One of the givens regarding healthy congregations is that they have a clear identity. Imagine a congregation that understood its missional identity to be an affectively competent community of people in order to more vibrantly reflect all that the Creator intended humanity to be.
Such a congregation would work to train its leaders and to encourage all its members to learn about their own feelings and to be responsive to the messages their feelings carried. The central organizing principle of this congregation—the way it identified itself and the image it held out to the wider community—would include serving as a resource for others who wished to become more affectively competent. Such a congregation would be a great gift to the community in which it was located. Individuals and groups who were stuck in patterns of poor communication might turn to such a congregation to get support and coaching in order to break through those patterns by seeing how their feelings blocked them from hearing one another. And because the messages that feelings carry are often opportunities to deepen relationships, faith communities could deepen the bonds among members and open new opportunities for relationships with people beyond their membership.
For a community to discern that affective competence lies at the heart of its missional identity does not mean that it creates this understanding ex nihilo, out of nothing. Rather God has given feelings, or the neurological and emotional software of affective interactions, to all human beings. Discerning a missional identity based on affective competence would mean that a community feels called by God to develop that particular skill as the living embodiment of the divine in its corner of the world. Should a community choose affective competence as its missional identity, it should embrace affective competence fully. In the same way that a great artist would not think to dip her toe into beauty, but rather would embrace beauty in its fullness, so a faith community should embrace its missional identity fully-expressing it in every aspect of its life and ministry.
Even if a faith community did not choose to make affective competence its organizing purpose or missional identity, a faith community benefits when its members become more skilled in recognizing their own feelings and the feelings of the other members. In such a community, communication is more direct and effective. Meetings run more smoothly. The causes and dimensions of conflict are more identifiable and thus more appropriately engaged. Whatever the missional identity (for instance, “being a place where it is safe to have hard conversations,” or “expressing our faith through the gift of music”), people will be better equipped to live that identity if they are affectively competent. The members of such a community would have the added benefit of building deeper relationships with one another, because they would be attending to the affective dimensions of each person in the community.
It is my deep belief that the work of developing affective competence should not be relegated to one corner of the faith community, such as the governing board or adult education. To do so would be analogous to focusing on the health of only one part of the body, for example the respiratory system, or going to the gym to develop only one’s left bicep.
I am suggesting a holistic or systemic intervention, a change that will touch every part of the community over time. Certainly each congregation will need to consider where it makes most sense to begin this work, or if it has begun, how to strengthen the affective competence in that area and then expand into the other sectors of the faith community. As with developing many other skills or competencies, the initial work seems difficult, because it means breaking old habits. Most people also feel self-conscious at the beginning, because developing affective competence involves slowing life down and being very intentional. It is a little like first learning to ride a bike, learning to knit, or beginning to throw clay. One needs to take a step at a time. The process certainly doesn’t look fluid for most beginners. And when we compare ourselves to those who are already proficient, we may feel inept and discouraged.
For those who have such fears, I would say that there are few new endeavors I have tried that have had a more immediate and more profound payoff. I have also seen significant and direct results for participants in all the workshops and retreats I have led. That is not to say anyone comprehends the whole process right away. At the same time, nearly everyone who earnestly desires to improve his or her affective competence finds some very practical way in which a relationship takes a turn for the better. Congregations that embark on this work have more energy and focus. In short, the struggles bear fruit, fruit that will last, for the work that we are about is making greater use of the gifts that the Creator designed into our very being. When we are becoming more affectively competent, we can be sure we are about God’s work. We are participating in the mission Dei, the mission of God.
1. I will leave for those more schooled in science to elucidate the question of sociopaths or others with severe emotional dysfunctions. The point I am making is that affective functioning is as universal to humankind as is cognitive or behavioral functioning, and as important-though it is often less valued for reasons I have described elsewhere.
2. “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name” (John 15:16).
For Reflection and Discussion
1. How would our congregation be different if leaders and members discerned God is calling us to becoming more affectively competent? How would such competence change the way we relate to the wider community?
2. Where might we focus our efforts to grow in our affective competence? What habits would we need to break? What gifts of our congregation would be strengthened?
This article is adapted and excerpted from Facing Feelings in Faith Communities by William M. Kondrath, copyright © 2013 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved
See also “Becoming an Affectively Competent Congregation”
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Facing Feelings in Faith Communities
by William M. Kondrath
Facing Feelings in Faith Communities is based on a simple premise: We have emotions because we need them. God created us as affectively competent beings, William Kondrath argues, to help us understand our world and to give appropriate signals to people around us about what we are experiencing. When we express our feelings clearly, other people can more easily respond in ways that are helpful to us, thus enhancing our relationships and the work we might do together. Kondrath invites us to explore six feelings—fear, anger, sadness, peace, power, and joy—through poetry, meditation on an evocative drawing, as well as through his own analysis of each feeling.
God’s Tapestry: Understanding and Celebrating Differences
by William M. Kondrath
Our differences are our greatest blessings and our greatest challenges, maintains William Kondrath, Episcopal priest and seminary professor. Theologically and ecologically, differences foster life and growth, but discord within denominations and congregations frequently have to do with the inability of individuals and groups to deeply understand and value differences.
Spiritual Wholeness for Clergy: A New Psychology of Intimacy with God, Self, and Others
by Donald R. Hands, Wayne L. Fehr
The authors combine clinical psychology and spiritual direction to create a practical model of spirituality that integrates theology, psychology, and an understanding of individual frailties in a new way. Spiritual Wholeness draws on counseling experience with more than 400 clergy and pinpoints the human problems, traps, and temptations awaiting those who choose the clergy role. Clergy will learn to develop and maintain a psychologically healthy spirituality in relationships with others. Judicatory executives and therapists working with clergy will gain insight into addiction problems and how to help clergy move toward greater emotional and spiritual health.
Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations
by Karen A. McClintock
In Shame-Less Lives, Grace-Full Congregations, author Karen McClintock invites readers to become shame-less, so they can assist others in a congregational system to find a life of joy and grace.
McClintock explores shame as a theological and psychological emotion, defining it as “a feeling of unworthiness in the sight of God or significant others.” While guilt says, “I made a mistake,” shame says, “I am a mistake,” she explains.
Learn more about personality types – your own and others.
Then put that knowledge to work motivating and equipping leaders and volunteers in your congregation.
November 12 – 14, 2013, Holy Family Retreat Center, West Hartford, CT
Leader: Linda Rich, Alban consultant