thegoodenoughpastor

Enjoying the freedom of being good enough

Archive for the category “Theory”

A starting point for understanding ourselves

In his fine work, The Gift of Being Yourself: The Sacred Call to Self-Discovery, David Benner states:

“The first thing many Christians would say they know about themselves as a result of their relationship with God is their sinfulness. And quite possibly the first thing they would say they learned about God from this was God’s forgiveness and love.”

I don’t argue with Benner in his observation. Most of the Christianity I’ve been around, and most of the Christians I know, start with this piece of information: we are sinners. Not only do we sin, but we have a condition of sinfulness.

While I agree that theology of sin, my question is this: Is this the starting point? Is this where our self-understanding and our understanding of God begins?

Or, does God begin with a different starting point?

I think the latter is true.

In Ephesians, Paul starts from a different place in understanding both ourselves and God. He spends the first part of the book exploring the infinite and extravagant love, generosity, kindness and goodness of God.

Long before Paul introduces our rebellion of sin, he gives ample ink establishing the love of God. And when Paul does get to identifying our sin, he states:

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ . . .” (Ephesians 2: 4-5).

Before sin, God loves. Before we are identified as sinners we are identified as being loved.

Starting with being loved seems to vitally important for us to grasp. Paul devotes significant prayer toward that end (see Ephesians 1:15ff; 3:14ff). This is what transforms us to being the people God created us to be. It’s also basis for the rest of Paul’s letter dealing with practical issues of obedience.

It seems, then, that the goal of following Jesus isn’t getting our act together. Rather it’s to know and experience a life of loving and being loved.

In the former approach, we never quite get it good enough.

In the latter we’re already there, and we’re free to live out of that existence.

I wonder how it would change us if we started there?

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What is this “Good Enough Pastor” schtick?

The concept, “Good Enough Pastor,” incorporates several ideas and applications. I adapted the phrase from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott was an influential figure in the development of object relations theory.

In psychodynamic theory, focus is placed on the role of mothers in the developing psyche of a child. Object relations theory looks at this relationship between mother and child, and the developmental need for the child and mother to differentiate from each other.

One of the difficulties that occurs in this process is when a mother over-identifies with the child and assume too much responsibility for the child’s welfare. A couple of problems can result. One, the pressure of perfectionism. The mother believes that the child’s well-being and her own sense of self demands that she be a perfect mother. The belief that one must be perfect is fraught will all sorts of conflicting tensions and destructive assumptions. Two, the mother can take on too much responsibility and over-function on behalf of the child. The mother is not able to allow her child to go through normal struggles, pain and failure necessary for autonomy and growth. In her effort to protect and help, she actually ends up stunting growth and creating that which she fears most–anger, resentment and rejection from her child.

Winnicott’s concept captures the tension of good mothering. She strives to provide adequate nurture and care, at the same time refrains from over-functioning. She is dependable, responsive, protective, supportive and helpful. Yet she doesn’t do everything for the child and doesn’t shield the child from all challenges and pain.

Further, the mother is released from the unrealistic demands of perfectionism. She is free to embrace her own humanity. She no longer has to be perfect, but can relax with being “good enough.” Ironically, her effectiveness as a mother increases as she lets go of her striving for perfection.

The implications and applications for pastors are many. I believe they are also liberating. Too often pastors labor under the unforgiving pressure to be perfect. Ministry tends to attract perfectionists. Churches and denominations overtly and covertly demand perfection. For all our rhetoric about grace, our church system is often more performance-driven and shame-based than we like to admit.

Pastors often over-function with their congregations. They assume more responsibility for their flock than is reasonable and healthy. This can be self-driven, and congregations often demand it. It’s a lethal combination. Pastor and congregation both suffer in the end.

So my question: “What would happen if we could relax and shift our focus and goal to be the ‘good enough’ pastor? What does the good enough pastor look like? How would this change the way we do ministry? How would this change the pastor-congregation relationship?”

Confirmation Bias: How it Impacts What I Think I Know

Recently I was listening to a lecture on how we make decisions. The speaker identified several decision-making traps that take us down the road of poor decision making that can prove to be catastrophic.

One trap in particular piqued my curiosity. It’s a cognitive process known as “confirmation bias.” This refers to our “tendency to gather and rely on information that confirms our existing views and to avoid or downplay information that disconfirms our preexisting hypothesis” (Michael Roberto, Bryant University).

It causes us to gather or remember information selectively. Furthermore, we interpret the information in a way that confirms what we already believe to be true. Researchers note that this effect is particularly strong for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched beliefs.

Confirmation bias has been cited as a contributing factor to a variety of issues ranging from beliefs and laws concerning the death penalty and the events leading to the Columbia shuttle disaster in 2003. People, including law makers and supposedly unbiased scientists, look at data through a skewed lense. They filter the evidence to confirm what they assume is correct and disregard information that would conflict with their opinions.

Research indicates that we take it even further. We interpret data, information and arguments to fit what we want to be true, regardless of objective observations to the contrary. It was found that NASA officials wanted to believe the Columbia was in safe operating order to the point they disregarded data that pointed to real danger.

It seems to me that confirmation bias is well entrenched in the church and theology worlds as well. Note how we continually buy books that we are certain will confirm what we already believe. We keep going to hear speakers who affirm what we assume to be true.

We can pretty well predict what these authors and speakers are going to say ahead of time. We like it this way. It creates emotional and psychological safety nets for us.

This isn’t all bad, I’m sure. I know I’m as susceptible to confirmation bias as anyone. But it does raise questions for me in how we do church leadership, Bible interpretation and theology. If the experts are right in saying confirmation bias is particularly strong  for emotionally charged and deeply entrenched beliefs, it’s safe to assume it runs wild in the Christian community. 

Take how we manage church conflict. Left unchecked confirmation bias will distort the “facts” that are presented by both sides. We can quickly react and make decisions out of that distortion, all the while convinced we are “right.” Afterall, we have the “facts” right in front of us.

The more we can slow the process down and become aware of our own biases, emotionally held positions, and our need to self-protect, the more objective we can be.  The more open we are to genuinely consider the other side, the less we will be governed by confirmation bias. A good adage is to strive to be calm, nonreactive and self-aware in those moments.

We also need to hold the tendency of confirmation bias in one hand while we interpret our Bibles, evaluate our doctrine and define our theology with the other. Honesty about our own propensity to allow confirmaiton bias to define our beliefs will go a long way.

I notice a couple of tendencies in this area. One, when we discuss theology, doctrine and Bible interpretation, we tend to lean toward monologue rather than dialogue. In monologue (where I do the talking and I talk at rather than with) I control the direction of conversation. I dictate the ideas and content. It’s my way of ensuring that what I already believe will be reinforced and protectecd.

Dialogue is more difficult. In dialogue, I quiet down and let you share your perspective and define your position. I stay open and consider the validity of your views. I weigh them and give them respectful, careful consideration. Dialogue is risky because I choose to allow you to influence me. I may conclude that my emotionally held beliefs aren’t as accurate as I thought (and wished) they were.

How many Christian conversations are more two people (or two factions, two churches, two theological traditions) trying to “out-monologue” each other rather than true dialogue? How does that cost us in terms of valuing each other, valuing relationships, and actually learning and growing?

A second tendency is that we become rigid in our theology, doctrine and Biblical interpretation. We approach the Scripture with our theology and exegesis already established. We force our meaning upon the text and make it agree with us.

Bradley Jursak speakes to this: “Dare we let Scripture say what it says without reinterpreting what ‘it really means’ into the margins of our Study Bibles?” 

We all make our own canon in some manner. We hold to our predisposed interpretations over what the text may actually say. Again, the more honest and self-aware we are of our propensity to do this, the better we can manage it.

As I close, I can’t help but wonder: 1) How my confirmation bias has influenced what I just wrote? and, 2) How is your confirmation bias influencing how you’re reading this blog?

Optimal Level of Tension

Once in a counseling session with a couple, I listened as the wife described her sense of responsibility to care for their child. She and her husband had established what is known as a “child-focused parenting” style. She believed she was responsible to be there for their son at all times. She strove to protect him from all harm, felt compelled to keep him happy, felt guilty when she wasn’t spending her off-work hours with him, and seldom went on dates with her husband because “she should be with our son.” The husband, on his part, echoed much the same sentiment.

Problem was, she could never quite pull off being the perfect mom. She was stressed, discouraged, and quite worried about the future well-being of her son–her concerned stemming on her perceived failure.

I suggested that instead of striving to be a “perfect mom” that she give herself permission to be a “good-enough” mom. My comment nearly triggered a panic attack. “My heart rate just accelerated, and I can hardly breathe when you say that,” she stammered. Nothing like creating a real crisis in the counseling office!

“I can’t settle for ‘good-enough.’ It feels like I’m giving myself permission to slack-off.  I can’t tolerate anything less than perfection.”

I’ve found that when I suggest the concept of the “good-enough pastor” many pastors have a similar reaction. They hear me as lowering the bar of what’s acceptable in terms of effort and suggesting a flippant, careless and lackluster approach to ministry. Thankfully there are more options than either perfectionism and poor effort.

The ‘good-enough’ concept attempts to strike the optimal level of tension between the two extremes. It aims to provide adequate and effective levels of care, attentiveness, responsiveness, and service without tipping the scale to the over-functioning extreme where we are the “d0-all and be-all” for our parishioners.

It recognizes the wisdom of allowing our parishioners to “work out their own salvation,” by allowing them to be responsible for their own actions and decisions. It also trusts both the Holy Spirit and the person to work through difficulties and discomfort without our assuming complete responsibility to shield, soothe and problem solve for them.

As we establish optimal levels of tension we provide appropriate levels of pastoral care without becoming co-dependent. We build capacity in our people as they learn to self-manage and practice appropriate self-care.

As a result, we’ll do a much better job of accomplishing our primary calling: to manage ourselves and focusing on our responsibilities (as opposed to managing others and assuming responsibility for them). We’ll do a much more effective job in modeling a life of faith and surrender in relation to Jesus.

The Slippery Slope of Being Good

Pastoral ministry attracts people who want to do something meaningful and good with their lives. They genuinely want to help people and further the Kingdom of God. This is good.

But like many things in life, our greatest strengths can also be our greatest weaknesses.

One of the breakdowns in this pursuit is the shift of thinking that says our parishioners well-being depends primarily upon our performance as a pastor, that the health and success of our congregation sit squarely on our shoulders, and the whole of the Kingdom of God rises and falls on our performance as a pastor.

From an objective viewpoint, these assumptions seem absurd. And they are. However, what we believe rationally and what we believe emotionally are often two different animals. When push comes to shove, our emotional beliefs typically trump our rational thinking.

Such assumptions trap us into problematic beliefs and ministry patterns that become self-defeating, tormenting, and interfere with accomplishing meaningful service and work.

For starters, when that much responsibility rests on our shoulders, we’re left with only one option–perfectionism. There is simply no room for error, no room for weakness, no room for failure. In the end, there is no room for being human. We must be divine. Unfortunately, ministry seems to be a magnet for perfectionists. This deserves its own discussion, which I’ll tackle at a later time.

Another outgrowth of such belief is the over-functioning, people-pleasing pastor. When the welfare of others, the church and the kingdom rises and falls on our performance, we must “be all, for all.” We have to have all the answers, be at every event, provide support in every crisis, have the right direction for every decision, etc. We confuse serving with making sure everyone is happy. Others define our ministry philosophy, our values and our job description. We end up exhausted. Personal and professional boundaries can be crossed.

Finally, we usually end up angry. When we have to be perfect and “be all, for all,” there’s not much margin for disappointments and glitches. Our self-esteem rises and falls on what others say about us, what our numbers show, and how good our church performs. When our church people struggle, fail to show up for meetings or disagree with us, we’re ticked. Truth be told, we end up using people to prop up our sense of self.

The constant demand wears us out. Inevitably we feel unappreciated. We burn out. We resent that ministry is so demanding. Many of us don’t like our Boss so well.

Thankfully, there is another way to approach ministry. Shifting to the “Good Enough Pastor” model allows us to relax, to be gloriously human, to rest, to experience God’s grace.

About the Title “Good Enough Pastor”

The concept, “Good Enough Pastor,” incorporates several ideas and applications. I adapted the phrase from Donald Winnicott’s concept of the “good enough mother.” Winnicott was an influential figure in the development of object relations theory.

In psychodynamic theory, focus is placed on the role of mothers in the developing psyche of a child. Object relations theory looks at this relationship between mother and child, and the developmental need for the child and mother to differentiate from each other.

One of the difficulties that occurs in this process is when a mother over-identifies with the child and assume too much responsibility for the child’s welfare. A couple of problems can result. One, the pressure of perfectionism. The mother believes that the child’s well-being and her own sense of self demands that she be a perfect mother. The belief that one must be perfect is fraught will all sorts of conflicting tensions and destructive assumptions. Two, the mother can take on too much responsibility and over-function on behalf of the child. The mother is not able to allow her child to go through normal struggles, pain and failure necessary for autonomy and growth. In her effort to protect and help, she actually ends up stunting growth and creating that which she fears most–anger, resentment and rejection from her child.

Winnicott’s concept captures the tension of good mothering. She strives to provide adequate nurture and care, at the same time refrains from over-functioning. She is dependable, responsive, protective, supportive and helpful. Yet she doesn’t do everything for the child and doesn’t shield the child from all challenges and pain.

Further, the mother is released from the unrealistic demands of perfectionism. She is free to embrace her own humanity. She no longer has to be perfect, but can relax with being “good enough.” Ironically, her effectiveness as a mother increases as she lets go of her striving for perfection.

The implications and applications for pastors are many. I believe they are also liberating. Too often pastors labor under the unforgiving pressure to be perfect. Ministry tends to attract perfectionists. Churches and denominations overtly and covertly demand perfection. For all our rhetoric about grace, our church system is often more performance-driven and shame-based than we like to admit.

Pastors often over-function with their congregations. They assume more responsibility for their flock than is reasonable and healthy. This can be self-driven, and congregations often demand it. It’s a lethal combination. Pastor and congregation both suffer in the end.

So my question: “What would happen if we could relax and shift our focus and goal to be the ‘good enough’ pastor? What does the good enough pastor look like? How would this change the way we do ministry? How would this change the pastor-congregation relationship?”

I’ll be exploring these questions and other musings in future blogs.

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