Author: Philip Amerson
Clergypersons flourish in relationship to the microcultures in which they live and work. Emotionally healthy faith leaders can and do contribute to the creation, and sustaining, of strong and resilient congregations and communities. It is also the case that strong and resilient congregations and communities contribute to the wellbeing of a clergyperson. Congregations are one of our societies clearest examples of a microculture; and many congregations carry multiple microcultures as recognized through their stories, rituals, economies and governance structures.
There is reciprocity between the leader and a congregation, of course. It is interesting to observe that often a clergyperson who has struggled or suffered with a sense of self-worth and vocational clarity in one setting will, upon moving to another place of work, exhibit a sense of vibrancy and conviviality not known previously. And, yes, I have also observed clergy who upon relocating, have fallen into a sense of despair and malaise not experienced in the previous place of engagement. This does not discount personality traits, an individual’s tendency toward melancholy or exuberance, but rather suggests that the institutional and social situation in which one works often may contribute to a sense of well-being.
This is not to say microcultures (congregations, chaplaincy settings, etc.) hold any ultimate determinative power in shaping the wellbeing of the person who works within them. People create cultures, together with others. Each person brings gifts and limitations of understanding. People, clergy and laity alike, learn and carry forward the artifacts of a culture. These are often best discovered lodged in the informing stories of a place or in the rituals practiced. Clergy have the remarkable responsibility/opportunity/ challenge to live and work in such congregational microcultures. Constructed as they are around shared beliefs, rituals, ideas, values, mores and customs, microcultures are malleable by their very nature.
They are also durable. Old patterns, dysfunctions and group alliances endure for generations as Rabbi Edwin Friedman suggests so helpfully in his writing.[i] Often in my pastoral experience I would jokingly ask, who were those persons seven generations back who were so stingy or, sometimes I would wonder, who were those ones who were so visionary that gave us this space for imagination?
Thus, for the clergy leader there is always need of an interpretative and imaginative examination of the microculture at play beneath the everyday activities, gossip, leadership structures and rituals, great and small, in the congregation.
Long before Friedman wrote of Family Systems Theory, sociologists like George Simmel identified the value of small scale human interactions through dyads, triads and interest group networks. More recently, Edgar Schein at MIT’s Sloan School includes the importance of small scale interactions in his work Organizational Culture and Leadership.[ii] Schein identifies microcultures as one of four critical dimensions to be considered in seeking to understand organizational patterns, leadership responses, and change opportunities.
New studies about the importance of microcultures are appearing, especially in areas of health care and education. Jason Fletcher at the University of Wisconsin recently wrote of this as follows.[iii]
“These ‘small worlds’ of influence are known to have substantial impacts on health—as shown by numerous careful, gold-standard empirical studies… The usefulness of microcultures will depend on how we think health behavior change can best be accomplished. If we believe that a lack of information—about the dangers of smoking, the best hospital, the importance of a healthy diet—is a key factor for why we see poor health outcomes, then using broad culture outlets to make the information case, and relying on so-called ‘weak’ social ties (i.e. acquaintances, but not best friends) is a useful strategy.
There is also considerable recent research on microcultures and health emerging from many sources in Great Britain and other European settings.[iv]
Patrick Cullen of Canada’s Point of Care Foundation notes the value of being attentive to microcultures in the realm of healthcare, when he speaks of the urgency of slowness. Cullen writes that “top-down transformation creates little positive change” and goes on to suggest “leaders need to slow down and trust frontline staff to improve care for patients.[v]
Today, too often, the anxiety expressed by clergy, laity and denominational leaders about the future of religious institutions tends to move them too swiftly past the very anthropological analysis that is of value. Being attentive to microcultures where they work and reside can be another contributor to the health of pastors and congregations. Twenty years ago, Rabbi Friedman spoke of leadership in the “age of the quick fix.” If anything, congregational “fixes” seem to be being offered at an even more frenzied pace today. Many clergy find themselves asked to implement programs for “success” or “fruitfulness” or “renewal” that are even more devoid of basic attention to underlying dynamics than those deplored by Friedman a generation ago.
The call to consider congregational microcultures is a call to the urgency of slowing down and being attentive for that which is easily overlooked. In the next two posts we will look at the irony of congregations that may bring health to parishioners but result in ill-health for clergy leaders and where there might be clues as to discovering the shape of congregational microcultures.
Philip Amerson is a retired United Methodist pastor and theological educator having served as president of Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary and Claremont School of Theology. He currently lives and works in Bloomington, Indiana. For over twenty-five years he served as pastor in urban and university settings. He has also taught in a number of university and seminary settings and been engaged in a wide array of research and consulting efforts. You can read more of his thoughts at philipamerson.com.
[i] Friedman, Ed, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, New York: Guilford Press, 1985 and A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, New York: Seabury, 1997.
[ii] Schein, Edgar, Organizational Culture and Leadership, New York: Jossey-Bass, 2010),
[iii] Fletcher, Jason, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “Microcultures of Health,” (http://www.rwjf.org/en/culture-of-health/2015/01/understanding_microc.html), January 6, 2015.
[iv] See for example, Mikelyte, Rasa and Alisoun Milne, “The role and influence of micro-cultures in long-term care on the mental health and wellbeing of older people: a scoping review of evidence“, Quality in Ageing and Older Adults, Vol. 17 Issue: 3, pp.198-214, 2016.
[v] Cullen, Patrick, (https://www.pointofcarefoundation.org.uk/blog/the-urgency-of-slowness/).