Institutional Dysfunction

I'm thinking about dysfunction today in part because I just read an old RevGals book discussion http://revgalblogpals.blogspot.com/2007/03/revgalbookpals-book-discussion-group.html on Barbara Brown Taylor's Leaving Church. I was a little relieved to hear other women echo my questions: Where were her boundaries? Where was her self-care? Why didn't she understand that she alone can't fix people?

I've temped, off and on, for about 3 years. In the course of that time I've worked for a couple of financial institutions, and otherwise I've mainly worked for non-profits or government agencies. In addition to this, I've worked with about three churches (interning, as a parishioner, and as an HR consultant) enough to see the mechanics.

I am sorry to tell you that the level of professionalism and courtesy is not equal in the private and public sectors. The negative behaviors I've learned about through Al-Anon and CoDA are rampant, and the pseudoChristian belief that we shouldn't take care of ourselves certainly aggravates the dynamics in many faith-based non-profits. (Please understand: there are crazy corporate environments, too. I'm not excluding them from human insanity, just sharing that in my experience it's more pronounced in service-oriented environments.)

It's not unusual to see a strong reluctance to communicate honestly. I've seen stubbornness bordering on belligerence when either teamwork or performance beyond minimum requirements is requested. I've see power and control issues, and social bullying.

Here are my questions: Where does this come from, and what can those of us in leadership positions (or who will be in leadership positions) do about it?

Is it the low level of compensation? Is it low expectations? Does the stubbornness come from lack of training?

And what do we do about it? The first answer I come up with is to keep a sharp awareness of boundaries and respect. I can think of instances in church life where relationships and ministry have just about burned down because appropriate boundaries weren't observed from the very beginning of a project. Is part of our responsibility to share about the ways we struggle with healthy dynamics in our own lives, in order to increase awareness?

I'm starting to believe it would be great to have 12-Step groups just for pastors to try to stay sane.


  1. I'm not a pastor, but I've seen this phenomenon among lay church staff and leadership, too. I wonder if it's because we tend to fall into the sin of trying to be like Jesus and think that means we can't ever say no?

  2. I touched on this when i preached Maundy Thursday - about being called to emulate Jesus, to love as he loved, but realizing that we can't BE Jesus, and redeeming the world isn't on our shoulders...

  3. I think I hear what you're both saying, but my concern is that we're misreading things. I don't think that trying to be Jesus, or even trying to be like Jesus means that we work all the time, and never take time for restoration. Jesus took a Sabbath. Jesus went to dinner parties. Absolutely, Jesus's love was sacrificial, but the example of Jesus' life isn't that of a workaholic. I think Jesus set an example of boundaries and self-care. My concern is that we think Jesus was always giving, but in reality Jesus showed us that part of loving is receiving.

  4. I think you're right on -- Jesus went away to pray, Jesus took time to regroup.
    And the expectation of respect toward one another? Yeah, how about that?

  5. I would highly recommend a book by Brian Taylor, Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus. I think it echos and elaborates on what pink shoes & kerygma said in really powerful and penetrating ways.

    I think part of the problem is in the process to ordination itself -- you have to learn to completely expose yourself and your vocational aspirations to person after person after person. And then after that's over, you should just learn self-care and boundaries etc. Is that realistic? Does the "Process" support healthy growth and development? Or does it set us up for some major issues down the road?

    Ditto the seminary/CPE/interning/GOE whammy. This has served to reinforce (rather than deconstruct) my tendancy to work absurd hours and sacrifice time for rest, play and reflection in the interests of meeting my "responsibilities."

    PS - I really had major issues with that book -- I mean, come on. Work yourself into the ground and then throw up your hands and say, how on earth did that happen?!? I didn't see her owning her own choices.

    My two cents.
    (And don't forget to chat with me about your questions re: Chaplaincy, here or at ordinary time)

  6. PPS -- and I have had lots of advice from clergy that I know about the benefits of clergy colleague groups (and it works for seminarians as well).

    In a way like a 12-step group, but basically it's a group you can gather with and be real with and continue the work on discernment and healthy living as clergy together.

    It's intentional and supportive (in the sense of contructive criticism rather than constant affirmation). It's a good practice, one that I've taken up with seminary peers.

  7. The healthiest pastors I know are ones who are the least involved in a clergy peer group and some are involved in psycho-therapy groups and spiritual direction.

    There has to be an accountability and for some (most?) only another pastor can get through and say 'you are doing too much' or even an appropriate 'you are NOT Jesus - and even Jesus would take a rest by now.'


"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin' ass and celebratin' the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was."
-Saint Molly Ivins