Ann Arbor District Leadership Training
February 25, 2017
I am really pleased to be here with you today. I think this is my first official visit to the Ann Arbor District as your bishop, though I have been in the district for a couple of events – a chicken dinner, and a Trustees meeting at Adrian College. I am grateful to your district superintendent, Mark Spaw, for inviting me.
In issuing this invitation, Mark did not give me a specific topic to speak about, except to tell me that the day was about relationships - building relationships that build churches. You have a wonderful selection of workshops to follow. In this keynote address I want to speak about relationships, focusing on the capacities important for building relationships of all kinds – within our congregations, with those who are unchurched or de-churched, with those whose backgrounds are different from ours. Not knowing what is to follow, I may repeat some of what my fellow presenters are also sharing, but that is o.k.
I like to find titles for sermons and presentations, and this is more a presentation than a sermon, by creatively appropriate phrases from popular culture. Now that I am in my later fifties (57) I have come to realize that many of my popular culture references are dated, and partly that’s just because I’ve lived with some songs or movies or television shows longer than I have with others. I remember “Book ‘em Danno” from Hawaii Five-O from the 1970s. I have not seen its recent incarnation.
All that is a long way of getting to the title of my remarks today: “And a rock feels no pain.” Anyone know where that comes from? It is a Paul Simon song, recorded by Simon and Garfunkel, “I Am a Rock.” It is a wonderful song that you can probably find on Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime, Apple Music, etc. I still have a vinyl copy! The song gets me thinking about emotions, about feelings. The singer suggests that we can avoid painful feelings by walling ourselves off from emotions. It highlights an important truth, working with emotions can be difficult. I want to acknowledge that. I also want to say that working with emotions is critical to building the kind of relationships that build churches. We call it emotional intelligence and that’s what I want to speak about this morning, emotional intelligence for church leaders who want to build relationships that build churches.
When I was elected a bishop last summer I had just begun my twelfth year as pastor of First United Methodist Church in Duluth, Minnesota. I began my ministry there like most of us United Methodist pastors do in the middle of the summer. When I arrived at First UMC, Duluth they had a summer worship schedule, 10 a.m. Sunday morning worship. The pattern, though, was that come September, the church would return to two worship services – one more traditional and one more contemporary. Within my first few days at the church I was asked what our fall worship schedule would be like. Would we return to two worship services or have only one? There were people with opinions on both sides. After speaking with staff and some key leaders, thinking and praying, it seemed to me that the wise decision was to continue with two worship services come September. I wrote a newsletter piece explaining my reasoning. The Sunday following the publication of that newsletter, a woman named Dorothy, since deceased but then a long-time member of the congregation approached me in the greeting line following worship, shook my hand, looked me straight in the eye, and shared her disappointment about my decision. She ended by saying “I thought you were going to unite us.” I can still feel the mixture of sadness and anxiety I felt that morning as I tell the story. I listened and thanked Dorothy for sharing her view.
Hear this story: 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8)
Jesus’ dilemma is more fraught than mine. I may have felt like a rock had been thrown at me that August Sunday morning as Dorothy left church, but no one was going to lose their life. Jesus is put in an anxious situation. He takes time, bending to write on the ground. He reads some of the undercurrent, that some folks want to put him in a corner. He responds non-anxiously and defuses the situation.
A rock feels no pain, but human beings do, and if we are to be fully human, and if we are to build relationships that build churches, we need to care for our emotions with intelligence. Emotional intelligence is crucial for building relationships that build churches. I want to say a word about that connection between relationships and mission. Sometimes I hear voices in the church speak as if there is a dichotomy between relationships and mission. We hear people say that the problem with the church is that we are too inwardly focused and the answer is to be more missionally focused. There is truth in that critique, but we need to take great care. In some work I did a few years ago on conflict style, I was given an inventory to help me understand my own conflict style in terms of task and relationship. Was I a more task-oriented person, we might say “mission-focused,” or a more relationship-oriented person? I was smack dab in the middle, and I happen to think that’s not a bad place to be.
The mission of the church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In their book The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus, Roy Oswald and Arland Jacobson, with whom it has been my privilege to be in workshops with over the years, write, “the end product needs to remain the spiritual transformation of members” (126). We must never lose sight of our mission, and it is true that sometimes we do just that. It is also true that sometimes that focus on mission will mean letting some people go, wishing them well as they look for another faith community that helps them along better. That is often painful. Yet mission is also about relationships, about people. Making disciples of Jesus Christ is about creating the kind of community with its web of relationships that fosters deep transformation of persons in the love of God and by the power of the Spirit. Oswald and Jacobson are right when they say: Transformed people naturally seek justice, mercy and peace in the world. They live by forgiveness and are able to forgive others. They continually work at loving their enemies. (126-127) I think they are also right when they say: Without a positive relational climate within a congregation, a superior theology or dynamic vision will produce few results. Once members of a congregation create a warm, supportive, and caring climate, however, they can effectively develop a common understanding of who they are as Christians and embrace an exciting vision of where they ought to go next (105). I would only caution that all three of these things need to be worked on simultaneously – relational climate, theology, vision.
Relationships matter, and they matter to the mission of the church. Emotional intelligence is critical for creating healthy relationships. I want to spend the next few minutes exploring in more depth some of the dimensions of emotional intelligence as crucial for relationships. I will do that by linking stories, Scriptures and citations. Allow me, though, just a couple of words about bringing the idea of emotional intelligence into the conversation about the church. I first encountered the concept of emotional intelligence through the work of Harvard psychologist and author Daniel Goleman. He was not writing for a church context, but what he wrote about emotional intelligence has implications not only for leadership, but for spirituality. While a district superintendent, I attended a workshop lead by Roy Oswald on emotional intelligence and church leadership. Again, I was impressed by the spiritual dimensions. Oswald and Jacobson make a strong case in their book The Emotional Intelligence of Jesus: relational smarts for religious leaders that Jesus’ teaching and ministry resonates with this more recent work on emotional intelligence. Jesus responds non-anxiously to critics. Jesus evokes faith in people, leading to their healing. Jesus reads emotionally fraught situations well. Jesus is able to manage his own inner feelings and makes time for retreat. Jesus’ teaching on caring, forgiveness, and loving even one’s enemies have deep dimensions of emotional intelligence.
So what’s emotional intelligence about? Among other things it is about self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management.
Self –Awareness. 7 “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. 2 For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. 3 Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? 4 Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. (Matthew 7) This is a strong call for self-awareness, the core of emotional intelligence. If we are not aware of our own inner lives, our own emotional lives, how can we manage them? How can we be wisely aware of the emotions around us?
When Dorothy said to me, ‘I thought you came to unite us,” it felt pretty awful. Often, defense responses kick in pretty quickly, and I know how to “defend” myself. At that moment, though, I was able to feel what was going on inside of me, and simply stay connected. There were others in the congregation who had really been connected with my predecessor. They had developed a warm relationship with him. He was someone who was good at preaching about contemporary issues in light of the Gospel. I often make those same connections, as you may have seen if you read my essay on immigration and refugees. I come at things in my own way. I am a trained ethicist with a Ph.D. My dissertation was on Christian social ethics. My way was different, and some of the folks at First UMC Duluth were disappointed, and I sometimes heard about that through the grapevine. It did not feel very good.
A rock feels no pain, but if we are to be more fully human, we not only feel, but we are aware of those feelings, even when they are painful. The cornerstone of emotional intelligence is self-awareness, being aware of the ache, the sorrow, the grief, the joy, the delight that is in our hearts and souls. There are many spiritual disciplines in our faith tradition that encourage such self-awareness: contemplative prayer, lectio divina, spiritual journaling. Often we affirm that as we are clearer about listening within, we are also better able to discern the movement of God’s Spirit within.
Emotional intelligence begins with self-awareness, but it does not end there. Knowing what we are feeling does not automatically tell us what to do with our feelings. Working with those feelings is also a part of emotional intelligence – self-management. When Dorothy offered her criticism, I was able to hang in there, even though I was feeling anxious and hurt, and just listen. Over time, Dorothy, who could be a rather difficult woman, Dorothy and I developed a caring relationship. Dorothy eventually lost her sight, a tremendous blow to a very bright woman who loved to read and think and discuss. We were able to have some deep conversations about why she was still around, because she wondered that. When Dorothy died, I officiated at her funeral and told the story of our early encounter and of how we had worked through that initial bump in our relationship. With others at First UMC, Duluth who may not have always been delighted with how I was their pastor, at least at first, I was able, though hurt by what I heard, to hang in there with them. Sometimes issues were addressed directly, and sometimes I just kept on caring and relating and the relationships grew.
Self-management has to do with adaptability, positivity, assertiveness, and self-control. I think it is about being able to be non-anxious, to be self-differentiated while staying connected, to use the words of family systems theory. I am sharing some helpful stories with you. You need to know that I continue to grow here. I have my moments of reactivity. In responding rather than reacting, there is a spirituality here. Jesus, put in a difficult situation where a woman has been caught in adultery, manages whatever is going on inside, pauses before responding. One of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is “self-control.” Such self-control is a spiritual discipline all its own, strengthened as it is practiced.
A favorite author of mine is Parker Palmer, and one of my favorite essays of his is “Leading from Within” (Let Your Life Speak). We have places of fear inside of us, but we have other places as well – places with names like trust and hope and faith. We can choose to lead from one of those places, to stand on ground that is not riddled with the fault lines of fear, to move toward others from a place of promise instead of anxiety (94). That speaks to me about self-management as part of emotional intelligence.
Self-awareness as the critical dimension of emotional intelligence, is also meant to help us be more socially aware, to read the emotions in a group or in a room. Social awareness has to do with empathy and also with awareness of group dynamics. I know that the leadership author Edwin Friedman cautions against being too empathetic as a leader. He would even have us get rid of the word. His point is well-taken, if exaggerated. As leaders we need to understand the feelings of others, even when we know that decisions that need to be made for the sake of the mission of the church will be painful for some.
Social awareness is gained through practice, through listening and reflecting with others. Elements of it are also strengthened through the discipline of reading. A few months ago I was reading an essay in The New Yorker about leadership. It mentioned all the kinds of workshops and books that were out there, and how many trendy leadership ideas were not always helpful. Then the essay introduced a book by a woman named Elizabeth Samet. She is a professor of English at West Point, and her book is an anthology of writing on leadership. Most of the essays or pieces come not from the social sciences but from the humanities – essays, poems, stories. John Wesley was a believer in reading, and I think we have underestimated the power of literature to deepen our capacities for empathy and understanding.
A final dimension of emotional intelligence I want to touch on before wrapping up is relationship management, which has to do with conflict transformation, understanding influence, with team building and with developing resilience. Relationship management builds on the other dimensions of emotional intelligence. Let’s take conflict transformation. We ask who am I and what am I feeling in this situation? What other feelings are present and what are some of the dynamics? How can I best work with my own feelings in this situation to move it forward, to build up the relationships, to increase relational resiliency?
Over the years, I have had the privilege to read about and reflect on leadership in the church, even as I have practiced it. I continue to be impressed by the overlap between various ideas about leadership, the work that has been done on emotional intelligence, and Christian faith – spirituality and theology. I want to make some of those connections here.
There is a great deal of discussion about adaptive leadership coming out of the work of Ron Heifetz at Harvard. Adaptive problems are issues that require learning both to help us understand the problem and then respond to it. Heifetz writes about the need to be learning leaders and the need for us, as leaders, to create a holding environment where organizational learning can take place. A helpful holding environment is one in which we monitor the temperature, doing what we can to facilitate learning, while not overwhelming people in the process. It seems to me that adaptive leadership requires emotional intelligence – self-awareness, self-control, social awareness, relationship management.
Other works on leadership build directly on emotional intelligence research: primal leadership and resonant leadership. Moving organizations forward has much to do with the emotional environment of the organization and the relational webs created.
There are, for me, deep resonances between work on emotional intelligence, relationships, leadership and Christian theology. The God we know in Jesus Christ is often described in relational terms – as a God who loves, forgives, is compassionate, merciful. We can engage in wonderful theological debates about how such terms apply to God, but there is an important core truth here about the God we worship and in whose service we find perfect freedom. As human beings, created in the image of God, we are created for relationship with God and with others. We have capacities for emotional intelligence, and we can grow in those capacities.
Let me conclude with a final quote from Oswald and Jacobson, and then we should have time for some questions. While everyone wants churches to grow, increase giving, and function more smoothly, the real goal of the church experience is an on-going process of conversion toward a more deeply interiorized, lived-out, compassionate, generous, grateful, and grace-filled Christian life. When this is realized, pastors are energized and congregations are energized. Such congregations matter in the lives of their communities. (159)
When we do the kind of spiritual work to build emotional intelligence and through that deepen relationships, we can become more compassionate, generous, grateful and grace-filled followers of Jesus Christ, disciples who transform the world and who with joy invite others to this transformational journey.