In a fable called “A Nervous Condition” Edwin Friedman describes “little John” who when he was a year old began to have his ganglia, his nerve endings, grow outside of his body. Growing up with this condition that made him supersensitive to regular stimuli, John learned that others would watch out for him, keep him safe, and go out of their way to make sure he was not hurt. (Pastor Bob Kaylor preached on this story yesterday. Read it HERE. Hear it HERE).
While they do not have their ganglia visibly outside of their skin, you and I live and work with people who have learned that their hypersensitivity is a way of garnering support and power within the organization, family, classroom, church, youth group, PTO, Little League, HOA, etc. If we are not careful, we can soon find them functioning as unofficial leaders of the organization, those who are consulted either directly or hypothetically before any decisions are made.
“Little Johns” gain the most traction within a group that is floundering.For example, when a church is struggling and its sole mission becomes the retention of members, a grumbling parent can become quiet powerful. All the parent need do is chat with the lead pastor about something they have heard about the youth group that they do not like and the youth leader can expect to be in the senior pastor’s office later that week. Other times just threatening to meet with the pastor is enough to get the youth leader to acquiesce. Soon the church has a youth ministry that is not about ministering to the needs of the youth, leading them in discipleship toward spiritual growth, listening to their struggles and meeting their needs. Instead the youth ministry becomes about keeping the parents happy so they don’t leave the church.
I have also seen this happen in congregations where there is a matriarch or patriarch who has a lot invested in the congregation either financially, or through years of faithful service. When a new, important ministry of the church is suggested such as becoming an Interfaith Hospitality Network congregation that will host homeless people one week out of every ten, someone who doesn’t like the idea will suggest that the council consider how the matriarch will feel about the decision.
Families experience this when every decision is run through the filter of how their depressed mother who spends most of her waking hours in bed, would feel about their adult child moving, the family going on vacation, or inviting the neighbors over for a barbecue.
The antidote is, to use Friedman’s term, self-differentiation – the ability of an individual or organization to know what they are about so well that they are comfortable with the pain of the other. It takes a self-differentiated youth pastor to say to the lead pastor, “I understand that Sally’s parents are unhappy with the way I do youth ministry. I don’t do what they think is important. Let me tell you what I am doing and why.” It takes a member of council who can say, “I appreciate all Mr. Peterson has given this congregation over the years and I understand this may make him uncomfortable. But this neighborhood has changed and we have a new opportunity to follow Jesus’ mandate to minister to our community.” It takes a child who can say, “I understand that this may be difficult for dad, but I have this possibility for happiness and success I need to pursue.”
We cannot let the squeaky wheels set the direction for our organizations or our lives. We need to take stands of integrity that will allow us and/or our congregations to pursue that for which we were made and be comfortable with the discomfort that may cause someone else.