As clergy and other leaders are considering a return to regular organizational schedules and a busier time in the Fall, they would do well to remember Michael Kerr’s words (Kerr and Bowen, Family Evaluation. 1988. Page 93.) “The higher the level of differentiation of people in a family or a social group, the more they can cooperate, look out for one another’s welfare, and stay in adequate contact during stressful as well as calm periods. The lower the level of differentiation, the more likely the family, when stressed, will regress to selfish, aggressive, and avoidance behaviors; cohesiveness, altruism, and cooperativeness will break down.” (Note this is true for social groups like a family or a working group within a business, school, or public office.)
Ronald Richardson reminded me of this in his recent book, Polarization and the Healthier Church: Applying Bowen Family Systems Theory to Conflict and Change in Society and Congregational Life. (2012) It is an excellent resource for leaders during what we all know to be times of significant polarization in our society.
In your preparation for the Fall consider your personal goals, and then find ways (and perhaps a coach, whether formal or informal) to help you through the inevitable challenges to accomplishing those goals. Let your health and peace of mind be at the top of your list. Here are a few health-promoting goals you might consider in the face of the increased polarization you will be facing.
- Work to lower your level of anxiety. Plan and take time for meditation, relaxation, rest. You are first of all responsible for yourself and for your inner peace. If you are healthy in that way, there is a good chance others will find their anxiety lowered as well.
- Consider and articulate for yourself your core principles, beliefs, and convictions; be prepared to share them with others as opportunities arise. That is, know yourself and share that self.
- Live out your principles. There are ideas and plans and schedules that may call for compromise; principles do not. Principles may be reconsidered, but don’t confuse thoughtful reconsideration with the insistence of desire or the pressure from opposition.
- Don’t criticize the beliefs of others. Rather, be ready to state your convictions. Be more thoughtful about your position and more accepting of the positions of others.
- Don’t become involved in emotional debate if/when others react to your stating and living out your principles, i.e. regulate your reactivity. Watch out for sabotage, and when it comes stay focused on yourself and be ready to reaffirm your convictions. Be thoughtful, not reactive.
The only thing you can change positively in ways that will endure is yourself. Stay connected with others, but define only your self. The higher your level of self-differentiation (self-definition and -regulation), the higher will be, over time, the self-differentiation of the system you are a part of, ala the Kerr quote I began with.