Blessed are the Irritated

accusing fingerImagine someone pointing an accusing finger at you. Perhaps that person is complaining about what is happening in the congregation that you lead. In your imagination, trace the tip of that accusing finger back along the person’s arm until you reach the torso. You will be led right to their heart! Ask, “What does this person value? What are their commitments?”

I often coach leaders to pay attention to their members’ irritations—and their own—with open curiosity instead of judgment or retreat. Sometimes lingering to attend to irritations makes us more keenly aware of what is troubling in our organizations. It also can give clues about what wants to emerge.

Lingering with irritation is not always good. Sometimes we create “water cooler” moments —opportunities for whining that may offer temporary relief but don’t lead to helpful action. This is not the kind of lingering I mean.

Many of complaints in organizations, other people, and ourselves—if we listen to them long enough—express values and commitments that to unrecognized, leaving people frustrated. By training ourselves to take time to hear the underlying values and commitments we may be able to move toward value-directed actions.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey point out that listening to complaints can be “a way to identify what people stand for; not just what they can’t stand.”

What Wants to Emerge

We are living in a time when we hear plenty of irritation expressed about leaders, organizations, and systems. Complaining often seems to be the only way to cope with the distress we feel when behavior violates values that we once thought sacrosanct.

Because of economic, ecological, and spiritual challenges we currently face, we can no longer, merely “download from the past.” Instead we must cultivate a willingness what is occurring clearly, moving toward the edges of what is known. Doing so requires, as Otto Scharmer puts it, “exploring the edges of the system and the self. At these edges, when we are lucky, we can sense a field of future possibility that is wanting to emerge.” Scharmer provides some personal and collective disciplines for “leading from the emerging future.”

Composing Our Leadership

In adapting some of Otto Scharmer’s work for retreats that I have led with clergy, one of the most powerful and useful exercises is the work that participants do in their reflective journals over the course of the retreat. Here are a few of the questions that you might find useful for composing your own leadership.

In your ministerial or lay leadership:

  • What is currently happening?
  • What is ending?
  • What wants to be born?
  • What irritates you the most about your organization or yourself as a leader?
  • What are the greatest sources of energy and inspiration?
  • Given your answers to above, what are the questions that you need to ask yourself?
  • Which of these questions, if answered, provides a pathway to what is next or what wants to emerge?

How Can We Sing a New Song?

Often, we can be stuck singing the same familiar tunes and telling the same tired stories about our congregations. Occasionally, we recognize that our irritations and complaints can become the doorway to new commitments that haven’t yet found a way to be expressed.

There is hardly a congregational leader today who doesn’t realize that something new wants to emerge from circumstances that may be familiar but no longer serve present needs. One example of moving from complaint to commitment is the work that Ron Wolfson and his colleagues have done to move from an institutional “transactional” style of Judaism to a “relational Judaism” that engages contemporary members in forming deeper relationships with one another, their leaders and God. This has meant letting go of some of the familiar tendencies to transact a fee-for-service kind of Judaism that made more sense to previous generations.

New Melodies

Our religious ancestors recognized that in times of “exile” from the familiar, that our familiar songs and stories may not be adequate enough. Remember these verses from Psalms 137:1–4, adapted into an African American spiritual:

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down
and there we wept when we remember Zion…
For there our captors asked us for songs…
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land”?

Likewise, to allow for something new and to make space for something that wants to emerge may require attending to and lingering in our complaints and irritations long enough to hear emerging melodies that can guide us forward in times of exile and uncertainty.

Lawrence Peers partners with religious organizations and leaders across many faith traditions to help them lead from a sense of purpose and innovate by aligning strategy and spirit. He draws from a rich array of methodologies as he facilitates whole systems, participatory strategic planning, staff team coaching, clergy coaching, and retreats. Larry joins the Congregational Consulting Group and some of his former consultant colleagues from the Alban Institute after four years of being a director of the Pastoral Excellence Network.

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