When the Dream Dies: Pastoral Leadership and Congregational Conflict

My first experience as a duly installed parish pastor was thrilling. There are those special moments in ministry when time seems to stand still for the celebration of that unique bonding between pastor and people. The music was magnificent; relatives, guests, mentors, and colleagues smiled with pride and delight as I processed with the choir and judicatory representatives. For a little while, that gathered congregation of immigrant stock, farmers and settlers, commuters and local small business people was transformed into a band of faithful pilgrims, who had served their community since 1811.

Leadership as a Kept Man

Yet, after two years in this congregation, I had become depressed. I began sending out resumes to explore a number of college and university student personnel positions. I hoped to escape from a leadership position in which I felt like a “kept” man. The expectations for pastoral leadership were quite clear: to keep the traditions of many generations; to be available for pastoral duties; not to “rock the boat” in the direction of a radical gospel of servanthood in a place that fought the onslaught of urbanization. Preservation, not transformation, was the guiding perspective of most of the gentry of that land.

As I look back now on what has happened through four decades of pastoral leadership in our first congregation, I see many changes in the direction of genuine stewardship of resources for ministry. Even a few years after I had left these fine people, I could look back and identify the many new and renewed outreach endeavors they had begun—a community youth center, a daycare program for preschool children, a continuing “friendly visitors” program with the local neuropsychiatric institute, a worship and Christian education leadership team at the nearby training school for boys, which the state had placed in our “back yard.” Further, during my tenure, the church entered into a significant Inter-Parish Council with five neighboring congregations and promoted family life events and ecumenical summer inspirational gatherings for children. One of the most cross-culturally significant efforts was an exchange of children (Caucasian and African American) from a Reformed church in Harlem for one or two weeks in the summer.

With regard to these outreach and educational efforts, however, I felt as if their significance and ownership was much more pastor-centered than member-centered. The congregation seemed to want my preaching, teaching, and pastoral care efforts to be focused on the maintenance of the families and properties of the congregation. In stark contrast, my sense was that the outreach ministries would grow and flourish only as persons made them their own.

Facing the Opposition

I shall never forget one of the last encounters I had with one of our deacons before I left this ministry post. Sam was chair of the buildings and grounds committee. He was a constant thorn in the flesh. In my first week on the job, Sam complained bitterly about a beer can he held in his hand. He had found the can on the ground in back of the youth center we had going that summer. He was not at all convinced that the consistory had done the right thing to permit this use of one of our buildings. He was seldom satisfied with any decision that was made in consistory meetings. I can still see the signs of anger in his face, which would turn bright red, and the muscles in his neck, which would rise in protest. His loud angry voice rattled me, and on many occasions it took me a few hours to unwind after intense consistory meetings. I would typically try to soften the tone of the meeting. I hated conflict and did everything I could to please others around the leadership table. Years later, I realized that the raised angry voices of my parents fighting at 2:00 a.m. were somehow present to my conscious mind in the heat of my later arguments. I would get out of bed and stand between my father and my mother, when my father would have a knife or a shotgun in his hand, threatening my mother and eventually me.

I used to talk about conflict as an occasion for growth, but I seldom moved toward the conflict but rather distanced myself from those who sharply and loudly differed from one another or from me. I am not proud of myself for unloading my anger with Sam when he came to complain about the church’s cemetery a week before we left town. Sam seemed confused and surprised that I came back at him with my own anger and impatience with his negative attitude.

As I look back years later, I have learned a few things about engaging conflict in a more open, less reactive manner, but my own history will always be a factor in my way of bringing leadership to the management of conflict. The incidents I mention and the dreams of the church’s leadership are similar to the experiences of every pastor, but the issue of leadership is complicated today by the sense that this is a time when the church in American culture is especially anxious, as is the entire culture itself. Friedman writes:

Chronic anxiety is more systemic; it is deeper and more embracing than community nervousness. Rather than something that lives within the psyche of each one, it is something that can envelop if not actually connect people. It is a regressive emotional process that is quite different from the more familiar acute anxiety we experience over specific concerns.1

Many pastors, some of the brightest and the best, get into terribly self-destructive patterns of responding to conflict, patterns which do little to heal the pastor’s own narcissistic wounds, patterns which approach conflict from an individualistic perspective, having understood the conflict in only interpersonal terms. These approaches can shake the pastor’s confidence and deplete his or her self-esteem. This article will take a natural systems approach to conflict, a way that may help the pastor gain more emotional distance and objectivity.

Without withdrawing from the crucible of the conflict, I would like to explore the significance of the pastor’s “non-anxious presence” as an essential ingredient of leadership. The theological perspective which most informs this approach is the wisdom literature of the ancient Near East, which understands the role of the sage as similar to the contemporary pastoral caregiver. I shall conclude with some practical strategies for implementing the best kind of continuing education that I know about and have experienced through the last twelve yeas of ministry.

A Different Way of Thinking

Twelve years ago while on sabbatical in Washington, D.C., I began a training program in family therapy led by Rabbi Ed Friedman. I soon discovered that the rhythm of this program three times a year for three days was focused on the study of Murray Bowen and Bowen’s use of natural systems theory in the field of family therapy.2 My former doctoral student, Larry Foster,3 had introduced me to this program for clergy who were learning, in large-group and small-group settings, a different way of thinking about marital and family conflict and the role of the therapist or pastoral leader in the facilitation of healing. Friedman expresses his central thesis succinctly:

All [clergy], irrespective of faith, are simultaneously involved in three distinct families whose emotional forces interlock: the families within the congregation, our congregation (as a family) and our own (family of origin). Because the emotional process in all these systems is identical, unresolved issues in any one of them can produce symptoms in the others and an increased understanding in one creates more effective functioning in all three.4

Every pastor has a certain dream or vision for his or her “folk.” It is also my experience that the pastoral leader sooner or later moves through a period of “de-illusionment,” in which he or she must decide to throw out or modify the dream in the face of accepting the congregation as it really is, in all of its weaknesses and disappointments. It is at this point that God may be able to use both leader and congregation, as Bonhoeffer suggests in Life Together:

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had spring from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him [or her] a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. . . . By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world.5

Or the pastoral leader may choose to keep the dream and throw out the real, very human, community he or she experiences. The church moves through the seasons of faithful life, but the spirit is gone. The structures are all there, but the life has gone out of God’s people. I hear this story far too often from pastors who are genuinely committed to their ordination vows, but who “mess up” morally or ethically along the way. I do not believe that our seminary education and training produces pastors who have the kind of self-differentiation that will sustain them in a pastoral relationship where all kinds of transference and counter transference takes place. At a minimum, peer supervision must follow in the first five years of ministry, building on the careful work of formation during the seminary years.

What is meant by this subtle but highly important process of transference and counter transference? Pastors bring with them into ministry a whole set of relationships that were shaped in their families of origin. The interactions and relationships of the past influence the way parish members function in their relationship with the authoritative office of minister or pastor. Many people are working out positive and negative family patterns that continue to affect their lives in the present.

In a similar fashion, clergy develop positive and negative feelings toward members of the congregational family and others with whom they may enter into a counseling relationship. Some kind of supervision is essential to assist the minister in understanding his or her counter-transference feelings. None of us wishes to allow our own “stuff” to get in the way of helping others. I might have been more effective in my interaction with the angry deacon if I had understood his anger as an important component of his sense that others on consistory were leaving him out through a process of pre-meeting decision making by a sub- group of the consistory. In the language of Bowen family therapy, the potent content of transference/counter transference is best understood as a part of the process of working with “emotional triangles” within the family system (to be discussed later).

The Narcissistic Wound

In the sixties and seventies our culture experienced an opening up of alternative life styles, the erosion of traditional patterns of worship, and a great increase in the number of couples who were living together apart from marriage. There was an optimistic spirit of church growth and a great deal of experimenting with new forms of the church. This climate, which never really settled down, reflected a situation which demanded clear pastoral leadership. Rather than focus on the intrapsychic needs of each person in the congregation, the congregational family in the midst of conflict (like the renovation of an original sanctuary, for example) may now see the entire organism, this living breathing aggregate of people, as the unit of health or pathology. Is it ever legitimate for pastors as leaders to be uncertain about a direction without promoting even more anxiety?

Here I would call attention to the special skill of “coaching,” which leads towards transformation. “Coaching” in a helping relationship of leading or caring is primarily a skill, which requires a certain kind of “non-anxious presence.” The caregiver/leader brings to the relationship a kind of objective empathy. One can identify with another’s change goal, concern, or area of new learning, but the effective coach recognizes the place of what James Loder calls “the void,” the absence of divine energy in human experience. The coach works to keep from getting caught up in the triangles of resistance, which would get in the way of real transformation, by not doing the other person’s work for them. The coach maintains emotional distance from the individual player or “family team,” yet remains connected to the individual or team. In summary, the coach communicates resilience and hope by:

Richardson helps us with the following set of questions:

These questions are like a litany of confession for pastoral leaders who really want to lead with maturity and wisdom. Unfortunately, so many pastoral leaders have such impaired self concepts that they are not able to find a measure of objectivity and appropriate self-evaluation. This deficit alone is enough to send a pastor into depression. The pastor’s own sense of self must be strong enough to manage criticism from whatever source.

Friedman was fond of helping clergy see themselves as not simply installed in a position but joined in a marriage to a congregation as an “over-functioning spouse.” The pastoral leader takes care of, provides for, and nurtures the congregation, shores up the ragged edges, calms the troubled waters, and holds this disparate family together. In so doing, this same leader may block other members of the congregational family from differentiation, from finding their own, freer way. In Bowen’s terms, the head becomes too fused with the body. Leadership has failed to define itself clearly.

In the midst of the conflict the pastoral leader may suffer all kinds of physical problems (e.g., ulcers, heart attacks, cancers) and/or emotional problems (e.g., stress breakdowns, sexual acting out, marital stress, family troubles, and spiritual losses, questioning one’s call). We do not do any favors to the church or to the person in ministry formation by certifying those persons in ministry who are so emotionally vulnerable that they cannot define themselves and learn to take a stand in the midst of conflict, knowing that conflict is an inevitable part of ministry. In a study of sixty-five male clergy who were involved in affairs, Pete Steinke found narcissism to be one of the major factors in the clergy profile. He summarizes:

Pathological narcissism is really a cover-up for the lack of self- importance that one feels but does not notice. Actually people with this character disorder love themselves poorly, if at all. . . . The narcissist invests in a “false self,” using grandiosity to conceal vulnerability. At the core of narcissism is a deep fear of humiliation.7

Bowen natural systems therapy would say that the way out is for the pastor to become a more self-differentiated leader, to know where he or she is going, to articulate a vision, to realize a balance in functioning between self-definition and staying connected with others. Most of all, the pastoral leader must work at being a non-anxious presence in the midst of the conflict and reactivity of the families of the congregation. The more the leader is able to remain less anxious and more self-defined (not self-focused or self-centered), the more he or she will be a force influencing the total system.

Leaders must learn to spot the early warning signals within. What kind of person in a relationship “hooks” you? Is it the sarcastic or controlling person? The supercritical perfectionist type, the seductive type, or the dependent personality? The key to change in any system is the nature of the presence of the change artist, not his or her administrative or technical expertise.8

Friedman was fond of saying: “When things are going well, watch out for sabotage.” There is a kind of perversity in human nature which resists any change from the homeostatic inclination of the organism. Bowen and Friedman saw “family emotional process” as a major phenomenological way in which a family functions. To understand family emotional process is to illuminate the natural order of things. Effective leadership recognizes patterns of multigenerational transmission across the generations, emerging almost mysteriously from a careful examination of perennial forces in one’s family of origin.

For example, the apostle Paul writes eloquently about the nature of caring, “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ,” (Gal. 6:2), and then a few lines later (v. 5), “For all must carry their own loads.” There is a kind of built-in ecological balance in these two aspects of living in community. This balance is what the sage recognizes and articulates in the wisdom literature of the Bible and of the ancient Near East. The paradoxical nature of family life is evident: “Those who trouble their households will inherit the wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise” (Prov. 11:29).

For most of his professional life, my colleague Robert Coughenour has been studying the relationship between the role of the sage in the ancient Near East and the identity of the pastoral leader/counselor. Coughenour offers a carefully written, well-researched overview of a wisdom theology which does not attempt to escape the realities of living fully and faithfully in an ordered creation.9 Here is a biblical/theological foundation for pastoral leadership which focuses more upon the interpersonal and systemic nature of congregational conflict than upon the particular content of the conflict. Coughenour challenges the pastor counselor (leader) to “know the wonder expressed by the fear of the Lord, to “be open to greater reception, deeper insight, hopeful faith, and moral and spiritual discernment.”10 It is this “radical amazement” (Prov. 1:7 or 9:10), this sense of wonder (Heschel), that is “a starting point for the knowledge of relatedness to ourselves, to others, and to the world.”11 This kind of interior work, this kind of self-understanding and courage, equips a pastoral leader to face what Friedman called the “emotional triangles of resistance” present in every effort to reduce the intensity of clergy/congregational relationships.

Emotional Triangles of Resistance

Bowen natural systems family therapy helps one understand one’s place in the family constellation. It may be that the pastoral leader who examines carefully his or her place in the pastor’s family of origin will come to see some of the same interaction patterns in his or her relationship to certain members of the congregational family. Consider my relationship to the angry deacon who kept trying to get me to be more outspoken concerning property matters. I found myself in a triangle with John (the vice-president of consistory) and with Sam. I worked hard to get them to communicate with each other in a fundamental way. Instead, I often felt responsible for their inability to understand each other’s point of view. I bore the stress that they should be working through. It is a leadership art to stay out of the triangulation process. I could not change the relationship between these two men, one a professional businessperson and the other a blue-collar plumber. I could only change myself and determine how I could be present with them and be more self-disclosing about my values, whatever the content of our discussion. I needed to learn how to identify my own emotions and thoughts and then to communicate my own understanding to Sam and John.

At age sixty-seven, I am more skilled at accurate self disclosure, but I still feel like the little working-class kid who wants to be safe and comfortable with others and therefore does not get heard. This is an ineffective way to function. There are many pastors like me, who frustrate the work of ministry because they are fearful of taking positions that are unpopular with the majority.

There are times when I have taken a stand and have felt the emptiness and sadness of having to speak my heart and mind concerning a matter which had split the faculty and administration in the seminary where I taught. On the other hand, I shall never forget the stands I have taken on matters of spouse abuse, child abuse, and sexual harassment in parish and seminary. There are occasions when taking a stand can send the entire ecclesiastical system into a different configuration.

Epilogue: The Colleague Group

We were never meant to be loners in the ministry. In the initial commitment to the Friedman Post-graduate Seminars in Family Emotional Process, the design offered a three-day format: (1) one day given to family of origin groups, in which we presented our genogram under the guidance of Friedman’s faculty (skilled in Bowen theory and practice), (2) one day given to some aspect of Bowen natural systems theory or application to family therapy or to the church as an emotional system, and (3) one day focused on case studies brought by seminar members. Continuing participation was voluntary after the first year of three seminars. Our group of fifteen core members has met primarily in Washington, D.C., for at least twelve years. Our family of origin groups have had considerable continuity and function with an intimate knowledge of one another’s history and personal/professional growth. Each small group member is free to update the rest of the group concerning the work in which the revisiting of significant family of origin issues has affected one’s functioning in ministry.

This outcome has been life-serving and cost-effective to most core group members. Most core group members would rate this experience as the best ecumenical continuing educational journey of their entire lives.


1 Edwin H. Friedman, A Failure of Nerve, Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix (Bethesda: The Edwin H. Friedman Foundation, 1999), 9.

2 For a brief overview of Bowen theory and natural systems therapy, see Ronald W. Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church, Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life (Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1995). See also Richardson, Family Ties That Bind, a Self-help Guide to Change Through Family of Origin Therapy (Vancouver: Self-Counsel Press, 1984, 1995).

3 See www.clergyseminars.net for a sample of clergy seminars in the Midwest led by Foster.

4 Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: Guilford, 1985), 1.

5 Bonhoeffer, Life Together (New York: Harper and Row, 1954), 26-7.

6 Richardson, Growing, 142.

7 Peter L. Steinke, The Journal of Psychology and Christianity, vol. 8, no. 4, 61.

8 Adapted from a lecture by E. Friedman, Bethesda, Md., Oct. 24-26, 1989.

9 Robert A. Coughenour, “The Sage and the Pastoral Counselor,” Reformed Review 55 (2001-02), 147-158. See also his “Beginnings of Wisdom,” Perspectives 5 (September, 1990).

10 Coughenour, “The Sage,” 153.

11 Ibid.