Compassion Stamped on the Very Rocks of Our Creation

Dr. Xavier le Pichon, pictured here with one of his granddaughters.

Dr. Xavier le Pichon, pictured here with one of his granddaughters.

A geophysicist helped me understand better why the work we do with support teams is so crucial. I was listening to Krista Tippet’s podcast “On Being” a few days ago and her guest was the man who pioneered the science of plate tectonics, Xavier Le Pichon.

In introducing the scientific world to plate tectonics, Le Pichon observed, measured, and described the movement of the giant segments of the earth’s crust that virtually float on the underlying magma of the molten core of our planet. These plates move very slowly and bump up against each other over millions of years. Along the boundaries where these plates grind against each other, earthquakes erupt. For example, the Pacific plate meets the North American plate at the San Andreas fault and from time to time, people on the surface feel the vibrations (earthquakes), and sometimes those vibrations do a great deal of damage, like in San Francisco in 1906. The same holds true all over the globe, like in the Indian Ocean back in December of 2004 (earthquakes near or under the ocean floor cause tsunamis), and at Fukushima, Japan in March, 2011.

In 2005, a 35-mile rift opened in the earth in Ethiopia along the boundary between two tectonic plates.

In 2005, a 35-mile rift opened in the earth in Ethiopia along the boundary between two tectonic plates.

Krista Tippet, the host of “On Being,” asked Le Pichon what studying the geophysics of the Earth had taught him, and he gave a very surprising answer. Studying the earth had taught him why some organizations and people handle change better than others. Change is inevitable, he said. It’s happening all the time, sort of like the steady movement of the earth’s plates. The question is whether the inevitable change happens traumatically or in such a manner that people can grow. For example, earthquakes happen in the area of the earth’s crust that are hard and rigid. Around 15 miles deeper in the crust, however, the earth is more “ductile.” The rock is more malleable, in a liquid form that moves more easily. In that region, there are no earthquakes.

This is a great picture of what happens in human systems, Le Pichon said. In human societies or organizations which are composed of all the same kind of people with fixed systems of rules, rituals, and recreation, when change comes, it causes great disturbance. However, a human society composed of many different kinds of people with a wide variety of rules, rituals, and recreation, will not experience change in a catastrophic way. On the contrary, these more flexible, “ductile” societies experience new strength through growth.

The best way to make sure that a society is highly diverse is to place at its center the weak, disabled, handicapped, really anyone who suffers. In Le Pichon’s observation, “As I knew from my own scientific experience, the weaknesses, the imperfections, the faults facilitate the [growth] of a system. A system that is too perfect is also too rigid [to grow]. This is true in politics; it is true within a society, within families, within nature.” If your society, institution, or church has some very strict and hard-lined rules and regulations, then change will bring on what Le Pichon calls “major commotion.” On the other hand, when human beings organize themselves to take care of the weakest and most vulnerable in their midsts and actually embrace their imperfections, their social systems actually become stronger through change.

I find it astonishing that a geophysicist would see the basic compassion that lies at the heart of all the major world religions stamped on the very rocks of our Creation. Isn’t that great!? The old scripture passage lies stamped on the geology beneath our feet. When we are weak, then we are strong.

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In Memoriam: Johnny Barnes – A Bermudian Insurgent

Johnny Barnes greets people from the Crow Lane Round About in Bermuda.

Johnny Barnes greets people from the Crow Lane Round About in Bermuda.

I learned this morning from a reader that Johnny Barnes passed away this year, at the age of 93 (see the first reply beneath the post).  I was so inspired when I first heard about Mr. Barnes, that I thought I’d repost this particular blog entry from over a year ago.  Here it is.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

When the railroads shut down on the island of Bermuda, it forced an electrician by the name of Johnny Barnes to find work as a bus driver. As a bus driver, Johnny came face to face – quite literally – with surly people. Johnny was – and still is – a very cheerful sort of person, so he rarely let the less cheerful sort bother him much. Instead, he decided to make a special effort to be even more cheerful with people who get on his bus.

That’s when a realization developed: cheering people up would be his life’s work, so at the age of 60, he quit bus driving. Instead, he started getting up at around 2:30 every morning so he could be at the Crow Lane Round About in Bermuda by 3:45. Then, as commuters made their way into the city from their homes, he’d wave and yell greetings. “Good morning!” “God bless you!” “I love you!” Of course, at first people were a bit startled. Some thought he’d lost a portion of his mind. After a period of time, however, he became a fixture.

Now, people wave back. Most feel that their commute would be incomplete without seeing Johnny. They actually have come to anticipate gladly seeing Johnny as they drive by that spot. The vast majority feel uplifted. In fact, one day when Johnny wasn’t at the round about because he’d needed to go to the hospital, it caused a stir. Some people even went so far as to stop, park their cars, and walk over to embrace Johnny. Others sought advice. And after about 25 years of this, a group of citizens commissioned a local sculptor to fashion a statue of Johnny – which he did, and which has been erected in a small green sward not far from the Crow Lane Round About.  An independent film maker even made a documentary about Johnny entitled, “Mr. Happy Man.”  You can view the film by clicking on the link below.

People can't stand the thought of not having Johnny Barnes around.

People can’t stand the thought of not having Johnny Barnes around.

No one ordered Johnny to conduct his independent campaign of blessing. He’s a sort of happiness insurgent. He made the personal decision to do his part to convey blessing to other people, however small the effort may have seemed – and even a bit nutty.

I think of our own individual lives like that. When we decide to be blessings in whatever way we can, and just do it – over time it can make a huge difference. I don’t expect that anyone will ever make a statue of me, but then, that’s not why Johnny Barnes decided to be a blessing. He just wanted to do his part to make the world a cheerier place.

And the statue? The blessing we leave for others will form a monument in their hearts – and that’s the most enduring statue of all.

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Eagles on Orcas – Slugs on the Tiger

Look in the top of the left-most pine tree at the top right of the photo. See the two eagles?

Look in the top of the left-most pine tree at the top right of the photo. See the two eagles?

The ferry cruised steadily on its usual course among the San Juan Islands of Puget Sound. We’d left the port of Anacortes earlier that morning, fog hanging heavy over the forested shoulders of multiple islets. As we came into sight of the ferry terminal at the little town of Orcas, on Orcas Island, the sun had begun to burn off the fog. To the west, as we passed by Shaw Island, the snow caps of the Olympic Range backdropped the rich blue water of the sound, and I knew I had to get a picture of the panorama.

I grabbed my camera and ran out from the heated protection of the passenger cabin. A sharp wind whipped across the deck but a perfect photographer’s scene spread out before me. I spun my baseball cap around catcher’s style, rammed the view finder to my eye socket, and began snapping shots before the thickly wooded shoulder of Crane Island would obstruct my view. As the shore of Crane nearly took over the frame, I took one last shot. I felt a gentle lurch beneath my feet as the ferry slowed for docking and I joined my wife on the gangway to descend to the car level.

We’d already established breakfast as our first order of business but at that early hour, the only restaurant in town hadn’t opened yet. So, we followed a line of cars north, emerging from a virtual tunnel of thick conifers into a swale between rich green fields filled with wild flowers. After about a 15 minute drive, we arrived in the town of Eastsound. It lies at the northern end of a fjord called East Sound and nearly splits the island so it has the shape of a horse collar. There, we found a restaurant and sat down to enjoy pastries and coffee. That’s when I started looking at the pictures I’d taken just before we docked.

As often happens when I shoot landscapes, the photographs simply couldn’t convey the sense of majesty one gets from standing in the middle of the actual reality. I quickly thumbed through the images – until something caught my eye from the last shot – the one taken almost as an afterthought as Crane Island swept into view. There were two black dots in the top of a pine tree that were much too large to be pine cones. Besides, they had white tips. I magnified the image, and there in the top of that tree sat two bald eagles. I sat back in my chair, and laughed. Vicki wanted to know what it was, and I showed her. We both just laughed in amazement.

 

They followed us to the summit of Constitution Mountain. I'm sure of it.

They followed us to the summit of Constitution Mountain. I’m sure of it.

In a real sense, that typifies much of my life. I’ll get wound up with the big picture and often miss the beautiful details right under my nose. In this particular case, I was grateful for the the camera I possess for allowing me to magnify the shot. Then, later that morning, as we finished our climb to the top of Constitution Mountain, the highest point on Orcas Island, again I was snapping shots of the panorama. From that point, you can see south toward Mt. Rainier, standing alone and prominent like the Lonely Mountain from Tolkien’s “The Hobbit.” To the north you can see Vancouver, and to the west Victoria, and Vancouver Island, Canada. The waters of the Puget Sound, slotted and dotted with green mounds of islands, glittered in the sun beneath a blue sky studded with clouds. Then Vicki cried out, “Look!” And there, circling in a thermal coming right at us, another bald eagle – and I was grateful for the telephoto lens I happened to be using, and to Vicki for noticing things up close while I obsessed on things afar. Eagles abound around the Puget, but I’ll always insist that the eagles we saw on that summit had followed us from that tree on Crane Island. Same two eagles, I’m sure of it.

Astounding beauty in Tiger Mountain State Park.  I like to call this, "Vicki Among Giants."

Astounding beauty in Tiger Mountain State Park. I like to call this, “Vicki Among Giants.”

The next day, We hiked the Tiger Mountain Trail. It’s in the Tiger Mountain State Forest not far from Mt. Rainier, Washington. We hiked among huge stands of alder, Douglas fir, redwood, and madroños. Ferns grew chest high and boles reached 80-100 feet above our heads. Vicki actually wept at the beauty, exulted in each flower, snail, and variety of fern she saw. Yes, you read right – she saw snails on the trail. Again, I was gazing at the canopy over our heads, surveying the green air underneath it, letting my eyes sail off through the distances revealed on the long slope across which the trail cut. I would never have seen the snails. Vicki noticed. She moved a little slower and deigned to look down at the little things at our feet. She saw the snails on the sides of rotting logs, in the mulch beneath the nascent ferns, and in the moss on a boulder or two. And, she saw the biggest slug either of us had ever seen. I would’ve missed it. She pointed it out. I would’ve stepped on it. She knelt beside it and said, “Get a picture!” And she placed her thumb beside it so we’d get a sense of scale.

I like to call this one, "Eeeuww!"

I like to call this one, “Eeeuww!”

All throughout our trip, I’d needed help to notice the little things around me. Once it was technology. The rest of the time, it was Vicki. In all cases, when I stopped and noticed, I got increased resolution to the place around me. The texture of the present became more rich. I lost myself in the moment, and when I lost myself in the moment, I knew some real happiness.

That’s one of the reasons why I haven’t made a blog entry since March 26. I’ve spent a good deal of time “bending down,” so to speak, pausing on this “trail” I’m walking to notice the texture of what’s around me. In my work and in my personal life, I’ve been finding a new texture and a new continuity. Since my last blog entry, my radiation treatments have ended with an excellent prognosis, and I’ve gotten married, which is why I was in Washington state, with Vicki, my wife. We were on our honeymoon.

Gazing off into the haze at the distant mountain ranges has always been one of my life-long faults – along with a serious case of trail-haste. Since moving to Birmingham, though, I’ve had to learn how to deal with loneliness in a healthy manner, which means that I’ve had to learn how to build community, and do that intentionally. I’ve been challenged to deal with prostate cancer, which, despite the fact that it’s really the common cold of cancers, has required me to endure the various elements of a treatment process that can get tedious. And, I’ve met and fallen in love with a woman and begun a new marriage. All of those experiences have called me to quit gazing off into the haze of a distant future and dwell deeply in the present moment.

There’s abundance in the moment. There’s exotic beauty in the backyard. There’s joy in the embrace of conversation with friends. There’s a symphony in my wife’s whispers.

Such incredible creatures...

Such incredible creatures…

There really is nothing more beautiful than truly connecting with the small things of daily living. I’m glad I’ve been led – and at times, forced – to slow down, to focus in, and settle on. Because that’s when I’ve discovered the eagles on Orcas and the slugs on the Tiger.

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Mortals Telling Stories on the Threshold of Mystery (with apologies to Ray Barfield)

I wonder what the story is.

I wonder what the story is.

You never meet an individual. Oh, sure, you can run into someone standing by herself in the line at the coffee kiosk, exchange greetings, and have a two-way conversation analyzing the coffee, but the fact is: she’s responding with a style, using vocabulary that she learned, and referring to cues she picked up from a vast community of family, friends, colleagues, and culture in which she’s been soaked for years.  When you take the time to learn that history, a “typical business woman” in a suit grabbing a Pike Place at Starbuck’s – almost a cardboard cut-out – becomes Elaine from Savannah who needs a shot of caffeine to escape the lethargy induced by the long drive from Georgia the night before after visiting her ailing mother over the weekend.  Listen a little to the story and watch texture and depth emerge.

Be careful before you entertain all the assumptions that go with regarding this as a "typical country church."

Be careful before you entertain all the assumptions that go with regarding this as a “typical country church.”

I’ve found this to be the case with the congregations with whom I’ve worked over the years, both as a parish pastor, and now as a chaplain. There really is no typical congregation. When you take the time to enter into the particular history of a particular congregation, you discover unique nuances, stories, and traditions which give character to that group of people, regardless of the denominational label they carry.

I began grappling with this reality at the outset of my pastoral career in the early ’80’s. I had been a psychiatric chaplain at the University of Louisville Hospital and had made the shift to local parish ministry at a little Baptist church by the name of Muldraugh, in Muldraugh, Kentucky. I’d arrived at that church, a Ph.D. student in the psychology of religion, and thinking I was God’s gift to these people, that I had the insight for which they’d thirsted and for which they’d be eternally grateful when I imparted it to them. After a few months getting to know the leadership’s names and holding forth in the pulpit, I led a deacon’s meeting in which I revealed the analysis I’d made of the church based on a very good book on congregational dynamics I’d been reading. After I showed them my little chart of where I saw the church heading in the future unless they adopted my particular program, the group fell into silence. Then the chair of the deacons exploded in fury. There isn’t enough room in a short blog entry to reveal all his insights into my pastoral incompetence, or his very colorful language which included questions concerning my genetic origins.  I don’t remember how the meeting ended, but someone offered a weak prayer of dismissal, and I staggered out into the night.

Muldraugh Baptist Church, Muldraugh, Kentucky, on a cold winter's Sunday.

Muldraugh Baptist Church, Muldraugh, Kentucky, on a cold winter’s Sunday.

Later that week, one of my personal, lifetime heroes emerged from the blur. Ernest Ennis had been at that deacon’s meeting and he invited me to his house to drink tea, eat pecan pie (gooey pecan pie), and “just talk.”  After he congratulated me on a “fine sermon this past Sunday,” and reflected on what he’d learned from it, he began telling me stories.  I learned his story. I learned how Mr. Ennis, an engineer and a brick mason, had partnered with three other church members to lay the masonry which composed the walls of the church building.  I learned how the congregation grew from the engineering personnel drawn to Fort Knox at the beginning of World War II and about how that church provided a place of comfort during the early years of a war that seemed fraught with dread.  It dawned on me that I’d been regarding Muldraugh Baptist Church as a cardboard cut-out.

I began going to Mr. Ennis’s house every Thursday afternoon and that investment of time in what Charles Gerkin has called a “living human document” was a major part of what taught me that my books were good beginning points. The substance of my ministry, though, would occur as I immersed myself in the narrative of this particular group of people. When I learned their stories, which in turn composed their Story, I learned that Muldraugh Baptist Church wasn’t at all “typical.”  This congregation possessed depth, character, and texture.

It was about this time that I encountered James Hopewell’s insights in his book, Congregation: Stories and Structures, published after his death. Hopewell illuminated how each congregation possesses stories which the congregants know, or at least sense, and these stories define what sorts of programs and ministries will be successful. It behooves pastoral leadership to know the stories before they try to introduce innovative initiatives. Otherwise, you’re dead in the water before your ship is even launched.  You could very well learn this truth at a painful deacon’s meeting.

RAY BARFIELD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature.

RAY BARFIELD is an Associate Professor of Pediatrics and Christian Philosophy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. He received his MD and his PhD (in philosophy) from Emory University. He is a pediatric oncologist with an interest in the intersection of medicine, philosophy, theology and literature.

This lesson, first learned more than 25 years ago, comes to me again as I work with Support Teams in our community.  It reminds me that compassionate listening stands as perhaps the greatest skill I can develop and nurture. Indeed, in reading the reflections of a physician by the name of Ray Barfield, active engagement in the narratives of the people we serve is essential for all versions of health care providers. As Barfield says, “If we want a better medicine, we have to become better . . . storytellers.” In a beautiful phrase, Barfield describes the people we serve as “mortals telling stories on the threshold of mystery.” When the people we serve understand that we’re empathetic participants in the ongoing narratives of their lives – where they’ve confronted tragedy, handled adversity, and found some measure of humor and resolution – we go a long way toward weaving a community of health and wholeness.

I’ve come to see our Support Team effort as one means of entering into and nurturing the collective narrative of the communities in which we live. As such, there isn’t really a template for making Support Teams happen beyond being present, listening, and blessing. Indeed, we’re all mortals telling stories on the threshold of mystery.

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A Word to Pastors: Don’t Try Hard – Try Easy (Lesson 6, Part 2)

You can tell by his tie that Kriegel wrote this book in the 1990's.

You can tell by his tie that Kriegel wrote this book in the 1990’s.

I’ll never forget something I read back in the 1990’s from a business innovation guru named Robert Kriegel. He wrote a book called If It Ain’t Broke, Break It! Kriegel said that when you aim to accomplish something, don’t wear yourself out trying your hardest. Instead, Kriegel says, “try easy.” In my observation, we have thousands of pastors out there trying their hardest to motivate, guide, and engage congregations in works of service and worship. I see support teams as one way they can succeed by “trying easy.”

Some points on the way to trying easy –

  1. Despite the fact that it sounds very counter-intuitive, the best place to begin with support teams in a congregation is NOT the pastor. While I see the support team methodology as an excellent way for a pastor to multiply the pastoral care exponentially in a given congregation, it might seem like a whole lot more work to a given pastor. As in every other instance of launching successful support teams, if pastors come on board, it’ll be with someone they trust and have established a relationship and relationships take time. Take it easy and spend the time building the relationship.
  2. In time it will become clear that the Support Team methodology provides support to one of every pastor’s professional goals: it equips church members to do ministry, and to do it enthusiastically.
  3. Pastors who feel the need to be in control of everything might view such delegation with suspicion, but most pastors I’ve known, including myself, welcome the enthusiastic involvement of laity. With this in mind, find key persons in the congregation who enjoy organizing and coordinating (gifts which I decidedly DID NOT possess). With the blessing of the pastor, let this person pursue the Support Team effort. The most successful teams begin with people who love the patient and family. The pastor’s involvement can be that of primary cheerleader of the method.
  4. Don’t EVER even HINT that the pastor isn’t doing enough. Even pastors with a sizable staff have more than they can handle, complete with laypersons who joke that pastors only work for four hours on Sunday. Personally, I haven’t committed this particular sin since I’ve been working at UAB. My own history as a senior pastor remains too fresh. Besides, one of the main points underlying the Support Team spirit is NO GUILT. You do Support Teams out of love and joy.

Here’s a last point. I think I’ve made it clear that my sympathies lie squarely with overworked and underpaid local pastors. However, I do have a word of caution. As pastors, it’s very easy to become preoccupied with oiling the institutional machinery, soothing ruffled feathers, and “putting out fires” and in the process overlook opportunities for building healing and healthy relationships. I’ve spoken with a number of pastors who recognize the potential for intentional, disciplined teams multiplying pastoral care, but wear themselves out preparing budgets, doing the bidding of a variety of committee chairs, or taking on a “lone ranger” mentality, thinking they have to do all the pastoral care themselves. In my estimate, this is neither wise, nor in keeping with the best examples of Judao-Christian congregational theology.

In both Jewish and Christian scriptures, examples abound of leaders enlisting the strategic and tactical aid of partners. Take, for example, Jethro’s advice to Moses for delegating the administrative load among competent team members in Exodus 18:17ff. Moses was trying to do all the work himself and Jethro said, “You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out. The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.” Then there’s the Apostle Paul’s analogy of a church being like a human body with many parts working together. That’s in I Corinthians 12. I’m not saying that our Support Team method is the only method for enlisting and equipping congregations to care for others, but for the most part, pastors, priests, and rabbis who last the longest in their ministries have developed some method for systematically incorporating all of the corpus in the work of caring.

So, acknowledge the great work pastors, priests, rabbis, and mullahs are doing, then encourage them to do what every wisdom tradition teaches: DELEGATE – and try easy.

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Lesson #6: Why Do Pastors Resist Something Soooo Good? (Part 1)

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Behind every beautiful church facade are multiple congregational challenges. This is Independent Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Lesson #6 has to do with the resistance to Support Teams that I’ve encountered among pastors and, indeed, it comes in two parts. Here’s Part One and it’s a heart-felt sympathetic description of why one encounters resistance. There’s a good reason for it. Part Two will come next Wednesday (March 9, 2016), and it’ll be a little more prescriptive.

Ever since I arrived in Birmingham and began working here at UAB, I’ve had this developing dream. Wouldn’t it be cool if there were a network of churches around the region, in metropolitan Birmingham as well as in the surrounding counties, where we had a cadre of coaches in partnership with our Department of Pastoral Care trained to launch support teams for discharged patients coming into their communities? After all, I’ve reasoned, it’s in the DNA of congregations to visit the sick, embrace the disenfranchised, and nurture community. A network of coaches in partner churches actively supporting discharged patients could make a huge contribution to the kind of environment necessary for healing and wholeness. Such a network could even prevent a number of persons from being readmitted to the hospital.

Naturally, this has led me to talk with dozens of pastors. As a former senior pastor, myself, with 26 years of congregational experience, I anticipated some resistance, and indeed I’ve encountered it, and even more than understanding it, I identify with it completely.

You see, if you’re a pastor you’re compelled to live out some basic duties which define the profession and to which you know you must devote quality time. The result? Simply preparing Bible studies, planning worship, doing the research and reflection necessary to craft a sermon every week, writing the sermon, visiting folks hospitalized and homebound parishoners, doing pastoral counseling, and lubricating the institutional infrastructure constitute more than a full time job.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

Even a relatively small church presents its pastor with a rich texture of challenges.

And then, as if that weren’t enough to deal with, before you’ve pastored a given church for more than a week, you start getting calls, emails, or brochures from well meaning individuals or organizations announcing that they have a ministry, program, or offering that will solve all your pastoral and congregational problems. I got them every day of my 26 year ministry as a senior pastor. Here’s an organization that does marriage enrichment in order to solve your church’s divorce problem. There’s an organization that offers clever financial planning that’ll heal all your budgetary problems. And yonder is a fine, committed and “godly” cadre of experienced pastors who’ll teach you how to overcome your church’s lack-of-growth problem. Believe me – these are a tiny fraction of stuff I’d get every week, almost every day. You know what? The vast bulk of that material immediately got deleted or thrown in the trash without me even bothering to read them. One pastor with whom I met just this week (March 1, 2016) told me that he simply does not take sales calls.

And then – and THEN – there were those activists who had problems they wanted ME to solve, by means of my church. These would be on behalf of human trafficking, or race relations, or abortion, or voting for God’s candidate, or world hunger day, or homeless intervention. That list was even longer than the solve-your-church-problems list, and many of the issues were worthy. At first, I felt terrible about throwing away brochures with pictures of hungry children, for example, but honestly, we felt like we were already doing everything we were able to do on a number of fronts. I knew there were only so many causes I could promote without completely diluting the congregational focus. If we heeded every appeal that came across my desk, we’d be like Bilbo Baggins in “The Fellowship of the Ring” when he told Gandalf that he felt “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped across too much bread.”

I’m acutely aware of this when I speak to pastors about our Support Team Network. I know that ideally, when fully deployed in the congregation, a well developed Support Team strategy will help lift pastoral burdens, because it spreads the care around, activates the talents of a wide variety of church members, and can prevent folks from “falling through the cracks.” But when I shove a Support Team brochure in the face of an already overwhelmed, busy pastor, they feel like swatting it away. I understand this.

So, what to do? Well, here it is again: nothing works for long without the growth of a trusting relationship, and reducing the kind of resistance I’ve described above is no exception. Next week, I’ll offer a few insights that have emerged for me regarding successful partnering.

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Lesson #5: The Homeostasis Bug-a-Boo

The author (that's Drexel on the right in the red shirt) with his step-family-to-be.

The author (that’s Drexel on the right in the red shirt) with his step-family-to-be.

I was a naive Ph.D. student when I first encountered the concept of family systems. Maybe it was an indicator of my immaturity regarding my own family dynamics that I firmly resisted learning about the concept. I much more liked the notion of dealing with people as individuals, talking to them about what they’d done in their past, dreaming about the future, and offering the wisdom I gleaned from books and stored in my head. I had a hunch that dealing with the reality of families and their systems would involve a lot of messy work. Dealing with ideas in my head and talking about them was so much cleaner!

Lo and behold, I learned that no matter how wise my advice seemed in the individual counseling hour, no matter how cool the ideas were that we discussed, whatever clients had acknowledged when talking with me got profoundly altered, if not completely dismissed, when they got back with their families. Grudgingly I came to realize that when an individual came into my office, ghosts walked in with them. I HAD to acknowledge how profoundly their family systems affected their interactions with me, both in the counseling hour and otherwise.

Family dynamics include all kinds of great history, such as this time a few years back after my daughter, Melissa, directed a play at Radford University.

Family dynamics include all kinds of great history, such as this time a few years back after my daughter, Melissa, directed a play at Radford University.

This dynamic plays with special strength when one proposes a support team to a patient. By definition, this proposes doing some engineering to the system as it exists, and if the system doesn’t have a custom of incorporating extra-familial forces, the persons may politely refuse to cooperate. You see, families want to maintain – here’s the word – homeostasis. They want things to stay the way they’re used to them because that reduces their level of anxiety.

Murray Bowen and Virginia Satir were the first to fully describe this dynamic and scores of therapists have added to this particular body of knowledge. Basically, “homeostasis” refers to a family’s desire for balance and control such that the family can maintain the customary way the family interacts in order to handle challenges and adjust to changes. When an illness occurs, anxiety increases and most families move as quickly as possible to restore their normality as it was before the illness, which will lower their anxiety. Families reflexively apply their customary means of problem solving on the new situation. For families that have maintained a more independent posture relative to extra-familial relationships, the offer of a chaplain to organize a support team introduces the idea of another change, and subsequently raises the family’s anxiety level.  The offer, which the chaplain meant as a kind invitation, instead feels more like a threat.  Even if the chaplain or care-giver can compile a list of objective data that indicate a need for a support team, those factors remain subject to the family’s customs.

Some families, as a component of their customs, include more permeable boundaries. In such cases, the offer of a support team results in an invitation to be one more part of their system, which already includes extra-familial relationships.

In all cases, whether or not a family accepts a support team depends upon the nature of that family’s sense of homeostasis. It will behove the chaplain to spend some time discerning the character of a particular family’s dynamics. When the chaplain has a non-judgmental understanding of a family’s unique style of relating – how they lower their anxiety – then he or she can fashion an approach toward offering the nurturance of a support team.

At this point, gaining the acceptance of a support team becomes more art than science. The chaplain or care giver needs to customize the manner in which they educate families as to the need. Some families see the need for a team straight away and immediately begin to adjust to the presence of an organized regimen of friends and family showing up. Others require more gently applied education so that they arrive at the conclusion that the presence of a support team only strengthens their system in a healthy manner. Again, the level of trust developed between the chaplain and the family plays a crucial role in how a family hears the chaplain (see Lesson #4).

In all cases, families that eventually accept support teams recognize the presence of the team as a sign of strength, wisdom, and health, not as a judgment on their customary manner of doing things, but a means to lower their anxiety.

Ultimately, each family differs to some degree from other families.  What feels right to one family won’t correspond exactly to what feels right with another.  There isn’t a template beyond being what Ed Friedman called “a non-anxious presence” who listens with as little pre-judgment as possible.  What I had a hunch about in graduate school some 30 years ago holds true: it’s a messy process.

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Trust: We’re Fellow Travelers

In “Viva la Resistance,” I described various shades of resistance I’ve encountered over the last two years in my work with Support Teams. As I said at the conclusion of that post, trust alone stands as the best way to overcome resistance.

We're fellow travelers, showing other thirsty travelers where we've found water. (Photo by DR)

We’re fellow travelers, showing other thirsty travelers where we’ve found water. (Photo by DR)

In fact, any effort to nurture a loving and supportive community – which is what we’re up to with Support Teams – involves trust. The Oxford Dictionary defines “trust” as a “firm belief in the reliability, truth, or ability of someone or something.” Indeed, all chaplains (or coaches) want to convey competence and reliability when they converse with a patient and family. They want the patient and family to sense that the chaplain only has the best interest of the patient and family at heart. If patients and families don’t believe this is true for the chaplain they’ve encountered, they certainly won’t invite the chaplain to interact with their family system.

In my experience, however, the kind of trust we value involves mutual vulnerability. It’s not enough for a patient to acknowledge a chaplain’s (or a coach’s) credentials, training, and competence. When you trust someone, at least to some degree, you’re willing to open up more sensitive regions of your life, confident that the person to whom you’ve given your trust will not do you damage in any way.

This kind of relationship rarely develops quickly. Indeed, it takes a bit of time investment and patience to go from not knowing someone to having the permission to interact in a substantial way with the dynamics of the person’s more immediate system of family and friends.

Henri Nouwen (1932-96)

Henri Nouwen (1932-96)

But perhaps the greatest asset one possesses in establishing trust comes from what Henri Nouwen called, “the wounded healer.” When we learn to share out of our own brokenness and convey our own self-assurance that our short-comings are not reasons to be ashamed, we invite others to open up more to the Grace that undergirds every process of creating healing community. I think trust will grow when the people we serve sense that we, too, have hit bumps in life and that we are fellow travelers, showing other thirsty travelers where we’ve found water.

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“Viva la Resistance” . . . or Not!!

Even though I think Support Teams are fantastic, frequently the very people whom I perceive as needing a team the most nevertheless resist having a team organized. Consequently, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on the various shades of resistance I’ve encountered over the last couple of years. In the third of my “Ten Lessons Learned” series, here are five of the resistance dynamics I’ve noticed.

  1. DSC_0254Many people resist the idea of a support team because they simply don’t want someone they do not know asking too many questions about their family members’ habits and customs. In other words, sometimes when I start talking about Support Teams, I come off as a nosy trespasser. “Who IS this guy, and what gives him the right to ask these kinds of questions?  HE doesn’t know us!”
  2. Some people, in one way or another, make it clear that they like their family just the way it is. When someone in the hospital suggests that they need “help” in putting together support, it sounds like a negative judgment to them. They don’t like to think that someone’s thinking of THEM as emotionally needy, or in need of counsel to improve their family or social system. Their pride throws up a barrier.
  3. Some folks feel exactly the opposite of #2 above. They’re ashamed of the dynamics in their family system and don’t want their “dirty laundry” exposed to strangers. Or some folks don’t want people coming into their homes and seeing disorder, or filth, or junk lying around everywhere. They may actually wish for a team, but shame erects a barrier.
  4. Frequently, people will resist a support team because they don’t want to “impose on anyone.” I’d need more space to elaborate all the possible roots of this particular weed, but whereas #3 above has to do with shame, this has to do with guilt. People don’t want to feel like they owe anybody anything, so they take a pass on having a Support Team launched for them. I think that this particular dynamic relates directly to the next point. Feeling “obliged” to someone flies in the face of the ideal of being able to handle your challenges yourself. This means that . . .
  5. . . . many people do not want to appear like they need anything, even when they do. This seems to me to go right to the heart of one of our culture’s most cherished myths.  In Western society we live with a deeply engrained cultural ideal of the rugged individual. It makes a positive statement, in our culture, when a person can confront challenges without needing help from anyone. On the other hand, it’s a less positive statement when someone cannot face challenges without aid from others. Stated starkly, an independent person is better than a dependent person. Consequently, to accept the support of a team of volunteers is like admitting that one is a lesser kind of person.  (I’ve written about this twice now under the rubric “Community as Medicine.”)

Other forms of resistance crop up, too, but these five seem to me to be the most frequent and the most effective in short circuiting the team launch process. In the next post, I’ll reflect on what I’ve learned about addressing resistance. In a word, it has to do with trust. More on that next time.

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“Community is Medicine”

Here’s a second lesson I’ve learned over the last two years.

DSC_0069-1What if I were to tell you that you have a powerful medicine at your disposal? This medicine has the capacity to help heal you or someone you love, make the process of facing the illness easier, and make you or your loved one stronger, if not physically, then certainly in mind and spirit. Additionally, it won’t cost anything but time and an adjustment in thinking. Wouldn’t you want to use that medicine?

Well, that medicine is community. Notice that I didn’t use quotation marks in referring to community as medicine. That’s because the positive health benefits of an intentional, caring community of people surrounding a person has verifiable medicinal effect.

Mark Hyman, MD, Leader, The Institute for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

Mark Hyman, MD, Leader, The Institute for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic.

That’s not just a flowery flight of pastoral speech. In the words of Dr. Mark Hyman, a physician who leads the Institute for Functional Medicine at the Cleveland Clinic in a recent podcast on NPR’s “On Being,” he used the very words: “community is medicine.” Dr. Hyman’s insight into the power of community dovetails very well with the findings of a team of researchers from Brigham Young University’s Department of Psychology. In March, 2015, these researchers published a meta-analysis which concluded – in their words – that loneliness and social isolation will reach epidemic proportions by 2030 unless “action is taken.” In fact, after they surveyed over 70 research projects on the subject, they warned that loneliness is potentially more deadly than grades 2 and 3 obesity. In other words, the BYU researchers have stated the counterpoint to Dr. Hyman’s term: lack of community is disease.

Most of us in health care already know this. Health involves a whole world beyond the hospital or medical clinic. Notice, though, that I don’t suggest that “community” is just any conglomeration of a number of people. As I’ve been learning in my studies on loneliness, one can be “lonely in a crowd.” A healing community is a group of people who are focused, intentional, and coordinated in their efforts to support one another.

Indeed, on our website we define a Support Team as a group of volunteers who use a coordinated team approach to meet practical, emotional, and spiritual concerns of a person with a health care need in order to make the person’s recovery easier and less lonely. Using their particular gifts in caring for that person, they also care for that person’s family and/or care-givers.  The volunteers who comprise a support team work together to offer intentional support to a person with healthcare concerns.

I’ve learned that the vast majority of folks who learn of this effort like it. As we go deeper in exploring the potential of Support Teams, we discover that we’re really talking about nurturing community in a process of strengthening the ties that already exist in a person’s system of relationships. By teaching, coordinating, and organizing the people a person knows, each experiences a caring community. Cooperating as a team serves to encourage the nurturing of basic human skills which people already possess and potentially opens new possibilities for how people experience and perceive their social connections.

So, lesson number two stated another way: Support Teams constitute a potent medicine.

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