Are You in a Triangle in the Pulpit?

I’ve had several occasions recently to mention an article on preaching by Walter Brueggemann, “The Preacher, the Text, and the People.” In it, he refers to Bowen Theory’s idea of triangles to talk about preaching. He suggests that preachers often line themselves up with the text over and against the people. In fact, what we need to do is stand with the people and allow the text to speak to both of us. Brueggemann’s argument is, of course, far more nuanced than my brief summary. I commend the full article to you.

Can You Live without Speaking?

I came across this quote today: “Abba Isidore of Pelusia said: ‘Living without speaking is better than speaking without living. For a person who lives rightly helps us by silence, while one who talks too much annoys us. If, however, words and life go hand in hand, it is the perfection of all philosophy.'” It’s from a lovely little book by Joan Chittister, Illuminated Life: Monastic Wisdom for Seekers of Light, which I’ve been reading devotionally.

Isidore says talking little is better than talking much. In our society, this is counter-cultural. Could you go a day without speaking? Could I?

How Long Does It Take to Let Go? Part 2

We had a second graduation in the family this week, my son’s from high school. I’m finding the experience of launching kids to be full of mixed feelings. Still, last night at the gelato place up the street as I watched parents with tiny children, I had no regrets that those days were gone.

And it’s a great opportunity to learn about boundaries. I keep coming back to my own principles for parenting teenagers, which I posted here last fall. The one I’m thinking about most is #6, “Having goals for your own life rather than goals for their life is better for you and better for them.” I’m also working on launching my book, Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry, which is due August 1 (and will be out in early 2009). When I can think more about my writing than about my kids and their future, it’s better for me and better for them. It’s more growth-producing for me to work on my book than to worry about them (which accomplishes nothing for anyone). And it helps me move toward my goals.

When Do You Say “You”?

Reader Dwight Robarts asks, “When is it okay to say ‘you’?” He correctly understands the importance for leaders to define self and make “I” statements. In last week’s teleconference I made the comment that I might challenge feuding staff members with a statement like this, “If you want to continue to work here, you have to figure out how to get along.” Obviously not an “I” statement!

I’ve been thinking about Dwight’s question this week. I think it is possible to issue a challenge using the word “you,” with care. It’s as much about the emotional freight of the message as it is about the language. If we’re going to make a “you” statement, we need to do it in a neutral way, where we don’t care too much about the outcome. In the case of the staff people above, if I have a lot invested in them making the choice to stay, I’m far too dependent on their response. The more I want them to do what I want, the more the resistance is likely to kick in.

Here’s another to try: “Here’s what I need from you.” In this case, too, we need to let go of our expectation of a certain response. We offer the invitation to join in an important endeavor, recognizing the choice is up to them.

And I would say, when in doubt, stick with the “I” statements, and defining self. Let me know your thoughts on this important issue.

Pray Your Calendar: from PastorHacks

Here’s a great post from PastorHacks called Pray Your Calendar. If we engaged in this practice my guess is our ministries would undergo significant changes.

How Do You Get Out of a Triangle?

As I noted, if someone comes to you with a complaint about someone else, you’re in a triangle. How do you get out of it? The short answer is, you can’t. And the good news is, you don’t have to. We all live in triangles all the time. You were born into a triangle with your mother and father (no matter how traditional or non-traditional your family was, and even if you never knew either parent).

To repeat, the key is not getting out of triangles, but how we manage ourselves in the triangles we’re already in. Sometimes when we’re anxious, we create new triangles, or intensify the ones we’re in. You may automatically call your sister when you learn your mother is ill, to share the anxiety. Or go to the pastoral relations committee when a particular church member or staff member is driving you crazy.

We’ll do better if we act thoughtfully rather than reactively in the triangles we’re in. Talking to a sister can be a way to maintain relationship rather than simply raising the anxiety in the family. Working with a church committee on how to manage challenging personalities can lead to more maturity in the congregation. But only if we are managing ourselves in the way we relate to others.

It takes time to learn to do this, and we all get emotionally hooked sometimes by intense triangles. The least mature people are masters at triangling in others to help with their problems. Most of the time we’ll do better if we can stop and think through what our next steps should be, rather than automatically responding to someone’s anxious appeal.

Can You See the Triangles?

How many times in the last week has someone come to you with a comment or complaint about someone else? How have you responded? A key source of stress for leaders is the way we get caught in emotional triangles. Seeing these triangles as they occur is the best stress-management tool around. It also helps make sense of the sometimes-perplexing dynamics in organizational life.

What is a triangle? The triangle is eternal in all human relationships. Psychiatrist Murray Bowen observed that when the relationship between two people becomes troubled, they will pull in a third person, as a way toward stability. In family life, two squabbling children cry, “Mom!” An unhappy wife talks to her sister about her husband. A frustrated father complains to his tennis partner about his teenaged daughter. Anxiety goes down, and the relationship is stabilized, for the time being.

Triangles occur not only in families, but wherever people organize together. Here are few examples: In church life, the pastor makes a comment a key leader doesn’t like, and that leader complains to another leader. The music director chooses a piece the choir hates, and a choir member gripes to her husband. Or, in business, a manager drops by a colleague’s desk to process a conflict he just had with his administrative assistant. The one forming the triangle feels better. In the case of the choir member complaining to her husband, she has let off steam, and transferred some of her anxiety to her husband. But he probably feels worse. The greater his sense of responsibility for the relationship between the other two (for example, if he chairs the music committee), the worse he feels, and the more stressed he becomes. Similar triangles occur in every organization. Here are just a few: in a school system, superintendent-principal-teacher; in a business, owner-employee-customer; in politics, incumbent-challenger-voter.

We can’t stay out of these triangles. And in fact, triangles are not necessarily bad; they’re simply part of human experience. But how we manage ourselves within the triangles we encounter can make or break our leadership. We manage poorly when we function anxiously within them, when we feel responsible for the relationships of others, or when we take sides within triangles. We can, however, learn to conduct ourselves more effectively in triangles.

Here are some facts about how triangles work:

First, you can’t change the “other side” of a triangle. In other words, you can’t change a relationship you don’t belong to. If you are in a triangle with two other people, you cannot directly affect their relationship. Their relationship is up to them, not to you.

Secondly, if you try to change the other side of a triangle, the situation often gets worse. People resist, consciously or unconsciously, our willful attempts to change them. If two people are fighting the more you try to help them get along, the more they will be in conflict.

Thirdly, when you try to change someone else’s relationship, you carry the stress that belongs to the other two. Trying to do the impossible always creates stress. The other two may love it, because they will experience less stress: you’ve taken on what belongs to them. But there is also no potential for change.

Remember, you can only change a relationship you belong to. You can change that relationship because you are part of it. It’s not always easy to see triangles at work. But simply beginning to observe triangles and to make some different choices about how to relate to others in those triangles can help us all grow.

How Long Does it Take to Let Go?

My daughter graduates from college tomorrow. Launching kids is a great lesson in managing boundaries. Once there was almost no boundary between us. Soon she’ll be on her own. The last 22 years have been a process of little by little firming up that boundary.

When she went to college, a young adult in a Bible study group I was leading suggested I watch the movie “Finding Nemo.” “It’s about letting go,” he said. I watched the movie, and laughed, and felt a bit freer. It might be time for me to watch the movie again.

So my answer to the question, “Can you let go?” is, “sort of.” Or, “I’m working on it.” It’s good for both of us when I can.

What about you? Where in your life are you being called to let go? To respect someone’s natural boundary? To give them room to find their own way?