The Rev. Dr. William “Bill” Kondrath is the author of Facing Feelings in Faith Communities (Alban, 2013), the co-editor of the Journal of Religious Leadership, and a consultant and trainer with VISIONS, Inc. He has done consulting and training in more than a hundred Jewish and Christian congregations around the world.
He recently answered questions about his research and his passion for helping communities of faith explore the place of emotion in their life together.
Q: What is the importance of facing our feelings?
There are two main reasons.
First, our feelings give us important information about what we need as individuals. In Facing Feelings, I describe six emotions that affect us regularly. Each invites a reaction. Sadness tells us that we have experienced, or are anticipating, a loss. It invites us to grieve and to seek comfort. Fear tells us that there is a real or imagined danger and that we should seek protection, support, or reassurance. Anger tells us that we have experienced a violation of boundaries or expectations. It invites us to set limits or to renegotiate expectations. The feeling of peace is about being centered, connected to God, self, and others, and invites us to remain focused, and connected. Power or agency is about competence and ability. Though it doesn’t sound like an emotion, it is the feeling I have when I am about to do, or have just completed, a difficult task. Agency is like The Little Engine that Could — it invites me to foster my own competence and to empower others. Joy is feeling of gratitude, awe, and wonder that invites me to relish happiness and share it as appropriate.
But it’s not just personal understanding that’s important. Our feelings also clue other people in to what we are experiencing and what we may need. When we express our feelings in ways that are congruent with what we are experiencing — when we are emotionally transparent — our communication is clearer and more direct. And this enables us to build and deepen our relationships.
I believe our emotional software has the capacity to work properly. Infants are clear in their expressions of feelings, and we most often know from what they express, even without words, what they need. But that changes as we get older. Parents and siblings (and later teachers, clergy, and other adults) tell us that certain emotions should not be expressed, and over time, we learn to substitute a more acceptable feeling for the one we are experiencing.
That can have severe unintended consequences. On a personal level, it can be psychologically harmful. When we substitute, we don’t receive what we want or need in return. For example, when we substitute the expression of sadness for our experience of anger, we may receive comfort instead of a renegotiation of boundaries or expectations. Not allowing the expression of the full spectrum of feelings also stunts the development of community.
I should underscore that it’s important that feelings be expressed in culturally appropriate ways. Physical and emotional violence, shame and blame, are not the same as letting someone know that I am angry.
Faith communities can read about emotional competence and invite their members to talk about their family histories of expression and prohibition of feelings. Men and women can discuss how gender influences the experience, expression, and prohibition of various feelings. Church boards can ask which feelings are more likely to be valued and which feelings are least likely to be welcomed. Bible study groups can ask what emotions are being expressed in the passages they are studying. The Psalms are rich in the expression of the entire spectrum of feelings. The e-book, Congregational Resources for Facing Feelings, discusses how various groups and ministries would operate more effectively if they took feelings seriously. There are chapters on church boards, children’s formation and worship leaders, teens and youth ministers, bible study groups, newcomers, stewardship planners, and congregational consultants.
It’s also important to practice these skills. Leaders and committee chairs can be emotionally transparent and foster the expression of feelings in meetings. They can model the belief and practice that cognitive and emotional competence are necessary for making sound decisions, for achieving buy-in, and for building community.
Q: What do you most hope that people gain from this book?
Feelings receive a bad rap in much of North American society. Leaders are accustomed to asking people: “What do you think?” and “What should we do?” The emphasis is on cognition and behavior. I hope Facing Feelings in Faith Communities and Congregational Resources for Facing Feelings will give people the tools to build emotional competence and make it more acceptable to acknowledge feelings along with their cognitive and behavioral skills.
I often tell people in anti-racism and anti-oppression trainings that the barrier to greater equality and liberation is not poor thinking, but blockage that comes from being afraid, angry, or sad. When we know our emotions, trust them, and learn to hear and respond to the emotions of others, we will see major advances in our works of social justice and the restoration of equality and dignity. Emotional competence and emotional transparency are doorways to deeper relationships across differences and keystones in building the beloved community.