(Names and events have been changed to protect confidentiality)
In 1979 I was a senior pastor at a church. A couple was causing lots of turmoil in our church family. They were constantly accusing me, the church, and the church leadership of neglecting them spiritually, not caring about them, and not including them in social activities. We were not the loving caring church they thought we professed to be, at least so they thought. We were not worrying enough about their needs and the many slights they received by being ignored and belittled by the leadership and others in the church. They would tell anyone who would listen about their plight. This constant complaining and negative energy kept the church in stirred up and lowered morale. Everyone in the church tried to do their best to help this couple feel better and to meet their needs and to include them in activities and social events, but it was never enough. They were critical of everything and everyone, especially me. I kept trying my best for this couple, but it was always met with rejection, backbiting, and constant complaining.
I began to feel chronically angry, frustrated, over-focused on this couple and the drama they would create. I eventually felt depressed and powerless to effect change in myself and the church. In fact, this problem couple slowly became took charge of the church rather than the pastoral leadership. They became the focus of church lifetime and time again. “Do you know what the Smith’s said now? They’ve got everyone in an uproar again,” was the constant refrain. They would complain about how the church was not a loving enough church, how the pastor was not teaching the right things, how the members of the church were not living morally and spiritually right.
Where does the theme/problem show up elsewhere in your life? I became miserable and felt defeated and depressed. I would distance myself from them only to become enmeshed with them again and again. I shared my depression with a professor at my seminary. He asked me my first family systems question: What role does your depression play in your church?
I did not understand, and I thought he was very confusing. He was asking me what depressive induced patterns do I play in the church? He was also asking what feeling patterns or reactivity do I experience that keep everything status quo? He was asking me to look outside the problem and to look at the problem through a more zoomed-out perspective. I had never been asked to do this before. I felt a change inside me the minute he asked the question. I was always focused on the problem (the couple) and I kept looking extremely near the problem (the relationship between myself and the couple) to no avail. I was stuck.
The professor asked another question: Where did you learn to do this pattern with these types of themes before? And, where are you doing them now?
I thought what do these things have to do with it. We explored my family of origin patterns (looking far away from the original problem) and discovered I did this same pattern growing up in my family. I began to realize I was still doing this pattern in my relationship with my family of origin. I have always tried to please or fix someone who acts weak, needy, and feels like a victim. I would attract those who thrive on learned helplessness. I would find those whom, no matter what I did, it was never enough. I would experience enmeshment then distance to get relief.
Neither extreme closeness nor extreme distance worked. This problem (the problem couple and my relationship with them) had roots in my larger emotional system (far away from the problem). I began to work on my relationships in the family of origin and I became a more effective pastor. The professor asked me “If you were not depressed what would you be doing in response to this problem?” I imagined feeling stronger and owning my reality that the church and I were a particularly goodchurch, and we did a great job of caring for and about people…no matter what the Smith’s said.
I felt empowered to imagine my life without the Smith’s in the church, we could survive without their contributions and I was not a bad pastor for wanting them to leave. It was time for me to confront the Smith’s with their imperfect church and imperfect pastor. After that meeting, things were vastly different. The Smith’s became more accepting of their imperfect church and became more comfortable with their imperfect pastor. They chose to stay and become more cooperative and find their role in the church and gained trust in me as their pastor. (As an aside, this couple grew up in families in which the father was never happy and always expressed disappointment in them as kids, even to the point of physical abuse).
My point is this, if we just keep focusing on the problem as the place to find solutions, we will stay stuck. Widening our perspective to include family of origin, the roles played in the church, and how our behavior and reactivity keep the problem in place and promotes the status quo, we can get unstuck and find mature, effective solutions, freedom, and real change.
Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman teach:Problems are not resolved near where the problemsexist.
We must shift our vision and look in places which have been out of our awareness. The good news is the Smiths were not the problem; they just kept me distracted so I could not see the real problem and find a solution for change. Want help solving those difficult problems? Maybe me and my team can help you see the real problems and root problems. Maybe you are not looking in the right places...let's talk.
The Solution is Not Near the Problem.