Thursday, June 07, 2007,10:22 PM
Interfaith Encounters
So got to spend the better part of the day today in Chicago (the city as opposed to the general geographic area). I caught the train at the end of line at a station surrounded by cornfields and spent the next hour watching those cornfields change into small farms and horse corrals, then cookie-cutter suburbs, then nice rich suburbs, then older artsy suburbs, then poor ethic suburbs, then run-down factory zones, until I finally entered the land of skyscrapers and trendy loft apartments. It was a most interesting ride to watch the history of urban sprawl pass by my window.

I went downtown to participate in a ecumenical, inter-faith clergy discussion. It was an amazing group that had gathered at Wicker Park Lutheran Church for lunch and discussion. I think I was the only pseudo-evangelical. Others represented Lutherans, Presbyterians, Catholics, and Unitarians and from outside Christianity there were two Zen Buddhist Priests and an Emerging Jewish Rabbi. The "clergy cafe" is hosted by Reverend Clare Butterfield (Unitarian-Universalist) of Faith in Place, a Creation care ministry based in downtown Chicago. Mike attended the last gathering (read about it here) so I got to go this time.

The topic for discussion was family systems theory and its implications for leadership for people in modern congregations and modern times. We were given a book list to choose from that dealt with systems theory. I read Peter Steinke's Healthy Congregations. Having not been to seminary (yet) where it seemed most people there had studied systems theory, I felt a bit lost at points in the discussion. We spent a lot of time discussing the central necessity of self-differentiation in systems theory. As Wikipedia explains -
Differentiation of self refers to one's ability to separate one's own intellectual and emotional functioning from that of the family. Bowen spoke of people functioning on a single continuum or scale. Individuals with "low differentiation" are more likely to become fused with predominant family emotions. (A related concept is that of an undifferentiated ego mass, which is a term used to describe a family unit whose members possess low differentiation and therefore are emotionally fused.) Those with "low differentiation" depend on others approval and acceptance. They either conform themselves to others in order to please them, or they attempt to force others to conform to themselves. They are thus more vulnerable to stress and they struggle more to adjust to life changes. (534 Bowen 1974) To have a well-differentiated "self" is an ideal that no one realizes perfectly. They recognize that they need others, but they depend less on other's acceptance and approval. They do not merely adopt the attitude of those around them but acquire their principles thoughtfully. These help them decide important family and social issues, and resist the feelings of the moment. Thus, despite conflict, criticism, and rejection they can stay calm and clear headed enough to distinguish thinking rooted in a careful assessment of the facts from thinking clouded by emotion. What they decide and say matches what they do. When they act in the best interests of the group, they choose thoughtfully, not because they are caving in to relationship pressures. Confident in their own thinking, they can either support another's view without becoming wishy-washy or reject another's view without becoming hostile.

The lack of self-differentiation can result in conflict and the most unhealthy way to address conflict is to cut oneself off from it. "The opposite of an emotional cut-off is an open relationship. It is a very effective way to reduce a group's over-all anxiety. Continued low anxiety permits motivated family members to begin the slow steps to better differentiation."

It is all a very fascinating topic, but as with most traditionally modern expressions of faith, I felt the Emerging Church just didn't fit. In Systems Theory (according to my very limited understanding thereof) stronger leaders and more distinct individuals are necessary for a group/church to be healthy. This seems to fly in the face of organic, missional approaches to church where hierarchy is replaced with community. Also those from the mainline perspectives couldn't understand that for some in the emerging church, leaving a church (cutting-off) may be the only healthy option. They couldn't fathom that there could be churches where questions weren't welcome and intellectual honesty was suppressed for the sake of tradition and doctrine (or where ecumenical/interfaith gatherings weren't the norm, much less approved of). So to assume that to leave a church is always unhealthy isn't something I can concede. It may not always be painless, but sometimes it is the only possible way to stay alive for many people involved in the emerging church (and is often a decision that is made for them anyway). But the conversation was a good reminder that my post-evangelical emerging experience is hardly a common story or issue outside of the bubble I exist in (not that that makes it any less valid, just different).

It was a fun day and I'm still processing our discussion. I hope I can take the opportunity to gather again with this group in the future.

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posted by Julie at 10:22 PM ¤ Permalink ¤


  • At 6/08/2007 05:11:00 AM, Anonymous sonja

    Actually, Julie, I just finished the sibling book to that also by Peter Steinke. I read it in the wake of leaving an emerging church where there were unhealthy emotional systems in place.

    Every human organizational group has a "system" by which they operate. Some are more "organic," others more structured. But we all create systems in order to relate to one another. Those systems may be healthy or unhealthy regardless of whether or not they are organic. I'm in the midst of Healthy Congregations (I'd put it down for a while) and find it fascinating and helpful to help determine where to go from here.

  • At 6/08/2007 03:39:00 PM, Blogger Julie

    I agree that we all create systems and that there are unhealthy emerging churches. I guess I had issue with the assumption that more and better structure is what a church needs to be healthy. I'm more interested in getting away from hierarchy than just developing stronger candidates for that system.

  • At 6/08/2007 07:18:00 PM, Anonymous sonja

    Yeah ... I agree with that. It may have been the "audience" which you were a part of ... because as I read the book, I could see how it could be used to deconstruct heirarchy and create a healthy system with flat structures (if that makes sense).


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