Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Ghost hunters and exorcists: The Leader and Secrets

Leaders new to a system often have to contend with the "ghosts" in the system, things that go bump in the night and block progress, defy explanations and create corporate habits and practices that make no sense. Ghosts and their secrets can foster behaviors and attitudes that inhibit openness in communication. There's something going on, but no one's telling. Some systems are more haunted than others, and, there are both benign and malevolent systemic forces at play in any system. But when a leader finds him or herself inhibited by a haunting that impedes progress and health in the system, it may be time to become a ghosthunter and exorcist.


New leaders need to determine how to deal with the ghosts in the system---every system has them. Some leaders set out to be ghost hunters, others try to be exorcists. Those ghost may be a beloved former pastor who has been elevated to sainthood, or the demons of generations past who still haunt the system through legacies.

Dealing with secrets in a system is a challenge, not only because the issue is complex, but also because organizational leaders, especially clergy leaders, are expected to be the official designated secret-keeper in the system. How often does a conversation start with, "I'm telling you this in complete confidence, Pastor . . . ," or "Just between you and me...." Referring to "secrets" in this case we do not mean betraying a confidence, or the indiscriminate release of sensitive, private, or potentially harmful information. In other words, when ghost hunting, it's important to differentiate between secrecy and privacy. Secrets, as a transactive dynamic is a system, tend to be willful, unhealthy, anxiety-driven, and potentially toxic. What is "private" is not necessarily harmful, and indeed, may be healthy. For pastors in a system that uses its leader as confidant to secrets that bind anxiety, it can be helpful to refuse to carry the secret or it's burden, or for the pastor to find a confidant who can help navigate how to handle secrets without being left powerless. In other words, pastors, or any leader, can use the power of the confessional to bind the anxiety of the secret.

The ghosts that leaders content with in a system are secrets that are an intentional concealment of information by one or more persons in the system who are impacted by it. Secrets are used as a form of information control, in which some information is under the control of a person in the system who purposefully hides this information from someone else. In this type of secret the information that is withheld is critical to the one whom the information is concealed from because it has an impact on his or her life or ability to function. It is not uncommon for systems to withhold information from new leaders about sensitive issues, thereby setting up an immediate pattern of secrecy, and, leaving the leader powerless to address the issue.

Often, leaders as ghost hunters must seek out the intergenerational ghost in the system passed on though multigenerational transmission. This can be the lingering influence of a founding pastor, unresolved issues from a crisis with a former staff member, or a secret in the system based on shame or guilt. In a theological school, it may be a "faculty of origin issue." A painful church split can leave a number of lingering ghosts in the system. At a former congregational ministry context it was four years until I discovered, quite by happenstance, that the church had previously dismissed a staff member in my position. No one had ever mentioned that incident, not during the hiring interviews, and, not even in the intervening four years of personnel reviews, staff meetings, committee meetings, or myriad of conversations.

Symptoms and manifestations of ghosts in the system

It takes a lot of energy to feed a ghost and keep a secret, and, it can take a toll on a system and on individuals. Look for a symptom bearer who exhibits the manifestations of secret-keeping: stress, anxiety, depression, and shame. Sometimes one symptom is misplaced distrust and anger toward the leader. Check to see if the blowback on certain questions and issues is disproportionate to questions and feels like a personal attack.  Organizationally, ghosts and secrets in the system create a difficulty in maintaining intimacy in relationships, maintain chronic long standing cut offs, even result psychosomatic symptoms. Characteristically, secrets in the system leave people feeling powerless.

Evan Imber-Black identified four main ways that family secrets may shape and scar us: (1) they can divide family members, permanently estranging them; (2) they can discourage individuals from sharing information with anyone outside the family inhibiting formation of intimate relationships; (3) they can freeze development at crucial points in life, preventing the growth of self and identity; (4) they can lead to painful miscommunication within a family, causing unnecessary guilt and doubt. Since secrets can serve the same function in any relationship system, any leader may find her- or himself dealing with these in an organization as well.


Sometimes it becomes necessary for a leader to play exorcist when ghosts impede progress or health in the system. One way is to uncover the narrative of the secret. Often, it's not the secret that holds a power in the system, it's the narrative built around its origin and subsequent interpretations. Like the parlor game of "telephone," over time, the secret gets corrupt and convoluted to the point that what really happened hardly matters--it's the fact that the secret is maintained and serves a transactive function in the system that matters. In this case the leader-exorcists can simply ask persons to "tell me the story about what happened." Listen for both content and emotional process, though it's the transactive process that will be most telling (do people maintain the secret, protect the ghost, share the "secret" readily, keep the leader in the dark?). One way to get the ghost out of hiding is to compare narratives. Sometimes, playfully challenging the narrative in a non-threatening way can challenge recall, misinterpretation, or dig deeper. The conversation may go like this:

Leader: "That's interesting. Someone told me that the reason was ________."
Staff person: "Well, that's what I heard."
Leader: "Does that ring true to you?"
Staff person: "Well, no, come to think of it. It does sound a bit strange."
Leader: "What do YOU think might have really happened?"

Another way to exorcise ghosts is to reinterpret the narrative around the secret. Leaders enjoy the privilege of having the platform to not only envision the future narrative of an organization, but also to reinterpret its past--including, re-weaving and re-interpreting the narratives around ghosts in the system. It can be as simple as sharing, "You know what I think really happened?" Interviewing the "ghosts," like a former pastor or boss, will yield a different perspective that can be shared as a corrective to a toxic narrative: "Let me share with you how ___ remembers it." Certainly you'll want to ask permission to share in order to not violate a trust.

One powerful, and redemptive, way of exorcising ghosts is to absolve the IP or the scapegoat at the center of old secrets that keep the system stuck. The function of blame fosters irresponsibility, and ghosts and secrets often enable that. Long dead family members can be blamed for the lack of success of individuals in the family, or, of a whole generation! As long as they are kept "alive" as ghosts in the system, people can choose to not take responsibility for their own fate. I know of one pastor who, after some ghost hunting, chose to exorcise a shame-related secret that kept the congregation stuck on issues related to anyone occupying the position of "pastor" in the congregation. This pastor invited a former pastor, who functioned as "ghost" in the narrative of the congregation, to the annual church homecoming one year. Merely naming the pastor's presence and his place in the history of the church served to shift the story and "out" the negative demonizing narrative maintained by some members.

Engage in selective disclosure

I like Peter Rober's concept of selective disclosure as an approach to dealing with secrets is a system. It can help invite others to participate in exorcising the ghosts. "The concept highlights that what we are dealing with is a multifaceted continuing process in time: a process filled with tensions, small decisions, and good intentions. It refers to a process of selection as to whom to tell what, how much to tell, when to tell, and so on," wrote Rober. It takes into account the reality that what is needed is not just more more information, rather, it is attention to emotional process that creates a dialogical space in which questions can be asked and some things can be said, without requiring, or demanding, that everything is revealed.

The concept of selective disclosure takes seriously the potential destructiveness of "outing" secrets while making space and opportunities for a  safe way in which people can deal with sensitive "family" issues. This approach removes the toxic element of willfulness and coercion on the part of the leader and helps create a more open, safe, and honest environment in which to talk about the ghosts in the system. In this way leaders can provide "a dialogical space in which people listen to what is said, accept that not everything can be said, respect that there are good reasons why things cannot be shared, and are open to whatever is said that has not been said before. Such a view based on the concept of selective disclosure invites compassion and empathy and recognizes secretholders as well as those who do not know in their struggle to find stories they can live with" (Pelias, 2008, cited in Rober, et al. (2012)).

All leaders will need to deal with "ghosts" in the system at one time or another. Those that impede the leader's effectiveness and maintain pathological patterns of dysfunction in the form of "secrets" are often the most toxic to a system. Leaders do well to respect the power of secrets in a system, and the potential consequences of unlinking them from the functions they serve in a system. But leaders are also called to foster health and responsibility in the systems they serve. On occasion, leaders may find themselves functioning as ghost hunters and exorcists in order to bring about release and redemption in the system.


"The emotional burden of secrets. Consequences for somatic health and implications for health care," by Wismeijer AA, Vingerhoets AJ. Journal Tijdschr Psychiatr. 2007;49(6):383-9.

"Family Secrets," Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 25th 2007.

"The Power of Secrets," Evan Imber-Black. Psychology Today 31.4 (Jul/Aug 1998): 50-53+.

"In Search of a Tale They Can Live With: About Loss, Family Secrets, and Selective Disclosure," Peter Rober, et al. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy38.3 (Jul 2012): 529-41.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Triangles in the emotional field

Students of Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) learn early about the importance of triangles in relationship systems. The concept of the emotional triangle is one of the original eight basic concepts in BFST. So foundational to the theory of emotional process is the concept of emotional triangles that it is often said, “If you understand triangles, you understand the theory.”

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Your Mother Was Right: Life's Not Fair (and sometimes, you shouldn't be)

Most of us carry a little tape in our heads of things our mothers said repeatedly. And sometimes we repeat those things, often unintentionally mimicking mom’s voice. One of those things your mother probably said, especially if you had siblings, or, when little friends came over to play was, “Play fair!” But you likely remember what your mother also said on those occasions you protested “It’s not fair!” She likely quipped, as countless mothers have through the ages, “Life’s not fair.” (And, if your mother was like mine, she may have added, “Get over it.”).

One source of anxiety for many leaders is the need to be, or at least appear to be, “fair.” Adult employees or staff persons, like children, will cry “foul” when they feel they are treated unfairly. And reactive employees, or church members, will be quick to charge pastoral leaders with being unfair as a quick way to get a hearing or gain an advantage. The trap for any leader comes when he or she feels the need to live up to the expectation that it is the leaders’ job to always be fair, and to live up to what that means for everybody in the system. 

But the fact is, as your mother said, life is not fair. And, not everything is equitable or needs to be. What seems fair for one person or group in the system will seem unfair to another. And while I always say “Never question people’s motives,” I am also fond of reminding myself, “Never underestimate the power of the baser motivations.” On any given day, anxious persons will always choose what is best for them over what is best for the system. 

Recently a pastor shared his experience during a church business meeting in which a troubling and willful church member took the floor during a time of debate. As is typical during times of congregational crises, attendance during this particular business meeting was robust. Acting as moderator the pastor sought to keep things orderly and announced that each person would be allowed to speak three minutes for or against the issue under debate. The troubling member was the first to stand to have his say, but strongly protested that three minutes was not enough time to speak his case.

Not wishing to seem unfair, and thereby antagonizing the troubling member and his supporters, the pastor said that he would stick to the three minute rule, but would allow others to “give” the speaker their three minutes. Whereupon, starting with the man’s daughter, several people “gave” the man their three minutes, enabling him to go on to monopolize the business meeting for about fifteen minutes! 

In a moment full of anxiety, trying to appear “fair” (and likely with all good intentions about acting fairly) this leader effectively not only empowered the most willful person in the room, but also failed to challenge people to take personal responsibility for their thoughts and beliefs. The tactic failed to challenge persons to take a self-defining stance for their positions, viewpoints, or beliefs. Instead, this leader facilitated a “herding” mentality. Instead of each individual standing up and taking responsibility for him- or herself, many chose to allow another to speak for them. 

Leadership requires courage, and acting courageously in the midst of crisis is hard. But leaders need to remember that they are first responsible for the welfare and health of the system as a whole, and their own functioning in their leader position. Everything else is secondary: other people’s functioning, other people’s happiness, or, whether every decision is “fair” for every individual or group in the system. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Do you want to be great?

I have come to appreciate the cycle of blockbuster best-selling leadership-in-organization books. To be honest about it, they’re good for business. It isn’t too long after one of these best-sellers hits the bookstores that I get an uptick in consultation requests. I used to get calls asking for help in getting organizational staff leaders to develop “habits” for being effective leaders. Then, the calls were about helping organizations and schools become “learning organizations.” 

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Five People You Need as a Leader

Leadership is lonely, the say. That is true to a real extent. Few understand the weight of responsibility that comes with leadership, or the shifts in relationship that can bring isolation and distance. But to say leadership is a lonely position does not mean one can do it alone. Even the most differentiated leaders need to be meaningfully connected to others in the work system, and, to a personal support system. Ask most leaders for the secret of their success and they'll likely tell you two things: "I surround myself with the best people," and "I have invested in a long-term peer support system."

When one is in a position of leadership one's network of relationships both expands and narrows. You'll be connected to a wider number and variety of people in the organization to some extent and in several capacities. At the same time you'll narrow the scope of your direct charges, your "inner circle" of second-chair leaders and associate staff. In other words, you need to be present to all but accessible to only a few. In the mix of those networks there are five people every leader needs to help her or him be more effective. 

You may discover these five people within your organization as work colleagues. Others may exist outside of the job environment. Regardless, they each will contribute something important to your success as a leader. 

1. The Encourager. Whether friend, second chair, spouse, deacon, or Mom, this is the person in your life, sometimes the ONE person, who says "You can do this." And because he or she genuinely believes it, you'll believe it too.  This may also be the person that helps you give yourself permission for taking a day off, or allowing yourself a "mental health day." Sometimes, this is merely the person who, regardless of circumstance, just likes you, no matter what. 

2. The Antagonist. While irksome, every leader needs an antagonist. Iron sharpens iron, and leaders may grow dull without the challenge antagonists provide. Antagonistic people may be reactive, but they are not necessarily unintelligent. If you can listen to their arguments and perspectives past the grating annoyance, they can provide correctives to your blind spots. Believe it or not, antagonists can be a resource to a leader, as long as they don't tip over into sabotage. 

3. The Skeptic. Most leaders are, by necessity and character, optimists. They likely would not have taken the job if they didn't believe in possibilities, potential, and ultimate positive outcomes. This is what helps leadership "sell" the vision that gathers others around a shared value and the tasks that make things happen. But an overly-optimistic leader with Pollyanna rose-tinted glasses does not serve an organization well. Skeptics can help you curb your enthusiasm in those times when operating out of realism is a necessity. You don't have to buy into a skeptic's perspective, but he or she can provide a balance to our tendencies for wishful thinking, self-referencing, and denial. 

4. The Lieutenant. God bless this type! Most leaders would be lost without them, and most organizations would fail to make progress without their energy, skills, and single-minded drive. The Lieutenant in the organization is the one who delivers on the dreams. She's the one who makes it happen. He or she is your "Number One." Give them a vision and they'll find the ways to make it a reality. Most of the time, the best thing a leader can do is get out of their way and let them do what needs to be done in the way THEY think best. 

5. The Sage. The best leaders tend to be smart, but none are omniscient. In fact, those who seek to be ("know-it-alls") very quickly cease to be effective as leaders. In leadership, a little bit of humility goes a long way. Yes, your staff and your constituents want, perhaps need, to believe you are smart and know what you are doing. But, the reality is that the challenges of leadership are more about knowing how to function than knowing answers. Effective leaders know there's a difference between expertise and wisdom. This is the value of the mentor, consultant, or advisor in the life of a leader. The Sage helps the leader with three critical practices: perspective, discernment, and self-understanding. 

Do you have these five people in your life? Where are they in your support networks--at the job or outside of work? Which do you need to cultivate to complete this company of the five people you need as a leader?

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Six "Tells" of the Differentiated Leader

I had an interesting conversation with a doctoral student during a recent trip. He was at the proposal writing stage of his study but struggling with putting his thoughts together. He said he wanted to "study something about differentiation of self and pastoral leadership." I said it sounded like he was at "the fuzzy stage of research," that point where we have a notion about what we want to write about, but not really sure what, exactly.

"Yes!" he said, "that's exactly where I'm at!"

 We talked some more about his ideas. I found it an enriching conversation, and it sparked in me some thinking on the issue. Recently, someone else had asked me "How can leaders know if they are functioning in differentiated ways?" That's a great question given (1) the limitations of our own subjectivity; (2) our propensity for self-referencing; and (3) the challenge of Bowen Family Systems Theory to "stick to observable facts" when interpreting emotional process.

One common error is the misunderstanding of striving to "be a self-differentiated leader." That is, achieving some mythic state of being. Leaders will do better to focus on what Murray Bowen called the "functional level of differentiation." I think that means that the "tell" of a differentiated leader is more about one's capacity to function in context and relationships and less about an over-focus on some internal state of being arrived at through gnosis, expertise, or practices.

Here are six ways to"tell" one is functioning as a differentiated leader: 

  1. Assess your pattern of functioning over time. Is there evidence of consistent self-regulation and effective functioning over a span of periods of high-anxiety, crises, stress, and times of relative calm? 
  2. Assess your repertoire for responding to rather than reacting against anxious behaviors and situations. Do have have a wider range of responsive options than you did previously? Can you both act differently and think divergently? 
  3. Assess to what extent and in what ways your functioning directly influences toward the better the functioning of people most closest to you. 
  4. Assess your capacity to consistently take a more principled position and hold it against the opposition of important persons in the system. Do you function consistently out of your values than out of what is expedient? 
  5. Assess the extent to which your functioning is increasingly mature and non-reactive in the face of stressors that used to trigger reactivity and poorer functioning. 
  6. Assess the extent to which other people close to your leadership position exhibit higher levels of functioning and less reactivity (fewer cutoffs, less enmeshment, less seriousness, reduced gossip, less secrecy, etc.). 

My new doctoral student friend thanked me for our conversation. He reported being encouraged and having some new ideas after our talk. I think he'll do well with what sounds like an interesting research project. I look forward to his research. I hope he'll discover additional evidences of a differentiated leader. I think we can always use a few more.

 Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Marcuson's 111 Tips to Survive Music Ministry

I've worked with several church musicians over the years, in various ministry contexts. I've been fortunate that most of those working relationships have been positive, collegial, and enriching. I'm doubly grateful in that some of my most interesting coaching sessions with pastors and staff often involve issues with "the music person" at the church. Church musicians tend to be a creative and artistic lot. Often it seems the biggest challenge with working with church musicians is that they are, well, creative and artistic. But, truth be told, church musicians have it just as challenging working with overly-cerebral, left-brained, tone deaf colleagues.

Second to the congregational youth staff person, church musicians may be the most prone to be the focus of anxieties stemming from everything from tastes in styles, performance issues, aesthetic predilections, or systemic scapegoating.

Margaret Marcuson's new resource, 111 Tips to Survive Music Ministry, is a great help to those working in music ministry. The tips are "right on": common sense, intuitive, and practical. The tips are organized by categories: worship, relating to the pastor, music, leadership, learning, pastoral care, and five more.

The ebook is available from Creator for the special limited time introductory price of just $2.99. You can purchase it here.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Ministry (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan. Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center's blog for theological school deans.