Friday, January 8, 2010

Book critique: "The Hidden Lives of Congregations" by Israel Galindo

In this enlightening and well-written book, Israel Galindo takes his understanding and experiences with American congregational life, seen through the multi-dimensional lens of Bowen family systems theory, and presents pastors and church leaders with a theoretical and practical resource for navigating these complicated organizations. Perhaps the most helpful piece of wisdom in this book is his challenge to popular Western understandings of the organizational nature of congregations, continually making the case that “congregations are living organisms that follow universal principles of systemic relationships.” (p. 1) It is from this perspective of congregations as living organisms with relational emotional processes that all subsequent content flows.

Read on after the break for my in-depth summary and critique of this book...

Organized into three parts, this book focuses on 1) understanding the congregation itself; its nature and purpose, 2) understanding what makes congregations tick; their emotional “hidden lives,” and finally, 3) the congregational leader's place in the midst of all this. The book's intended audience is congregational leaders in general, but frequently (and consciously) focusing on the key leadership role of the pastor. The prerequisites to reading this book and finding value in it seem to be individuals with experience in Amercian Christian (predominantly Mainline Protestant) congregations, and prior academic and/or experiential exposure to organizational management or leadership concepts. It is safe to say a well-educated reader with these experiences and understandings will most likely be engaged by this book.

Part I: Understanding the Congregation
The first three chapters of the book constitute Part One, focusing on understanding congregations. Prior to opening Chapter 1, Galindo argues that a deep understanding of congregations must be informed by 1) theology, 2) a theory of organizations, and 3) a theory of relationships. It is here that Galindo states his intention to use a biblical theology for #1 and a Bowen family systems approach for #'s 2 & 3 for use throughout the rest of the book.

Chapter 1 deals with the ideal nature of the Church, as well as the reality facing it in the North American context. Galindo makes helpful distinctions when variously using the word “church.” Church with a capital “C,” Galindo holds up as the theological ideal, global, Body of Christ. What is most often spoken of, however, is “church” with a lower-case “c,” which Galindo uses to refer to local congregations: real, contextual expressions of Church. The realities that Galindo describes include the loss of a central role in the public square for the Church, adoption of inappropriate operational models and measures for success, resistance to the “countercultural mandate of the gospel,” an idolatrous concern with institutional upkeep over-against “missional endeavors,” and a “crisis of ministerial leadership.” (pp. 16-8) Finally, Galindo re-emphasizes his emotional systems view of organizations as living organisms, citing a misunderstanding of this as leading to all manner of lost causes being embarked upon, or “Adventures in Missing the Point,” to borrow a phrase from Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo.

Chapter 2 furthers the discussion of the congregational expression of Church, describing the various qualities and functions of the congregation, but identifying worship and religious education as core. Establishing the institutional nature of a congregation as inevitable, regardless of the size (from 10 to over a thousand), Galindo makes the observation that “relationship systems cannot help but organize – it is the nature of living things to do so,” continuing with a striking statement that “there is nothing biblically prescriptive about the congregational expression of Church,” (pp. 22-3) even wondering if there may come a day in Christianity when the congregational model will no longer be relevant. After discussing ways that congregations organize themselves, Galindo goes on to discuss what makes community in congregations and how that affects spiritual formation, paying special attention to culture and cultural artifacts distinct to Christian communities in general, but especially congregational distinctives.

Chapter 3 concludes Part I with a look at “The Mandate, Mission, and Models of Congregations.” Drawing on Scripture, Galindo highlights the unique nature of the Church as belonging to God and being primarily about serving God, rather than being in service to itself as an institution. He even makes the observation that the Church is not primarily about helping others, although a huge secondary imperative includes just that. After discussing the mission of the Church (God's mission) and the functional outworking of that, Galindo closes by identifying four congregational models that he will later use while exploring the hidden lives of congregations.

Part II: Understanding the Hidden Lives of Congregations
This section of the book begins with a thorough introduction to the five relational dynamics, the “hidden life forces,” that drive so much of what happens in congregational life. The forces are 1) systemic anxiety, 2) energy, 3) organizing, 4) controlling, and 5) relational. In addition to pointing out that the anxiety dynamic is inherently neither good nor bad – it simply is – Galindo describes qualities of each dynamic, even offering clues on when a leader may harness various dynamics, something explored further in Part III.

Chapter 4 deals primarily with the the lifespan of congregations, from formation all the way through dissolution. At the outset, Galindo highlights the challenges to leaders when dealing with this dimension of congregational life, and emphasizes that leaders must perform functions appropriate to the particular stage of life a congregation finds itself in. The chapter concludes with a lengthy exploration of the eight identified stages of life, listing key leadership functions and educational needs for each stage.

Turning his focus in Chapter 5 to size, Galindo is quick to caution that he is no proponent of the church growth movement, even insisting that “there is no theological reason for insisting that a congregation needs to grow in numerical size.” (p. 77) He goes on to assure the reader that this size model is but one dimension, and a potentially misleading or deceptive one at that because of the American cultural tendency to believe that “bigger is better.” For Galindo, that is certainly not categorically true. Most of the chapter is taken up by discussion of small and large congregations and the hidden life forces that affect each sub-type, with some subsequent discussion of how there are instances where certain hidden life forces in a congregation cause the size model to break down. He closes the chapter with the observation that “size shapes relationships, and in turn...relationships shape faith.” (p. 94)

The spirituality style of congregations is the focus in Chapter 6, opening with a discussion on the psychological-emotional nature of faith for the individual, then turning to that nature in the corporate sense, where Galindo makes use of James Fowler's faith development theory, which Galindo describes as “stances” (where as Fowler's language uses “stages”). This model emphasizes “how one believes” vs. “what one believes” (p. 99), or put another way, it describes faith in the epistemological/meaning-making sense rather than as a set of beliefs. Based on this model, Galindo focuses the rest of the chapter on describing six spirituality styles: Cognitive, Affective, Pilgrim, Mystic, Servant, and Crusader.

Part II concludes in Chapter 7 with a thorough discussion of how identity is formed in the life of a congregation. Galindo's definition of congregational identity is a good one that I'll quote liberally here: “a congregation's understanding of itself as Church and as a unique corporate body of relationships...[and] includes the members' collective beliefs, values, and patterns of relating as well as the congregation's symbols, stories, spirituality, style, and stance.” (p. 116) After exploring the last three qualities listed, Galindo lists the sources of a congregation's identity as its 1) Corporate Memory, 2) Corporate Values, and 3) Corporate Relationships.

Part III: Understanding Leadership in the Congregation
After spending the first two-thirds of the book describing congregations and hinting around at what implications all this had for leadership, Galindo concludes the book with an intense focus on leadership, with much emphasis throughout the final three chapters on challenging popular Western attitudes about leadership, which tend to be individualistic and focus excessively on the leaders themselves. While Bowen family systems theory does understand a healthy individual as being strongly differentiated from the emotional system they find themselves in, this is never to the exception of everyone else. Rather the opposite is true, and that's the point Galindo is trying to make. A strong congregational leader performs the functions of leadership from a strong awareness of themselves, their strengths and weaknesses, but does so in servant role. This servanthood is to the congregation and orients them toward the vision for the congregation and faithfully working at God's mission in their local, contextual expression of Church, the Body of Christ. Indeed, it is the form of servanthood that Jesus himself embodied that largely shapes this understanding, reflecting the theological nature that Christian leadership should take on over popular cultural forms.

Chapter 8 focuses on the functions of leadership in a congregation, where Galindo identifies the importance of vision and the pastor's primary role in setting that vision, the leader in crisis, and the roles of being resident theologian and manager. The primary focus here is on the pastor's role, but Galindo makes it clear when doing so, offering space for non-pastoral leadership roles in the discussion. He finishes off with a discussion of influence vs. power in the hands of a leader, concluding that “a visionary orientation to congregational leadership stresses that both rational and emotional-relational functions are necessary.” (p. 161)

Chapter 9 spends time discussing the nature of leadership and Galindo starts off dispelling seven myths of leadership, again challenging primarily Western attitudes on leadership, particularly in how they have distorted conceptions and practices of congregational, Christian leadership. He concludes the chapter discussing, in a positive way, the nature of leadership as being self-aware, welcoming feedback, ethical and principled behavior, being courageous, a focus on growing and being open to change, and perhaps most importantly, setting vision.

The conclusion of Part III and the entire book in Chapter 10 is essentially a restatement in condensed form, with no personal reflection on Galindo's part, to what the rest of the book is saying. This synthesis takes the form of laying out the kinds of things that congregational leaders should be focusing on in their work.

Galindo is a good writer, offering clarity of thought and a personal touch to complex conceptual subject matter. He also does an admirable job of incorporating a biblical theology throughout the book, anchoring his largely social-scientific approach to Scripture. Finally, Galindo places himself firmly in the book, bringing in his own wide variety of experiences – sometimes humorously – establishing his credibility on the subject matter, inviting the reader to do the same reflective work in relation to these concepts, and putting a human face on a potentially stale endeavor.

I found the organizational structure of the book to be quite appropriate and supportive of the author's thesis. Understanding congregations and implications for leadership are each considerable topics in themselves, but Galindo does a great job of tackling both, not only describing them conceptually, but offering plenty of practical advice along the way. The appendices at the back of the book, worksheets for helping put the practical advice into action, are a wonderful addition to the already-valuable resources this book offers.

One example of a story from my own experience came while reading Chapter 3, where Galindo stresses the importance of shared language, experiences, as well as symbols and objects. While I was serving a small, suburban (but culturally rural) Church of the Brethren congregation in Iowa, the pastor seemed to have a keen disliking for a large, heavy stone with a smooth, polished surface that sat on a pedestal at the head of the chancel in the sanctuary. His repeated attempts to have the stone removed were always met with resistance because it had come from the farm of a founding matriarch of the congregation, who was in her 90's. It literally took this woman passing away and another year or so after for the climate to change to the point where removing this stone was acceptable. He expressed this news to me with much joy while catching up on things, after my family had moved on to a nearby Presbyterian congregation. I still wonder if he could have taken a different approach while the woman was still alive, and the rock was still at the head of the chancel, using it as a way to tell stories important to the group's history, while simultaneously shaping them in such a way as to help them look forward. I count this as a missed opportunity for the pastor, and a situation that was articulately described by Galindo's various musings on the importance of symbols and local culture to congregational formation.

Perhaps my only outright complaint about this book is that it tended to restate things quite often, and even became downright repetitive by the closing chapters of the book. I understand the author is looking at one thing – congregational dynamics – through a variety of lenses, but I feel like this book could have been about 50 pages shorter in length, offering an economy of words that would have saved this reader from the sense of drudgery that set in at about Chapter 9, from what had started out to be a thrilling read. As I restate below in the conclusion, I borrowed this book from my instructor, and I find it telling that Chapter 10 is the only chapter with absolutely none of his scribblings.

Throughout most of the book, I was constantly weighing Galindo's teaching against my personal experience in congregations. Primarily, I was thinking about my current congregation: a small, experimental (some might say “emerging”) Mennonite congregation that meets on the campus of Eastern Mennonite University. While it is not officially connected to the university, there is no denying that we are, in some significant ways, strongly a product of the university community. The congregation has two founding, visionary leaders – a husband and wife team – but they were very intentional in the formation of this group not be pastors of the congregation. They fulfill many of the leadership roles and functions that Galindo identifies, particularly the visioning and educational roles, but there are many other functions which they, seemingly, effortlessly pour out into the rest of the congregation, in terms of worship planning, and congregational design. So there were times when Galindo's teaching didn't quite line up well with a strange congregation such as mine. This didn't put me off, but it did cause me to wonder if there is another book yet to be written that uses this Bowen family systems approach to more non-traditional congregational structures that seem to be increasing in number.

Finally – and this is something Galindo himself makes perfectly clear – this book is largely targeted at an American, mainline Protestant audience. I wonder if a cross-cultural approach could have better served the book, especially considering how much time Galindo talks about the importance of local culture in the formation of congregations. Considering the explosive growth of Christianity in the global south, and that growth being mirrored in immigrant communities in North America – while “traditional” white/European-influenced congregations dwindle – it seems to me that a more cross-culturally-sensitive approach could have been enlightening.

It also strikes me that ethnic diversity was not touched upon in this book, which could be problematic for congregational leaders. Are we to assume that congregations – even in a North American, mainline Protestant context – will be ethnically homogenous, and this is perfectly acceptable? If so, this could have negative unintended consequences for the ways that congregations relate to those outside their “borders” – including other Christian groups – reinforcing and perpetuating negative ethnic stereotypes. This could also have a negative impact on how a congregation deals with religious diversity in their midst, with faith groups outside Christianity. This is a complicated subject that deserves its own treatment, but perhaps even a nod in this direction from Galindo would have planted the seed in readers' minds.

This book was loaned to me by my instructor, David Brubaker (who has himself published a book w/ the Alban Institute), for a course on organizational leadership at EMU's Center for Justice &Peacebuilding. Nearly every page contained many of his own underlines and notes, indicating to me that he found quite a bit of value in it. I have to say that I do as well, and might have to get my own copy of this book at some point. I took more time reading it than I do most assigned texts for my studies, because I sensed there was much to absorb that would help my immediate and future work with congregations. And while the book did eventually become somewhat repetitive toward the end, this was an experience based on a straight-through reading. Subsequent uses of this book would be for reference purposes, for which the book has a high potential. I highly recommend this book to anyone participating in congregational life in a leadership capacity, from pastors to board members to office administrators. There is much to be gleaned here.

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