By Published On: June 19, 20220 Comments

Systems theory has taken hold. Systems theorists such as Friedman, Bowen, Steinke, et al. Have gone through great length to describe how—and why –organizations behave the way they do. Every system is, as the theory states, (at least) the sum of the virtually innumerable interactions between the various components of the given system. But what is the impulse which drives each of the individual parts of the system? More specifically, what is the driving force which individuals within a relational system?Peter Steinke, noted author and ecclesiastical systems theorists claims that emotive forces drive individuals in a system. As emotions are expressed and reactions occur, the system is energized…for better or for worse. If emotions are the driving force in systems, then it follows, perhaps, that when discussing systems theory in relational systems, intimacy is the issue. 

Why Intimacy?

 Intimacy is the result of the interactions of personal emotions. Those dominated by negative emotions—fear, pain, lack of self-esteem, shame, etc.—will tend to select certain modes which largely avoid healthy intimacy. Those dominated by positive emotions—confidence, trust, patience, etc.—will tend to demonstrate these emotions in generally more positive and healthier intimate relationships. Depending on the level of intimacy, individuals will express or repress their emotions. Where there is a healthy sense of intimacy, emotions will be expressed in ways which will largely develop healthy intimate interactions. The opposite is also true. Unhealthy expressions of emotions expressed in unhealthy patterns of intimacy can be amazingly destructive. In the context of relational systems, the cumulative effects of unhealthy patterns of intimacy can bring surprisingly destructive and mind boggling consequences. 

Types of Intimacy

 Building on Geraldine Piorkowski’s discussion in her book, Too Close For Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy lists, there are at least three kinds of intimacy:

1. Verbal Intimacy: The exchange of words and verbal communications between two individuals.
2. Physical Intimacy: Actual contact between two individuals including touching, hugging and, in its most intimate form, sexual contact.
3. Spiritual Intimacy: Sharing of personal spiritual values and beliefs.
Not all forms of intimacy are, of course, equal. Even as there are healthy and unhealthy patterns of intimacy, there are also various kinds of intimacy.
Intimacy Issues
Relationships are always fraught with danger, risk, disappointment. People are, as Geraldine Piorkowski noted, “vulnerable and likely to get hurt in intimate relationships” (p. 39). It is precisely because relational systems such as congregations are founded and driven by intimacy issues that pastors, leaders and members are all at risk of painful congregational experiences.
What are the issues involved? Certainly it is nearly impossible to list them all. Yet every intimate relationship has to deal with some or all of the following issues in intimacy. The healthy or unhealthy equilibrium that individuals set for intimate interactions will also influence the intimacy equilibrium of a given organization—be it church, multiple staff, or other organization.
Some of these issues of intimacy include…

* Approach vs. Avoidance

* Attachment vs. Detachment

* Acceptance vs. Rejection* Competency vs. Inadequacy* Fulfillment vs. Unfulfilled* Trust vs. Distrust* Forgiving vs. Unforgiving* Expressive vs. Inhibitive* Accountability vs. Blame* Responsibility vs. Projection* Rebellion vs. Submission* Self-Directed vs. Other-Directed* Responsible vs. Irresponsible* Revealing vs. Concealing* Involved vs. Withdrawn* Commitment vs. Desertion* Interest vs. Disinterest* Sacrifice vs. Withholding* Giving vs. Taking* Ownership vs. Denial* Identification vs. Disassociation* Initiative vs. Helplessness* Pride vs. Shame

* Confidence vs. Reticence

* Approach vs. Avoidance* Creativity vs. Conformity* Expression vs. Repression* Support vs. Sabotage* Nurture vs. Abuse* Faith vs. Doubt* Spontaneity vs. Legalism* Risk vs. Safety* Uplift vs. Destroy* Protect vs. Attack* Nurture vs. Abuse* Self-control vs. Other-control* Disclosure vs. Withholding* Renewal vs. Preservation* Autonomy vs. Enmeshment* Directness vs. Indirectness* Involvement vs. Dissociation* Identification vs. Differentiation* Individuality vs. Community* Attachment vs. Detachment

Complicating Factors

In addition to these and other issues by which individuals develop their own unique patterns of intimacy, complicating factors can upset the equilibrium.  Such factors may include stress-shifts, physical well-being, chemical imbalances (self-generated [e.g. endocrinal changes] and self-induced [e.g. drugs, alcohol, side effects of mediations) and spiritual well-being. Intimacy And Addictions Perhaps one of the most powerful complicating factors are addictions. Since addictions alter cerebral chemistries and disrupt the customary levels equilibrium normally established for the individual, addictions can radically influence intimacy patterns. Alcohol, for example, can greatly influence intimacy patterns. Though individuals may feel less inhibited after a couple of drinks, this alcohol-induced sense of freedom can very quickly transform into a reclusive, repressed state with just a few more drinks. Other addictions or addictive activities can alter normal cerebral chemistries either by triggering changes in endocrinal function or by adding extraneous substances. When these are altered, the intimacy patterns are also altered…sometimes rather unpredictably. Intimacy Expressed In Systems When groups of individuals combine their intimacy styles in a relational system, perhaps the most striking initial response is: “No wonder organizations can be so difficult!” Of course, since systems tend to seek and maintain equilibrium, whatever the net effect of individual intimacy styles resulting in a system intimacy equilibrium will be difficult to alter without threatening the styles of intimate interactions within the system. Some Examples If intimacy is the issue in relationship systems, then it follows that the resulting interactions will have the joys, struggles, pains, and gut-wrenching consequences of intimate relationships. 1) Beginning A New Pastorate: The greatest challenge of beginning of a new pastorate is creating, if possible, a healthy intimate bonding between pastor and people. If either of their intimacy styles are not conducive to the development of healthy, intimate relationship in keys areas of intimacy, the relationship will deteriorate in a way consistent with their styles of intimacy (e.g. rejection, flight, fight, sabotage, etc.). 2) Initiating Organizational Change: Change is painful specifically because change disrupts accustomed intimacy equilibrium. The status quo represents stability in intimacy. Challenge the status quo and emotive reactions erupt triggering off various reactions characteristic of intimate relationships: anger, rejection, name-calling, invective, etc. 3) Ultimatums: In one-on-one intimate relationships, ultimatums mark a certain type of intimate interaction. In such relationships they indicate lack of communication, power issues, and, among other things, a fear of disclosure required for negotiation, compassion, and mutually-agreeable resolutions.  Even as ultimatums are really a rejection of healthy relationship in one-on-one relationships, ultimatums are also indicators of unhealthy organizational intimacy. 4) Organizational Conflict: In organizational conflict the issue is not the issue. From a systems perspective, the issue is the interaction of emotive forces between members of the system. The way these emotive forces interact is intimacy at work. Churches don’t split over doctrine. They use doctrine as a conscious or unconscious “handle” to attach their intimacy issues. This is not to say that doctrinal issues are not substantial. Indeed, they are. One’s pattern of intimacy and the nature of the intimate equilibrium will determine whether the individual will 1) quietly leave; 2) talk with the pastor and simply recognize the differences and leave mutual respect;  3) incite scapegoating and encourage gang-related behaviors to cause the issue to totally permeate and overwhelm the organization, or 4) select another alternative response.. 5) Staff Support: Since intimacy is such an indigenous element of systems, the list is virtually endless. Indeed, virtually every interaction in the organization can be interpreted and analyzed in terms of intimate interactions within a system. This is also true of staff interactions. The success or failure of staff relationships is an issue of intimacy. As various staff members have different capacities and preferences relative to intimacy, it is natural and expected that intimate needs will clash, collide, ricochet, and otherwise wreak great pain. Thankfully, it can also be a wonderful experience when the staff relationships support, reinforce and add to the effectiveness of everyone affected by staff interactions. Implications For Parish Ministry If intimacy is the primary means by which emotive forces permeate a system, the implications are nothing short of profound. Consider for example the following implications. 1) Leadership Styles: If intimacy is such an issue, than the styles of intimacy will certainly affect church health, growth and vitality. It means that churches, as other living, vibrant and dynamic organizations, can be characterized by their patterns of intimacy. Violation of these patterns of intimacy can lead to dramatic changes in the organization—spectacular renewal for growth, dramatic repeated conflict, rejection of leaders or members, etc. 2) Leadership Strategy: Not every relationship is created equal. One can’t treat everyone the same way. The intimacy styles vary. Healthy relationships recognize and respect the styles of intimacy which characterize that relationship. From this basic sense of mutual, loving trust change, growth and further development of intimacy occurs. 3) Recurrent Intimate Patterns: Congregations do have personality. These personalities are characterized by firmly established styles of intimacy. In healthy congregations, these patterns of intimacy continue to be the engine of growth, vitality and genuine fellowship. In unhealthy churches, however, these styles, as counselors will indicate, do not change without significant pain, trauma, and fear. Indeed, many resist change specifically for these reasons. In the desire to equilibrium, organizations engage in self-sabotage in order to prevent greater pain of change. Pastors and leaders who engage and challenge the system’s intimacy patterns may not be successful. Indeed, they may be subject to repeated multitudinous attacks. The greatest danger, however, is that the Second Law of Thermodynamics may affect intimacy. Intimacy does have a “built-in” tendency to deteriorate. Thus the continuing challenge of the leader is to continue nurturing the intimacy in healthy ways. Perhaps this explains why healthy churches so reverently respect and cherish their “father-figure” leaders. 4) Pastoral Intimacy Issues: The “Systems Intimacy Paradigm” also significantly affects leaders, too. As organizations require intimate interactions—healthy or unhealthy—so pastors will have to develop intimacy patterns with the organization. This, of course, has profound implications for ministerial health in at least the following areas. 5) Self-Differentiation: The real issue of self-differentiation is not how busy, pre-occupied, or loyal one is to the organization. It’s an issue of intimacy. Highly undifferentiated leaders thrive on the emotional intimacy offered by their church, ministry or organization. Highly differentiated leaders, on the other hand, thrive on different set of intimacy elements and thus satisfy their intimacy requirements needed for themselves. Indicators of such thriving can be a perfectionistic drive for continued “acceptance” by those in the congregation. Indeed, highly undifferentiated leaders can have a significant fear of loss of intimacy. Hence, their devoted, uninterrupted loyalty to the work of their ministry. When such highly undifferentiated leaders experience organizational disruption, they can fall apart emotionally and spiritually in unimaginable, excruciating emotional pain. This pain is nothing less than the pain of intimacy lost 6) Emotional Well-Being: Perhaps the greatest pain of congregations conflict for leaders is the disruption of intimacy needs. When the pastoral intimacy between congregation and pastor is frustrated, out-of-control, uncertain or destroyed, leaders go may go through a painfully intense crisis of intimacy. Since fulfillment of intimacy needs comes from multiple sources which exist in a delicate balance with each other, when crisis occurs in one area of intimacy fulfillment it necessarily disrupts the other areas too. As multiple sources of intimacy satisfaction are disrupted, the fulfillment of intimacy needs becomes severely hampered. Thus, crisis in one’s family will disrupt normal fulfillment of intimacy needs at work, church, etc. and vice-versa. The resulting crisis can be characterized by numerous indicators of traumatized intimacy needs including: feeling of a lack of control, destruction of confidence and self-esteem, feeling of intense isolation, insatiable loneliness, depression, inability to focus, weakened spirituality, etc.
The often frantic and desperate reactive response to this disruption or loss of intimacy is to regain levels of intimacy equilibrium by virtually any means available. The intense longing for satisfaction of intimacy overrides “normal” intimacy boundaries resulting in masking behaviors such as addictions (e.g. addictions, alcohol, eating patterns, drugs, sex, work, etc.) or the engagement in inappropriate sexually intimate encounters. Long-term sexually intimate encounters may seem especially fulfilling when the partner is perceived to fulfill and thus restore intimacy equilibrium. Indeed, for some it may be the only way to address the loneliness (cf. Ministry Health Article 273 “The Consequences Of Loneliness”). 7) Spirituality: People are consistent. We related to people and our environment the same we related with God. Disruption of accustomed intimacy patterns also affects one’s spirituality. The loneliness and emptiness may cause pastors to have to “fake” their spirituality until such time they can experience re-established equilibrium and healing. 8) Pastoral Tenure: According to this intimacy paradigm pastoral tenure may be more affected by intimacy issues than spirituality. When one feels “unfulfilled” in their current ministry this sense of un-fulfillment may not necessarily be the tasks and challenges at hand. Instead, the lack of fulfillment indicates a frustration of normal intimacy needs. Pastors make grave mistakes when they believe just going to a different location will make them “happier” or fulfill their deepest longings for fulfillment. The answer for their longing is not in another location. It is inside their heart, in the deepest emotions and in their entrenched patterns of intimacy. 9) Response To Conflict: Conflict is, essentially, a clashing of intimacy issues. Whether it is dealing with the “normal” warp and woof of congregational conflict or confronting die-hard antagonists, it is important to recognize that conflicts, above all, are intimacy issues. Antagonists are antagonists because their intimacy patterns are unhealthy, confused, or both. Everything from emotional outbursts to their excessive need to overcome their own fear of lack of control by controlling behaviors to triangulation demonstrates this.

For this reason it is especially important not to engage antagonists along the lines of their intimacy issues. In this lies the effectiveness of the non-anxious response. Nothing forces them to retreat like having the person they are attacking not be absorbed into their intimacy issues.Reacting to such individuals merely exposes and incites one’s own intimacy issues. The careful, reasoned response born of healthy emotional intimacy is the most constructive response possible. Such responses do not guarantee that the antagonist will not gather others around to sabotage themselves and the organization. Nor are they guarantees that a price will not have to be paid. But what it does guarantee is that even if a great price needs be exacted, the price will be an investment into a healthier equilibrium and a dominant pattern of congregational intimacy.
10) Recruitment And Involvement: Some individuals will become involved in the church in areas where they have absolutely no giftedness or expertise. Others will resist involvement even in areas where they have profound giftedness and expertise.

What, above all, causes this difference between these two groups? It may not be as much of a faith issue or “gifts” issue as we may think. Indeed, it may be an issue of intimacy.

Intimacy determines what activities one will be interested in and to what extent. Since intimacy is the issue then a key to successful recruitment is to develop and highlight those healthy elements of intimacy which allow for “intimate” involvement. Such elements include trust, safety, acceptance, responsibility, reward, self-worth, growth, self-disclosure, etc.

The listing of the “Fruits of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22) is the Biblical recognition of these factors of intimacy. “Love, patience, peace, self-control” and other things “against which there is no law” are all characteristic of healthy patterns of intimacy.

Those who have—or are seeking—healthy intimacy patterns appear to be more likely to be involved in a healthy to the degree their intimacy equilibrium allows. Those with unhealthy or uncertain patterns of intimacy will often tend to either shy away from involvement or over-compensate by becoming inappropriately involved. 11) Other Areas: Certainly the implications of intimacy in any organization are innumerable. Implications For Ministry Leadership Once one begins to understand the importance of intimacy in energizing the congregational system, one can begin the process of developing healthy intimacy interactive styles. Part of this process will include recognizing some basic implications of intimacy and ministry leadership. 1) Recognize That The Church Is Primarily An Intimate Organization. The Scriptures abound in “intimate” imagery when describing the Church. Whether in terms of sexual imagery as in the Song of Solomon, or in terms of God’s passionate lust for His people, or in terms of Christ saving the church to “make her holy and blameless” (Ephesians 5:27), a common thread throughout is intimacy. Perhaps the healthiest Biblical word characterizing healthy intimacy is “love.” Described as “chesed” in the Old Testament, this undeserved merciful love for His people is the pinnacle—and paradigm—for intimacy between God and man. 2) Intimacy Is A Faith Issue: If intimacy is the issue, then it follows that the greatest contribution any is in the area of intimacy development. That is why people join organizations. The ministry of the Christian Church is the most well-equipped organization to accomplish this. Building on a God who is pure intimate Love, the Body of Christ in all its expressions best shares the love of God as it addresses the hunger and thirst for intimacy with God and others. Perhaps that’s what Jesus’ summary to the commandments was referring to. 3) Faith Is An Intimacy Issue: From the perspective of intimacy every testing of faith is God’s leading to another deeper stage of intimacy. Stewardship addresses the intimacy of possessions and purpose. Evangelism addresses the intimacy of sharing and extending one’s relationship with God. Education addresses the intimacy of understanding God and self. Fellowship addresses and makes opportunity for an intimate openness and sharing.

Worship, of course, presents the greatest intimate encounter of giving and receiving from God. The celebration of the Sacraments which occurs properly in the context of worship, is the encounter with the highest intimacy with God possible on earth: the touching, seeing, feeling, eating and experiencing Christ’s promise, “This is my Body…this is my blood.”

In every area of ministry intimacy is the issue. Since faith is an intimacy issue, every witness and exercise of faith in ministry is, by Biblical design, directed to enhance intimacy with God and others. 4) Leadership Is An Intimacy Issue: Perhaps this recognition puts new emphasis on the importance of pastoral care. Caring for souls is a ministry of leading people to an intimate trust in God so that that resulting intimacy will propel their faith and life. As pastors and leaders interact with others in the arena of intimacy, their responses will have to deal with the emotive responses characteristic of intimacy. This can include ferocious attacks, insidious undermining as well as loving and generous support and friendship.

Leadership must also model healthy patterns of intimacy. To do otherwise (as in inappropriate intimate encounters) is to undermine the healthy dynamics of intimacy required for a thriving organization. Perhaps the greatest damage to congregations comes in this violation of intimacy. Indeed, it can strike to the deepest recesses of the patterns and ranges of congregational intimacy. 5) Leaders Must Continually Deal With Their Own Intimacy Issues: “Know Thyself” is the key dictum for leaders. Unless one knows and understands their own intimacy patterns, issues, and desires, leaders will unknowingly infuse their own issues into the system. In some cases “not knowing” is surprising healthy. In others, it can be surprising destructive.

It is especially important to understand the interaction of intimacy with others as well. Those who have no capacity for this may either overwhelm, underwhelm, confuse or otherwise become entangled in an intimate nightmare. 6) Overcoming Unhealthy Congressional Intimacy Issues Is Precarious Territory: It is here where pastors so often fail. Some congregations will reject those who attempt to overcome their issues. Even Robert Schuller was kicked out of his first congregation before becoming the “Icon” of the Crystal Cathedral. This simply proves that even the best leadership advice, attitudes and strategy, intimacy patterns in some congregations simply cannot tolerate the pain of transformation to healthy intimacy patterns.

Some pastors who have effectively led congregations to transformation have done so by overriding congregational intimacy patterns. Because leaders cannot totally insulate themselves from unhealthy and disruptive congregational intimacy patterns, transformational leaders do experience significant pain in this process of organizational intimacy transformation.

Perhaps some personalities are less open to the inevitable pains of intimacy to enable this transformation. The extraverted, task-oriented drivenness of those single-vision Cholerics, for example, may have intimacy patterns of detachment which do not readily open themselves up to the heart issues which the more people-oriented Sanguine and Phlegmatic leaders experience. On the other hand, it may be the sensitivity to the intimacy needs to which Sanguines and Phlegmatics so instinctively respond that provide the keys to leading the process of long-term development of healthy intimacy. No one leadership style or temperament can enable the development of healthy intimacy. Instead the diverse nature of intimacy needs necessitates a broad diversity and exposure to a variety of temperaments and styles in order to be fulfilled. 7) Intimacy Development Is A Long-Haul Proposition: Intimacy in relationships develops slowly and over time. It requires conflict, growth, stretching, patience and understanding. Most of all, it requires time…and lots of it!

Pastors, leaders and congregations who recognize the supreme importance of intimacy issues will recognize that the “intimate pastorate” is a long-term proposition. They will recognize that a rapid succession of serial pastorates is both the evidence and result of deep-seated intimacy problems. Such intimacy issues can be related to unresolved conflict, sudden resignations, violations of trust, and all kinds of unhealthy, unexpected and “unusual” events. The healing takes time.

The Body of Christ, as any body, is always in a stage of growth and development. The growth of healthy intimacy can also take time. The time required can depend on numerous factors—leadership style, congregational capacities, timing, and, lest we forget, God’s plan and purpose for the congregation. 

The Gospel: The Ultimate Key To Intimacy

 The key to healthy congregational intimacy is found in the recognition of the essential interaction of Law and Gospel. As the Law points out the sins, the faults, the doubts and the most intimate fears and failures of each individual, the Gospel addresses these intimate issues with undeserved love, healing, comfort, strength and forgiveness. These healing dynamics does not, however, originate in some sort of social, psychological or organizational theory. It originates—and is rooted—exclusively in the grace of Jesus Christ. When the Church gives up, waters down, or socializes the distinct, biblical Christian message of grace, it necessarily accepts unhealthy paradigms of intimacy. It must be noted, however, that intimacy is not the issue per se. Intimacy is only the issue in so far as it aspires to the highest expression of faith possible: an intimate relationship with God based on His plan for intimacy indicated in the greatest handbook for spiritual intimacy: The innerrant intimate Word of God. To change His Word of grace is to change the terms of intimacy. When these terms are changed—as the basis for personal or congregational life—the result will always necessarily be a perversion and corruption of God-pleasing and God-directed ministry. In simpler terms, if any Christian ministry gives up the unique testimony of God’s Word and the forgiveness offered exclusively by Jesus’ Christ’s historical incarnation and the reality of His suffering, death and resurrection on our behalf, they have broken the intimate connection between Christ and His Church. It is this arrogant “puffed up” activity of which Paul speaks of when he discussed those who have

“lost connection with the Head, from whom the whole body, supported and held together by its ligaments and sinews, grows as God causes it to grow.”   Colossians 2:19 (NIV)
An Affirmation Of The Body

 Intimacy is perhaps the key issue for congregations. It affects its ministry, its leadership, its proclamation and its Gospel-based activity. It is also an affirmation of the connectedness with the Body of Christ. It is that intimacy which is the goal of all Christian ministry. The issue in Christian ministry is intimacy. Embrace it, lead it, endure it and enjoy it. The celebration of intimacy is what the Church is about. It is this focus on healthy intimacy which caused the Spirit-inspired Paul to write,

“The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 1 Corinthians 12:21 (NIV)
Isn’t that the fellowship which God has given us? Isn’t that where the real joy of ministry is? Consider the joy and challenges of the “intimate pastorate.” Enjoy, cultivate, and celebrate the connectedness and ministry of intimacy into which God has so intimately called you.
Thomas F. Fischer

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