I’ve experienced the third instance in recent months of a classic pastoral triangle. It’s “classic” in the sense that it has all of the components of an “elegant” emotional process triangle: (1) it is generated by anxiety, (2) its source is family of origin relationships, (3) it is directed at the pastoral leader, (4) its content obfuscates emotional process, and, (5) it invites reactivity.
While the particulars of this classic pastoral triangle vary, here is the general pattern: the pastor receives a communication from a person who is a relative of a member of the pastor’s congregation. The communication may be initiated at the door after a worship service, or in the form of a phone call, e-mail, or letter (I’ve seen all of these). The person initiating the conversation typically is cut off to some degree from the family member who is the focus of conversation (and who will be made the other point of the triangle). While not always the case, the family member who is the focus of the conversation typically is a close relative, but of unequal status (father to a child, uncle to a nephew of niece, patriarch or matriarch to a misfit, IP, or someone who “married into” the family).
In essence, the person approaching the pastor expresses concern for the spiritual well-being of his or her relative. The content ranges from a concern that the person is not “saved” to something vague about “not being right with God.” The person triangles the pastor by asking that the pastor visit the relative to witness and get that person saved, or, merely to “pray for” the relative. Either way, the pastor is “hooked” at this point—after all, caring for the spiritual well-being of the flock is the pastor’s job. And how can one refuse the sincere request of someone who is genuinely concerned with the spiritual welfare of a relative?
Some pastors will march off immediately and initiate a visit with the parishioner who is the object of the family member’s concern. Others experience a feeling of being “stuck,” with a situation that sounds right, but feels a bit “off.” Most of these typically sense that they are in a triangle but often cannot identify it. They have taken on someone’s anxiety (their “burden”) while realizing that it’s not one appropriate for them to carry.
Let’s examine this triangle to see its dynamic:
1. A family member (Person A) who is cut off from a relationship, or is not able to be in a direct relationship with another family member (Person B) deals with the cut off through religiosity. We do not discount the sincerity of this person’s concern for the family member., but we need to appreciate the family of origin issues that may be at play.
2. The unresolved anxiety escalates to the point that Person A triangles in Pastor C. Person A triangles Pastor C using the content that “hooks” the pastor (religion), but is unaware that the heart of the request is for Pastor C to work on the side of the triangle that constitutes the relationship of Person A to Person B.
3. If Pastor C is not able to self-regulate and takes on the anxiety of Person A, he or she will triangle in issues of ministerial competence (rescuing), will triangle in issues with God, or will get hooked by any number of internal issues (his own relatives who are unsaved or in spiritual peril, issues with family members with whom he or she is cut off from and to whom he or she cannot minister to, etc.). Or, if Pastor C is prone to overfunctioning, he or she will glum into the boundary violation to which the pastor has just been invited.
The one who needs to work at self regulation here is Pastor C, who needs to (1) recognize the triangle, (2) not get hooked by the content so as to avoid reactivity, and (3) follow the basic rules of triangles, including, work on the relationships on your side of the triangle. So, one pastoral response to anxious Person A might be, “Thank you for sharing your concern. I am Person B’s pastor and I certainly care, but tell me, what’s going on with you?”
Date posted: Monday, November 17th, 2008 12:05 am | Under category: bowen family systems theory, congregational life, leadership
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