Something has finally coalesced for me. After a journaling practice I’ve been doing for a few years, a couple of different ways of making sense of reality came together. It was my approach to church and my approach to myself. I don’t know whether sharing this will do anyone any good. Paul Tillich said, “There is no truth without the way to truth.” But since this truth is nothing new, since it is just other people’s wisdoms connecting, just me finally noticing that 2 + 2 = 4, it might be a little assistance, so here goes.
THE FRAMEWORK: When I do spirituality workshops or offer spiritual guidance, I operate out of a paradigm that sees each person as made up of a whole network of parts or Subpersonalities – not as a pathology, but as the basic way human beings are constructed. In his classic novel, Steppenwolf, 19th Century German author Hermann Hesse told the story of a protagonist who was half bourgeois businessman and half mountain wolf. Toward the end of the book, the author admitted he had oversimplified this character. He was really the composite of far more personalities.
Today, that view of human nature takes the form of various psychological models: psychosynthesis, psychodynamics, gestalt, and internal family systems just to name just a few. But the adherents of these theories of normal multiplicity did not just leap to this paradigm because they were fans of Hermann Hesse.
Psychology began in the field of ascetic theology (spirituality), then was absorbed into philosophy, and began to become a science in the 19th C. The first doctors to explore the mind were neurologists. Their first main interest was situations when a person began to think, speak, and act with a personality different from their usual personality -- like mediums, shamans, what we now call channeling, etc. The neurologists didn’t really sort it out, but they did conclude that some people who had different personalities popping up at different times were seriously nuts – but others were not.
The observation that different personalities inhabit the same body was the starting point for scientific psychology. Freud studied under some of these neurologists & tried to systematize them. He said everyone has 3 parts: an id, an ego, and a superego. It was similar to Transactional Analysis if you remember that from the 70’s – we all have an inner parent, an inner adult, and an inner child.
Freud’s student, Carl Jung thought that was much too simplistic. We have far more parts inside us – archetypes from the collective unconscious. We have an inner mother, warrior, magical child, hero, etc. Another student of Freud, Roberto Assagioli thought even Jung was being too restrictive. He agreed we have different parts or Subpersonalities. But he didn’t start with assumptions as to what they are – either Freud’s assumptions or Jung’s assumptions. He just looked inside to see what was there in each person. You have your own unique collection of sub personalities and I have mine.
But why do we have parts or sub personalities? How does that come about? Even Assagioli wasn’t clear on that. Today, brain science tells us how this happens. Whatever we experience we experience neurologically. Like water etching lines in rock, experience forms patterns or habits of feeling and thinking. Brain scientists capture the dynamic with this adage: “What fires together wires together.” Events and situations are constantly changing but we keep having the same feelings and thoughts over and over and over. Those patterns are hardwired into our circuits. That’s what neurologist mean by “wired together.” The neurologic capacity to have a new experience or think new thoughts is called “neuroplasticity.”
Those hardwired patterns form distinct personalities. Subpersonalities. Obvious ones relate to roles. We function one way as parent, another as spouse, another as friend, another in our work. There are deeper habits of being, patterns of feelings, thoughts, and actions, called Subpersonalities. We may have a Wounded Child, a Tragic Romantic, an Enforcer, a Worker, a Lover, an Artist. I have a Care Taker, a Defender, a Builder, a Spiritual Quester, a Righteous Judge, a Wildcat Oil Driller, etc.
This is not pathology. It makes us complex and interesting. All of us, like Hesse’s Steppenwolf, have multiple Subpersonalities. Fernando Pensoa is an accomplished poet with his own style. Without ever abandoning that identity and style, he began writing other poetry in a different style and voice under another name. That new poet had his own biography and philosophy. Then Pensoa added yet another poet to his repertoire. Today are four very fine poets --albeit quite different in style and content -- inhabiting one body.
Pathology sets in when one personality takes over and is not even aware of the other personalities, as in the Sybil story (which may be a dubious account but there are cases of real multiple personality disorder). Such cases are probably rare. What is more common is that Subpersonalities take over for short times but other Subpersonalities compete with them, sabotage them, judge and criticize them. The Subpersonalities are often in conflict – as was the case for our poor friend, Steppenwolf. Much of our anxiety, depression, and ambivalence arises from conflicts between Subpersonalities.
Let me reiterate: Subpersonalities are not bad. They are all part of us. The problems arise when they are have not learned teamwork. Assagioli, along with numerous other psychologists and Christian spiritual masters going back to St. Paul, teaches that there is another part of us that is not a Subpersonality. It has not been conditioned by experience. It is not a neurological pattern of thoughts and feelings that have fired together until they are wired together. It is deeper than that. It is an innate capacity for simple awareness. Psycho-synthesis Theory calls it the Personal Self; Internal Family Systems Theory calls it the Core Self. Christians might call it the Soul. Assagioli was comfortable with “Soul.” Some of his followers, not so much.
The Soul is the central organizing principle of the person. Our core identity does not consist of passing thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Those are the waves on the surface. Our core identity, our Soul is deep and still. Psycho-synthesis Theory says there is also something larger than the Soul or Personal Self.
The “Transpersonal Self” is the central organizing principle of the cosmos. Assagioli sometimes called it Spirit. This is the best statement of what the Transpersonal Self or Spirit is and does. Assagioli said,
“Spirit working upon and within all creation is shaping it
Into an order, harmony, and beauty, uniting all beings
(some willing but the majority as yet rebellious) with each other through links of love, achieving – slowly and silently, but powerfully and irresistibly – the Supreme Synthesis.”
The Personal Self is always already plugged into the Transpersonal Self, so when we connect with the core of our own being, we connect with the core of Reality. What Psycho-synthesis calls the Transpersonal Self the Jesuit scientist theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point or Christ. 14th Century mystic, Julian of Norwich said that the Soul is already always connected to Christ. But our personality is split away from our Soul. The break is not between the Soul and Christ. It is a split within ourselves. It is a case of broken relationship with all or some of our parts.
Modern psychology agrees. We are split within ourselves. But we also have the God-given capacity to heal that split. That is the function of the Soul when we find it and let it do its work. How then shall we recognize our own Soul should we stumble upon it? The Soul has certain basic characteristics:
Serenity: It has a certain serene balance. It is the eye of the storm. It is the part that is not shaken or enflamed by outer forces.
Awareness: The Soul has the capacity to notice – to observe. Because it is not shaken, it can see clearly.
Compassion: The Soul has the capacity to care without losing its balance. When the Subpersonalities are in conflict, the Soul is neutral. It does not want to extinguish any sub-personality. The Soul can appreciate each part of us as it is,
allowing it to be as it is, but also asking what it wants, what it needs, what it is trying to do.
Will: The Soul is the center of the will. Our attention can turn one way or another. We can choose to tell ourselves a particular story about things or make up a different story, a different interpretation, or we can choose to just watch without interpretation. The Soul is where we can make those decisions.
The problem is the Soul often doesn’t get engaged. We identify with the subpersonality of the moment, let it run the show, and the Soul is left out. We lose our Souls in our Subpersonalities – which means Christ is left out of the equation.
The first step in this spirituality is a kind of detachment. Meister Eckhart wrote at length about something we translate as “detachment.” Buddhists are always talking about something we translate as “detachment.” But when we translate those German and Sanskrit words as detachment, it sounds like not caring, apathy, anesthetizing, numbing out – killing off the feeling part of our being. That isn’t what they mean – or if it is, it isn’t what they should mean because it’s life denying, death dealing, bad psychology and bad religion.
The better word is disidentification. Disidentification means: We have feelings, thoughts, or experiences. That’s fine. It’s simply life experience -- until we identify with it. Our very language has this mistake built into it. “I am x.” Compare “I am hungry” in English to “Tengo hambre” (literally, I have hunger) in Spanish. It’s the same in French. If we feel anger, we say, “I am angry” not “I feel angry” or “I have anger.” Our language contributes to as well as expresses a lot of identification with the feeling of the moment. Maybe we say, “I am depressed. I am a depressed person.” But our Soul is not depressed. A part of us is depressed -- maybe the Loser, or the Wounded Child, or the abandoned One, the inner Orphan. Depressed is not who we are. It’s an experience we are having.
Disidentifying doesn’t mean we repress the experience. We have the experience. We may have it all the more clearly because we don’t have to be afraid of it. But it isn’t who we are. It’s something we are experiencing. At the center of the “we” doing the experiencing is the Soul, which experiences with serenity, awareness, and compassion while maintaining the strength of will to hold the experience within its proper boundaries.
II. APPLICATION TO PASTORAL LEADERSHIP
Murray Bowen’s gift to this discussion was his insight that even the complex inner network of Subpersonalities described by Assagioli was too simple. In fairness Assagioli’s sense of the transpersonal already pointed toward Bowenian systems theory, but his language was too spiritual to gain traction with mainstream social science. Bowen said that there are networks larger than the individual, there are unifying social principles at work – larger than the personal self. He called them “family systems.” In a nutshell, groups of people, particularly families, organize themselves like teams with each person having an unconsciously prescribed role in the system – the optimist, the worrier, the spendthrift, the drunk, the moralist, the nag, the rebel, the control freak, etc. Each person is manipulated by the rest into playing his or her role, living by the prescribed script.
Edwin Friedman brought Bowenian systems theory to the field of congregational leadership by observing that congregations function like families. They establish a homeostasis that depends on each person in the congregation playing an unconsciously prescribed role, playing their position on the team so to speak. This systems theory is kindly in that it does not blame individuals for their sometimes difficult behavior but tries to work with the system that programs them to behave this way. But there are problems. A system can be nurturing, but it also tends to set pathologies in stone and necessarily consigns each person to a role which is smaller than their full identity.
Friedman’s model of leadership was essentially that the pastor should function, insofar as possible, as the Soul in the congregation, the Personal Self – serene, aware, compassionate, will. The pastor’s goal is to accept and appreciate each person in the congregation, eventually facilitating their relationships with each other, in ways that allow each member to become more fully differentiated and less bound by imposed scripts.
That is the goal. But what do congregations and pastors tend to do with the more broken members. Congregations’ very purpose is to welcome and accept the broken, to offer nurture and healing. But what do we usually do in practice?
I am not alone in observing we tend to do one of two things with the broken people. First, we tend to put them in charge. In order to make wounded people feel better about themselves, we hand over leadership roles that they are utterly incapable of fulfilling. This is helpful to the system, which has a shadow agenda of self-sabotage. It also allows us to feel good about ourselves since we have been so nice to this difficult person. If the lay leadership positions are insufficient, we set out to ordain them. Congregations endorse the psychiatrically disabled, the addicted, the felonious, and the otherwise severely dysfunctional to ordain as pastoral leaders. People with intellectual and cognitive deficits are chosen to make policy for the church. Absolutely and without question, these folks belong in the church. They deserve our love and respect. But I can’t carry a tune in a bucket and can barely play a radio. I have no business being the music director of a congregation. To assign people roles they are not capable of fulfilling is not a kindness. It is a set up for failure. We do that all the time.
A variation on this theme of empowering pathology is the consensus driven meeting. This not about giving the broken person a title or a job. But it is about who gets their way. In a consensus driven model, we have to pacify everyone in group decisions. Since the craziest person in the room is the hardest one to pacify, they have to get their way. The church in its quest for niceness is ruled by a “madocracy.” The nuts rule.
Our second option for dealing with difficult people is to drive them out. The laity are usually more inclined to toward this one – but I have known clergy who exercised their leadership in this way. Strategy two: drive them out. In some denominations, excommunication, shunning, withdrawing of fellowship, etc. are formally recognized practices. In the Episcopal Church, this normally “just isn’t done” – though in my diocese it happens with surprising frequency. In another diocese, a priest managed to shrink his congregation by about 50% in just a few years before tendering his resignation. He announced his mission was accomplished. He had been sent to “prune” the congregation by getting rid of the bad members. While most Episcopal churches do not formally exclude anyone from worship, we do informally push people out the door all the time.
Such leaders operate by stirring up and perpetuating Level 4 Conflict in the conflict taxonomy of Speed Leas (Alban Institute) – that is “fight/ flight” conflict in which the loser must leave. The problem is I have never seen a congregation that had driven out enough people to establish peace. Given what we know of depth psychology, I highly doubt that a congregation of one could be free of conflict. It is like the story of the man marooned on a desert island where he built two churches – the one he attended and the one he left in protest. Once a congregation falls into the pattern of driving out the problem people, it can never drive out enough. The guillotine becomes a habit. That kind of pastoral leadership is 180 degrees opposite to the authentic mission of a congregation “to reconcile all people to each other and God” – to be a soulful community in which differences are appreciated and integrated into a dance of mutuality.
Friedman, Peter Stenge, Ronald Richardson, and Arthur Paul Boers would insist that driving troublemakers out of a congregation solves nothing. The person leaves but the role remains so someone else will be found to play it. The leaders role is to be soulfully present to the whole system and each individual in it.
The key is to welcome the difficult congregant into the family, without putting them in charge. Putting them in charge not only sabotages the congregation’s mission, it is bad for the person we are putting in charge. It rewards and reinforces their pathology. To be helpful to a person, we need to be soulfully present – with serenity, awareness, and compassion – along with the will to establish healthy boundaries.
But being soulfully present in a congregation is hard, hard, hard because the system pushes our buttons to get our various Subpersonalities to react in ways that fit the system’s pattern. Saying, “be soulfully present” is easy. Doing it is quite the challenge.
In order to engage our Soul in pastoral leadership in the congregation, we first have to engage our Soul in self-pastoring, in relating and integrating our own Subpersonalities. Otherwise, the Soul will never make it into the worship service, the parish forum, or the vestry meeting. One or the other of our Subpersonalities will show up instead, usually the subpersonality conjured by the most pathological manipulations of the system. When that happens, we invariably do more harm than good.
Now here’s the point that is so obvious – but it eluded me until today. We pastor our Subpersonalities precisely the way we pastor our congregants. Here’s how I finally got it. I have a Subpersonality that deeply needs to be tragic. It demands either a misery of self-sacrifice or a misery of remorse for failing to make the sacrifice. It is a deeply held value going back for generations in my family and well rooted in the culture where I grew up.
I spent nearly 40 years with that subpersonality very much in charge of my life. Other parts of me fought against it, insisted on developing my human potential, experiencing the variety of life, going on the spiritual journey, etc. But the Tragic Subpersonality held the stronger hand and he knew it. I have spent the last 20 years trying to get free of that. And I have made good progress at great emotional cost. But the Tragic Subpersonality will not go away. The harder I try to escape him, the more tenacious the hold of this snapping turtle of tragedy. People come along to evoke the thoughts and feelings. If they don’t do it to me, I do it to myself.
One night, in journaling a dialogue between my Personal Self and the Tragic Character, I acknowledged to the Tragic Character that he was part of me. He wasn’t going anywhere. I was not going to try anymore to drive him out. I slept uneasily after that and was still troubled the next morning, because I remember what its like when this Tragic Character gets his way. It ain’t pretty. Then quite out of nowhere, I heard the voice of my Self say to the Tragic Character, calmly, kindly, yet firmly “But you don’t get to be in charge.”
I wondered how the Tragic Character would respond to that boundary. I didn’t know until the following night when I resumed journaling. To my surprise, the Tragic Character was not in revolt. He was calm too. He wanted some clarity on how his needs would be met. Just how much misery and remorse do we get to indulge? We will no doubt be working that out over the years. But the Tragic Character actually seemed relieved to be neither exiled nor enthroned. Exile was too scary and lonely. Enthronement was too much responsibility. The Tragic Character belongs in the congregation. He likes being in the pews. But ordaining him is not doing him a favor. He was only trying to get ordained to keep from getting excommunicated. There is something in between.
So here’s what I’ve learned: The way we relate to our Subpersonalities makes all the difference for how we relate to our congregants – and vice versa. Cultivating a soulful practice is both an inner and outer process. For better or worse, we do love our neighbor a whole lot like the way we love ourselves – all of that mixed up muddle of humanity inside us and that mixed up muddle of humanity in the pews.
So work from the inside out. Work from the outside in. It’s a process. We work between the sidelines of exile and enthronement. That’s my version of the via media.