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Fables for Families: The Trouble with Triangles

Triangle Exodus 32 – Moses, Aaron, and the Golden Calf

Conflict. We love to watch it on TV, but hate it in our homes, workplaces, and churches. Ask most people and they’d tell you that they’d just rather avoid it altogether. It’s less painful that way…but the reality is that conflict is a part of being human, and the ability to deal with it effectively is a key indicator in the growth and success of families and organizations.

One of my favorite stories to illustrate this is in the Old Testament – in the wilderness, where Moses has led the people of Israel and has now gone up on the mountain to talk with God. He’s out of the picture for awhile, and so the people become anxious.

Worshiping_the_golden_calf The Exodus story is one of anxiety tension all along the way. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, but now here they are out in the desert. They complain, they grumble at a low rumble. Their anxiety is self-focused (at least we had food in Egypt), and they blame Moses for their troubles. Now he’s gone off up the mountain top to be with God, they haven’t seen him for weeks, and their anxiety reaches a fever pitch.

For them, like us, the security of the known pain is less scary than the security of the unknown. The Israelites had experienced some big changes in their lives, and changes always raise anxiety.

Last week we talked about reactivity and that’s a huge factor here. The people react in a reptilian way – they decide to thumb their noses at Moses and go a different direction. They can’t manage their own anxiety and start doing things to try to ease their pain.

Here’s a simple example from our daily lives: A parent and a child in Wal-Mart. The child wants a toy…badly. Mom says, “no.” The whining begins, turns to wailing and gnashing of teeth, followed by the cries of “It’s not fair” leading to the big one – “I hate you.”

So now you’ve got a two-person, unstable emotional conflict – the child perceives himself to be a victim (unloved, abandoned, denied his right to happiness) and Mom to be the Persecutor. 

So the child (like the people of Israel), decides that in order for his pain to be satiated, he needs a Rescuer.

When the anxiety between the two parties becomes too much to deal with, a third party is brought into the relationship, creating a triangle. (Moses, Aaron People – Persecutor, Rescuer, Victim)

The people don’t want to deal with Moses (we don’t know what’s happened to him), so they turn to his brother, Aaron with their pain. “Come, make us gods who will go up before us.” That’s a way of saying, “You alone understand us – only you can save us.” Aaron is brought in as the Rescuer.

It’s a very seductive role. The Rescuer is the savior, the quick fixer. Ease the people’s pain and you’ll be popular with them. So Aaron’s quick fix is to gather up all the gold, make a calf (an idol) and have a party. Problem solved. Right?

Go back with me to Wal-Mart. The child is crying out in anguish and has been persecuted by Mom…so he goes off to the sporting goods section to find….Dad. The crying begins again…Dad’s threshold for the child’s pain is much less than Mom’s. (Bill Cosby – Parents are not interested in justice. They just want QUIET!) So dad caves. “Alright! If I buy this for you, will you be quiet?” Dad has become the rescuer. The quick fixer…”The child smiles through the tears… “Thanks, Dad, you’re the best.” Problem solved. Conflict over. Peace has broken out all over. Right?

Wrong. There are no quick fixes – only a failure of nerve.

In an emotional triangle, roles shift and change while the conflict is never resolved – in fact it is perpetuated and often expanded.

 The Israelites are partying hardy. Aaron’s the man of the hour. And then it happens. Moses returns.

4e097_Moses-Sees-The-Golden-Cal-006 When Moses approached the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, his anger burned and he threw the tablets out of his hands, breaking them to pieces at the foot of the mountain. 20 And he took the calf they had made and burned it in the fire; then he ground it to powder, scattered it on the water and made the Israelites drink it.

21 He said to Aaron, “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great sin?”

22 “Do not be angry, my lord,” Aaron answered. “You know how prone these people are to evil. 23 They said to me, ‘Make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.’ 24 So I told them, ‘Whoever has any gold jewelry, take it off.’ Then they gave me the gold, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!”

Note the instantaneous shift in roles. Moses says to Aaron (v. 21) “What did these people do to you, that you led them into such great a sin?” Aaron has now become the victim and his perception of the people instantly changes….they have become the persecutors. And Aaron looks to Moses as the Rescuer.

Blame. Rationalizing. Self-preservation. All are the wheels which keep the members of the triangle in a constant rotation.


Back to Wal-Mart. What happens when the child marches back to Mom with the toy in hand, saying, “Daddy bought it for me.” Mom is now the victim…but not for long.


It’s a vicious cycle. And its so easy to get hooked into one role or the other

Perhaps you’ve been experiencing this in your family or in your work place. Patterns of triangulation tend to be systemic and passed down through the generations. How many of these triangles exist in your world?

  • Maybe you’ve got a boss who you think is unfair, so you meet with a co-worker over lunch to complain about him.
  • Perhaps there’s a person in your organization who carries the anxiety of everyone else (If it weren’t for him, we’d actually get something done around here).
  • Family gatherings are stressful because you have a problem with someone in the family that’s never been resolved. You talk about it with everyone else but never face it directly.

The point is that the more we try to avoid conflict and confrontation, the more we triangulate ourselves in unhealthy relationships, the more the conflict grows and can grind things to a halt.

How do we deal with it? First, I think we have to understand that conflict isn’t bad and that peace (which we most often think is the absence of conflict) actually can hinder progress. Aaron wants “peace” among the howling mob. But trying to manage anxiety with peace leads to no progress.

In fact, in many ways we have to realize that a system without any healthy conflict really gives power over to the extremists. If no one will lead, if no one will take responsibility for dealing with unresolved conflict, then the loudest in the group or family will usually get their way.

Conflict is a necessary ingredient in a healthy family or organization, but that conflict has to be managed outside of the anxiety.

Remember the dominant paradigm for systems is this: the only person you can manage is you. I saw a great poster once that said – Dysfunction – The only consistent feature of all your dissatisfying relationships is you. There’s some truth to that!

The key to managing conflict is being self-differentiated. That means owning one’s own responsibility and refusing to be “hooked” into the anxiety of another. In other words, managing conflict is really about managing yourself.

 Unhealthy conflict and emotional triangles are “YOU” focused. “You” did this to me. “You” are a jerk. Only “you” can save me. All blame and responsibility is pushed off on someone else.

Self-differentiation is “I” focused. A self-differentiated person can recognize, evaluate, and regulate his or her own anxiety and recognize the anxiety in a family or system. “I feel – “, “I believe – “  Self-differentiated people refuse to be hooked into triangles. They refuse to rescue or play the victim. They are more comfortable with the anxiety of others.

Aaron was hooked by the anxiety of the people. He did what he did because he couldn’t separate his own anxiety from theirs. Moses comes back and begins to sort things out because he’s more comfortable with the people’s anxiety (make them drink the gold powder – hair of the dog (or calf) that bit you). It’s self-differentiated people who make the difference in managing conflict.

 As I’ve been saying, I believe that Jesus is the prototypical self-differentiated person. When we read the gospels we see that conflict and pain and anxiety constantly swell around him, but he stays firmly grounded in his own convictions and invites people to take responsibility for themselves by not rescuing them inappropriately. He doesn’t give the “go along to get along” kind of message, but instead of peace, comes with a sword – not avoiding conflict but, indeed, embracing it appropriately.

 In  Matthew 18:15, Jesus tells his disciples how to deal with conflict. It’s the direct route. Moving toward the roar -“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, then you have won your brother over.”

 Note that this is a proactive approach. The command is not to fret, gossip, write a letter, email, triangulate…but to go – directly – have a face to face conversation. It’s not waiting for the other to come around. It’s a way of being self-differentiated – taking responsibility for dealing with the conflict ourselves.

 If that doesn’t work, then you bring in others – not to triangulate but to mediate. Ultimately, however, it’s up to us to own up to our own responsibility in a conflict, to confront the issue and the person head on, and move on if its not resolvable.

 I want to show you a short video that describes how all this theory fits together. I showed this to our church council last month and want to share it with you as a way of focusing ourselves on the principles of being differentiated. Here it is:


This is valuable learning for all of us. It applies to all of our relationships. We need to be looking at triangles, learning about them, and take responsibility for ourselves and our own emotions and anxiety. It takes vigilance!

 Where are your triangles? What roles are you playing? How are you learning to deal with the conflict and anxiety in your own life? 


Fables for Families: A Nervous Condition

Numbers 22:21-33

Ganglia Pic When little John was about a year old, his parents noticed very thin fibers protruding through his pores. After another few months the fibers has extended themselves and began to form curls. The condition alarmed his parents, so they took little John to the doctor. The physician announced: Little John was unique in medical history – his ganglia or nerves were growing outside his skin.

Since little John was otherwise in excellent health it was decided to do nothing for a while but observe. The doctors told parents that they must be supersensitive to his every move and touch. You see with nerves outside your body you could get hurt very easily. Being very sensitive people anyway, his parents readily agreed to treat him with special care.

As little John grew, so did his nerves until they trailed about him as he walked. While it was not a pretty sight, surprisingly it turned out to have some advantages.

He learned from the very beginning for example first from his over-concerned parents and then from others that he could always count on someone watching out for him. Indeed he learned early in life that any one who came near him would always pay attention to his every move for fear of hurting him. He found that he could plough a path through any group of friends by just walking toward them. People would always retreat at his advance for fear of "stepping on his feelings".

Sometimes he encountered people who had not been forewarned about his condition and then he had to point it out as early in their relationship as possible. Once they understood however they never tried to get in his way. All of this is not to say that individuals never felt resentment toward little John, but they never spoke it aloud. All managed to quiet their resentment with self-recriminations about their own insensitivity.

And so it went. Little John graduated high school and obtained a secure job. One day he met a woman whom he liked. Being extremely shy, she was thrilled at the advance of this very attentive, if somewhat strange creature. She treated him with the utmost care and her pity for him soon became love. Everywhere they went she watched out for him. In time the guiding principle of her life became, "How can I help this man avoid pain?"

But after they had been married a while, she began to tire. Still she tried, for this poor man could not help himself. But it became increasingly difficult for her to be constantly mindful of his needs. She decided to confess her increasing insensitivity to her friends. She mentioned it to her family, to her minister, to her doctor. She sought professional help. All comforted her and sympathized but could offer little advice and so they urged her to be more patient. And she tried but soon her health began to suffer. She got headaches and couldn't sleep. She started to loose weight and she felt anxious most of the time. She dared not tell John of course for fear of hurting him. Why if he knew that all this was due to his condition, he would be inconsolable.

What should Little John’s wife do? She’s in quite a bind, isn’t she? What would you tell her?

In every family or organizational system, one of the primary dysfunctions centers around the insensitivities of the sensitive or, as I heard it put once, “the tyranny of the touchy.” There is a person or persons around whom everyone else tiptoes in an effort to avoid pain and conflict. The result is that, like Little John, the system adapts itself around the sensitive one.

In some families the status quo or “homeostasis” goes something like this: we must avoid making mom or dad mad. We cannot ask Dave to do that job at work because he’ll blow up. We don’t say much at the meeting because we don’t want to risk offending anyone.

Just like the story of the Bridge last week, in which we learned how we give power to the needy persons in a family system, in this case all the power is given over to the touchy one. Why does that happen and what can we do about it?

One thing we have to understand is that in any given system of human relationships there is a lot of anxiety – anxiety that may or may not be dependent on circumstances but always finds it’s way to the surface in the relationships between people. When people are anxious, that anxiety presents itself in many ways.

Anxiety manifests itself often in anger – like Balaam in our Old Testament lesson. Balaam knew that God had told him to go with the princes of Moab, but God knew Balaam’s own motivation was selfish.

Balaam has anxiety around what is happening, so when the donkey veers off the road Balaam beats her – she’s making him look bad – anxiety! So anxious is Balaam that when his donkey speaks to him, he doesn’t say “Wait a minute, my donkey is talking to me!” Instead, he blames the animal for his trouble – “You have made a fool of me! If I had a sword in my hand I’d kill you right now.”

But Balaam’s anxiety isn’t about the donkey – it’s about himself and about the fact that he knows he is in the wrong. The sensitive, the touchy, the anxious among us often seek to beat up others or get their way because they don’t know how to manage their anxiety. Like Little John they expect someone else to manage their anxiety and make everything better. Problem is, things can never be good enough for the terminally touchy.

A friend of mine was telling me about a mother-in-law who would show up with her husband at the home of their son and his wife and from the time she would come to the time she would leave she would insult her daughter-in-law – the sheets on the bed weren’t good enough, the towels were substandard, her cooking was inadequate and so on. The daughter-in-law reacts by being stressed out and teary-eyed. Her husband and his father react they way they always have – by not seeking to further tick mom off. Everybody’s got mom’s anxiety now. Visits are always Maalox moments.

Does this sound familiar to any of you? That’s the other side of Mother’s Day…

Anxiety begets reactivity and more anxiety. When someone attacks you verbally, you naturally react – whether it’s by arguing back or by simply knuckling under. When we react, we take on the pain and anxiety of the other and become anxious ourselves. This happens because we immediately go to the most primitive part of the brain. Brain science says that our brains are really designed in three parts. The primitive or “reptilian” part of the brain, the middle part, where our emotions are housed, and the top part of the brain, or the cortex, where we do our rational thinking.

When we’re confronted with anxiety, we tend to react with what’s called the “reptilian” part of our brain – fight or flight. We want to either eliminate the problem or run away from it. But the reality is that the more we try to deal with the anxiety of someone else, the more miserable we become.

As I’ve talked with other ministers I’ve come to realize that this is a huge issue in families and in churches. When anxiety drives a church system, for example, the most sensitive people always get their way because everyone else is supposed to be “nice”, right? We don’t want anyone to get upset. So, when the touchy person doesn’t like something, they simply apply the three “O’s” –

I’m Outraged, Offended, and Out of here. And everybody caves. Oh, they may mutter under their breath about how maddening the other person is, but they’ll never confront them. In other words, the reptile always wins.

How do we break that cycle? How do we deal with the insensitivities of the sensitive?

First, we must remember that the only person you have control over is you. You are only responsible for your own anxiety and you are responsible for your own reactivity to the anxiety of another. Here’s where our brain helps us by being differentiated from the rest of the body – we don’t have to react instinctively with the lizard part of our brain, with fight or flight. Rather, we need to intentionally move into the thinking part, the top part of our brain and realize that we can and must choose our own reactions to the people around us. We need to push the lizard back down where he belongs.

In other words, you can choose not to take on the anxiety of the other. And in doing so, you can be non-anxious yourself.

A non-anxious, self-differentiated person doesn’t get trapped by the touchy. They realize that when someone is reactive to them, that’s it’s not about them but about the other’s anxiety. If a touchy person bursts into your office to yell at you for some minor infraction or a parent terrorizes everyone in the house with their anger you have to realize that, for the most part, its not about you. It’s about their own anxiety. You can choose to make it your own or you can choose to give it back to them. You can learn to be comfortable with the pain of the other.

Even donkeys do this, or at least the one in our OT story. Notice the donkey’s reaction to Balaam’s fury. This is one self-differentiated donkey. Rather than bucking Balaam off or running for her life, she turns to him (imagine this) and says, “Am I not your own donkey. Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” Balaam can only answer “no”. The donkey knows it’s not about her and she refuses to be bowed by Balaam’s anxiety. She takes a stand in a non-anxious way.

Which begs the question: who’s the real donkey (ass) in this story?

Go back to the mother-in-law situation I described earlier. What if, for example, the daughter-in-law, knowing what was going to take place, had thought through her own anxiety and instead decided to be non-anxious. When mother-in-law starts in on her she turns and says, “Wow. I see you’re upset. But I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong. If you don’t like the way my house is run, you’re free to leave. I won’t be offended. The choice is yours. I, however, choose not to be treated in this way.”

OK. Now I know what you’re saying – “That sounds great, but it’s IMPOSSIBLE!” Is it? Actually, this situation happened for a parishioner of mine once, and when she took a non-anxious stand it changed everything. When we get caught up in our own anxiety, we can’t imagine doing that. If we learn to think in a self-differentiated way, we learn that there are alternatives.

Rev. Bill Selby, who is one of my mentors, calls this “moving toward the roar” – we move toward the anxiety and deal with it rather than run away. And when we move toward the touchy in a non-anxious way, we begin to see the system change.

Back to our story…

One day as Little John’s wife was walking home from the therapist she chanced upon a mother cat and her newborn kittens. As they scrambled over one another in their thirst the mother carefully guided each one to its turn stretching out a firm but gentle paw to keep it fair. Then John's wife noticed that one of the kittens had been born lame, its leg was not fully formed. Strangely it was the most aggressive. While the other kittens who had eaten were satisfied and fell asleep this one kept coming back for more trying to push its way into more than its share. Each time however the mother cat pushed it away at first gently and then with successively harder whacks.

Little John's wife watched the poor kitty and the "inhuman" mother. But when she returned home upon finding her husband reading in a room, she planted herself in the doorway and began to stare.

A little while later little John desiring to enter another room marched straight for the doorway that framed his wife. She did not budge. Closer he came closer never thinking to ask her to move (after all he had never has to ask anyone to get out of his way before) Suddenly he stopped confused. What should he do? First he assumed his most wounded look. Then he tried one that was more winsome and boyish but his wife was like a rock. In desperation, he finally spoke. "Move. You know I cannot squeeze by." Nothing. "What is the matter with you?" he yelled. Then she began to move, not aside but rather directly toward him. He retreated. She continued on. He moved back faster, but still on she came. Soon he was cornered.

"Have you lost your mind?" he was incredulous, which means he found it hard to believe what his wife was doing. "Careful there you almost hurt me," he said. That did it. She raised a foot and with a STOMP came down hard on one of his long trailing nerve endings. He screeched more from shock than pain. Again she stomped and again and again. He ran past her but she pursued. She continued chasing him from room to room, up and down stairs, to the cellar, to the attic, through the kitchen and to their bedroom until they both fell asleep exhausted.

When Little John's wife awoke her headache was gone and she felt great. For the first time in a very long time she was without pain and felt relaxed. But more astounding still was what she saw beside her. For when she looked over at John, she found that his ganglia were no longer curled around him. They had disappeared altogether. In fact, they had completely recoiled inside his skin.

Anxiety will always reign until we decide to move toward that roar and choose to be healthy ourselves.

Now, this isn’t easy to do…at least at first. Nobody likes tension and anxiety. But when we realize that we can choose not to take on anxiety, when we learn to allow others to manage their own pain, we begin to see change in ourselves and our relationships.

Nowadays, for example, when I know I’m going to be part of a contentious meeting where there are going to be touchy people present, I’ll even go so far as to put three initials at the top of my note page – N.A.P. – Non-anxious presence.

If somebody sends me a nasty email or leaves an angry message, I don’t have to respond right away. I have to give myself time to think through my anxiety.

It helps me to know where my own hot buttons are, where my own reactivity and anxiety comes from. But if I know that, I can be prepared. I have to believe that I have the ability choose how I’m going to react in any given situation. I have to choose to not be ruled by the touchy. It’s not easy, and I sometimes still get reactive, but it’s important to know that it doesn’t have to be that way.

You and I are responsible for our own feelings. Even God doesn’t take on all of our anxiety (Jesus was a prime example of this). I’ve spent a lot of time in my life praying to God to take away my anxiety – or take away the hostility of the person I’m dealing with. But you know, I believe that God deals with our anxiety by giving it back to us and inviting us to move toward it. God loves us by not bailing us out all the time, but giving us back responsibility for our lives. Rather than praying for God to change someone else, I now have learned to ask, “God, show me what’s going on inside of me that makes me want to react to this in an anxious way. Show me how to manage myself.” That’s a prayer that seems to always get answered, but usually the hard way!

Think about your own relationships – about the anxiety you feel when a certain person walks into the room or the stress that you take on because of unresolved touchiness in your family or workplace.

What would happen if you moved toward it instead of running away? What would happen if you decided today to give that anxiety back? What would happen if you said to that person who’s giving you grief – I see you’re upset. I wonder what you’re going to do with that?

I want to invite you to use your brain a little differently this week as you deal with people, to not be reactive but to be non-anxious. After all, if a donkey can do it, so can you!

Source: Edwin Friedman – Friedman's Fables






Fables for Families: The Bridge

We begin a new sermon series this week called "Fables for Families," which is all about family systems. The "fables" we will be using are taken from the work of Edwin H. Friedman, the late rabbi and family therapist. I hope these stories, along with their biblical and personal parallels, help you to becoming a healthier leader and a healthier person in general. I have found the principles outlined in this series to be some of the most helpful and practical things I have ever learned.

And so we begin with a story:

Handing the Rope "There was a man who had given much thought to what he wanted from life. He had experienced many moods and trials. He had experimented with different ways of living, and he had had his share of both success and failure. At last, he began to see clearly where he wanted to go."

"Diligently, he searched for the right opportunity. Sometimes he came close, only to be pushed away. Often he applied all his strength and imagination, only to find the path hopelessly blocked. And then at last it came. But the opportunity would not wait. It would be made available only for a short time. If it were seen that he was not committed, the opportunity would not come again."

"Eager to arrive, he started on his journey. "Hurrying along, he came upon a bridge that crossed through the middle of a town. It had been built high above a river in order to protect it from the floods in spring. He started across. Then he noticed someone coming from the opposite direction. As they moved closer, it seemed as though the other were coming to greet him. He could see clearly, however, that he did not know this other, who was dressed similarly except for something around his waist.

"When they were within hailing distance, he could see that what the other had about his waist was a rope. It was wrapped around him many times and probably, if extended would reach a length of 30 feet.

"The other began to uncurl the rope, and, just as they were coming close, the stranger said, 'Pardon me, would you be so kind as to hold the end a moment?' Surprised by this politely phrased but curious request, he agreed without a thought, reached out, and took it.

"'Thank you,' said the other, who then added, 'two hands now, and remember, hold tight.' Whereupon, the other jumped off the bridge.

"Quickly, the free-falling body hurtled the distance of the rope's length, and from the bridge the man abruptly felt the pull. Instinctively, he held tight and was almost dragged over the side. He managed to brace himself against the edge, however, and after having caught his breath, look down at the other dangling, close to oblivion.

"'What are you trying to do?' he yelled. 'Just hold tight,' said the other. 'This is ridiculous,' the man thought and began trying to haul the other in. He could not get the leverage, however. It was as though the weight of the other person and the length of the rope had been carefully calculated in advance so that together they created a counterweight just beyond his strength to bring the other back to safety.

"'Why did you do this?' the man called out. 'Remember,' said the other, 'if you let go, I will be lost.' 'But I cannot pull you up,' the man cried. "'I am your responsibility,' said the other. 'Well, I did not ask for it,' the man said. 'If you let go, I am lost,' repeated the other.

"He began to look around for help. But there was no one. How long would he have to wait? Why did this happen to befall him now, just as he was on the verge of true success? He examined the side, searching for a place to tie the rope. Some protrusion, perhaps, or maybe a hole in the boards. But the railing was unusually uniform in shape; there were no spaces between the boards. There was no way to get rid of this newfound burden, even temporarily.

Hanging "'What do you want?' he asked the other hanging below. 'Just your help,' the other answered. "'How can I help? I cannot pull you in, and there is no place to tie the rope so that I can go and find someone to help me help you.'

"'I know that. Just hang on; that will be enough. Tie the rope around you waist; it will be easier.' Fearing that his arms could not hold out much longer, he tied the rope around his waist.

"'Why did you do this?' he asked again. 'Don't you see what you have done? What possible purpose could you have in mind?'

"'Just remember,' said the other, 'my life is in your hands.'

"What should he do? 'If I let go, all my life I will know that I let this other die. If I stay, I risk losing my momentum toward my own long-sought-after salvation. Either way this will haunt me forever.' With ironic humor he thought to die himself, instantly to jump off the bridge while still holding on. 'That would teach this fool.' But he wanted to live and to live life fully. 'What a choice I have to make; how shall I ever decide?'

At this point I want to interject into the story – what are the choices here? Are there more than two? What would you do? Discuss that for a moment with your neighbor.

One of the key issues we face in families and organizations is the role we play in our relationships to others. The story of the Bridge is a story about responsibility. For whom am I really responsible?

For some of us, hearing this story, the issue is really how to make the man who is hanging off the bridge take responsibility for himself. Whether you are a parent or you lead an organization, one of the things we are taught is that motivation is a key task in getting others to do what’s necessary. Most leadership theory is based on this thinking: how do we motivate the unmotivated?

Some will want to use charisma – the force of personality – to motivate the other. Hundreds of books are published each year with techniques on how to be a better parent or a better leader – ways to motivate and manipulate children or subordinates. Somehow we figure that if we could just push the right buttons, people would fall into line. Even governments can be based on this kind of thinking.

The flip side of that is consensus, trying to get everyone to be on the same page, making everyone happy to some degree. The will of the group is paramount. Motivation is supposed to happen because there is peace.

Both of these strategies for motivating the unmotivated sound great…we’re used to them. But the problem is that they rarely work for the long term.

On the charismatic side, all the responsibility falls on the leader or parent – and the more they function and attempt to motivate, the less motivation there is for anyone else in the system to be responsible. The man hanging off the bridge relies solely on the character of our hero who is holding the rope. As long as he is functioning, the dangler doesn’t have to. And, interestingly, what happens in that kind of system is that the least motivated are the ones who are really calling the shots and sucking up all the energy in the system.

Think about it – when someone in your home or office is continually in crisis, always needing help, the attention and energy always goes right to them. Like the man at the pool in the gospel lesson, there are those who are in a perpetual state of neediness and they drain the energy of those around them. They always need someone to lead them to the pool, but when they get there they’ll find another excuse, another problem.  Like our dangler in the story, they spend all their time yelling “Help me!” And the reality is that the more we “help” the less effective that help can be.

Consensus-demotivational-poster-1281895224 On the consensus side, responsibility is given to the group which, left to its own devices and without clear leadership, tends to keep things in status quo. In consensus thinking, leadership is seen merely as enabling the group. Everything is counterbalanced, like the two men on the bridge. When the primary motivation becomes preservation of the status quo, no one gets anywhere and the situation becomes stuck. On some level, we like the idea of peace in a family or group – but peace rarely, if ever, leads to progress. Vision rarely comes as part of a group process. As I heard it once put, “For God so loved the world that he didn’t send a committee.”

Here’s one the basic tenets behind systems theory: you can’t motivate the unmotivated. You can’t make someone else be responsible. No amount of nagging, threats, or cajoling will truly motivate the unmotivated, whether it’s a child or a co-worker or a parent. Like our hero on the bridge, there are situations in which no amount of reasoning will work.

The honest truth is this: the only person you can ever make responsible is you. And the only way to help others be responsible is to focus on being responsible for yourself – knowing where you end and the other begins.

The term for this is “self-differentiation” – learning how to define yourself. Defining who you are and what you believe is more important than spending time telling people what is good for them or what they want to hear.

To put it another way…if you really want to change your family or your organization, that change starts with you.

Does that sound counter-intuitive? Think about it…we’re actually wired this way. Consider our own physiology – what is the purpose of your head, your brain? Ever thought about that? Is it thinking? Sensing? That’s part of it. But if you take it down to the basics, the real purpose of your head is not thinking, but the preservation of the health of the body. The brain thinks objectively, senses danger, moves the body from place to place all focused on preserving the body. The brain tells the body that it’s not good to jump off a bridge or cross the street in front of a speeding bus. The brain is differentiated from the rest of the body, but still connected to it. Scientifically we know that as our head goes, so goes our health – if our head is focused on stress and worry, the rest of the body will react with all kinds of physical ailments. Conversely, if our head is focused clearly on who we are and what we believe and what’s important, the body will tend to be more healthy.

The key to a healthy family or organization is not focusing on the body (the other), but focusing on the head (yourself). If the head is healthy, the body will follow suit.

I think that Jesus understood this better than anyone who ever lived. He is very self-differentiated and does not give his energy over to the anxiety of the others who circle around him. The man at the pool of Bethesda had been needy for most of his life. Notice how Jesus approaches him – he doesn’t say, “Here, let me make you feel better” or “Hey, how can I help you?” He asks, “Do you want to get well?” The question of responsibility is put on the one in need. Are you willing to take responsibility for your own health?

The man responds, not with a yes or no, but with excuses – I can’t get down the water, no one will help me – needy, needy, needy. Now, we would say that the “caring” thing to do would be to make sure this guy gets to the front of the line, right? We’d take responsibility for his pain. But not Jesus…

Jesus doesn’t help him – doesn’t take him down to the pool. Instead, he differentiates and puts the motivation squarely on the invalid…GET UP! Pick up your mat and walk.

Jesus didn’t take on the stress of others, but by defining himself made everyone he came in contact with just a bit more healthy. He made people responsible by being responsible for himself – he shifted the whole human system because he was able to define who he was and what he believed.

If you see your family or your organization as being dysfunctional, the person you need to be looking at is you…how are you contributing to the dysfunction by becoming enmeshed in the stuff of the others? How much energy and power are you giving to the unmotivated? When have you stated, in a non-anxious way, what you believe and acted according to that rather than according to the perceived needs of others?

How will you finally get across that bridge?

Back to our story…

"As time went by, still no one came. The critical moment of decision was drawing near. To show his commitment to his own goals, he would have to continue on his journey now. But what a terrible choice to have to make. A new thought occurred to him. While he could not pull this other up solely by his own efforts, if the other would shorten the rope from his end by curling it around his waist again and again, together they could do it. Actually, the other could do it by himself, so long as he, standing on the bridge, kept it still and steady.

"'Now listen,' he shouted down. 'I think I know how to save you.' And he explained his plan.

"But the other wasn't interested. 'You mean you won't help? But I told you I cannot pull you up myself, and I don't think I can hang on much longer either.' 'You must try,' the other shouted back in tears. 'If you fail, I die.'

"The point of decision arrived. What should he do? 'My life or this other's?' And then a new idea. A revelation. So new, in fact, it seemed heretical, so alien was it to his traditional way of thinking. 'I want you to listen carefully,' he said, 'because I mean what I am about to say. I will not accept the position of choice for your life, only for my own; the position of choice for your own life I hereby give back to you.'

"'What do you mean?' the other asked, afraid. 'I mean, simply, it's up to you. You decide which way this ends. I will become the counterweight. You do the pulling and bring yourself up. I will even tug a little from here.' He began unwinding the rope from around his waist and braced himself anew against the side.

Free Hands "'You cannot mean what you say,' the other shrieked. 'You would not be so selfish. I am your responsibility. What could be so important that you would let someone die? Do not do this to me.' He waited a moment. There was no change in the tension of the rope. 'I accept your choice,' he said, at last, and freed his hands."

Some of you here today have been holding on to ropes for a long time – a rope someone has given you. You find yourself stuck there on the bridge, trying to move on with your life while trying to motivate the unmotivated.

You might be a parent whose nagging and cajoling haven’t motivated that underachieving teenager. You are at the end of your rope.

You might be a manager who has employees who are constantly in crisis. You are at the end of your rope.

You might be a child, whose divorced parents have you in a tug of war, each telling you how much they need you over and against the other parent. You are at the end of your rope.

Or maybe, just maybe, you’ve been the one handing out ropes…giving responsibility for your life over to someone else. Your salvation and life are dependent on the unsuspecting others around you..

And if none of these apply to you, I guarantee that sometime, somewhere, and soon – someone is going to come along and quietly hand you a rope…probably when things are going well for you. What will you do?

Don’t misunderstand – the issue here is not detaching from everyone around you and purposefully throwing others off the bridge. Self-differentiation doesn’t mean we ignore the needs of others – quite the contrary. We learn to truly “help” others when we learn to define ourselves. This is the basic building block of family systems and we’ll get into that more in this series of fables.

 It’s simply a matter of using your head …knowing where your responsibility ends and another begins – to be clear about who you are and what you believe. To define yourself. There are consequences for every action, good and bad. But unless you can begin to operate in a self-defined way, you will always be stuck on the bridge in a pointless effort to try and motivate the unmotivated.

What would happen if you learned to let go? What would happen if you gave responsibility back to the “hangers-on”. What would happen if you asked the question of others or, especially, of yourself – “Do you want to get well?”

It begins with you!

Source: Edwin Friedman – Friedman's Fables, "The Bridge"

Also highly recommended is Friedman's book  A Failure of Nerve

Images are from the short film The Crux, directed by Jeff Seckendorf, which is based on Friedman's fable, "The Bridge." 

For a brief film outlining Friedman's approach to family systems, click here


Leading for the Long Haul – A Pastoral Lesson

Calhoun Some interesting developments in the local sports scene this week, what with the firing of Josh McDaniels as the coach of the Denver Broncos. Soon as it was announced yesterday, several national media outlets were reporting that Troy Calhoun, coach of our local Air Force Academy Falcons, was on the short list of candidates to replace McDaniels. 

Certainly, Coach Calhoun has the right resume for such an arduous task as taking over the beleaguered Broncos. He was a highly respected assistant with the Broncos during the Shanahan era, and was the offensive coordinator of the Houston Texans before being invited to coach at Air Force, his alma mater. He has led Air Force back to respectability and manages to field a more-than-competitive team despite the Academy's rigorous academic and height and weight standards. You know they're never going to quit and can run with anybody. More than that, Coach Calhoun really buys into the Academy's philosophy of "building leaders of character," which would seem to be rather rare in an era when a lot of big schools are dealing with numerous violations and rather low graduation rates. Air Force rarely sends a player to the NFL, but it sends all of its players into places around the world that protect the country's freedom. The NFL is entertainment. Academy grads play a real game against really dangerous opponents every day. 

As soon as the story broke about Coach Calhoun being considered by the Broncos, a lot of us around here were certainly happy for him, but also a little concerned (selfishly so) about he and his family possibly leaving. We all wish the best for those who demonstrate the ability to achieve success and do it with integrity, and who among us wouldn't seriously consider an offer to take the reigns in a position at the top of our professions? It's flattering, and it's tempting, and it's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes, like Coach Calhoun, we're certainly qualified for the job. 

It got me thinking, though, that pastors are as much prone to dreaming about hitting the big time as many coaches  or business executives are. Many is the pastor who starts his or her career in a small, obscure appointment or as an associate pastor on a large church staff, but figures that it's a first step in a process that will lead to a lucrative position in a large church, with the accompanying prestige and paycheck that goes with it. Career-focused pastors tend to think of churches as stepping stones, just one stop on the road to the "real" church that deserves their amazing homiletical skill and charismatic leadership, and will pay them accordingly. Like a coach that strings together a couple of winning seasons and then jumps from the small school to the next tier, many of us pastors are always thinking about what's next. 

I have to admit my own dabbling with that kind of ambition. I was in the midst of my first appointment when I foolishly believed that my future was in a larger church than my home conference could provide me, and sought a church that would showcase my "talents" for youth ministry (at the time), and allow me to pursue things like giving seminars and writing books. The senior pastor of the new church told me I could do as much, thus I left the church where I was an associate, left behind the conference, and took on this new "opportunity." The people I left behind felt not a little betrayed and, admittedly, I kind of blew them off in order to get to where I wanted to go. Rarely does a time go by when I don't regret the way I handled that transition. 

A theological observation here, but over the years I've discovered that when God wanted to punish someone in Scripture, God usually did it by giving them exactly what they wanted. Israel wanted a king, for example, because every one of the nations around them had one. "You want a king? I'll give you a king in exactly the mold you want." We all know that Saul was a paranoid tyrant, and a pretty lousy leader. They got what they wanted, and it wound up costing them big time. 

I feel their pain. I walked into a situation that I thought I was prepared for, that I was sure was "me," and soon came to realize that the reality was not as good as the fantasy. The longer hours, the myriad expectations, the politics of the larger organization, were crushing me.  It took me three years, and the help of a good counselor, to realize that I did not have a good handle on my own self-awareness and ambition. One of the most important days of my life was when she said to me, "Let's talk about you." 

I learned the hard way that it's so much better to bloom where you're planted or, as my mentor Randy Jessen would say, to make the place you are the place you've always wanted to be. Since that time, I've made and kept a vow that I would never seek out another appointment, but would stay in place and continue to lead and build up a congregation, wherever I was sent to lead, until such time as the Bishop or the church decided that I need to be elsewhere. Knowing that makes it so much easier to stay grounded in the present and give all my energy to the people I'm with, rather than to some mystical church with greener carpets on the other side of my imagination. 

Eugene Peterson, in his great little book Under the Unpredictable Plant, says, "The pastoral vocation in America is embarrassingly banal. It is banal because it is pursued under the canons of job efficiency and career management. It is banal because it is reduced to the dimensions of a job description. It is banal because it is an idol–a call from God exchanged for an offer by the devil for work that can be measured and manipulated at the convenience of the worker. Holiness is not banal. Holiness is blazing" (5). 

I think that's why today's statement by Coach Calhoun really resonated with me. I think he has learned a lesson that many of us need to learn: that where you are and the people you are with are really a gift. When we are motivated by a mission, rather than ambition, then our life and work will be anything but banal. When you make a commitment to lead a group of people, and you follow through on the that commitment, you are not only able to be an agent of transformation over the long haul, you will also affect people's lives, with God's help, for an eternity. Here's what Coach said in response to the media's reporting of the Bronco's interest in him: 

“The Air Force Academy has tremendous General officers and staff members who are remarkably dedicated to the development of our cadets,” Calhoun said in the statement. “It's inspiring that an 18-year-old kid makes a commitment to embed the necessary character traits to grow into a fine young man or woman who honorably serves for at least five years. Our coaching staff and our families are proud to be a part of the daily lives of our nation's future officers. We certainly look forward to seeing our seniors graduate in May along with coaching the Falcons in 2011 and beyond.”

Read more:

I found that to be tremendously inspiring, and a real reminder to me that success is best defined by one's character than one's prestige, notoriety, and a bigger paycheck. Coach Calhoun sees those young cadets as his mission right now, and that mission trumps the illusory greener grass of Invesco Field. 

Pastors, do you see the people in your congregation as your mission? Are you willing to delay the next move on your agenda to invest your life in them and the community? I can tell you from experience that you won't find true "success" until you do–success that isn't based on metrics that can always be measured and manipulated, but the success that comes from being faithful to the God who sends us and to the people to whom we are sent. 

I don't think this is the last time the NFL or a major college will come calling for Coach Calhoun, and some day he might feel ready to make the jump. Good people are hard to find, and they will always be in demand. Same might said for pastors who are called to a new season of ministry. 

There's a difference, though, in being released and called to a new place, rather than abandoning and betraying the old one. We do well when we first decide to make the place we are the place we've always wanted to be. 

Thanks, Coach, for reinforcing that lesson today!


The Chipotle Ministry Model

Ask anyone who has eaten at one of the hundreds of
Denver-based Chipotle Grill restaurants around the country and they will likely
tell you that he or she is at least a once-a-week, regular customer. Chipotle
combines excellent food, using hormone and antibiotic-free meat raised
humanely, made-to-order service, and a focused menu into a restaurant
experience that causes the queue at each store to often run out the door
(though it moves quickly).

started eating regularly at Chipotle when I was serving on the staff of First
UMC in downtown Colorado Springs, walking downtown every Thursday for lunch at
Chipotle. Tim, one of the managers, was always working the lunch shift that day
and we got to know each other fairly well. Unlike many chains searching for customer
loyalty through rewards cards and the like, Chipotle relies on relationships
built with its regular customers. Tim would often say to me, “You look busy, so
the burrito’s on me today” or comp my drink unexpectedly. He told me that it
was part of the business model—that customers will return because you offer
them great food and a pleasant experience and not just because they have a
punch card in their wallet. 

we moved to Utah, the Chipotle brand was not yet in the state. I emailed their
corporate offices to lobby for a store in Park City or Salt Lake City, and I
always received a prompt, personal reply encouraging me to hang in there and
giving me updates on when they might be coming into the area. Eventually, two
stores opened in the Salt Lake valley and I was in line on opening day at one
of them. Turns out that I was not alone, as there were more than a hundred
people in line.

lines at Chipotle move fast because the line staff work quickly and seem to
enjoy what their doing, which has been universally the case whether I’ve been
at one in Colorado, Utah, or Washington, D.C. The menu is very basic—nothing
other than burritos, tacos, and salads. Unlike many fast-food chains, Chipotle
has stuck to their core menu and have resisted adding things like desserts and
specialty items to the menu. They do one thing and do it very, very well,
illustrating what Jim Collins calls the “hedgehog concept” in his book Good to
Great. A simple hedgehog will beat a clever fox every time because it knows how
to do one thing well—roll into a perfect ball and point its quills in all
directions. Says Collins, “[Hedgehogs] are not stupid. Quite the contrary. They
understand that the essence of profound insight is simplicity… Hedgehogs see
what is essential, and ignore the rest” (91). When a customer walks into a
Chipotle, they know precisely what they are going to get in terms of both
choice and quality, and since the food is made-to-order right in front of them,
they know they can trust the process as well.

insights for the church and for leadership have been apparent to me from the
beginning, but are reinforced every time I go to our local Chipotle (ten miles
away at the moment, but we are close to getting one in Monument, CO, according
to the corporate office). They are:

1. Pay attention to the
customer/regular attendee. No matter how the church may be, knowing someone’s
name and a little of their story makes for repeat visits. Help them feel like
an insider, and provide them with one-on-one attention whenever possible.
Loyalty is based on relationships, not programs.

2. Most churches are trying to do a
little of everything, tacking on and pulling down menu items of program
offerings on a regular basis, trying to get people to connect with their
“product.” Chipotle’s strength is that they have not tried to be McDonald’s or
Wendy’s—companies that are always tweaking their menu and tying their product
in with the latest movies, for example. They have a specialty niche, know their
customers, and execute a few things with excellence. Churches and their leaders
should focus on the “customer base” in their community, asking questions about
needs and opportunities. Instead of competing with other churches and “swapping
sheep,” an effective church will focus on its core competencies and promote
them unapologetically. Every church should be able to specifically fill in the blank of the statement, “We are the church who __________,” and do so with confidence that
they are making a difference for the kingdom.

my last visit to a Chipotle (I went twice this week), I noticed some people I
had seen before. I imagine that visitors to our churches are looking for the
same kind of connection—a place of quality, simplicity, and familiarity—and a
place where, eventually, even the manager knows my name.


Source: Collins, Jim. Good to
Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t
. New York:
HarperCollins, 2001.