I often read discussions about the dynamics of congregational life, learning from the perspectives experts offer to help us understand what happens in relations among the people of God. I listen with empathic pain to colleagues who feel pushed to the limits of trying to understand the people they serve and want to love—people with whom they have trouble connecting.

Pastoral resources offer answers, but often we are uncertain which answer speaks to our own situation. Some resources suggest that large numbers of members in some congregations are dysfunctional; others insist that these congregants are immature in their thinking and need to grow up. Some authors, observing misguided folk who resist change and have trouble dealing with contemporary social issues of concern to the church, may declare that such members are unfaithful to the gospel’s call to outreach in our own time and place. Other writers see intense and intentional hostility.

Constructing Reality
I offer here a way of viewing these dynamics that involves neither dysfunction nor unfaithfulness. This view stems from an idea developed by Harvard professor Robert Kegan, “constructive-developmental theory.”1

This theory examines how humans take the experiences of life and put them together to give life meaning. As we see and experience new information, we decide how we are going to feel about it; we evaluate and assign it meaning. We fit new information and experiences into our lives in a way that makes sense to us. This is the constructive part of the theory—what it means to say that humans construct their own reality. It does not mean that there is no true reality to be known, only that we see through a glass darkly and have our own slant on events.

As we grow and age, we see life differently. We learn to think in increasingly complex ways. How we made meaning—that is, how we constructed reality—as children is not the same as how we do it as adults.

Although this growing process never stops even in late adulthood, at recognizable points in the journey things coalesce, and for a while life is seen and understood from that vantage point. Kegan says that at such intervals we are in “balance” because that is how the experience feels.2 Life is balanced, and despite normal daily turmoil, life for the most part hangs together and makes sense. This balance is not a conscious choice nor is it one quickly or easily changed.

These periods of balance are few. Each has characteristics that can be described, and as we describe them, we can learn to understand how people see life, what is meaningful to them and why, what makes them feel whole and completed as human beings, and what most threatens them. One tremendous benefit of such understanding is that it renders us less likely to take others’ behavior personally. Thus we have less need to be defensive, and it is more likely that we will be able to enjoy people as they are and experience more hope in our ministry.

People Who Need Power
Every church leader has, at one time or another, run into a person for whom power is the issue. These people are difficult to talk with in disagreements, seem to overreact, behave destructively without regard to whom they hurt, and once crossed, cannot forgive. Usually not many such individuals are found in one congregation, but the force they wield is considerable.

Is there a way to relate to such a person without using a term like “pathological” or “dysfunctional”? According to constructive-developmental theory, at one point of balance, having power is a key issue. When individuals see life from this perspective, their needs, wishes, and interests must be met if they are to feel completed as human beings, whole and safe.3 They believe that whether things go badly for them in life depends on their own actions, so they exert pressure on themselves to make life work the way they think it should, compromising only when it suits their best interests to do so.

If they fail to achieve the desired outcome, their self-contempt and the anger they turn inward are overwhelming. If they see someone else as the barrier to getting what they need, the anger directed toward the perceived adversary is likewise staggering. Life is tough for these people, for they cannot count on anyone but themselves. To make matters worse, they generally believe that most people are out to get what they need for themselves; the power-seeker must be faster or smarter or superior in some other way to avoid getting lost in the crowd. Remember, this is an unconscious process: he or she has not deliberately chosen to relate in a way we may consider harmful.

Imagine these people in the congregation, maneuvering the situation to feel good about themselves as the people of God. See them working hard to accomplish their intent, fearful that if they fail, life will be meaningless. Then imagine that they see you, in your role as church leader, as someone who gets in the way. Their perception of you as a roadblock would make them anxious and angry under any circumstances. But as a church leader, you are a figure they had hoped could be trusted and relied on to help them achieve their end (a sense of safety and wholeness). Their sense of betrayal may be immeasurable.

If we find ourselves up against such members who are causing great turmoil in the congregation, we may be tempted to tell them to think of others first or to think about what they are doing to the church. As reasonable as this statement sounds, we may be asking them to do something beyond their capabilities.

When my daughter was beginning to date, she was naturally given a curfew. Her response was to ask what would happen to her if she disobeyed. When I tried to focus instead on obedience simply out of affection for me, she still insisted on knowing the consequences and seemed to weigh those in deciding whether to honor the curfew.

I understand now that she was still seeing life from the perspective of meeting her own wishes in order to feel good and whole. I wanted her to consider another’s feelings first—not because it benefited her to do so, but because she cared more about my feelings than her own. This she had not yet learned to do.

Some people enter adulthood continuing to see life from this perspective. We may believe that their way of thinking is immature and not the optimal way of forming relationships. But to the extent that we judge rather than understand, we will lose hope in trying to connect to these children of God. It makes a big difference in how we are present with people if we see them as dysfunctional or if we see them making meaning in life differently than we do.

People Who Need Closeness
At the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum are those congregants who have no need of power and, in fact, often seem powerless in relationships. They seem to need other people to help them be whole persons; they get their identity from someone else. We often speak of those who relate in this way as having no sense of a self separate from others, or of being fused. From the perspective of autonomy (self-differentiation), it could be said that these people are too dependent on others, have no opinions of their own, and exhibit groupthink. But again, let’s look to constructive-developmental theory for another perspective.

Kegan’s theory allows for a “balance” in which a person needs someone else in order to feel completed as a human being. As people let go of their thirst for power to meet their needs and interests, they learn to share the reality of who they are with other people. In fact, these people now need someone else to make them feel whole.4 An autonomous or self-differentiated person might look at these people and see too much closeness. But to a person who constructs life this way, closeness is as necessary as breathing. Withou
t it, he would cease to exist.

So imagine again a church, one made up largely of people who exhibit this need. Imagine that they have, for the most part, been in the congregation for many years and see it as their second home. Over the years they would have together built up traditions and rituals that symbolize their closeness. This closeness is, for them, a faithful response to the gospel; it is what Jesus meant in speaking about unity. Therefore, anything that threatens these relationships, and the shared traditions that have held them together, is not faithful.

Pastors may be uncomfortable with the way some people talk about Jesus (“he is my friend”), and want to enlarge that view, open it up to a more complex understanding of the otherness of Christ. However, if a person needs another person for her to feel completed, she will tend to have a certain conception of Jesus—as the friend who talks with her in the garden. It will be hard for her to see Jesus in any other way and still feel loved by Jesus.

Since this way of understanding life is a balance most people will experience at one time or another in their lives, younger (or newer) people in the church may well see life from this perspective. However, because they are of a different generation, or because they have not been part of building the older traditions, they will seek to build new traditions meaningful to them. Their ways may clash with the older traditions, and we may assume that the “older” folks think differently from the “newer” folks. While their preferences may differ, if the newer people need other people to enable them to feel completed, they are seeing life from the same fundamental perspective as long-time members. The content may be different, but the focus, the basic way of making meaning, is the same. Understanding this similarity may help us build bridges between the often opposing worlds of older and newer church members.

Moving Cautiously
Autonomous people sometimes have difficulty relating to “people who need people,” for their emotional demands can seem unending if we do not understand their perspective. This is especially true if we feel that they are asking us to form relationships as they do so that they can feel more comfortable with us. We may even be tempted to insist that they see as we do and to tell them they should become less dependent on others. They would not, however, hear this statement as it was intended. They would hear an indictment, a judgment, that they are not doing enough in their relationships. Thus, rather than speaking a liberating word to them, we would add to their burden. We would also appear to be pushing them even further away.

In using constructive-developmental theory, I do not mean to imply that pathology does not exist. Rather, the theory has challenged me to move more cautiously when labeling people and situations, to try to understand rather than judge. Within any perspective (balance) there can be a wide range of health/dysfunction; there can be a wide variety of preferences for relating (for example, as introvert or extrovert). People in the same balance will not necessarily agree in their opinions or feelings. What they will hold in common is that particular aspect of life they need to make them feel they are completed human beings. This theory provides one way of understanding people regardless of generation, gender, vocation, education, or locale. It describes the basic human experience of relating with the world, and how that changes (or stays the same) as we age.

Paths to Understanding
Viewing people through the lens of this theory helps us to understand why people defend what they defend, why certain values or prerogatives are important to them—and why we cannot always make ourselves understood, since we address people from our own perspective and fail to understand that it is not theirs. The lens can also allow us to see what is within our power to change and what is not.

People do not move easily from one way of constructing reality to another. The journey is long and difficult, for the way one has organized and understood the world to fit together and make sense must disintegrate if a new balance is to take its place. It is simply not within our power to make this shift happen for other people. We may learn to communicate in ways that are more meaningful to others, and we may learn how better to provide a blend of support and challenge that encourages the journey; but we cannot give life to the growing process for another human being.

Some may hear this caution as an added burden, for if the journey is long and difficult, what hope have we for the problems with which we struggle in our parishes? This question does not necessarily, I think, get to the heart of what most troubles us. Understanding other perspectives encourages us to be present with people, to create the space that allows the Holy Spirit to bring mission and ministry to life among people just as they are, while we continue to uphold (without judgment) the idea that there is always more to the story. If we must see or hear people responding to the gospel in a certain way for us to feel good about our ministry, then that need may be part of our own journey that needs reflection and prayer. We may be trying to carry a burden that is not ours to bear.

Attending to how all these differences are brought to life in the congregation will help us move more gently through the lives of the people we serve. It may also encourage us to be gentler with ourselves when, facing our own limitations, we are exhausted or puzzled by the experience.

If we are able to understand how people see from their perspectives (which usually means understanding how they see without judgment on our part), we will be able to teach and preach and practice partnership in ministry in a way that allows the greatest possibility for new life and growth. As we struggle to gain insight into the world of others, we will at the same time be given new insight into our own. 

1. This theory is introduced in detail in Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self: Problem and Process in Human Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), and applied to contemporary societal issues in Kegan, In Over Our Heads: The Mental Demands of Modern Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994).
2. Kegan, Evolving Self, 43–44.
3. Kegan, Evolving Self, 89–95.
4. Kegan, Evolving Self, 95–100.