The last time I wrote to you I outlined the #1 reason pastors burn out: overfunctioning. There’s a second reason pastors burn out, and it’s related to #1. To be honest, I’m not sure which one is first or second. I know I’ve been caught in both, and you probably have, too.
Ready for the cold hard truth?
Pastors feel responsibility for people getting along. For fixing broken marriages, or tending wounds between siblings. In family systems thinking, this is called being caught in a triangle. And it happens all the time at church.
Some triangles go with the job: You, the board, and the congregation. You, your predecessor, the congregation. You can’t get out of them. Other triangles are ones that you get invited into: A mother and her daughter, and the mother’s expectation you can straighten out her kid. The administrator and the custodian have a problem, and you are expected to fix it.
The trick is to be in these triangles you are a part of without being caught-without feeling like it’s up to you to fix other people’s relationships. That’s a kind of overfunctioning. It can be deadly. It’s certainly stressful, and it distracts you from your own ministry goals.
Here are four ways to approach your triangles. I’ve written these down before, but even I have to remind myself about them all the time, and you probably need reminding, too.
1.You can’t change a relationship you are not a part of. If you are in a triangle, or get invited into one, the only people who can affect the “other side” of the triangle are the ones who are in that relationship. This is an absolute fact.
2. When you try to change the relationship, it often gets worse. The more you try to get the administrator and the custodian to get along, the worse it gets. Now, I’m not saying you simply let it go. You may need to be clear with each of them about what you expect from your employees. But you let go of your feeling that it is up to you to solve the problem. You leave the responsibility where it belongs –with them.
3.The person taking the responsibility feels stressed. When people pull you into a triangle, they want you take on the stress. They are happy for you to relieve their anxiety-it releases them from the responsibility for their own relationships. But it’s not good for you, and it’s ultimately not beneficial for them. It also sets up a pattern that you are the go-to for any problems, and we know that dynamic is detrimental.
4. You can only change a relationship you actually belong to. And even then, most of the time you can really only change yourself, your perspective, and your behavior. You can connect directly with people. With staff members, for example, you can refuse to listen to one complain about the other, and talk with each one instead about their own goals for their functioning and their work. Simply because you’re invited or pulled into a triangle, doesn’t mean you have accept the invitation.
Questions for reflection: Where am I taking responsibility for other people’s relationships? What might I do instead?
Learn more: Israel Galindo wrote a helpful series of seven blog posts on triangles, based on an interview I did with him on triangles some years ago. You can find the first one and links to succeeding posts here.
Get more help: It can be tricky to tease out the triangles in congregational life. I do a lot of coaching with clergy on these matters. Contact me for a free conversation to see if I can help you think it through.