Prophets in Systems

While I could probably share several thoughts on congregations or ministries as systems (and I may), I’ve been highly interested in the role of the “prophet” in a system. Much of this interest has been fueled by spending the last 10 weeks taking a prophets class though I’m always interested in prophet related insights because of how I tend to function in systems myself.

Steinke writes on page 44 of How Your Church Family Works,

“…True prophets are without honor in their own anxious country. Many of God’s messengers are ignored, mocked, or annihilated. But the false prophets who cry, ‘Peace, peace,’ and heal the wounds of the people lightly are too often welcomed. They promise stability but invite no reflection. False prophets offer simple, immediate relief. They don’t challenge people to change their limited point of view.” 

Given the tendency of groups to move towards stability and conformity (homeostasis), it only makes since that a force that may seek to challenge the dynamics and inner-workings of the system may face a stiff challenge if not fierce opposition.

In my readings of N.T. Wright as well as the Prophets class I’ve thought about the parable of the wicked tenants. The landowner sends a couple representatives to bring a corrective message to those that were being unfaithful in stewarding what had been entrusted to them. The wicked tenants beat the messengers and finally the landowner sent his own Son thinking that surely they would respect Him. However the Son was beaten and killed for bringing both the message of correction as well as for his representation of the landowner.

In the past I’ve focused on this merely as a parable that served as a prediction or “proof-text” that Jesus knew ahead of time that he was going to die. I think there is an element of that there, but the emphasis of this is really Jesus placing himself in the same position as the many prophets that the Lord had sent to His people. The prophets were continually rejected (see life of Jeremiah) and ironically much of the rejection comes at the hands of the current leaders of the religious “system” of the day. Jesus himself finally comes as the last prophet and is dealt with in similar fashion by the religious system of his day.

I’m beginning to see that the religious (and other) authorities over the course of Israel’s history were continually moving towards cultural homeostasis in the context of pagan nations. It was easier for the leaders and the people to adopt behavior patterns that were part of the larger system of the surrounding pagan nations. The Lord sent his prophets to call them to repentance and commit again to the Lord’s covenant. They were in effect saying to the people and leadership that they were embracing a corrupt system and they needed to turn from it and return to the “system” that God had called them to.

Common sense tells us that this is a rough calling for the prophet, but from a systems’ perspective the prophetic role becomes an even more unenviable position. Many leaders seek to find quick solutions so as to reduce anxiety. The prophet sees when the whole system is based on a faulty foundation and is willing to create a certain level of anxiety that may result in learning and change. Anxious communities, people, and leaders (anxiety meaning they have a high vested interest in their self-preservation in the context of community) react against the prophets because their way of living/dealing/coping is threatened.

Obviously the gospels portray Jesus in this kind of role with the leaders of his day as well dozens of others of Biblical leaders. It’s relevant to consider how the system might be functioning off of a faulty foundation. It’s relevant to consider how the prophet’s most severe opposition was actually from the religious leadership – those who had “control” and the most to lose. I’ll be sharing more thoughts down the road on the importance of the role of the leader in any system, but any leaders should seek to recognize who the true prophetic voices are in their system who can help bring needed change, learning, and even repentance. They should also recognize the difference between those true prophets and those who claim to be prophets, but are only seeking to reduce their anxiety – or as Steinke puts it, those who are chasing “fool’s gold.”

Incans From Another Planet

A lady approached me a couple days ago and got within 3 inches of my face to tell me that she had just identified someone was was an Incan, part of an ancient civilization, but who is really from outer space. Furthermore, there are billions of them, but we don’t need to worry about alien invasion quite yet because all they want to say is thank you.

Theological Mind Bender

I’ve been listening to some seminars given by British scholar / Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright over the course of my sabbatical and a few days ago he made a point that I’ve been revisiting in my mind over and over again.

He said something to the effect that God has revealed some of His future in our past.

He has argued that so much of the gospels in particular must be interpreted in light of its historical and eschatological context. In Jesus’ ministry God has revealed so much more of the future of God and His plan. However, for us to learn from this revelation of God’s future we must do the work of investigating what God revealed in past historical context.

The church fathers are a good example. They were dealing with a different set of problems, but in there historical context they were still seeking to be the light of the world to their generation. Because something of God’s future was revealed in their corporate life and witness, grounded in Jesus, we can learn something of God’s future by studying how they followed Jesus in their historical context and sought to have a redemptive impact on the world.

So, we can see God’s future* with a little bit more clarity by learning from what He’s revealed in the past. Pretty Cool.**

* By God’s future, I (and certainly not Wright) are not messing with any doctrines of God being a timeless being. By future, he means the vision or fulfillment of God’s plans in salvation history.

** For those of you who have done the strengthfinder thing, given that context is my #1 theme (seeing the present and future in light of the past), my interest in this line of thought should be self-explanatory.

Book Recommendations

Every once in a while people ask me for book recommendations. Then a friend of mine found a way through amazon to set up a personal bookstore where people can easily check things out. Since I want to be just like him, I have set up my own amazon bookstore where you can browse my favorite and/or highly recommended books.

The link is http://astore.amazon.com/brivirsboo-20

If you take me up on a suggestion and read one of them, let me know what you think!

Nice Comeback

My mom told me a funny story about Morgan today. She was watching Morgan during my seminary feedback meeting when she noticed it was time for Morgan’s diaper to be changed. She said, “Morgan, do you need your diaper changed? Something smells stinky.”

Morgan said back to her, “Maybe it’s you Nana!”

Awesome!

Gettin’Feedback

I had a meeting that I don’t too many of us get too often. It was a meeting of several peers, friends, co-workers, and Christine and myself that met with the purpose of giving me feedback. As part of my seminary program all of us need to go through a process of meeting with a feedback team or “sustaining relationships.” We met for 4 times together working through stuff like mission, values, and goals and then the others met once without me to gather the feedback and the last meeting was today where they walked me through the feedback that they composed.

It’s been a cool process and I’m very appreciative for all of them taking the time to do it, but I’ve learned a lot and made some good connections. Today was both encouraging and instructive as it relates to bridging from my own perspective to how people experience me. One of the things I’m thinking about it how many experience me as having trouble getting out of my head sometimes to really engage people in relationship. I’ve gotten feedback that I’m more cognitive than I think I am and that I sometimes get lost in my head at times and am unaware of how that impacts people. It’s shows me that I need to continue to pay attention to how easily I get stuck in my head and fade from engaging those around me. There’s a lot more I need to think through, but that’s the bottom line.

It’s really good to get insight from such quality people that can help me move towards who and what God has called me to be and do. It made me realize that I need more opportunities more consistently to get this kind of feedback along the journey from people in relationship. It doesn’t tend to come without pursuing it!

Homeostasis

Systems thinkers borrow the concept of homeostasis from the world of the human body and apply it to systems, which makes for very interesting insights about how systems work.

Steinke describes homeostasis as follows:

“We have internal means that seek the most favorable conditions for survival. To secure the stability of the organism, the body functions as a cooperative community preventing it from being overwhelmed by changing conditions or restoring the necessary balance after conditions change it.” (How Your Church Family Works, pg. 6)

“Relationship systems require stability.” (pg. 8)

This is such a fascinating dynamic because especially within the Christian community there is such as emphasis on “unity.” It seems that within a system there is a force of unity that is ever present and that is the group dynamic towards calmness and stability. That’s not to see that the group is free of volatility or other dynamics, but the system itself works to preserve itself just as the human body seeks to preserve itself from any outside change. As this sense of self-preservation is at work, it should help us understand what is happening within groups when a force presents itself that threatens the dynamics of the group.

Homeostasis seems to have a lot of healthy aspects to it in that it protects against self-destruction and guards against intruders or threats. This is necessary for survival. However, in systems, I think it might be helpful to consider how it can work against the individual and corporate transformation of people and groups by unconsciously (or consciously) rejecting healthy change and threatening truths or realities.

It seems that just because something is stable, doesn’t mean it’s healthy. And conversely, just because there is a “threat” to that stability, it doesn’t mean that it is a threat to the overall good – it’s just a threat to the current system.

Self-Differentiation

I wanted to continue my exploration into the world of congregational systems by sharing Steinke’s description of self-differentiation. He writes,

“Self-differentiation in emotional processes refers to the amount of self available to an individual, such as an individual’s overall maturity, level of functioning, and the degree of responsibility for self. It is the capacity to choose a course of direction and to stay the course when reactive people want to reroute you. It is the ability to stay focused on your own functioning while being aware of others. Self-differentiation is the ability to stand up and be counted in matters of principle and belief and yet remain with family and community. It is the ability in anxious circumstances to regulate one’s own reactivity by thinking. Differentiation is to take a position in the midst of emotional forces and still remain in touch with others.” Healthy Congregations, pg. 103.

This is such a powerful issue for us to consider today. How often are we able to stay connected in relationship with others in the midst of tension, disagreement, or conflict without withdrawing or disconnecting from the relationship altogether? Self-differentiation is about staying separate and staying close at the same time. I have very few examples of people that maintain the ability to differentiate amidst difficult circumstances because our culture seems to reinforce blame-shifting and a victim mentality. My mom is someone that has continued to impress me over the years for her ability to move towards people in the middle of awkwardness, tension, or conflict. One of her ministry values that I’ve heard her express over the years over and over is that staying connected as you work through things is of paramount importance to moving towards relationship healing and health. Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done and I’ve seen many just eject from relationship completely as opposed to doing the hard work of staying connected in an effort to reconcile and move forward.

Self-differentiation is about exercising self-control and responsibility for what one can control and not getting lost or absorbed by other people who may be reactive. Can we maintain perspective, exercise self-control, and keep moving towards people despite their anxious reactivity?

There are great examples in the Scriptures of this, none more powerful than Jesus on the cross who in his moments of greatest rejection cries out to the Lord, “Forgive them Lord, for they know not what they do.” He was in this way still moving towards humanity in the moment of humanity’s greatest rejection of Him.

6 years and counting!

Christine and I celebrated our 6th year of marriage yesterday. We stayed an extra day on vacation while my family took Morgan back for the night so Christine and I could get some space to celebrate. We’ve had a great day together and have really enjoyed both the vacation and having the larger space of the sabbatical. We’re thankful for so much of where we are right now in our relationship with one another and as parents.

I’ve really been encouraged by Christine’s perseverence over the past couple of years through a lot of physical, emotional, and even spiritual struggles. She’s not had an easy road, but is still looking to grow in her knowledge and obedience to the Lord. That’s one of the things I love about her. Plus, she’s still really fun and easy for me to be with and I think she’s hot! She’s awesome with Morgan and it’s really fun starting to see Morgan take on some of Christine’s personality and mannerisms. Morgan’s a lucky girl and I’m a lucky guy.

We’re praying for many more years together!

Leadership Formation & Development Within Systems and Organizations