Monday, January 21, 2013

What if entire congregations did this?

The link above is to a NY Times article about a single individuals and the changes that happened to his business because he was brave enough to undertake a thorough self-examination. Further in the article there is information about research that supports what he did.

My question....what would/could happen if entire congregations did this? As therapists we are constantly challenging people to make a fearless self-examination. Look at your biases. How are they holding your congregation back? Look at your failures and see what you can learn. Talk between members to learn about each other - much like the self-talk that happens to a person when they are self-examining.

Tradition is good, but can it be holding the church back? Are there parts of your religious tradition that only work for those who have been a part of it? Look at the iconography in traditional churches. How many people in the pews can actually say what the icon represents, why it was chosen and by what demographic?

Thought provoking article.....thoughts from you?

Monday, January 7, 2013

No Religious Affiliation - What's a church to do?

This year our congress has the most religiously diverse make up in history. Among them is the first representative who listed her religious affiliation as ‘none’. With the increasing number of people in the United States who also state they have no religious affiliation, will we also be seeing more representation to reflect that growing trend? Just under 20% of the American population now indicate no religious affiliation. Two thirds of these folks say they believe in God. 37% identify as spiritual but not religious and twenty-one percent say they pray every day. Most of the unaffiliated are not looking for a faith family. They indicate that religious organizations are ‘too concerned with money and power, too focused on rules and too involved in politics.’ Interestingly enough this same group feels that religious organizations bring people together, strengthen community bonds, and play an important role in helping the poor and needy. (1)

What would happen if a religious group decided to stop meeting in a designated building? What if they met in homeless shelters? What if they turned their buildings into homeless shelters? That would reduce the concern about money and a place to meet. It would get the members into the community and help the poor and needy. The number of people who worship in the traditional manner are declining and there’s no end in sight. Culture has shifted.

Of course, my previous statement is meant to make religious organizations think outside the box. If those who are not affiliated and aren’t worshipping in religious buildings were able to exercise their desire to be in community and help the poor and needy came together what could happen? Along with this trend is the concept of being spiritual and not religious. Can churches and church people separate those two concepts? Religion as the organized expression of a shared spirituality has had its day in the world. What is that going to look like now? How will religious organizations start to express spirituality in a manner that is congruent with the new culture, if not by coming together in a building with lots of ritual and tradition?

What would happen if religious organizations started asking people how they are expressing their spirituality outside of religion? Books like An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor are leaving large hints for the religious organizations of the world to pick up on. Some are finding God on the mountain top (literally), others in family time. Still others in building homes for the needy, working in soup kitchens, driving the elderly to doctors appointments, to name but a few that I have heard. Aren’t these all spiritual practices? Nurturing family, caring for the poor, helping the elderly, building community? Isn't God to be found in each of these practices if the one who is doing the practice bring God with them?

Religious organizations of the fading past provided a sanctuary for those who were part of the community. Rare was the person who did not affiliate with or attend formal worship. That pendulum has swung the other way. The religious organizations that have evolved into what look like corporate organizations have become highly visible. Some of their activities have become the reference point for the unchurched and a confirmation of all that is wrong with formalized religion for those who had became disenfranchised.  

So perhaps the ‘sanctuary’ of the church will be found in community. Perhaps it will be found in a body of people who want to express their spirituality in the world rather than in a building. How will your church evolve?

(1) Information on this study is from a Pew Research project from October 2012. More information about this research can be found at

Monday, November 12, 2012

Legitimate Needs – The Seventh Level of Intimacy

 Legitimate needs are things we need to survive and there are legitimate needs at every level of our existence. The legitimate needs of the physical, intellectual and spiritual realms can be met without the assistance of another person, in theory. It might not be fun but it can be done. Legitimate emotional needs can only be met when we are in a relationship.

Needs are not wants. Needs are crucial to our well being. Unmet physical needs cause physical death. Unmet intellectual needs (stimulation and challenge) make our senses dull, lackluster, and slow down response time. Unmet spiritual needs (silence and solitude) take us out of touch with the wonder and awe that surrounds us – we become indifferent to the uniqueness of each moment, which ultimately can affect our relationships. Unmet emotional needs cause relationships to wither and die. We become serial lovers instead of soul mates. We keep repeating our relationship mistakes over and over again – at home, work, play, and church. We thrive when our legitimate needs are met – especially if they are met in all of these areas.

It isn’t until we attain the seventh level of intimacy that we can begin to build the best version of ourselves and allow others to do the same. Levels three through six are about accepting others as unique individuals. Being able to respond to each other in an on going, organic way, as needs arise and sometimes even in anticipation of those needs arising, are what level seven is all about.

So what are our legitimate emotional needs? Matthew Kelly lists them as……

1. Opportunities to love and be loved.
2. Opportunities to express our opinions.
3. To be listened to and taken seriously.
4. To share your feelings.
5. To be accepted for who you are.
6. The need for intimacy.

How these needs are met are different for everyone. When faced with a problem one person may need to be alone to think it through and another may need to discuss it with a friend. Neither way is right, it is whatever you need it to be. Another example – how do you know when you are being taken seriously? One person may base it on the verbal response they get, another on a behavioral response – neither is the ‘right’ way.

Don’t be persuaded by your wants. A life philosophy of getting what you want is selfish and doesn’t speak of caring for another. It isn’t based on giving and receiving. Satisfying a want at the expense of another is not healthy relationship. Legitimate needs are not met by momentary pleasure. To quote Matthew Kelly, “You can never really get enough of what you don’t really need.”

Trouble comes when you and your partner both want what you want and are not willing to attend to anyone else’s needs. If the two truly don’t become one, intimacy fails. Relationships aren’t about getting what you want, it’s about getting what you need and being sure your partner gets what they need to become the best-version-of-themselves. Matthew Kelly puts it this way, “Love is a desire to see the person we love be and become all he or she is capable of being and becoming.”

So how does this all shake out in the church relationships? Here is a quick wrap up…..

1. Opportunities to love and be loved.

            Where and how does this happen in your church? Are people involved in the ministries they are passionate about (opportunities to love others). Are people being loved by the members of the church (i.e. allowed to pursue their ministry passions, equal ‘air time’ with their opinions, respect when they differ, etc.)

2. Opportunities to express our opinions.

            Are the opinions of others allowed to be expressed? Are they invited to express them? How does your church involve others in their decision making process? How do they seek out those who are not in leadership positions to learn their feelings on any particular topic?

3. To be listened to and taken seriously.

            Once someone is involved in an opportunity to share their opinion, are they listened to? Are they taken seriously? How do you convey that they are being listened to and taken seriously – even if what they have to say seems far out?

4. To share your feelings.

            What happens when someone is hurting at your church? Do they get the clichéd responses like “All things work together for the good of those that love the Lord” or “God won’t give you more than you can handle” or “God has a plan for this, just you wait and see.” Such responses when someone is talking about their feelings are actually a roadblock to relationship. These responses don’t convey the message that you care about their feelings. These responses speak to the listener’s relationship with God and can send a very different message than what you intend. For example, they could be interpreted to mean, “Don’t talk to me about this, talk to God” or “If you remembered this little bible verse you wouldn’t be hurting so much.” Chances are if they are in church they know what God thinks, they want to connect with YOU at the moment.

5. To be accepted for who you are.

            Each of us is a unique individual. We all have our quirks and peculiarities. Can you welcome someone into your midst who struggles with more visible challenges (i.e. poor social skills, substance abuse) than you do (i.e. gossip, lust, etc)?

6. The need for intimacy.

            So how much do you know about someone who has just begun attending your church? Where do they work? Do they have children? What brought them to your church in particular? Getting to know someone through the 7 stages of intimacy right up to this one is what creates healthy relationship and brings them into a fellowship of people where they feel they can stay because it is the right place for them.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Faults, Fears, and Failures – The Sixth Level of Intimacy

Matthew Kelly has subtitled this level of intimacy I Need Help! I’m Afraid! I Messed Up! The subtitle sure does describe each and every one of us. While the previous level certainly makes us vulnerable, like crawling around in the bushes at a war zone, this level is pretty much like running around in an open field of a war zone wearing a bright orange vest! In other words, we’re exposed. We’re not just talking about our feelings, we’re sharing where they come from. In a primary relationship, like that of spouses, the revelations here can be pretty personal. In a church relationship, our exposed sources of pain may be the church itself, church goers, or religious people from our past. What you share with your church peers is probably not going to be as deep as it will be with your primary relationships. But that’s ok. Isn’t church for people who need help, are afraid, and have messed up? The best place to be is among others who recognize the same things about their selves!

Church relationships, when predicated on perfection, are bound to fail at some point. No one is perfect, or ever will be on this side of the Jordan! When people recognize their own faults, fears, and failures they are then able to accept those of others. Not all church families are at this point yet. If you are in one of them, you truly are blessed.

Can you admit to your congregational peers that you are less than perfect? That you sometimes think poorly of others – maybe even judgmentally? That you gossip? That you aren’t always truthful? That you can be critical or sharp tongued? Can you tell them what you are afraid of if you are honest with them? Like you fear they will stop being supportive and friendly? That they won’t let you be in a leadership role? And what about your failures? Probably most of them are in your past but they can affect the here and now. Can you tell your fellow church goers that you have made bad choices? Can you tell them that others have been hurt by those choices?

In the church setting, it might sound something like this. “I know I can come across as harsh and critical so I hope you can see through that (fault). I’m really afraid if you don’t agree with me on this issues you’ll think I have nothing to offer you (fear). In the past, when I have felt like this I’ve usually just left and I don’t want to leave this church.” This is, of course, the condensed version but I think you get the point.

The ability to do this as part of a couple indicates a high level of maturity. The ability to do it within a congregation indicates a highly mature congregation. Where is your congregation?

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You Shouldn’t feel that way….The Fifth Level of Intimacy, Feelings (part 3)

So we’ve looked at feelings from a couple of points of view. First just understanding them, next trying to state our own and recognize those of others. Lastly, obstacles to listening – really listening. Part 2 of this series talked about what listening isn’t. In this last part we’ll take a quick look at those things that can make listening difficult.

The best test of good listening is to repeat back to the person speaking what you heard with your own interpretation. You may say back to someone, “So you’re upset with me because I didn’t remember to pick up those parts today” and the answer is a resounding, “No! I’m angry because I’ve asked you for 3 days in a row and I feel like I’m talking to a brick wall!” In a perfect world, your response would be, “Oh, I’m so sorry. You’re absolutely right about that. You must feel like you’re just a voice in the wind when I do that. I’ll drop what I’m doing right now and go get them.” Got it? If it were only that simple. Actually, saying it wouldn’t be so hard – remembering to do it in the moment, not so much. Let’s take a look at this a little closer to find the obstacles to good listening.

First, our own feelings will get in the way. Whatever feeling comes up for you in that kind of moment will most likely hijack your thinking. You may get angry because of the tone of voice, because your partner is right and you feel ashamed, you may be wired for an argument because you had a bad day, the list goes on. So those feelings of ours move us to the next obstacle to good listening – defensiveness. We want the other person to know why we messed up and we’re looking for a little grace. In that moment we can’t even hear the other person’s comments as valid and we’re off again….

Sometimes when we are listening to others, it’s so hard to sit with them because what they are telling us makes us uncomfortable. They may be venting about a situation in their life, grieving, confused, or hurt. Instead of listening carefully and with empathy, we are planning our next remark or thinking about what they ‘should’ do about it. And all the while feeling very helpless. Here’s a helpful hint – listening well IS doing something, more than you may even know.

One of the most common mistakes in these moments is making what you think is a feeling statement but it’s really a thinking statement. So saying, “I feel you need to apologize to me” isn’t a feeling statement. So yes, what we feel is valid and other’s can’t tell us what to feel or not feel. Disguising a directive as a feeling statement won’t work to heal/help a relationship.

So, what about church? Those relationships may not be as deep as a couples relationship but it is certainly important that those who worship together work at understanding each other. Listening to why someone is so upset about an anticipated decision helps you to understand them better. It may reveal an alternative outcome to an anticipated decision or a different way of thinking about a situation. At the very least it will send the message that they matter to you and that they are worth listening to.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

You Shouldn’t Feel That Way….The Fifth Level of Intimacy, Feelings (part 2)

Part 1 of this blog topic began to look one’s feelings. There have been volumes written on this topic so what is shared here is just an overview. As promised, this continuation of the first part will look at naming your own feelings and listening to the feelings of others. I’ll start with naming your own feelings. Quick……name the first three feelings that come to your mind. Really, before you read any further, close your eyes and name them. I’d be willing to bet you named happy, sad, and mad. These are the most basic of feelings and we usually become very familiar with them as children. However, if you do an internet search for a ‘list of feeling words’ or something similar to that you will be amazed at the words you know that describe feelings. Granted, many of them are synonyms for our three basic words, but each of them conveys a different state of the same feeling. For instance, just the word mad can be expressed with many words that indicate the degree/type of mad – from mildly irritated to murderous rage.

Naming our feelings helps us to better convey to someone how we are feeling and helps us to get a grasp on the intensity of the feeling. Hopefully it pushes us to explore even further to try and understand why we are responding like we are to the situation. Our typical human response is to assume that everyone will react as we are. If you check that out through your own experience you will notice that it isn’t true. Something said to you may elicit rage while to someone else it’s only mildly provocative – not even worthy of an argument. Discovering this and sharing it with someone is what helps develop a deeper, more intimate relationship or a better understanding of them.

On the other hand, listening to the feelings of others will help you to better understand them and help that relationship move into a more meaningful place even more quickly. And you can help someone else with their feelings. I like to call it ‘mining’ the conversation. When you are in a conversation with someone, pay attention to what is said and remember that there is something important about it to the speaker. Ask the questions that will help you understand why it is important. You may see them get enthused, excited, angry, pensive, or any other number of things and you can ask them about that reaction. Saying things like, “Wow, this is really important to you. Tell me more about it” can reveal things from their past that helps you become closer or understand them better. Much can be learned about someone from these responses. Compare these two potential answers to your question: “Is important to me because it will give me a chance to do something I love” or “It’s important to me because it’s the disease I lost my father to.”

Listening doesn’t necessarily mean hearing with your ears! If you pay close attention you will notice body language that tells you something about the conversation. When people are excited about something their eyes open wide, they may sit forward with an open body posture. If they are angry they most likely show it on their face with a grimace. These are moments when you can help the relationship by reflecting what you see. Asking, “I noticed that when we mentioned Joe Smith you didn’t look too happy. Is there something about that topic that’s hard for you?”

This sort of conversation is very difficult and awkward if you aren’t used to doing it. And doing it in a setting with your church folk can be especially difficult because of the fear that we will embarrass our self or the person we are talking to. But genuine deep concern for the other person and a desire to understand so resolution and compromise can happen will make it easier to try. And the more you do it, the easier it gets!

And you won’t enjoy expressing all of your feelings but learning to do so, especially the negative ones, like anger, hurt, disappointment, and despair, to name a few, actually helps heal your own self and a relationship. Being able to talk about past loss, hurt, or pain in the church setting helps others to understand why you may have strong feelings toward certain proposals and make them more likely to consider a compromise.

Last, remember that listening is just that – LISTENING! Not defending yourself, not trying to ‘fix it’, not offering possible solutions to other person’s situation, not working on what you are going to say back and no problem solving. It’s amazing how far good listening will take a relationship and help a body of people learn to practice grace!

In the last part on this topic of feelings I will talk about obstacles to good listening.

Monday, June 18, 2012

You Shouldn’t Feel That Way….The Fifth Level of Intimacy, Feelings (Part 1)

“The fifth level of intimacy is about getting comfortable with our own feelings and learning to express them to the people we love. The fifth level of feelings is also very much about learning to listen to others, but it is also about learning to listen to ourselves.” This excerpt from Matthew Kelly’s book, The Seven Levels of Intimacy implies that in order for this level to have a positive impact on your relationships, feelings need to be expressed well and listened to well.

Feelings aren’t good or bad, they just are. You can’t control what feeling pops up in reaction to any given situation. Your feeling reactions are imprinted early in your life, some research would suggest even before birth, and therefore there is no learning to stop during a situation and ask yourself, “Hmmm, I guess I need to choose which feeling I am going have in response to this event.”

The real questions around our feelings involve figuring out how we feel, how to effectively convey those feelings, and how to manage our behavioral expression of those feelings. Easily listed, not so easily done. Feeling angry is okay, screaming in someone’s face at point blank range is not. When emotions are expressed well others can know us at a much deeper level and we can feel understood – maybe even get a need met! In the church setting, we may not reveal as much as we would with an intimate partner, but we can reveal enough in an effective manner to be heard as someone with valid input to a conversation rather than a bully, a blow hard, a cry baby, a whiner, or a stubborn mule.

Sharing our feelings creates a much more tender level of vulnerability. It’s like showing someone an open would and trusting that they won’t pour salt in. That level of trust comes only from taking the risk on smaller, less important issues so that we can open up on bigger, more important issues later in the relationship. So what’s the payback for taking such a risk? Deeper, more meaningful relationships. What’s so important about meaningful relationships? They benefit our individual mental health and when a group can operate successfully at this level it can grow, nurture, and benefit an entire community.

The key to expressing feelings in a way that deepens intimacy is non-judgmental acceptance. Can you hear what someone else feels and accept it for what it is? Can you respond to their feelings with empathy? After someone has shared how they feel, statements like, “You shouldn’t feel that way,” “That just makes no sense at all,” or “No one else would ever feel that way” are judgments and intimacy killers. You have just told someone that there’s something wrong with him because of how he feels – something over which he has no control. Along with judgment, criticism and rejection are feared experiences that may result from being open and honest about one’s feelings.

What else gets in the way at this level? An inability to name our feelings can bring this process to a screeching halt. Difficulty listening to the feelings of others will also put a quick end to this process. Part 2 of this blog will address naming your own feelings and listening to the feelings of others. Part 3 will address obstacles to listening. Stay tuned!