“Surviving Religious Leadership — Understanding Congregational Dynamics”

By Marisa Guerin, PhD – February 5, 2018

For the last 18 years or so, I have had the opportunity to consult to many of the finest people I have ever met – the women and men of religious congregations and the ministries that they sponsor, from various denominations. These people are hard-working, kind, and faithful to their missions —- but that doesn’t mean that leadership is easy in these settings. The real-world challenges are formidable, and the internal community dynamics are subtle and complex. Religious leadership is not what it used to be!
Several years ago, I started experimenting with a series of workshops as a complement to the consulting work I was doing with these clients. My intention was to offer advanced professional development seminars for religious leaders that would give them a chance to probe, with peers, the complexities of the community dynamics that were most difficult for them to manage.
Over the last six years, well over 100 leaders have gathered in these learning events. This short posting describes how the approach taken in these seminars offers a perspective that is both revealing and different for most religious leaders. I write it as an invitation to the reader to consider whether this kind of learning might be helpful. The specifics of the seminars are included at the end.
How is the perspective of these workshops “different”? The focus of the analysis is on the human system rather than the members as individuals, and there is special attention given to the unconscious emotional dynamics of people in human systems. My clue for this starting point came from observing over the years that the “default lens” used by many leaders for interpreting difficulties in religious settings is often interpersonal. Leaders tended to focus on perceived deficits in competencies and in communications skills such as listening, assertiveness, conflict management, empathy, or honesty. While it is undoubtedly true that individual persons can be the stumbling block in some circumstances, I suspected that leaders might not appreciate how powerfully the dynamics of systems themselves impact the feelings and behavior of people. If the system is part of the problem, then the problems will persist even if the people change. Indeed, problematic people are often unconsciously “used” by the groups to which they belong as channels for playing out issues that belong to many, not just one.
Consequently, I designed the master seminars to complement the existing base of skills and knowledge of these leaders with material from this alternate “lens”. I focused on increasing their exposure to three dimensions of human systems that show up with regularity in the current experiences of religious communities and ministries.
  • The first dimension has to do with the way the human system is formally structured: elements like primary task, roles, authority, accountability, and strategy. These terms sound very corporate; and in fact, if you think of a religious congregation as a community of persons, some of these concepts don’t make much sense. However, a congregation or ministry institution also lives in the world as a sustainable organization that acts in society and the church. For the congregation as an organization, these concepts do apply, and they have very powerful effects on behavior – positive and negative – that go beyond individual effort. Working with this perspective opens new insights about the value of a system perspective. I also find that it challenges the assumptions of some religious persons (especially women) that organizational concepts are in some way suspect — not relevant to faith groups, or not humanistic enough, or somehow inherently oppressive or authoritarian. The seminar exploration permits a more nuanced understanding to emerge that lets religious leaders tap the value of systemic order without falling into the shadow side of bureaucracy or rigidity.

  • A second dimension is directly related to the impact of structure and the role of leadership — it has to do with the unconscious psychodynamics of human systems. Families, groups, organizations, and religious communities and ministries are human social systems which activate the emotional life of persons. The seminar illuminates for leaders the psychological and spiritual experiences of anxiety, risk, trust and faith as they play out in religious groups, and how leaders can respond to these unconscious dynamics from within their unique strengths as persons of faith in community. Of all of the material covered, it is often this angle that produces the most “Aha’s” from leaders who begin to see the psychological importance of their role, authorization, leadership behavior and spiritual maturity within the community.

  • A third dimension involves the professional disciplines that can enrich visioning and future discernment, such as planning and change management. Discernment methods and contemplative dialogue should involve the heart and the head, integrating feelings, values, prayer and prudential judgments that come from insightful planning. Closely aligned with planning is the experience of change, which is strongly impacted by leader behavior. These disciplines are not usually new in concept, but religious groups don’t often use them effectively.
The seminar experience contains a mix of pre-reading, input sessions, journaling, and opportunities for co-consultation with peers to relate the concepts to member experiences. The location, Cranaleith Spiritual Center in Philadelphia, provides the environment of serenity, beauty, and delicious farm-to-table nourishment.
The feedback has been very positive – the seminars help leaders with several desired outcomes. They gain a deeper understanding of the human dynamics evoked by experiences of change, conflict, and transformation; they have greater awareness of how leaders contribute to the health and capacity of the congregation through their willingness to stand faithfully in the authorization of the leader role; and they gain confidence and mutual support from exploring shared realities with other leaders.
The next Cranaleith Master Seminar for Leaders of Faith Based Organizations is scheduled for May 1-2, 2018 ; applications are currently being accepted. If the dates won’t work but there is interest in the program, be in touch. Sessions are scheduled based on the calendars of those who request consideration in future sessions. Learn more
Please feel free to contact Marisa Guerin for further information. or

The Conversation Managers Avoid

By Marisa Guerin, PhD – January 29, 2018
Being a team leader, department manager, or group supervisor has its inspiring and strategic moments, for sure. But as long as you are managing people, not robots, there is no escaping the obligation to give performance feedback — the conversation most managers love to avoid.

In this brief post, I’d like to suggest the power of personal values like courage, compassion, truth and respect as lifelines to managing this responsibility with integrity. This is the perspective taken in the Work and Spirit workshops for business leaders at Cranaleith Conference Center in Philadelphia, such as “Courageous Truth-Telling” on April 5, 2018.
Performance reviews are notoriously problematic. The current policy shift in many companies away from formal annual reviews to frequent informal feedback might lighten the bureaucratic burden and improve impact, but it doesn’t change the interpersonal challenge at all. If anything, the expectation of frequent coaching/feedback only ups the ante on the leader’s capacity for giving helpful guidance to employees.
Now, why would this be hard? Shouldn’t it at least be easy when the feedback is some version of “All’s well; keep up the good work?” Perhaps – but even positive messages to valued team members need to be personalized. To grow, employees need to know specifically how and why their performance is valued; and to stay motivated, they have to know that their results are appreciated. That’s a more personal and engaged conversation than a fast “atta-boy” or “atta-girl.”
There’s less mystery about the challenge behind confronting problem performers; these conversations are obviously more difficult when the leader must give “change” or “exit” messages to someone who isn’t delivering what is required for success on the job.
There are many good tools for preparing and delivering these messages. I’m not going to reference them here. Instead, I’d like to go to the heart of the matter: a performance conversation is a moment in a RELATIONSHIP between two persons. One of these persons has the role responsibility to evaluate and guide the work performance of the other. It’s an unequal relationship in terms of degree of authority, but so are many other important relationships in life. There’s still room for respect and concern. If one is willing to stand in this role relationship with courage, it is an act of commitment to the people being managed and to the organization itself.
In many workplace cultures, leaders abdicate this responsibility. Instead of accepting the reality of their role, they relate as a colleague, as a friend, as a co-worker. That’s not surprising — the manager, especially one who is newly appointed, may be ambivalent about having this level of responsibility and power. As well, the duties and privileges that come with a managerial role may cause subordinates to feel resentful or envious.
If managers are anxious about giving negative performance feedback, the defensive maneuver is to
enter the conversation with some degree of emotional distance — a clinical, business-like stance. It is a stance of apparent professional objectivity; but the dispassionate demeanor is in fact protective of the manager, helping him or her to avoid triggering or facing emotional reactions such as anger, hurt, or fear.
The alternative is paradoxically more powerful. To speak truth with empathy means the manager needs a certain level of capacity to tolerate painful feelings, both within him or herself, and also as expressed by others. Making a respectful, caring connection with the person being reviewed AND being clear and constructive in the feedback enables both persons to feel integrity in the dialogue. It is inherently compassionate to approach another as a person. This is as true for the ones receiving a positive message as it is for those who are hearing that they need to change.
When in doubt: remind yourself that preparation, honesty and genuine empathy convey messages that affirm the human dignity of each person in this performance relationship — on behalf of the greater good of the organization and its mission.

Courageous Truth-Telling: Giving Performance Feedback
Facilitators: Marisa Guerin, PhD and Karol M. Wasylyshyn, PsyD
Thursday, April 5, 2018, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m. 
Cost: $150 (includes lunch)

Register online here or call 215-934-6206

Improve your capacity to manage performance with courage and compassion. Learn about the dynamics that make this task so universally challenging, and get guidance on a framework for giving meaningful performance feedback.


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