do for the rest of your life? How will you use the wisdom you have gained by study and experience as a preacher? For ten years, Gail and I have enjoyed interim ministry in seven congregations. We have continued to learn and grow. We have been encouraged by brethren in all these places. Some of you have the ability to offer a great service. I would like to share what I am learning with you. We will meet in the beautiful new facilities of the Charlotte Heights Church of Christ, 6833 Old Charlotte Pike, Nashville, Tennessee 37209.

Three things to do to take advantage of this opportunity:

    1. Mark your calendar for September 21-23
    2. To answer any questions, contact Jerrie Barber:jerrie@barberclippings.com(615) 584-0512
    3. Reserve your place in this workshop: I want to participate in this workshop

Reserve my place in this workshop

Eddyville, Kentucky

The cost is $317.49 per person.

Hendersonville, Tennessee

There is a minimum and a maximum number of participants:
The minimum for the course to be conducted is — 1. If no one shows up, I won’t talk.
The maximum is 20 people, total. We will be doing group sessions. Twenty will be the limit.

Cookeville, Tennessee

The concepts we’ll discuss will be good training for any preacher and his wife. Gail and I had an introduction course in 1996. We went through Interim Ministry Network training in 1998-1999, seven years before I started interim ministry. I took a refresher course in March 2007, before starting interim ministry in May of that year. The training and what I learned helped during those last years of full-time ministry.

LaVergne, Tennessee

Preachers’ wives are encouraged but not required to attend this workshop. Gail and I went for training together.

Maury City, Tennessee


Thursday, September 21, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Friday, September 22, 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; 7:00-9:00 p.m.

Saturday, September 23, 8:00 a.m.-noon

Jeffersonville, Indiana


  • The story of our journey to interim ministry.
  • Family Systems, the framework of working with groups.
  • Is there any hope for this church?
  • The work of the interim preacher — to guide and coach a process.
  • Contracts, opportunity to clarify expectations — objections to written contracts.
  • Compensation for an interim.
  • Making contacts, getting the word out that you’re available for interim ministry.
  • Rules. (Differentiation)
  • Initial Family Meeting.
  • Projects.
  • Preaching during the interim.
  • The interim’s wife — discussion, Q & A with Gail.
  • The Search — training those who will be searching for the new preacher.
  • The Preacher.
  • When you don’t need an interim.
  • Conflict management.

Sikeston, Missouri

Three things to do to take advantage of this opportunity:

    1. Mark your calendar for September 21-23
    2. To answer any questions, contact Jerrie Barber: jerrie@barberclippings.com(615) 584-0512
    3. Reserve your place in this workshop: I want to participate in this workshop

Reserve my place in this workshop

Self-Study Survey

What kind of preacher do we want? Will that kind of preacher want us?

Most Christians have an idea of the characteristics of the preacher they’d like to have. If the last preacher was their good friend, they probably want another just like him. Those aren’t available. If they didn’t like the former preacher, someone who is exactly opposite him would be good. There’s none of those.

Most want a preacher who lives like Jesus, studies like Paul, loves like John (when he was older), and visits and ministers like the Good Samaritan. It’s good to know what you are seeking, or you won’t know when you find him.

Have you thought about what prospective preachers are looking for in a congregation? How do they know if they fit the opportunities and expectations of the church? Are you aware the church is “trying out” as well as the preacher?

One helpful tool is a Self-Study Survey. I helped congregations administer one of these in each church where I’ve served as an interim.

There are several parts:

  1. Demographics: age, how long with the congregation, travel time to and from services.
  2. Involvement: roles, attendance, increase or decrease in involvement and why.
  3. Evaluation of programs and services of the congregation.
  4. How the congregation is like or different in its makeup compared to the community.
  5. Possible tasks of the future preacher and which are most important.
  6. Evaluation of the worship of the congregation.
  7. Thoughts on what makes a good sermon.
  8. Convictions on certain issues.
  9. Three open-ended questions:
    1. What would you tell the next preacher at this church?
    2. What advice would you give the elders of this church as they proceed?
    3. Please make any other comments that would be helpful for the health of this congregation during this time of transition or in the future.

The survey is anonymous. We don’t ask for names or save IP numbers of computers used.

Most congregations where I served used SurveyMonkey, an online survey tool. Paper copies are available for those who prefer and those who want to think before starting on the computer.

Filling out the survey takes forty-five minutes to an hour. We wanted, and have obtained, a number of at least half the Sunday morning attendance to complete the self-study.

My observations after administering and reading every word of surveys in six congregations:

  • Not everyone thinks alike. Some people who have different understandings are sitting on the pew with me — or very close.
  • Christians are at different stages in their growth, understanding, and service.
  • People have different expectations of a preacher.
  • The results of the survey can help men who are considering and being considered as the next preacher.
  • Open-ended questions are powerful. People have an opportunity to say what they’ve wanted to say. I’ve seen a change in the way those were shared. In the first two congregations, answers to the open-ended questions were not shared with the congregation. In the third, a committee summarized and paraphrased the answers to share with the church and prospective preachers. In the last three, answers were shared with the church and prospective preachers. I prefer the latter. The work of the search committee or elders is not to make the church look perfect, but to let a preacher know the challenges and opportunities before he gets there. This is one way to do this. If this isn’t the group he would like to serve, now’s the time to learn that. The best time to get a divorce is before you get married.
  • From my perspective, the most helpful thing about the survey is the thinking going on in the person completing the survey. Many have never thought of how complex leading and preaching to a group of people can be. Not everyone will get everything they want.

One of the most spiritual things a person can do is to think. One of the differences in fill-in preaching between preachers and interim ministry is the interim minister leads in several planned activities to encourage members to think about themselves and their relationship to the Lord, the effectiveness of the congregation and how it is serving Jesus, their community, and the world, and the transition going on in this church and their lives.

What would you do to help people make the transition after a long ministry?

Please leave a comment by ...... clicking here.

Discussion Rules

guidelines for a peaceful and productive meeting

You can’t have a congregational meeting here. It always gets out of hand.” “I’d be afraid to address these things with the church. You can never tell what people may say in a group.” And so we do not communicate. People are already frustrated because we haven’t communicated. We decide not to communicate because people are frustrated. Then they get more frustrated because we are not communicating.

Many discussions, classes, and especially meetings where there is conflict break up and/or become unproductive. It may be that the leader(s) did not know the value of guidelines.

Amos asked, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3). We don’t have to agree on everything. But if we are going to travel together from Nashville, Tennessee, to St. Louis, Missouri, we must agree on some things: What time will we leave? What kind of transportation will we take? Who will drive? The clothes we wear and the food we eat along the way can be individual choice, but we must agree on the basics of the trip.

That means we rarely think about the rules, usually don’t discuss them, but people pay a price when they disobey them. It is my observation that it is better to have our rules conscious, spoken, and understood. Then we can evaluate them and change them if that would be helpful to the group: family, congregation, work group, or sports team.

I use a form of these guidelines anytime I am leading a group: counseling, workshop, auditorium Bible class, preachers’ workshop stress session, congregational “Family Meeting,” or conflict resolution. Many conflicts arise because we are playing by different rules.

I will discuss the ideas behind the guidelines. James Jones introduced these concepts to me. I watched him in counseling sessions, classes, and leadership workshops. It was amazing how stress went down when I knew the boundaries. It was safe when I played by the rules and believed that others would do the same or be held accountable for not doing so.

These guidelines need to be negotiated – not commanded. Simply reading them to a group will not get a buy-in. I like to discuss them and talk about why they contribute to group health. I take about ten minutes with a group where most of the people are familiar. I take about an hour and a half to negotiate these guidelines when doing a Saturday church meeting during a conflict intervention workshop.

  • May I be the leader of this group?

I need the group’s permission because I only lead those who give me permission to be the leader. I may have the authority. My name may be on the brochure or church letterhead as preacher, elder, or Bible class teacher. But if the group doesn’t give me permission to be the leader, I will not lead. How much authority does Jesus have (Matthew 28:18)? How many people is He leading? Jesus is only leading those who give Him permission to be their leader. Many are invited, but only those who desire to take the water of life follow Him (Revelation 22:17). He wanted Jerusalem to follow Him and enjoy His protection. But they were not willing (Matthew 22:37). I don’t have the authority of Jesus. I will not be the leader if the group doesn’t give me permission.

  • Will we start on time?
  • Will we quit on time?

Especially in a workshop setting, this helps the group learn to operate within limits, boundaries. That is the way the world operates. It is a good practice since it respects everyone’s time.

  • Will we speak one at a time? 1 Corinthians 14:27–33

If we are working as a group, I show disrespect to the group in general and to the person speaking in particular when I begin a private conversation with my neighbor. If it relates to the group, it should be shared with the group. If it doesn’t relate to the group, it can be held until a break.

This has been the most difficult rule for me to enforce as a leader. I have been leading the Third Monday Workshop stress session made up of preachers, elders, youth ministers, and other interested Christians in the Nashville, Tennessee, area since the fall of 1988. Three times I have come to the group to suggest that we agree to dispense with this guideline because it is violated so often. It is embarrassing for me to call to account preachers and elders who are older than I am and have more education than I have for talking when they have agreed not to talk. But each time the group has assured me that it is important to the group process. We still have the guideline, and it seems that it has been observed better for several months.

  • Will we talk where others can hear or will we speak softly and in small groups where others will not know what is being said?

This is a follow-up on the previous guideline. Unauthorized sub-grouping will destroy the group. It drains energy and attention when some obviously do not think the person who is speaking has anything as valuable to say as what they are saying.

  • Will each person speak for himself or herself or will we speak for others such as “they,” “them,” “everybody,” and for God as well?

How many times have you heard, “A lot of people are upset,” “Several are unhappy with the preacher”? When asked for names, the reply often is, “Well I can’t tell you who they are, but there’s a bunch.” I like to have the guideline, “I’ll speak for me, you speak for you, and let God speak for God. Unless you have been elected to the House of Representatives or the Senate, you do not have permission to represent anyone in this group except yourself.” I don’t know who the “several” are.
I don’t know how many are in a “bunch.” I would be interested in knowing what you think. I will value what you say.

  • Will we have a right to all our feelings: the painful as well as the pleasant?

Some people are convinced that there are good feelings and bad feelings. I think there are pleasant feelings and painful feelings. But it is my understanding that all our emotions are given to us by God and are good for us. I need to be responsible how I act on my emotions, but they are all helpful. I usually mention the four “feeling groups”: mad, sad, glad, scared.

We can be sad. We have tissues. If Jesus can cry (John 11:35), I can cry. We can be scared and talk about that. We have a right to be angry. Jesus was angry (Mark 3:5). Therefore, it must not be sinful. Paul said to be angry and not sin (Ephesians 4:26). You have a right to be angry. You have a right to be angry with me. You can talk about being angry with me. However, you do not have a right to hit me or tear up the furniture. There is a difference in what we feel and what we do with our feelings. We can be glad and laugh. There is a qualification on that which is included in the next guideline.

  • Do you want to have a rule that we will not make fun of what people say in this group?

We can laugh with people but not at people. How can we know if we are laughing with or laughing at? The first test is to see if the other person is laughing. I cannot laugh with someone who is not laughing. But I may need to ask the person being discussed if it feels like we are laughing with him or at him. Solomon said, “Sorrow may hide behind laughter, and happiness may end in sorrow (Proverbs 14:13, The Contemporary English Version). This brings us to the next rule.

  • May I, as a leader, have a right to interrupt?

If I have any question, I will ask the person who is the focus of the laughter, “Does it feel like we are laughing with you or at you?”. Several years ago, I was leading a group. After an elder’s wife had made a comment, someone said, “That’s the way Yankees are.” The group laughed. I asked her, “Does it feel like we are laughing with you or at you?”. She replied: “We have been living here fourteen years and worshiping with this congregation. We have taught Bible classes. We have been involved in the work. It would feel good to be just a Christian, a member of this church and not a ‘Yankee Christian.’ ” We learned a lesson that night.

  • Will we have a right to disagree with each other?

In several decades of leading groups, I have always gained permission for disagreement in the group. I’ve always said that if I ever get a group where we can’t disagree, I want to talk first because I like my opinions better than those of anyone else. But I wouldn’t learn very much.

  • Will we settle group business in the group or will we get in small groups afterward and talk about each other?

Polarizing begins to take place when we start talking about each other instead of to each other. If it is group business, it needs to be addressed in the group.

  • Do we want to have a rule of confidentiality: what we say here stays here?

This is essential if we are to develop a trusting group. Many people assume that elders, preachers, and other leaders will keep confidences. This is where people are often hurt. Assuming is not good communication. Too often Christians don’t keep personal matters confidential. I like to talk about it. What does it mean “What we say here stays here”? What if we discuss the weather or read John 3:16 in the group? Can we not take that out of the group? In our staff meetings at Berry’s Chapel, we developed the “church bulletin rule”: if we talk about something in a staff meeting that we would print in the church bulletin, we can talk about it out of the group. If we wouldn’t print it in the bulletin, we won’t carry it out of the meeting. If there is any question, it is best to check with the person or people to whom the information belongs.

  • Will I take care of myself, telling the group only what I trust them to keep?

After we have established this rule, I encourage new members to doubt that as long as they need to doubt it. Anyone can say what we have just said, “What we say here stays here.” I believe that faith grows through “creative doubt.” Creative doubt is doubt that asks questions and sincerely wants to know the truth. It is my observation that it took about two years in our Third Monday Workshop to establish trust in the group where we could talk about serious, personal issues. After establishing that trust in the core group, new members do not seem to diminish the readiness of group members bring up what they need to discuss. Since August of 1988, I don’t know of a matter getting out of the group. That’s powerful! That’s encouraging to have that kind of support group.

  • If what I say offends or hurts you, will you tell me or will you talk about me to others?

This is a powerful commitment! Think how assuring it would be if we didn’t have to wonder how we were coming across to others.

  • If, after a group session is over, you realize that you didn’t get finished, will you bring the matter back to the group and work it out?

This reminds us that we deal with group business in the group.

  • May we be humble instead of arrogant?

That is, if we don’t know what someone is thinking or feeling, will we ask or will we assume that we know what they are thinking or feeling? [Matthew 5:3; 1 Corinthians 2:11]

One of my mistakes in communication is attempting to mind-read. I think I know what you are thinking and act on that assumption. The only problem is that I don’t know what you are thinking unless you tell me. The best policy is to ask.

  • May others respond to what we say?
  • When we ask a question, will we be willing to tell why we want to know the answer?

I may want to know why someone is asking questions. What are you going to do with the information? Why are you interested?

  • May a person decide to quit talking when they choose?

In most groups, I do not require people to talk. Some people learn better with their mouths open and others learn better with their mouths closed. Each person can decide which works best for them without pressure.

  • Will we attend all sessions? If we must be absent, will we tell the group why?

It is a matter of courtesy to be responsible to a group (class, elder’s meeting, committee meeting). It takes energy away from group process when a member is late or absent without explanation. “I wonder if they are sick, had an accident, forgot, or don’t care about our work?” This can be eliminated by a call, text, or e-mail: “I will be fifteen minutes late,” or “I am sick and will be unable attend tonight’s meeting.”

  • Will we agree not to talk about group business during breaks?

This guideline is especially helpful in groups that are learning experiences in how groups work. If we talk about group business during breaks, we deprive the rest of the group of our thoughts and ourselves of the wisdom of the rest of the group. If the meeting is dealing with conflict, it is easier to choose sides and plot destruction by subdividing and talking about others during breaks of ten minutes or two days.

  • While in the discussion and exploration of new ideas, will the group allow any title, position, seniority, family relationship, age, actual or perceived net worth, chain of command, level of management, inhibit or repress any comment or idea from being shared and seriously considered?

When this principle is ignored, many times a “head elder” will result. This may be a toxic head elder or a benevolent head elder. I think both are hurtful to the long-term leadership of the church or any group.

  • Are we aware that some of these rules will probably be broken?

What will we learn about ourselves and leadership when they are broken?

  1. By us?
  2. By others?

Can we ask and will we answer the question, “What did you learn from that”? These guidelines form boundaries that are sometimes difficult to remember and/or difficult to keep. When we hold ourselves and others accountable to do what we agreed to do, it can be helpful. If a guideline is not helpful, it can be changed. Self-reporting is especially commendable and an opportunity to teach and give others permission to analyze themselves in the group process.

  • Will we agree to try to apply these Biblical principles to ourselves before we try to “fix” other people who are in this group or people who are not here? [Psalm 139:23, 24; 1 Corinthians 9:27; 2 Corinthians 13:5, 10:12]

It is hard to keep everyone in the room during a class or group session. I want to jump out the window and bring in a friend or an enemy who needs to hear this more than I do. “I wish John and Mary were here. They need to hear this. Those folks down the street need this.” I call this the “me first” principle of Bible study. The first question I need to ask when studying God’s word or implementing principles that I am learning is, “How does this apply to me?”.

  • May we bring up “old business” if we need to clarify or discuss something further?

Sometimes a comment is countered by, “We’ve already talked about that.” If a person isn’t finished with an issue, it may need to be discussed again.

  • May we have permission to make additional rules, if needed, to help this group be more effective?

This list is not exhaustive. Some discussions need fewer guidelines, some more.

In some meetings that involved anticipated conflict, we had the “no shouting” rule. As the facilitator, I have been told that previous meetings had ended in a shouting match which was hurtful. It was suggested that I call people to account when they were getting too loud. I decided not to get into the middle of that group’s conflict. What we negotiated was that when three people held up their hands when a person was getting louder and louder, I would report to the speaker, “Three people in the group think you are getting louder than is helpful for this discussion.” That helps the group be responsible for itself and keeps me out of the middle of a conflict that doesn’t belong to me.

In some meetings, we have had the “Why are you leaving?” rule. When I was informed that this group’s meetings often end in people leaving mad, we worked out the agreement that if people left, they would tell why. This kept people from assuming that people were leaving angry or letting them know that they were angry and possibly why.

In one preachers’ meeting, the group requested the guideline, “We will not talk disparagingly about any person not present.” This came out of painful experience of previous preachers’ luncheons that developed into a discussion of who was doing or saying the wrong things since our last meeting. This spirit killed that meeting.

  • Would you be willing to tell what you like about this group process, what is helpful and what is not helpful, and in this way give suggestions for improving future discussions?

This can be one of the most helpful guidelines for the leader as well as for the rest of the group. If the leader is serious and honest, he or she can model a learning attitude that encourages growth. I like criticism! When anyone loves me enough to tell me how I can improve, that person is doing me a favor. If you find salmonella in my refrigerator and tell me about it, you are not hurting me. You are helping me.

When I am leading a meeting, I have the choice of the Amos rule, “Can two walk together, unless they are agreed?” (Amos 3:3), or the Judges rule, “In those days there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25). Which rule I choose can make a great difference in the effectiveness of the discussion.

For a list of the rules, without comments, click on Discussion Guidelines.

For a PDF eBook of these rules with the commentary, click on Guidelines for a Good Discussion: how to lead a peaceful conversation about powerful things.

What have you found helpful in leading discussions and meetings?
Please comment below:

Principle 5 of Family Systems: Emotional Triangle

how can I keep from getting caught in the middle?

One frustrating situation in leadership is getting caught in the middle of a conflict. People involved in a dispute have expected me to be the judge or at least “straighten out” the other person. Many elders, preachers, parents, and other human beings find themselves in this predicament.

Edwin Friedman describes this dilemma:

An emotional triangle is formed by any three persons or issues…

The basic law of emotional triangles is that when any two parts of a system become uncomfortable with one another, they will “triangle in” or focus upon a third person, or issue, as a way of stabilizing their own relationship with one another. A person may be said to be “triangled” if he or she gets caught in the middle as the focus of such an unresolved issue. When individuals try to change the relationship of two others (two people, or a person and his or her symptom or belief), they “triangle” themselves into that relationship (and often stabilize the very situation they are trying to change) (Generation to Generation: family process in church and synagogue, pages 35, 36, © 1985 The Guilford Press).

He continues by listing and explaining the seven laws of an emotional triangle. I’m only giving the list here. He expands on each of these in his book. (This is one of the most helpful books I’ve read [four times], devoured, discussed. Two of four times I read it was in staff meetings. We took twenty-two months to read it the first time and seventeen months the second time, reading about three or four pages a week.)

  1. The relationship of any two members of an emotional triangle is kept in balance by the way a third party relates to each of them or to their relationship.
  2. If one is the third party in an emotional triangle it is generally not possible to bring change (for more than a week) to the relationship of the other two parts by trying to change their relationships directly.
  3. Attempts to change the relationship of the other two sides of an emotional triangle not only are generally ineffective, but also, homeostatic forces often convert these efforts to their opposite intent.
  4. To the extent a third party to an emotional triangle tries unsuccessfully to change the relationship of the other two, the more likely it is that the third party will wind up with the stress of the other two.
  5. The various triangles in an emotional system interlock so that efforts to bring change to any one of them is often resisted by homeostatic forces in the others or in the system itself.
  6. One side of an emotional triangle tends to be more conflicted than the others.
  7. We can only change a relationship to which we belong (Generation to Generation, pages 35-39).

Peter Steinke expands on this concept in his book, Healthy Congregations: a systems approach, Copyright © 1996 The Alban Institute, Inc.):

“When elephants fight,” a Swahili proverb states, “it’s the grass that get crushed.” Triangulation is a natural way of handling anxiety. If anxiety in one relationship is not resolved, it will be played out in another relationship. A person feels relief from tension when anxiety is shifted to a third party, yet the anxiety in the original relationship is unchanged. It has merely relocated.

You know a triangle exists when you experience the following:

  • The reactivity being expressed toward you is excessive, strong, and far beyond what might be normal.
  • Someone is overfocused on you.
  • You look for a sympathetic third person who will share your irritation with an adversary.
  • You turn to a second party to talk about a third party.
  • You become allied with a friend against your friend’s opponent.
  • You need to rescue, care for your friend when he or she is anxious.
  • You pin your anxiety on someone to relieve tension that belongs to another relationship (page 62).

God has given instructions and warnings about this in the Bible:

The first one to plead his cause seems right,
Until his neighbor comes and examines him (Proverbs 18:17).

You shall not go about as a talebearer among your people; nor shall you take a stand against the life of your neighbor: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:16).

Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift (Matthew 5:23, 24).

Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector (Matthew 18:15-17).

The following paragraphs are from the Full-Time Minister Relationships and Responsibilities, Anytown Church of Christ, a congregation where I served as an interim, incorporated in the preacher’s contract and job description:

Conflict Resolution

In any case of conflict at all times, it is expected that the minister practice guidelines Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17.

The minister will be expected to refer members that bring a complaint concerning one elder or the eldership in general to Matthew 18 and encourage them to bring the concern to the elder if it involves one, or to the eldership if it involves the entire eldership.

By the same token, if an elder or the eldership has a complaint brought to them concerning the minister, the same action will be taken. The eldership will not entertain complaints unless the member practices Biblical conflict resolution first.

What if we added another paragraph as a family rule at Anytown Church of Christ?:

If any member has a complaint brought to them concerning any other Christian in this congregation, it is expected that the Christian practice guidelines Jesus gave in Matthew 18:15-17. No member will entertain complaints against another brother or sister unless the one making the criticism practices Biblical conflict resolution first including talking to the person alone, then talking again with one or two other people present to help restore the good, loving, and kind relationship.

Following His teaching would eliminate the harmful triangle. The most common response I hear is, “I’m not comfortable doing this.” I need to remember that crucifixion is uncomfortable. A follower of Jesus volunteers to carry a cross daily (Luke 9:23).

What have you done to mind your own business and stay out of the middle of problems that belong to others?
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Principle 4 of Family Systems: Extended Family Field

were (are) my relatives human?

How much of your leadership is heavily influenced by your family? How could learning more about your family improve your effectiveness as a leader?

Although people aren’t predetermined to follow their parents, they may be predisposed because of their environment and training. See: Do You Lead Like Your Daddy? Leaders may improve their leadership by learning more about their extended family.

This term, “extended family field”, refers to our family of origin, (parents, brothers, sisters) plus our other relatives (grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.). Edwin Friedman describes the differences in outlook of the individual model of groups and the family systems model:

The thinking that surrounds the individual model tends to see the extended family field almost exclusively as the source of difficulties or pathology. The family becomes something to learn to deal with so that it won’t get you. The model tends to focus on what is sick or weak in the family, what to avoid or keep at a distance. It therefore encourages individuals with problems to see their family of origin only as a source of their weakness and not as also a source of their strengths.

The family systems model enables individuals to seek relationships with their family of origin; the problem with parents, after all, is that they had parents (Generation to Generation, page 35).

This approach recognizes most families and most human beings making up those families have both good and bad characteristics. This approach permits us to recognize both – to find and incorporate the strengths in the system.

It’s my observation that many people see their family members as more than or less than human. Those who see them as more than human (angels) do not recognize they had faults. “My father would never have done anything wrong. My parents were perfect. I never remember a mistake they made.” They were more than human.

Others had painful experiences in their family. “My mother was a devil. She was evil through and through.” Those who see their family members as less than human (demons) want to separate from them and never have contact with them.

God has given us freedom of choice to learn from and imitate the good and learn from and reject what is less than best.

God has given us freedom of choice to learn from and imitate the good and learn from and reject what is less than best.

We have choices of following the strengths or weaknesses of our family. Men and women didn’t get their names in Hebrews 11 because of perfection but because of strengths God chose to emphasize and exemplify. How did God want us to remember the heroes of faith in this great chapter of the Bible?

  • Will we follow Noah’s faith and obedience or his drunkenness? v. 7
  • God recorded Abraham’s faith and obedience in Hebrews 11, not his lying, and laughing. vv. 8-10, 17-19
  • Moses makes it into the Hall of Faith because of his courageous, wise choices, not his murder. vv. 24-27
  • Rahab is listed for her respect for God, not for her prostitution and lying. v. 31
  • Sampson is known for his sacrificial dedication at the end of his life, not his many sins mentioned in Judges. v. 32
  • David is known as a man after God’s own heart, for his repentance and continual search for God, not for his adultery and murder. v. 32

“That’s the way the Jones family is. We’ve always had trouble with our temper.” “The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation” (Numbers 14:18).

However, if we get to know our family better (for two or more generations back), we may be able to see strengths and imitate them, and release weaknesses and not do them just because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” This long-range objective is a goal of family systems.

Getting to know my family better and why they do the things they do has freed me to decide whether I want to do things the way we’ve always done it, rebel and reverse everything, or consider the options and do what I think best in each circumstance. I have used questions I read in Family Ties that Bind, by Ronald W. Richardson to discuss with members of my family about our family rules — conscious and unconscious: Questions to Learn More About Your Family .

It’s been helpful to me to see that congregations also form a family system. The more I understand the congregation as a family system, I can be freer to do what God teaches me is best — not just repeat something because “that’s the way we’ve always done it” or reject it because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

How have you dealt with humans in your family — their strengths and weaknesses?
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Principle 3 of Family Systems: Differentiation

how can we be connected — but not stuck?

When I am criticized, am I devastated? Do I have difficulty taking a position — stating where I stand — and, if necessary, being in the minority rather than sacrificing my convictions? If the answer is “Yes” to one or both questions, growing in differentiation can improve my leadership. Jesus was the Master of knowing who He was, what He believed, and doing what He needed to do, regardless of consequences.

Edwin Friedman describes this leadership strength as

the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say “I” when others are demanding “you” and “we.” It includes the capacity to maintain a (relatively) nonanxious presence in the midst of anxious systems, to take maximum responsibility for one’s own destiny and emotional being. It can be measured somewhat by the breadth of one’s repertoire of responses when confronted with crisis. The concept should not be confused with autonomy or narcissism, however. Differentiation means the capacity to be an “I” while remaining connected (Generation to Generation, page 27, © 1985 The Guilford Press).

Peter Steinke quoted Murray Bowen, the father of family system thinking, in his book, How Your Church Family Works: “A ‘differentiated self’ is one who can maintain emotional objectivity, while in the midst of an emotional system in turmoil, yet at the same time actively relate to key people in the system” (page 69, Copyright © 1993 The Alban Institute, Inc.).

This attribute will help me deal with criticism. If I’m in despair when someone points out what he believes is a weakness in me, I’m stuck with his evaluation. There are possibilities when I receive criticism: the criticism is true, partially true, or untrue. If the assessment is valid and I can correct the deficiency, I’ve learned of an opportunity for growth. If I can’t correct the deficiency, I have the challenge to learn contentment with something I can’t change. If the accusation isn’t true, I don’t want to give the misinformed person power over me.

Peter Steinke presented a helpful way to look at criticism:

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 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 about them. We play into the hands of criticizers when we react to their invasion rather than define ourselves to it (How Your Church Family Works, pages 88, 89).

If that’s true, a critic values me. When I am differentiated, often I can establish, reestablish, or strengthen a relationship with the critic and be his friend and servant.

My hero and model of this quality of differentiation is Joshua. Listen to his farewell speech to Israel:

Now therefore, fear the Lord, serve Him in sincerity and in truth, and put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord! And if it seems evil to you to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods which your fathers served that were on the other side of the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord (Joshua 24:14, 15).

  1. He told them what was right.
  2. He recognized he could not and should not control them. They were responsible for their choices. He acknowledged that and enumerated alternatives they may not have considered.
  3. He defined himself. Although they had many choices, he wasn’t taking a vote on how he should act. He told where he stood.

When a leader is growing in this quality, he feels no need to take sides in a conflict. He can understand what people are saying on different sides of the issue. He’s aware of strengths and weaknesses of people involved. He talks when it’s helpful and refrains from comments when what he might say wouldn’t help solve the problem.

How do you strengthen your backbone when folding would be easier?
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Principle 2 of Family Systems: Homeostasis (Balance)

how can we improve and stay the same (not change)?

This is the worst thing that every happened. We’ve got to do something to fix it. I’m tired of all this turmoil. It’s time for things to get back to normal.”

People will get anxious when things get worse in their life. People will get anxious when things in their life get significantly better because that also is out of their comfort zone.

I knew a man who had been successful in his business for many years. However, conditions changed and it looked like he might face bankruptcy. He became cranky and depressed.

He held on to his business and worked out of the crisis. After a few years when he filled out his financial statement, his net worth exceeded one million dollars! How do you think you felt? Do you think he was happy and celebrated? He wasn’t, and he didn’t. He became cranky and depressed. Both conditions were out of his comfort zone. A thermostat keeps the temperature in a room in a comfortable range, making adjustments when it gets too hot or too cold. People seem to have a corrective command to keep conditions in their lives from getting too bad or too good.

Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation explains homeostasis as “the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles of its existence.” He asks the question,”Why has the symptom surfaced now? This is not a static concept, but a dynamic one, as when a thermostat controls the temperature balance, not at a fixed point, but within a range” (page 23, © 1985 The Guilford Press).

In a church, family, business, or softball team, the focus on the identified patient (black sheep) and resistance from those who are peacekeepers instead of peacemakers explain why the group will tolerate and adapt to trouble-making complainers and incompetent leaders and members. On the other hand, the person who encourages personal responsibility, growth, and confronting the long-term problems will be ignored, if not let go.

Peter Steinke comments, “Actually religious institutions are the worst offenders at encouraging immaturity and irresponsibility. In church after church, some member is passively-aggressively holding the whole system hostage, and no one wants to fire him or force her to leave because it wouldn’t be ‘the Christian thing to do.’ It has nothing to do with Christianity. Synagogues also tolerate abusers because it wouldn’t be the Christian thing to do” (How Your Church Family Works, Copyright © 1993 The Alban Institute, Inc., page 59).

This sabotage to keep homeostasis is a major obstacle in any system (family, business, church, or softball team). Friedman adds, “The same qualities that allow for ‘familiness’ (that is, stability) in the first place are precisely what hinder change (that is, less stability) when the family system is too fixed” (Generation to Generation, page 25).

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and such sexual immorality as is not even named among the Gentiles—that a man has his father’s wife! And you are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he who has done this deed might be taken away from among you.
Your glorying is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? (1 Corinthians 5:1, 2, 6, NKJV).

Often in talking with people in groups (families, churches, businesses, or softball teams) an individual will describe and deplore the “identified patient,” the person “causing the problem.” I ask, “Why do you like it that way?”. If a condition is chronic, the group likes it the way it is more than what it would take to change it.

Have you encountered the paradox, “I want the church to grow, but I don’t want any more people”? How have you dealt with this?
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Principle 1 of Family Systems: The Identified Patient

what is wrong with him (us)?

Often a family will name one of its members as the “black sheep.” A church will pick a person or a group in the congregation and label him or them as “the problem.” If we could only fix “the problem” or if we could convert the “black sheep,” the family or church would be okay.

The concept of family systems: if a situation is chronic – if the symptoms are recurring or of long duration – it’s not the “fault” of one person. It is because the family “likes it that way.” The family likes it the way it is more than being willing to endure the pain and effort it would take to change it.

Edwin Friedman, in the first chapter of his book, Generation to Generation (© 1985 The Guilford Press), explained the concept of the identified patient. The family member with the obvious symptom is not to be seen as the “sick one” but as the one in whom the family’s stress or pathology has surfaced. Physicians don’t assume the part of a human organism in pain, or failing to act properly, is necessarily the cause of its own distress. Problems in any organ may relate to excessive over functioning, under functioning, or dis-functioning of another. By keeping the focus on one of its members, the family, personal or congregational, can deny the very issues that contributed to making one of its members symptomatic, even if it ultimately harms the entire family.

A doctor doesn’t suggest someone who comes to him with yellow skin call the Avon lady. He’ll probably start by looking at the liver. Although the skin is yellow, it didn’t begin in the skin.

My father had bypass surgery in 1981. In February 1998, he was having pains in his jaw. He asked my wife, “Gail, do you think the pain in my jaw could have anything to do with my heart?”. She assured him that was a distinct possibility. He called his doctor on Monday. Tuesday he had an angiogram. Wednesday he had his second bypass surgery. He had a pain in his jaw. He didn’t need to see a dentist. It was heart disease.

Often when I’m consulting with congregations, the identified patient is “leadership.” Brothers tell me, “Our problem is a lack of effective leadership.” I ask how long this has been an issue. Usually, it’s been an issue for years. It’s my observation a church has the leaders it wants. It has leaders it’s trained, prayed for, encouraged, and tolerated. It’s late to be concerned about the quality of leadership two weeks before time to appoint shepherds or deacons. A series of sermons from 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 won’t make up for years of neglect in making disciples of Jesus.

Paul describes how the body is connected and how members affect each other in 1 Corinthians 12:26, “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it” (NKJV). We rarely have an individual problem of long duration. It’s a family problem. If we fail to recognize this, we may fix “the problem” (identified patient) but if the family doesn’t change, the symptoms will resurface in the same patient or another because forces that contributed to “the problem” are still there.

Do you know of a congregation that’s fired most of its preachers? Who selects preachers? Who interacts with preachers, encourages preachers, and discourages preachers? Are they consistently choosing bad preachers? Who did that? Do they select good preachers and good preachers become bad after they arrive? Will you solve the problem by choosing another bad preacher or a good preacher who will be micro-managed or ignored and criticized until he leaves?

We need to ask the same questions about all leadership. Who selects leaders? Who encourages elders and deacons in their work? Does the group approve or say nothing when unqualified men are considered? Do many in the congregation begin to criticize and question motives of anyone appointed to leadership? How long has it been since many people or the group expressed sincere, specific, and sustained appreciation to the leaders, individually and as a group?

I heard Ira North say, “We put a man in an ice house and cuss him for not sweating.”

If a church has a leadership deficiency, I wonder why they like it that way?

In his book, Healthy Congregations (Copyright © 1996 The Alban Institute, Inc.), Peter Steinke gives two quotes about this principle:

  • “It is more important to know what sort of patient has the disease than what sort of disease the patient has.” –Sir William Osler (page 23).
  • “The healthy society, like the healthy body, is not the one that has taken the most medicine. It is the one in which the internal health building force is in the best shape.” –Peter Senge (page 101).

When “the problem” has been in a church, family, business, or softball team for years, a good question for the group, “I wonder why we like it that way and would we be willing to endure the pain to change it (us)?”.

How have you dealt with “the problem” (identified patient) in your group?
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