It appears every decade has a predominating over-emphasis on what will make the church effective. Though many of these emphases are good and helpful, it is the over-emphasis which leads to an healthy imbalance of ministry.
Over the years such “answers” for the church have included everything from “door-to-door evangelism,” bus ministries, Church Growth, leadership growth and development, various renewal movements, etc. More recently the emphasis on family systems in the church and church health have been added to the ever-growing listing.
Unfortunately, many of these approaches have overlooked the most basic atomic element of organizations: the individual. The leader’s greatest task is to understand and minister to individuals. I propose that everything doesn’t rise and fall on leadership, Church Growth, or any of a number of suggested ministry strategies.
Instead, I propose that everything rises and falls on intimacy. It is our understanding of the most personal, intimate emotive patterns and responses and the leader’s interaction with these responses which most greatly influences the relative health of any organization…including the church.
The Leader’s Key Task
If everything rises and falls on leadership, then the ultimate task for a leader is to influence the development of intimacy, relationships and community. In Christian ministry united in the intimate fellowship of being “in Christ,” this task is especially important. If God is love, and if God calls us into fellowship with Him, then one would have to deny key elements of grace and Scripture to overlook this key directive.
Interesting how business overlooks this. Is not the key indicator for success “customer satisfaction”? Is that not making an intimate connection between organization and individuals through a gift, a product, or a tangible benefit? Sounds like the beginnings of love to me.
Leadership As Intimacy
Warren Bennis in Why Leaders Can’t Lead demonstrates the connection between leadership and intimacy when he lists four most evident themes of effective leadership (p. 23):
1) People feel significant…has to do with meaning and significance
2) Learning and competence matter…
3) People are part of a community. “Where there is leadership, there is a team, a family, a unity.”
4) Work is exciting. “Where there are leaders, work is stimulating, challenging, fascinating, and fun.”
“An essential ingredient in organizational leadership is pulling rather than pushing people toward a goal. A ‘pull’ style of influence attracts and energizes people to enroll in an exciting vision of the future. It motivates through identification, rather than through rewards and punishments.” (Bennis, Why Leaders Can’t Lead, p. 23)
Bennis also mentions four competencies for leaders.
“Management of attention; management of meaning; management of trust; and management of self. The first trait apparent in these leaders is their ability to draw others to them, not just because they have a vision but because they communicate an extraordinary focus of commitment.” (p. 19)
Reasons for intimate relationships are to provide a sense of belonging, significance and meaning.
“The leaders goal is not mere explanation or clarification but the creation of meaning….When we love our work, we need not be managed by hopes of reward or fears of punishment. We can create systems that facilitate our work…Ultimately, in great leaders and the organizations surrounding them, there is a fusion of work and play to the point where, as Robert Frost says, ‘Love and need are one.’” (pp. 21, 24)
Change itself is an intimacy issue. Bennis notes, “Change occurs in two primary ways: through trust and truth or through dissent and conflict.” (p. 27) What kinds of issues are trust, truth, dissent, and conflict? They are intimacy issues. Indeed, they are the most basic elements of relationships.
Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM in the gold era once said, “The only capital that really counts is human capital.” Bennis, p. 86
One of the most frequently used words in Scripture is “fear.” In the hundreds of times it occurs, it is most often associated with the word “not.” Combined, “fear not” often introduces a special miraculous intervention of God.
Until God acts, “Fear not” enjoins maintenance of self and community. When God finally acts in a spectacular manner, intimacy is energized by faith, worship, and sacrificial response of self to the God who loves. Scriptural examples of this are so plenteous that to list all of them would be to belabor the obvious. But let it be said that everything from the Fall of Adam and Eve into sin, to the Exodus, to the birth of Jesus Christ, to the final deliverance into the New Heaven and Earth is all illustrative of this “fear not” dynamic.
Steven Carter and Julia Sokol have done remarkable work in the area of fear and intimacy. Their books He’s Scared, She’s Scared (Dell, 1995) and Men Who Can’t Love (Berkeley Books, 1988) illuminate the chilling effects of fear in intimate relationships.
In their interview with hundreds of men regarding why their relationships ended, Sokol and Carter noted three recurring themes.
1) When a relationship gets too close, men who fear commitment often behave in totally irrational fashion.
2) These men look for excuses and faults in the woman to help them feel better about their behavior.
3) Most of these men know deep down that their constant emphasis on negatives is only a means of rationalizing that “allows them to avoid looking too deeply at their own major flaw—the inability to commit.” (Men Who Can’t Love, p. 21)
Of course, such fear responses are not exclusive to men. They are the lot of the entire human race, there for the taking.
The applications for the church and the formation of intimate community is rather obvious and striking.
What happens when people are asked to become more involved in a church or an activity? Sometimes they accept, other times they shrink away from it and hide in the woodwork. Or, having been dedicated and faithful for such a long time in a given position, all of the sudden they quit. Who do they blame? The pastor. Why?
Based on observation #2 above, these individuals look for excuses and faults in the pastor (or other leaders) to help them feel better about their own behavior. Why do they project their fear issues onto others, such as pastors? Because, as observation #3 describes, it’s a means for them to rationalize their fear to look too deeply inside themselves. They know they can’t commit; deep down they know its wrong, but they are too scared to do otherwise.
Sound familiar? It’s a “dance of intimacy” played out in churches and organizations over and over and over again.
How does leadership respond? In the most effective scenarios, leadership will respond by offering empathy, caring, friendship, forgiveness, patience, trust and understanding. All these are key elements of intimacy.
Note, however, that the individual’s response to these actions can range from acceptance and reconciliation to flight, fight and outright war. The intense emotional response that can be elicited betrays the truth of the real issue at hand. The issue is not what the pastor did or what the individual was asked to do. The issue is intimacy. The emotive reaction is borne out of the deep recesses of intimacy.
Closely related is fear of commitment. Commitment phobia plagues relationships. It also is one of the greatest hindrances to faith and community.
Other examples of intimacy breakdowns include doing one thing and saying another, complaints and accusations of betrayals of trust, complaints of being “too demanding, too short, too tall, too picky,” etc. (doesn’t that characterize some marriages!), the intense grief individuals feel when they leave the church or the church lets them down, how people’s personal intimate life situations/encounters parallel their commitment in the church, the feeling of “belonging” people seek in a church.
A component of commitment phobia is claustrophobia. In their research with men, Sokol and Carter noted that men experiencing commitment phobia described fear sensations like that of claustrophobia. They described hopelessness, confusion, anxiety, chills up their spine, discomfort, trouble breathing, all symptoms of claustrophobia.
Most pastors have probably experienced a backlash from asking commitments. Whether it be urging commitments for worship attendance, Sunday School, annual pledges, building programs, or putting one’s name on a sign-up sheet some people can’t. Why?
Because making commitments makes them experience anxiety symptoms…like that of claustrophobia. To commitment phobics FDR was only partially right. The reason to fear is fear itself.
Decision making is also an intimacy issue. The proposed options will affect the individual. The result of the decision can be fearful. Thus, the process of decision making also becomes fearful. In order to avoid fear, individuals preserve their intimacy equilibrium by avoiding decisions.
One of the most intimacy illuminating experiences is capital fund campaigns. All kinds of potential fears are ignited when this most awesome ministry tool is utilized. Examples of some of the types of questions asked when this fear surfaces might include:
* Will I like my new church?
* Will my friends disown me if I disagree with them as to the need?
* Will the new facility change my comfort zone, i.e. the factors I need to preserve my intimacy equilibrium?
* Do I want to commit to a three or five year financial obligation?
* Will I feel pressured? What if something happens?
* What if I move, die, or become disabled?
* Do I want to share this private information with the pastor or another member?
* What if I don’t know them? What will they think? What will I think?
* What if I don’t like the direction of the church once the campaign goals are met?
* Can I trust the Pastor?
* Can I trust the leaders?
*Why can’t it just be the same?
*Why do we have to do this anyway?
The worst thing about confronting these multitudinous decisions is what Sokol and Carter call “commitment-phobic vacillation.” Like the lover who desires the beloved feels entrapped the closer he gets, these type of commitment-phobic dynamics also happen in the church.
Individuals who are just “raring to go” inexplicably fizz out, drop out, or have insurmountable difficulties, disappointments or disagreements with others preventing their involvement. This is especially puzzling when they have so actively pursued the goal and led the charge. This too is an intimacy issue commonly known as the “pursuit/panic syndrome.” Follow-through can be fearful.
The Necessity For Healthy Intimacy Patterns
Without healthy patterns of intimacy, ministry ventures can neither be healthily initiated or completed. Thus the leader’s key influencing role is not simply to get something done or to create a vision. Instead it is to encourage, energize and motivate people to confront, deal with, and overcome those issues which might otherwise enervate them.
Organizations beset with extreme intimacy problems—e.g., on-going conflict, serial splits, consecutive pastoral resignations, entrenched power cliques, etc.—often refuse even the best, most competent and capable pastors.
Why? For the same reasons that individuals refuse healthy relationships. They fear commitment. Such cases are not so much issues of leadership as much as they are issues of intimacy.
Intimacy Awareness Marks The Effective Leader
The effective leader will analyze, evaluate and adapt appropriate leadership styles to address these intimacy issues. As in any intervention, the treading is difficult. One can easily step on an intimacy landmine and trigger uncontrolled, unexpected emotional responses of all kinds.
The most precarious aspect of pastoral leadership—or any leadership, for that matter—is the unpredictable interaction of intimacy styles. Sometimes the chemistry is right. Sometimes it’s volatile and explosive. Almost always its unpredictable. But that is that nature of intimacy, isn’t it?
In the same way those most intimately involved and excited about the new program can’t sleep and have trouble keeping their heart from skipping beats, those most fearful of the campaign are also excited. They can’t sleep either…but for different reasons. Their palpitating heart, sweating, wet palms, increased reactivity, and general pervasive anxiety may all appear. Some who can’t say “yes” or “no” may become more anxious as they keep sorting through the options than if they would just decide. It’s frustrating. It’s irrational. It’s the vintage working of fear.
Intimacy: Deal With It
Commitment phobia and other intimacy issues, as Sokol and Carter note, are not going to go away. Perhaps it is most seen when members leave. Disassociating fellowship from a church or organization is an intimacy issue. It is disruptive to the member leaving and all those left. The sometimes inexplicable, cruel and intensely mystifying ways people leave are consistent with their patterns of intimacy.
When moved by fear they may fight or flight with varying intensities, sometimes violent and/or enraged. Others leave running scared. The intensity of their fight or flight is an intimacy issue which affects them and others. Ones most often affected are those members most familiar with them and key leaders.
Pastors are often held accountable as “scapegoats.” Why? Because they are ultimately the keepers of intimacy. “Pastor why didn’t you call them? Why couldn’t you get through to them? Why didn’t you know their needs? Why couldn’t you read their minds? What’s wrong with you pastor?” et al are common accusations.
Often the pastor is as mystified as anyone else. It is interesting that the questioning “why” as well as the intensely rejective feelings of bewilderment and guilt characteristic of pastors at the loss of members is nearly identical to that of women who have experienced the sudden, inexplicable vaporization of what they thought was an intense, meaningful intimate relationship with a man who can’t love. Perhaps this, as well as anything, illuminates the intimate nature of community and fellowship in the church.
Intimacy and the New Pastor
One of the most classic examples of intimacy patterns at work is the beginning of a new pastorate. If it wasn’t so tragic it might almost be laughable.
The new pastorate is an exchange of intimacy patterns, styles and issues. Pastor and congregation are each trying to read each other. Other staff members, as well as others, are all asking themselves the classic question from the old Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, “Are they friendly, sir?”
Issues of trust, approachability, acceptability, approval, rejection, communication, recognition and satisfying of needs, areas of agreement and disagreement, how to mediate disagreement, levels of reactivity relative to various issues, among other issues, all play out to the most important intimacy issue: commitment. Is the commitment mutual? Conditional? Unconditional? Long-term? Short-term? Performance-based? Legalistically managed?
Just Like Courting
Other intimacy issues operative are those so common in the early stages of courtship. Fantasies of the “perfect pastorate,” dreams of pastors “sweeping off their feet,” flattery, expressions of neediness, exchanges of codependencies, dreams, hopes, visions, support, etc. In the face of all these pressures, the key role of the pastor is to lead the pace of intimacy.
Of course, this confluence of intimacy styles (“ecclesiastical flirting”) will be largely governed by the pastor’s own intimacy styles and the congregation’s. These styles can be healthy, unhealthy, or (as is more common) a bit of both. The resulting intimate interaction of pastor and congregation creates a sort of “intimacy stew.”
The only remaining question is, “Is it palatable? Will anyone eat it? Or should we throw it out?” Because the predominating issue tends toward intimacy and, unfortunately, not doctrine, the resulting “stew” may or may not give the new pastor enough security to build a solid relationship of mutual, trusting intimacy.
The Pastor As Intimacy Leader
As the organization’s “intimacy governor,” the pastor must govern the throttle so as to achieve maximum optimum organization efficiency. This “optimal” level may, in some congregations, be anything but healthy.
For some, “optimal” might mean maintenance of key intimacy interactions. Cliques must be maintained, pastors must be kept “out of the loop.” Let’s not ‘rock the boat’; and if anyone does, oust him!” “I’m in charge, not the pastor” etc. are some examples.
Changing Intimacy Patterns Is Not Always Easy
Changing such deeply entrenched unhealthy, self-sabotaging “optimal” intimacy patterns can be like intervening in a domestic dispute. Law enforcement officials are told, in general, to avoid them. Why? Because they are the most destructive, disruptive, eruptive and unpredictable dangerous situations to assess. They are virtually always difficult to control.
Unfortunately, some pastors don’t have this option to avoid these situations. Trying to do all they can, they may initiate and perpetuate an unhealthy one-sided relationship. Of course the congregation may enjoy this because they can avoid intimacy, criticize, and avoid risks while enjoying the fruits of the pastor’s labor. And if they don’t like the pastor’s labor they aren’t intimately attached so why not just dump the jerk? Other patterns, of course, may be different but have essentially the same negative results.
Sadly, denominations often don’t have the will to withhold pastors from preacher-eater situations. With the increasing use and popularity of interim pastors, hopefully this may begin to change. Yet one has to question the motivations and intent of those who blindly send God’s called sheep into the slaughter…without help, support or any warning of the intimacy crisis that may await the novice pastor.
Implications Of Intimacy
Since intimacy appears to be such an overwhelming factor in leadership, it follows that those who lead must possess intimacy skills. As culture continues to fragment and increasing numbers of broken relationships proliferate, it will likely become increasingly more difficult to reach and minister the message of intimate fellowship with Jesus Christ by grace to the world.
Such difficulties, of course, are already manifesting themselves in the church. Pastors, denominational leaders, consultants and seminaries mourn the loss of congregational community.
Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod President A.L. Barry is one such denominational leader. In his introduction to Church And Ministry: A Compilation Of Essays, Barry echoed Robert Bork’s observations in Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism And American Decline (New York: Regan/Harper, 1996).
Bork’s book details what he believes to be the two forces destructive to the healthy intimacy of congregational community. These forces, which Bork calls “the defining characteristics of modern liberalism” (Slouching..., p. 5), are “‘radical equality’–the desire to put everyone on the same level–and ‘individualism'” (p. 4).
Concomitant with these forces is Stephen Carter’s recognition that “nothing is worse…[than] imposing your religious beliefs on other people” (S. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief. New York: Doubleday, 1993, p. 23).
It appears the scales of intimacy are tipping away from community and toward individualism. With this shift one can likely expect that the church and other communities will experience intimacy dynamics reflective of–and giving preference to–radical equality and individualism. Those structures which will suffer most will be hierarchical structures and organizations whose purpose is to create and encourage intimacy in the context of community and fellowship.
Where To Go From Here?
Lamenting is helpful only to the degree it illuminates the issue. From there, however, American organizations and others from other areas of the world experiencing similar breakdowns in community must develop strategies to meet this crisis.
Integral to this strategy is a recovery of key theological and organizational tenets of the Christian Church. Some of the most significant of these include…
1) The Concept Of Church and Ministry. This broad area includes such concerns as the divinely-appointed pastoral role, the nature and function of the universal priesthood, and their divinely ordained relationship. This relationship is based on the model of Saint Paul, who in describing the Church indicated that Christ was the Head and the Church was His ever-submissive Body.
2) Authority In The Church. What are the rights and limitations of ecclesiastical authority? When can–and should–local, regional, and denomination structures intervene to deal with legitimate concerns? What are those concerns which might require church discipline? What kinds of discipline are appropriate?
3) The Source Of Authority. In a radically individualistic culture the most threatened aspect is denigrating–or totally discarding–all authority. Whether the authority exercised is pastoral, congregational, authority, denominational, or divine, all lose their legitimacy in the eyes of crass individualism.
Those denominations which have given up the classical understanding of Scriptures in favor of a more modernistic hermeneutic have already taken official steps to undermine the true Authority. Others, finding a greater discrepancy between doctrine and practice, in the final analysis may not be far behind.
Of course, recognizing the Source of Authority is not just an ecclesiastical concern. Equally critical is that individual Christians recognize the Source of Authority, God and His Word, and live their lives in conformity to it, not changing or adapting it to suit their own needs, desires, proclivities, or to address their multitudinous intimacy needs according to their own individualistic preferences.
If the whole is the sum of the parts, the whole cannot be but what the sum of the individual parts is. When individuals disrespect and deny God as the sole Source of authority, the community of such individuals can hardly be expected to believe otherwise.
4) The Nature And Implications Of Fellowship. The reasons and rationale for creating community with others is directly related to the above three concerns. Who we worship, pray and commune with does indicate who we are. It does reflect on our understanding and practice in the areas of church and ministry. It does witness who or what our source of authority is.
Radical individualism says “it doesn’t matter.” For those trying to deal with the various issues of fellowship and intimacy within a system, one cannot ignore any of these dynamics. All of them influence the system. All of them affect–and infect–the community. All of them become a concern to those concerned with a healthier, Scripture-based understanding and practice of church community.
The Most Important Factor
Though other items could also be listed (and different denominations will have their own listings), the most important common factor is the Gospel itself. In the final analysis, that is what the two forces of radical equality and individualism attack. Radical equality was the original sin. Radical equality tells one they can be like God. In its most radical form, it tells one they are God.
Individualism places one outside the parameters of sacrifice, restraint, or moral obligation and, as William Bennett said, places “correlatively greater value on things like self-expression, individualism, self-realization and personal choice” (quoted in Slouching, p.65).
Both are idolatrous and blasphemous. Both are in direct opposition to the Gospel. Both influence and promote intimacy patterns which in the beginning resulted in the shedding of Cain’s brother’s blood (Genesis 4). Ought we expect any other result today?
The message of Jesus Christ is the joyful, life-giving alternative to unhealthy, idolatrous and blasphemous patterns of intimacy. Where the understanding of the relationship is founded on the Gospel, individuals and their intimacy patterns are transformed, recreated, born anew. They are no longer “not a people” but intimately intertwined and inter-connected in the Body of Him “from whom the whole Body is joined together.”
When undeserved forgiveness, grace, mercy, patience, kindness and other manifestations are present, intimacy patterns are affected. They are strengthened. They become healthy. Everything rises and falls on intimacy. For the Christian, everything rises and falls on the intimacy of grace given in Jesus Christ. Even as this intimacy affects our identity, it also affects our Christian community.
Thomas F. Fischer
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