It Is a Job and a Calling. It Is Not Your Life

Some of the most polarizing messages delivered in the United States over the past 20 years have been delivered in the name of God.  How did we get where we are today, when Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr.  and a plethora of others can spew the kind of incendiary rhetoric that divides a nation.

While there are a host of reasons we have arrived at this moment in history, I believe one of the biggest problems among our current religious leaders is their lack of ability to differentiate themselves from their work.

Murray Bowen, the founder of Family Systems Theory, identified eight areas in which humans function in family or family-like environments.  Edwin Friedman in Generation to Generation-Family Process in Church and Synagogue, shows how these play out in the life of a religious community.

One of the most important elements of Family Systems Theory is the concept of Differentiation of Self, which is our ability to look at a situation with some level of objectivity and separate our feelings from our thoughts.  We usually begin the differentiation process from our family of origin when we are in our teens, and often do not finish it until we are well into our 40s or even 50s.  Differentiating yourself from your family of origin does not happen overnight.  But it is critical to reaching our potential on life’s journey.

However, it is not just differentiation from our family of origin that is important.  We also must differentiate from our work. If we don’t, there is a fair chance we will eventually go off the rails.  What are some of the signs of an undifferentiated religious leader?

A pastor or religious leader who finds his or her primary identity through their position in their church or ministry is not differentiated.  That individual would be well advised to learn that their position in the church is a job and a calling.  It is not their life.

Religious leaders with a lot of charisma are more likely to be undifferentiated.  Their ability to charm others extends to an ability to deceive themselves.  This lack of honesty causes them to exert too much control of their environment. Therefore, success of the church or ministry tends to end when the charismatic leader departs, because they have created loyalty to themselves, not to the church.

Lead pastors who hire a lot of family are rarely differentiated.  Hiring family for leadership positions is a sign the leader does not differentiate between work and family.  The person often exercises the same level of control in their families that they exercise in their churches.

If you haven’t noticed, a lot of megachurch lead pastors hire their own sons or sons-in-law to serve as the second teaching pastor and heir apparent at their church. This is particularly true of founding pastors.  Those outside the church think, “Surely not!  How can a system that large be run like a family corporation?”  But it happens all the time.

My son and I are both pastors.  I had several opportunities to serve as the lead pastor of a megachurch, but in those days my son was a schoolteacher, not a pastor.  Had he been preaching, and had I taken one of those jobs, I imagine I would have been tempted to hire him as my preaching associate.  I mean, he is a great preacher and all. Hopefully, someone, ideally me, or my son or the church leadership, would have derailed that notion before it was seriously considered.

Unfortunately, the power held by large church lead pastors is considerable, and a lot of them have hired their own family members for high profile positions without any pushback from the church elders.  That is a sign of a church leadership structure too weak to create adequate safeguards for the church.

When a pastor sees the church as an extension of his own being, it is another sure sign of a lack of differentiation.  Over the years I have seen a plethora of pastors who would rather take their church down than relinquish control.  This particular problem is acute with narcissistic leaders.  Narcissists never give up control and are fully capable of destroying the ministries they serve, or for that matter, the nations they serve.

The problem today is that undifferentiated pastors are often the ones taking the strongest political positions and preaching the most inflammatory messages.  They are the ones who revel in culture wars and relish the thought that their words might be capable of swaying an entire nation.

Of course, the problem with our current culture wars is multi-faceted.  The damage being done by undifferentiated religious leaders pales in comparison to that being done by politicians, or even to that being done by one of the most culturally infuential corporations in the world, the media empire of Rupert Murdoch.

Through Fox News and the media outlets he owns in Europe, Murdoch arguably swayed the 2016 US election and the UK Brexit vote.  One single family-owned business with a strong-willed undifferentiated patriarch has wreaked havoc on two of the strongest democracies in the world.  That a family battle has emerged among his offspring over who will control the empire upon Murdoch’s death is no surprise.  Undifferentiated leaders create undifferentiated leaders.

So, how would a pastor (or any leader) know if he or she is differentiated from their work?  That is a good question, and one that will have to wait until next week’s blog post.  Sorry, but I just hate when a blog post goes over 1,000 words, and this particular post is getting awfully close…

3 thoughts on “It Is a Job and a Calling. It Is Not Your Life

  1. >> How did we get where we are today, when Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr. and a plethora of others can spew the kind of incendiary rhetoric that divides a nation. <<

    A belief in biblical innerancy? A literal reading (of selected passages) of the bible? See Trusting Doubt by Valerie Tarico…


  2. Paula,
    Your empirical wisdom coupled with such great scholarship you’ve cultivated in the fields of religious practice, tribalism, and socio-gender-political issues blends into a rarefied whole.
    You are true teacher and leader, and I continue to love the lessons you share with the world.
    Thank you, my friend.


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