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Friday, June 28, 2013

A Public Service Announcement--Sign Your Postcards

I need to take a few moments away from "The Saga of the Web-Surfing Squatter" to share a good word for my friend and parishioner, State Senator Dan Watermeier.

I have come to know Dan as a man of great integrity, abundant patience, and personal generosity.  He is a freshman senator from the area where I serve as interim pastor.  Recently, the Nebraska unicameral voted to retain the death penalty within the bounds of the Nebraska penal code.  Dan voted in favor of that action.

Let me hasten to say that Dan and I agree on some matters of public policy and disagree on others.  We sit on different parts of the political spectrum.  I support the ELCA's social statement on the death penalty and desire that it would be abolished in each and all jurisdictions in our country.  Dan is of a different opinion, as is the majority of his constituents.  I know that he voted his conscience and as the elected representative of his district.

That is as it should be.

A few days ago I received unsigned postcards urging me to challenge Dan on his vote.  The messages were self-righteous, strident, and (worst of all) anonymous.  Dan had the courage of his convictions to register a very public vote and then to take the consequences of that vote.  He does not have the luxury of sending unsigned diatribes through the U.S. mail.  Thus, while I disagree with the vote, I can only applaud Dan's willingness to lead and to serve.

If someone wants to share an opinion with me, that opinion had better come with a name attached.  Otherwise it goes immediately into the recycle bin.

The assertion in the message was that somehow one cannot be a faithful ELCA Lutheran and support the death penalty.  I cannot as a person and a pastor, reconcile the public policy of state-sponsored executions with my faith position.  However, I know that others can do that.  We are the church of "evangelical freedom," are we not?  We know that the whole law is summed up in one sentence--to love our neighbors as ourselves.  We are permitted to dialogue and to differ on how that sentence is applied in our personal and our public lives.

Dialogue is impossible, however, when one of the dialogue partners remains in the shadows of anonymity.  I am embarrassed that people with whom I share a policy agreement would engage in such a shabby tactic.  I know that I stand in good company when I assert that I will defend Dan's right to vote his conscience even when I disagree with that position.

Democracy is indeed the worst form of human government--except for any other.  Our system works best when people stand in the light of day and engage in civil and honest debate.  So if someone wishes to send me another message about how I ought to counsel one of my parishioners, have the good sense and the good grace to sign it, please.

Dan, thank you for your unselfish service to the state of Nebraska.  Keep up the good work!

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Shooting War Begins

We now return to "The Saga of the Web-Surfing Squatter."

“Bill has been setting this up for a while,” Martha began.  “I wasn’t really sure about it until this morning when I got the full story from Jack.”

The pastor worked on counting his breaths.  He was doing his best not to jump to directly to charges of treason for the old custodian.  “You got the full story from Jack?  I’m not sure I understand why I didn’t get the full story from good old Jack.”  He waited while Martha pursed her lips and scratched the bridge of her nose.  She did that whenever she was considering her response.

“What I found out first is that Bill is squeezing Jack into a very tight corner.  You and I both know that Jack is beyond the mandatory retirement age in our personnel policy.  We’ve been overlooking that because he does an acceptable job and because we’re all he’s got since Mabel died.  Well, Bill found out about that situation a while back.  Now he’s decided to use it to blackmail Jack into doing whatever he wants.”

The pastor closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and entwined his fingers behind his head.  So, that’s how this was going to be—very dirty, very dirty, indeed.  “I thought it was about Jack getting an extra twenty from Bill every so often.  I could overlook that even though it bothered me.  But this is both cruel and criminal.  So Bill threatens to have Jack’s job terminated if Jack speaks up or doesn’t do what he’s told, is that it?”

“That’s it.  So Bill made Jack set Phil up in the basement.  Bill even forced Jack to look the other way on date night.  And then Bill ordered Jack to rat you out to the Personnel Committee.”

The pastor breathed deeply three times.  “And did he?”

“No, he didn’t.”  The pastor let out the last breath in relief.  Martha continued, “I overheard that argument.  Bill said that if Jack wasn’t at the meeting tonight to testify that the woman was your idea, then Jack was finished here."  

"I heard Jack screaming all the way up the stairs this morning.  He said something like, ‘If you think I’m going to do that to the best pastor we’ve had in forty years, then you can take my job and shove it…’  Well, you know Jack, so you can imagine how the rest of it went.”

The pastor was wondering where Jack was now.  A tirade like that could easily land him on the corner stool at The Tilted Tumbler, Jack’s favorite watering hole.  It didn’t happen much anymore, but in his younger days Jack had been known to leap from that sort of devilish dissertation right into the depths of a three-day bender.  The pastor was hoping that Jack had found some other sort of outlet.

Martha read his face.  “Jack is in the sanctuary polishing the altar furniture to within an inch of its life,” she smiled.  “Each stroke of his oil cloth has another swear word attached to Bill’s name.  I know it’s in church, and I hope the altar guild ladies aren’t in there listening.  But somehow I think that Jesus understands.”

“Yes, Martha, I have no doubt about that.  So, Jack isn’t going to turn state’s evidence on me tonight.  That’s good to know.”  He paused for a moment.  “I suppose Bill tried to work on you next?”  He knew what the answer would be.

Martha’s eyes welled a bit.  “Of course, he did.  He came steaming up the stairs while Jack was still screaming at him.  That didn’t slow him down a bit.  He came around the corner and hit the door at full speed.  “Martha,” he said, “if you know what’s good for you, you’ll be at that meeting tonight.  People are talking about what’s been going on down there in the basement.  I don’t care if it is my brother, that crap has got to stop.  And if you value your job here, you’ll be there to defend yourself and put the blame where it belongs—on that lazy and overpaid pastor!”

The pastor could imagine how that scene unfolded—Bill in a fit of his “little man’s disease,” trying to stand as tall as possible over Martha as she sat behind her desk.  He could see Martha leaning back, pursing her lips and scratching the bridge of her nose.  “Then what happened?” he asked.

Martha wiped her eyes and smiled.  “I told that arrogant little man to take his threats and to get out of my office.  I reminded him that my brother-in-law is a high-powered labor lawyer.  And he’d love to sink his teeth into a good wrongful termination suit with Bill named as the primary respondent.  They’ve had their encounters over the years, and my brother-in-law doesn’t care for Bill even a little bit.  Bill stammered for a few seconds and then said, ‘Well, we’ll see about that!’  And I said, ‘No, I don’t imagine we will.’  And then he stomped out the door.”

The pastor was overwhelmed with gratitude and admiration for his team members.  Two people had put their livelihoods at stake for him.  They had endured emotional abuse and resisted powerful intimidation.  He had to do everything possible to protect them and to root the diseased processes out of the system.

He knew of one way to start saying thank you to Martha.  “Martha,” he said, “what do you think I should do?”

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Your opinions and experience matter

If you are a clergy person, please consider participating in the anonymous survey on my website at  Please mouse over the "Coaching" button and then complete the survey.  Thanks for your input.

If you are an attorney or have any other connection to the field of mediation, please consider completing the survey connected to the contact page on my web site as I gather information about mediators and how other professionals view us.

Thanks for your time and your attention!

And now a word from our sponsor...covered with a dollop of heavy cream.

We will return to "The Saga of the Web-Surfing Squatter" in a few moments.  But first, this word from our sponsor...

Paula Deen today made good on her commitment to an interview on The Today Show with Matt Lauer. It was tearful and a bit rambling.  It ended with a repeated plea to her accusers as she paraphrased Jesus in John 8--"Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone."  Her invitation was to her sinless accusers, that they would pick up that stone (or boulder, as she noted late in the interview) and throw it hard enough at her head to kill her.

I am in no position to pick up a pebble and flick it at anyone.  The twists and turns, the dips and flips, the ins and outs of this situation are far beyond my information or insight.  However, it is worth remembering some cautions as we watch yet another celebrity flop around in public like a fish in the bottom of a boat, gasping for breath.

Human memory is not a static recording device.  Each time Paula Deen revisits the events in question, she rewrites them a bit in her brain.  She is in no way exceptional in this regard.  That is the norm for all of us.  As we retell our stories, we will become more and more the hero (most of the time) or the villain (once in a while).  

Details of the story may shift and change.  Stock phrases may show up over and over as the story becomes more fully rehearsed.  And as we rewrite these memories, we are not fabricating something that we know to be less truthful.  In fact, we will cling to the revised memories and reports all the more tenaciously as they grow and develop.  The revised memories will become the truth for the teller.

Self-justification is standard operating procedure for human beings, not merely the practice of professional liars.  No matter how hard I try to be "objective" about my own flaws and failings, I will almost always shave the truth in some way.  I will almost always cast myself in a more positive light than the facts would allow.  I will always have some explanation that underwrites the legitimacy of my actions.  

There are no guilty people in prison--because of our tendencies toward self-justification.  If you were in my position, you do exactly as I did, we say to others.  I know my motives and feelings and goals.  So what I did makes perfect sense--if you understand all of that.  

If I talk to myself long enough about what I did, I can transform it from a disaster into a quite positive event.  And I won't be lying to myself when that happens.  I may come to truly believe this to be the case.

We evaluate one another largely in terms of how we feel toward one another.  Deen is receiving support from many people in her life and in the public eye.  There are those who know and love her personally.  They cannot and will not see her as a terrible person.  There are those who have benefitted from her generosity and support.  They will reciprocate that support.  There are those who have much to lose economically if they continue a relationship with her.  Those organizations are in full retreat and damage-control mode.  There are those who suspect the worst about everyone.  They are pointing out how right they are once again.

We all suffer from confirmation bias.  We sort information to suit our existing worldviews, our self-interests, our emotional commitments and our wishes for the future.  We embrace the information that enhances what we think and want and value.  We reject information that challenges how we see the world.  It takes real work to overcome this bias moment by moment.

And finally, people of privilege are insulated from much of the world.  This is why people value their privileged status.  Self-delusion is not only possible but often required for those of us who live in positions of privilege and power.  Money and power purchase insulation, isolation and illusion.

For Deen or anyone else to say that we cannot know what offends another person is simply to claim that we aren't required to care about what offends another person.  That is a statement of insulated privilege.  That is the one statement in Deen's current body of work that I cannot take seriously.

Anyone in a position of public leadership or power can take the opportunity to observe, learn from, and respond with humility to Deen's predicament.  Anyone in such a position is subject to precisely the same frailties.  

Is there anyone left to pick up that first stone?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Missing Voices

The pastor raided his stash of granola bars and took a package of his favorites—banana, almond and chocolate (crunchy, not chewy).  He texted his secretary about his plans and whereabouts and headed out the back door.  Three laps were about a mile, and it was a beautiful, sunny day.  Conditions were perfect for a bit of reflective practice.

“What am I missing?” he asked himself.  He had learned through hard experience that when he was anxious, angry and agitated, there was usually something he could do to move things forward.  All he needed was to unblock the reflection pipeline, and the ideas would start to flow again.

“Who else needs to be at the table?” he wondered aloud.  It was an old process question, but a good one.  He had learned the question in his days of working with community organizers in a small, open-country congregation in western Iowa.  Those were the days of organizing a county-wide domestic violence shelter and program—the first of its kind in that region.  One of the organizers noticed that it was mostly men who were doing the talking.  Thus, the question that broke the process open.

“Who’s missing from this conversation?” the organizer asked.  Once the question was asked, the answer became painfully obvious.  There was no voice for the victims themselves.  The pastor and a few others recruited some brave, strong women to be those voices.  Some had been victims themselves.  Others had sufferers in their families.  Once they were at the table, the whole conversation took off, and a new organization was born.

The pastor had marveled at the power of that simple question.  “Who’s not here?”  He walked and relaxed into reflection.  He focused on his steps.  He chewed the granola bar.  He listened to his own breathing.

“It’s time to bring in the team on this one,” he thought to himself.

“The Team” was his secretary, the full-time director of worship and music, the part-time director of Christian education and the custodian, Old Jack.  He had recruited and hired all the members of that staff team, except for Jack.  But Jack’s loyalty and reliability ran just as deep as that of all the other members.  They were in many ways his “church within the church,” his real community and the primary reason for his effectiveness.

Many congregations buy into the movie-star model of parish pastors.  They believe that if they get the right leader, then all else will be wonderful.  This is the “great man” theory of history, and in such congregations the ideal image is still usually that of a man.  In practice, however, that theory of history, and of pastoral leadership, is fatally flawed.  Such leadership fantasies usually saddle congregations with gigantic egos and the problems of public narcissism.

There is a simple test for this issue.  As congregations interview prospective pastoral leaders, the call committee can simply track the ratio of “I” to “we” and “me” to “us” in the interviews.  If a candidate uses “I” and “me” the majority of the time, the congregation should seek a healthier candidate to interview.

Even in professions that seem driven by superstars, it is the team that spells success or failure.  Robert Huckman and Gary Pisano studied surgeons to see if they improved with repeated practice of their skills.  What they discovered was that repeated practice by itself produced no measurable improvement in surgical skills.  What did produce measurable improvement was repeated work with a quality team.  As the team leader developed more comfort with other capable team members, the quality of the practice improved and fewer patients died.  It was the team that mattered.

Boris Groysberg tested similar assumptions with stock analysts.  He expected that the best analysts would do equally as well when they moved from one firm to another.  That assumption was mistaken.  In fact, when the best analysts moved, their performance on average dropped significantly.  The only exceptions were those analysts who brought their support teams with them.  (These examples are cited in Adam Grant’s fine new book, Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success).

The pastor knew that it was his team, as much as anything, that had made him effective over the last seven years.  He clearly needed their help now.

He got back to the church building and walked in the front door.  Martha was at the welcome desk, working on the congregation’s web page updates.  Martha was the director of Parish Ministries—the real “boss” of the congregation.  The pastor knew he could depend on her for his life if necessary.

“Martha, do you have a minute or two?”  She saved her work and nodded.  When the pastor made that request, it usually turned into an hour or two.  “Let’s sit in my office and chat,” she said with a smile.

“Martha, I need to talk with you about Phil,” the pastor began.

“Oh, you mean our gay house guest who’s having the faux affair with the ex-con and mass murderer who’s on the run from the law?”  She smiled and waited for his reply.

Of course Martha knew everything!  How could he have thought otherwise?  The church “secretary” is almost always at the hub of the church information/gossip network.  People were constantly rolling through, trolling for rumors and pumping Martha for information. 

The previous director had been more than happy to participate in that process.  That was one of the reasons the pastor had worked so carefully to assist her into a gracious and grateful retirement.  No information, regardless of how privileged and confidential, was safe in the building with the previous secretary.

Martha was different.  Nothing got in or out of her “fortress of solitude” unless she was sure it was appropriate.  She had a wonderful gift for saying “That’s none of your business” and having people thank her for the privilege of hearing that rejection.  She received all sorts of information that she passed on to the rest of the team.  She had saved them all from numerous errors and embarrassments.  She was worth her weight in gold, frankincense and myrrh.  But then, who needs three wise men when Martha is on the job?

“All right, my friend,” the pastor smiled.  “Tell me what you know.”

“I thought you would never ask,” she purred.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Calling the Bulldog

It was time to call The Bulldog.  That was the affectionate nickname the Pastor gave to his Conflict Coach.  She was a therapist, a mediator, an advisor, a mother confessor, a task master—and sometimes all within the space of three sentences.  He paid her for her services and sometimes had a hard time explaining the expense to the church treasurer.  But her time, perspective and support were worth every penny.  She answered on the second ring.

“Yes, it does sound like you’ve been set up,” she said after listening to the Pastor’s brief review of the context and events.  “So let’s prepare first for this meeting tonight.  How are you feeling about that gathering and those people?”

“Well, I’m terrified that I will be humiliated, criticized, judged a failure and asked for my resignation.”  He puked out the words without thinking, but that was all the truth.  He was afraid.

“I appreciate you sharing so honestly and fully,” the Bulldog said with soothing tones.  “It’s so important to identify the ways you are primed for an encounter before it happens.  That way you can practice your responses and stand less of a chance of blowing up the whole conversation.”

“Primed?”  This was a new term in the conversation.  “What do you mean by that?  I’m not sure I understand.”

“Think about it this way.  You put your granddaughter into her little red wagon and you take her up the hill near your house.  As you take her up the hill, you are actually accumulating energy in the system of you, your granddaughter and the wagon.  When you get to the top of the hill, how much energy does it take to send that wagon to the bottom of the hill at full speed?”

“It would only take a little nudge,” said the pastor.  “But I wouldn’t do that.  It wouldn’t be safe for her.”

He could almost hear the nod and smile on the other end of the phone.  “Of course not!  That’s exactly right.  The system is primed to release all that energy.  But you can make choices about how you do that—all at once in a wild ride to the bottom, or gradually and in a controlled and safe way.  Since you know that the system is primed in that way, you can make the right decision at the moment and come out all right in the end.”

The light began to dawn.  “I see.  So by knowing how I’m being tipped emotionally in one direction or another, I can make choices about how to get through this meeting.”

“That’s it,” she said.  “Now what else are you feeling about the meeting tonight?”

“Well, I damned irritated at Bill for the whole situation.  And I’m feeling more than a little paranoid about what else he has up his sleeve.  And I’m pretty well pissed at the Personnel Committee chair for being so easily manipulated and taken in.  And I would really like to know who started the whole gossip cascade that has filled my morning with such a load of…well, horse manure.”

“So, you have a few things that are wiring you up for an amygdala hijack, huh?”

“What is this today—a vocabulary test?  What in the world is a Magdalene Hijack?  Is this when some woman in the bible takes over an airplane?  I’m not clear about this.”

“Very funny.  It’s amygdala, not Magdalene.  I do have to give you extra credit for creativity on that one, of course.  No, I’m talking about the reflex responses we can make when we feel threatened or vulnerable.  If we’re not consciously prepared, we can launch into emotional tirades and storms that we wish we could take back.  An amygdala hijack is named for the little part of the brain that can take over when we are faced with a fight/flight/freeze situation.  It’s the part of our brain we still have in common with snakes.”

“Oh, I’m feeling so much better now that you’re comparing me to a snake.”

“Poor baby,” the Bulldog cooed.  “It’s not that the amygdala is the only thing at work.  Our brain has an emotional response system.  But ‘amygdala hijack’ is a convenient label for this involuntary process.  This is the thing that kicks in when we’re screaming at someone and wondering who this crazy person is that’s doing the screaming.  The best antidote for a hijack is preventive medicine—identifying your primes, rehearsing what you might hear, and practicing your responses.”

“So you’re saying—as you always do—that I have choices in how to respond, right?”

“Right.  So is there anything else that might be going on here that needs identifying before we start practicing responses?”

“I think the biggest deal is how I’m feeling about Bill—especially in terms of how he is using his own brother to create havoc.  That’s his own brother, for crying out loud!  How can anyone do that to their own flesh and blood!  Here’s this poor guy—his life is falling down around his ears.  He comes to his brother for help.  And that…that…piece of garbage uses the situation to make life worse for everyone.  How can that be?”

“Thanks for getting to that piece of the puzzle.  You know that curbside analysis is always close to useless.  But I can speculate a bit.  From what you’ve described, Bill is a pathological narcissist and a happy bully.  Everyone in the world is a bit player in his drama.  In all likelihood, Bill has very little actual capacity for empathy.  That sort of narcissist is kind of a low-grade sociopath.  He can’t step into the experience of another person.  In fact, he probably doesn’t believe that other people actually have experiences worth worrying about.  The whole world is about him.”

“So he suffers from low self-esteem and compensates by making other people feel bad, right?”

“No, most bullies and narcissists don’t really suffer from lack of self-esteem.  In fact, the problem may be an excess of self-regard.  Bill may have an inflated and inaccurate estimate of his own importance in the world.  Has he ever acted uncertain, insecure, humble or self-deprecating in any way?”

The pastor thought for a moment or two.  “No, now that you mention it, I haven’t ever heard Bill be anything but brash, cocky, irritating and grating.  He is always sure he is right.  He has often said he made a mistake once, but he got over it.  I think you’ve got him pegged just about right.”

“So you have to tread very carefully on this one.  Bullies attract insecure people like light attract moths.  In the end the effect is the same.  They will get scorched.  But in the meantime, Bill has lots of allies and can do huge amounts of damage to many people.  I would guess that the end game is finding a way to wall Bill off from the rest of the congregation as much as possible.  Withdrawal is often the only effective strategy with hardcore bullies.  But we’ll see.”

“I think I feel a little woozy,” the pastor sighed.

“Let’s take a break.  Get some fruit juice and a granola bar.  Get up and walk around the block three times.  Then call me back and we’ll do some more work.”

“Got it,” the pastor said.  Things were looking up.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Next Shoe Drops

“Phil, you’re the special guest at a church meeting this evening.  Can you be upstairs at 7 p.m.?”  The pastor was wiping his mouth after a second helping of a rich, creamy and savory omelet—created with nothing more than a mixing bowl, an ancient cast iron skillet and a moderately reliable hotplate.  This Phil guy was full of hidden talents and surprises.

He was, however, not very quick on the uptake when it came to human relations.  “Special guest!  Wow, thanks, Pastor.  I will certainly be there.  Could I bring some food?  How many people will there be?  I think I could make up some really nice crab puffs in won ton wrappers.  Of course, I would need the church to reimburse me for the cost of the materials.  But I’d love to cook up a little nosh for everyone…say, do you suppose that Lil could come as well?”

The pastor smiled ruefully and shook his head.  “No, Phil, you don’t understand.  It’s not that kind of meeting.  And you won’t be that kind of guest.  There are folks in the congregation who have real problems with you taking up temporary residence here.  They want you gone immediately, and they would like to hang my butt from the processional cross in the process.  They also think that Lil is not only a convicted felon but that she’s on the run and we’re hiding her from the law.  And I think that some of them believe you and Lil are having sex behind the boiler.”

Phil was rinsing off the old skillet.  He stopped in mid-wipe.  “Pastor, I’m really sorry I’m causing you all this trouble.  I didn’t have any intention to do that.  Bill told me that this would all be just fine—that he would fix it with the church council and with you.”

“Well, Phil, he fixed it with the council, at least with part of the council.  But I think that maybe his goal wasn’t to fix it with me.  It might be that he intended to put me in a fix instead.”

Phil pondered that last one for a while.  “And Pastor, as far as Lil and I…well, doing anything together…that probably isn’t going to happen.  We’re friends, but I…I…I’m not really interested in girls.  Never have been.”

The pastor nearly suffered psychic whiplash on this one.  On the one hand, he was relieved that there would be no exchange of bodily fluids behind the basement boiler.  On the other hand the congregation had suffered enough of a civil war over the gay/lesbian issues in the church.  This was going to hit the fan in a big way at some point.

“I assume that your brother is aware of your orientation?” the pastor prodded gently.

“Of course, he knows, Pastor!  He’s my brother.”  A slow dawn of recognition crossed his face.  “Oh, no—you’ve had all sorts of trouble in the church because of…us…haven’t you?  That, that…stinker!  He knew that this would make things bad for you, didn’t he!  My brother has always been a bully.  He made my life miserable for a lot of years, you know.”

“I can’t imagine, Phil, but I do believe you.  We need to spend some time talking about this meeting that is going to happen.  It won’t be very nice, I don’t think.  Are you up to it?  Or do we need to find you a motel for a few weeks.”

“Pastor, I may not be the smartest guy in the world, but I don’t walk away from a fight.  Especially when someone else is getting hurt because of me.”

The pastor found respect and affection for his erstwhile tenant that he felt for few others on the planet.

What is the role of courage in healthy communities?
            What is the best way to deal with a bully?

                        Do you have any advice for the pastor going into that meeting?

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Harboring a Fugitive

Six twenty eight…in the blessed a.m….after talking with two wayward souls until one in the morning and texting a worried spouse five times to tell her that everything was all right.  Now, six twenty eight, and that same spouse was grumbling about people who couldn’t leave them alone for even a few hours of rest.

Six twenty eight, and it was the chair of the personnel committee on the line.  This was not going to be good.

“Pastor, I understand that not only are we hosting a squatter in the basement boiler room, but now you are harboring a fugitive felon who is in a romantic relationship with the aforementioned squatter.” 

The committee chair paused.  The pastor tried to wipe the sleep out of his eyes and to shake the dust out of his brain.  It was not a speedy process.

“Hello…Pastor?  Are you there?  Did you hear what I said?”

“What?  Yes, well I can explain…Wait a minute?  Would you mind sharing with me just where you got your information?”

There was a longer pause and a deep sigh.  “Pastor, I’ve been asked to keep that in confidence.  Let us just say that someone called me late last evening with this information.  I decided not to disturb you in the wee hours of the morning, so I waited until now to call.  Be that as it may, could you please explain to me how it is that we are sheltering a trespasser and giving sanctuary to a fugitive from the law?”

It was obvious that someone overheard the conversation in the boiler room—or at least enough of it to draw some rather interesting conclusions.  In all likelihood it was one of the committee members who showed up for the non-meeting last evening.  That was a meeting of the congregational care committee—aka The Galloping Gossip Gang.  Any one of the committee members would have savored this juicy information like a sweet, dark truffle.

“Gossip,” write Feinberg, Cheng and Willer, “represents a widespread, efficient and low-cost form of punishment.”  Gossip can be used to control those who might be outsiders or those who might challenge the status quo.  Anxious systems use gossip to monitor threats to the homeostasis of the system.  Harriet Lerner has noted that the volume of gossip in a system is the most accurate gauge of a system’s anxiety.

If that was the case, then the congregation had enough anxiety to light up the lower forty-eight states.  And it wasn't the first time the Galloping Gossip Gang tried to cut the pastor down to size by inflating his negative reputation.

The pastor cleared his throat along with his head.  “Let me clarify a few things.  First, the woman in question is not a fugitive from the law.  She is a convicted felon who has completed her sentence and is now on parole.  We are not harboring her in the church.  She was, instead, a guest in our building last evening.  I confirmed her parole status by checking her out on the Department of Corrections website.  Her story checks out.”

The committee chair was undeterred.  “That’s all well and good, Pastor.  There remains, however, the matter of the unauthorized person who has commandeered our boiler room as his personal apartment.  I cannot believe that the authorities or our insurance carrier would look kindly on this situation.  What do you intend to do about this ridiculous state of affairs?”

Now it was the pastor’s turn to take a deep breath.  “It may be that you aren’t aware of the situation.  The man in question is the brother-in-law of our congregational president.  It seems that this whole arrangement was informally approved by the church council without my knowledge.  I am in the process of tracking these things down and figuring out how to make some sense of all of this.”

The committee chair sniffed in derision.  “Pastor, I have not missed a council meeting in four years.  I don’t recall any discussion of this matter or anything like it.  It may be that our bully of a council president intimidated some of the weaker minds into some sort of illegal vote at an unofficial meeting.  But that is no reason to tolerate this outrageous situation.  I believe that I shall call the police and take care of matters, since you seem to be unable to do so.”

The pastor had an urgent need to use the bathroom.  He had a more urgent need to reach through the phone and throttle the pompous and officious committee chair.  By this time, however, his wife was awake and had heard enough to know that an explosion was seconds from detonation.  She took her spouse’s hand, squeezed uncomfortably hard, and mouthed the words, “Don’t do it!

He gasped at the pain, but it focused his attention.  He spoke in measured tones to the committee chair.  “Please don’t take any actions like that just yet.  I would like to investigate a bit more and see if we can come to a more humane resolution.  In the meantime, I’d be grateful if you might set the record straight with the people who were in touch with you last night.  That sort of inaccurate gossip can be very destructive.”

“I have a better idea, Pastor.  Please be at the church at 7 p.m. for an emergency meeting of the Personnel Committee.  I will ensure that the congregational president is there in all his sniveling glory. If you will be so kind as to make sure that the squatter is there as well.  We’re going to have this out, once and for all.”

End of transmission.

In the next three hours, the pastor answered nineteen calls of concern over the use of the church as a sanctuary for a murderer, rapist, terrorist and/or pedophile.  The only bright light was that Phil had prepared a lovely mushroom and Gouda omelet for breakfast and had enough to share with the pastor.

Where are the nodes of the gossip network in your congregation or organization?  How does gossip function in your congregation or organization—social glue, social punishment, social control or intimidation, all of the above?  What are the most effective responses to the corrosive effects of gossip in anxious systems?

Name That Planet

It was Ruby in the bright red dress.  Her arms were wrapped around her knees.  Her face was buried in her thighs.  Her shoulders were shaking as the sobs increased in volume and frequency.

“Ruby, honey,” Phil cooed, “come on down here.  It’s all right.”

She stood slowly.  She wiped her eyes and blew her nose.  The women’s toilet had lovely scented and decorative tissues.  She wobbled slowly down the old steps.  Open-toed shoes with five inch heels did not agree with the engineering nightmare they called a stairway.

When she got to the bottom, she straightened up and blew her nose three more times—loud honks punctuated by snorts in between.

“My name isn’t Ruby.  My name is Lillian Elizabeth Tomaczek.  When I was a girl, they called me Lilly-Beth.  Now my family just calls me Lil—at least the ones who are still talking to me.

Bill, Phil and now Lil, the pastor thought.  He was afraid of what the next rhyming progression might bring.

Phil was staggered by this revelation.  “You mean you lied to me about your name?  How could you do that?  The web site said that all the information was one hundred percent accurate!  How could you deceive me like that?  What else did you lie about?”

Ruby—that is, Lil—heaved a sigh of disgust.  “Oh, come on, Phil!  Don’t be such a naive idiot.  Everyone on those sites lies.  This isn’t exactly the Ritz Carlton you’ve got here you know.  You didn’t mention that our beautiful, romantic dinner was going to be alongside a boiler that was built before the turn of the century, now did you?”

Phil turned away, stunned and hurt.  The pastor took his opening.  “Lil, I am wondering along with Phil why you needed to hide your identity.  You don’t have to share anything about that if you don’t want to, but I can’t help but be curious.”

She sagged down on to the bottom step.  “I just didn’t want him to know right away.  I didn’t want him to know that until a month ago I was in the women’s prison.  I’m an ex-con, a felon, a number in the system.  I was hoping I might get a chance to make an impression for all of that came out.  It’s public information, you know.  Anyone could look it up.”

“That never occurred to me,” Phil whispered.  “I was just so glad that I didn’t have to be alone.”

The pastor stayed the course.  “Lil, I wonder if you’d be willing to share why you started crying just now.  We were dealing with Phil’s mess.  You could have kept the secret to yourself.  I wonder if you could help me understand what happened.”

“You said, ‘I just want to hear your story.’  No one has said that to me in years.  On the inside, you don’t tell anyone anything.  Sure as shootin’ they’ll use it against you as a way to manipulate you or intimidate you.  On the outside, nobody wants to know your story, except when you apply for a job.  Then there’s that line that asks about a criminal record.  All of a sudden the job is filled and they show you the door.  My story has been nothing but a noose around my neck for fifteen years.”

The number wasn’t lost on the pastor, but he stuck with his strategy.  “Lil, we’re here to listen and learn now.  Nobody in this room will look down on you.  I can tell you for sure that the only difference between you and me is that you got caught and I didn’t.  We all have things in our life we’re not proud of.  It’s not a clean record that makes a good story.  It’s what you do with the record you’ve got—that’s what makes a good story, and a good person.”

Lil’s eyes glazed a bit.  “What planet are you from?” she asked.

What might you have answered Lil?  What is the name of the planet the pastor is trying to inhabit?  Perhaps it’s “Been There, Done That World.”  What name might you suggest?

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Listen to the Voice

"And most of all...YOU CANNOT LIVE HERE!"

The pastor stopped and waited.  Phil stirred the lobster and tossed the salad.  "Pastor, you seem a bit upset.  Is there anything I can do to make you feel a little less distressed?"

The pastor calculated the chances that a jury would agree that he was temporarily insane when he beat Phil to death with a fourteen pound lobster.  Probably not very high.  Then he wondered if they might consider it self-defense since he was under serious assault by this narcissistic moron.  There would certainly be sympathy, but still probably a guilty verdict.  Maybe they would go for involuntary manslaughter if held Phil's head in the pot of boiling water.  No, too obvious.

As he weighed his various sentencing options, however, another voice was speaking under the steady roar of clerical blood lust.

It was the voice of the Ancient Source of Solace.  "Try learning from him...try listening to him...try engaging him as another person and not as your stereotypical narcissistic moron."  The voice grew in volume and insistence.

Well, thought the pastor, why not?  There's certainly nothing to lose at this point.

"Phil, how do you see this all working out in the long run?  I'm wondering where you see yourself six months or a year from now?"

Phil had been shredding leaf lettuce and dicing some baby carrots for the salad.  The presence of a large knife from the church kitchen had also entered into the pastor's calculations regarding potential homicide.  It was now for the first time that he also noticed the china on the basement workbench.'  Perhaps murder wasn't such a terrible option after all.

"Try learning from him..."  Yeah, thought the pastor--must focus on something other than execution.

Phil was quiet for several moments, hands filled with greens.  His chin trembled, and a small tear formed on one cheek.  He took several deep breaths.

"Pastor, I don't have a clue where I'm headed with all this.  I screwed up my job completely.  I lost the company about two million in one day.  The next day they met me at the door with the stuff from my desk and a security officer.  It didn't take long for me to blow through the few bucks I had.  Next was eviction.  I didn't wait for the sheriff's deputy, I just left.  Bill's couch was OK, but I'm not a great house guest.  His wife is a sweet woman, but she's also a clean freak.  I had nowhere else to go..."

Now the tears were flowing.  The lettuce hit the floor.  Ruby had quietly crept to the top of the stairs and sat down, listening intently.

"See him as a real person," the A.S.S. had intoned almost as a prayer.

"Phil, I'm wondering what you might do if you could wave it all off and start over.  Where would you be and what would you be doing?"

Phil gave half a smile.  "Pastor, you'll think I'm stupid if I tell you."

"I guess we won't know that until you tell me, right?"

"Pastor, I draw.  I draw everything.  If I could, I'd work as an illustrator of some kind, or maybe a cartoonist's crazy.  I can't even hold a normal job."

"Don't worry about that, Phil.  We aren't signing you up for art school tonight.  I just want to hear your story.  Maybe we can figure out something from there."

Now the sounds of weeping came from the top of the stairs...

Ruby in the Bright Red Dress

Old Jack was waiting at the door as the pastor arrived for an evening meeting.  There was no "Good evening, Pastor."  No "Good to see you, Pastor."  Not even a simple, "The girls' toilet is clogged again, Pastor."  It was right into a nuclear meltdown.

"Pastor, it's one thing to deal with smoke alarms and burnt sausages.  It's something else altogether to deal with a woman in a slinky dress and a bottle of wine in the boiler room."  He stopped, expecting an answer and immediate action.

The pastor's stomach began to ache.  "Jack, what are you talking about now?"

"If you were around here a little more instead of gallivanting around to every meeting and coffee shop in town you might have a little better idea of what's happening here, you know!"  Old Jack's cheeks were almost purple and two veins in his forehead were doing the rumba.

The pastor took a breath, counted to five, and spoke slowly.  "All right, Jack.  How about if you pretend that it's your job to keep me up to speed on things here when I'm gone.  What's happening?"

"That good-for-nothing fool in the basement brought a woman here on a...a...a date!  She's in a dress that would have sent my wife into a tizzy.  There's candles on the tool counter and an open bottle of wine in the mop bucket surrounded by ice.  Is that enough information for you?"

"Yes, Jack.  Thank you.  I'll check into it."  The pastor stopped in to make sure that the meeting could proceed without him.  Of course, no one else had made an appearance, so the meeting was under control for now.

He headed downstairs.  The pastor got as far as the women's restroom and met the evening's guest as she was coming out.  Her dress was cherry red, off one shoulder, and slit up the opposite thigh to...well, to an indiscrete height.

"Hello," she said without commitment.

"Good evening," the pastor said, "may I help you find something?"

"Oh, no thank you, I'm fine.  Philly said this was the nicest ladies' room in the place, and was he ever right!  Marble counter tops and flowers by the sinks and paintings on the walls and those little wipes next to the stools.  What a lovely toilet!"

"I'm glad you liked it," the pastor hissed through clenched jaws.  "By the way, where is...Philly?"

"He's downstairs getting dinner ready.  He's a wonder, living in that old dungeon and cooking on a hot plate.  But we're having lobster and potatoes and a nice salad.  What a man!"

"Yes, he's a wonder, that's for sure.  Would you please wait here?  I'm kind of in charge here and I need to visit with Philly for a few minutes.  Maybe you can wait in the lounge over there."  She glanced at the chairs and shrugged.

"Sure, buddy, whatever floats your boat."

The pastor walked carefully down the stairs.  Before he got to the bottom, Phil was calling to him.

"Hello, Pastor!  Did you meet Ruby?  What a woman!  We're having the best time!  It took a little work but I made the place presentable.  Can you believe it?  I met her on that website--Christian Shingle.  What a treasure!"

"Phil, I need to get something clear with you.  This is not your home.  You cannot have a woman in here.  You cannot have a bottle of wine in here.  You cannot entertain guests.  You cannot use our wireless network to arrange for dates.  And most of all...YOU CANNOT LIVE HERE!"

He stopped and waited.  Phil stirred the lobster and tossed the salad.  "Pastor, you seem a bit upset.  Is there anything I can do to make you feel a little less distressed?"

What is the next move for the pastor?  What would you advise?  How do you like your lobster?

What Say You?

You have been reading the "Saga of the Web-surfing Squatter", and the saga will continue.  

What questions might you have the the perplexed and perspiring pastor?  

Do you feel his pain?

What advice might you give him as he moves forward?  

What ways might you help him reframe the issues?  

What resources might you suggest?

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Who Are You?

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Thanks for stopping in and reading...

Who are you?

What are you thinking as you read?

What problems and conflicts and challenges fill your days?

How can we help one another?

Don't Just Do Something...Sit There

The pastor drove back to his office in a cloud of confusion.  What in the world was happening to his church?  These people that he had known and trusted for seven years--who in God's name had they suddenly become?  Certainly alien seed pods had landed in his parish and the spawn of Alpha Centauri had devoured the meager brains of the lay leaders of the congregation.

What other explanation could there be?

There was only one thing to do.  He would call his mentor--the one that he affectionately referred to as the Ancient Source of Solace or A.S.S. for short.  Of course he only noted this reference to himself.  The Ancient one would have handed him his pastoral head several times over if that label ever came to light.

The pastor leaned back in his chair, feet on the free desk calendar from the faithful fraternal insurance company.  He had the Ancient on speed dial under "666."  His mentor answered on the second ring.

"So, what is it this time?  Did you assassinate the choir director, or did the treasurer make off with the Sunday School trust fund?"  The Ancient was always such a source of...well, you might call it solace.  The pastor wouldn't, but you might.

"I'm glad to talk to you too!" he replied with a grin.  "No, it's nothing so ordinary as all that."  And the pastor regaled the Ancient with the tale of the impromptu Holiday Inn downstairs.

"So what am I supposed to do about this?" he moaned at the end of his narrative.  "Do I call the cops and risk civil war?  Do I call the bishop and start looking for another call?  Do I apply for the night shift at the convenience store and let Phil take over as senior pastor?"

"Well, those are all viable alternatives," the Ancient murmured.  "But first, maybe you ought to try to learn a little more.  You can always panic later if you think that's necessary."  The Ancient had always noted that panic is a bit over-rated.

"Learn more?  What do you mean?"

"How about if you spend a little more time with Phil and get to know him better as a person?  You see him as a problem to be solved.  What if you look at him as a person to be served?  You see all this as a gigantic pain in your lower back.  But what if it's really some opportunity for ministry that just hasn't revealed itself yet?  There's always time to call the cops later.  They aren't going anywhere.  But you know, very few things are ever improved..."

"By hurrying."  The pastor had heard it so many times he could finish the sentence while in a coma.

"And what about Bill?  He's between the door and the jamb and about to get slammed.  He's got this deadbeat brother who has just enough brains to keep breathing.  He's got an eminently sensible wife who now is sure that her husband is a complete bloody idiot.  Do you suppose Bill has a few things he might need to share with his pastor?  It could be worth checking out."

"I suppose that's true, but I am pissed as hell at him.  I'm not sure I can be his pastor right now."

The Ancient chuckled.  "If it were easy, anybody could do it.  This is why they put YOU in the big chair my friend, and not some other poor sap."

The pastor was starting to calm down.  But the Ancient Source of Solace wasn't quite finished.  "And then there's old Jack.  He crossed you up pretty good, and he knows it.  So he's ashamed and in pain and caught between a rock and a hard place all at once.  What are you going to do about him?"

"I think I had better talk to him too, before he does something stupid."

"That's my boy," the Ancient said.  "In a crisis, don't just do something.  Sit there for a while.  Take a step back in order to go forward.  Catch your breath so you don't suffocate.  Most of all, take the time and the effort to learn some more about what's happening.  And while you're buying time, the Lord may just work some things out."

"Thanks," said the pastor.  "That helps a lot."

"No extra charge," the Ancient said--as he always did.