On my second Sunday as pastor of the church, Oscar said to me, “Well, you have been here two Sundays and you haven’t come to see me yet.”

Though going by to see Oscar was on my list, after his comment I decided to wait two more weeks before I went by his home. I didn’t want a “squeaky wheel” to get used to me jumping through hoops on his timetable.

After I sat down on his couch, the first words out of Oscar’s mouth were, “I’m your church troublemaker.”

I laughed and said, “Oh, I bet we are going to get along really well. I’ve been known to make a little trouble myself.” I laughed again.

Truth be told, Oscar was a bit of a troublemaker in a strange kind of way. He proved to be the whistle on the steam boiler.

Of course, every church has an Oscar or two. My temptation was to view this elderly man as a pain in the back side, a splinter with puss all around, one to be isolated and ignored as spiritually immature, more trouble than he was worth. And there was plenty of evidence to support this dismal assessment.

But I knew better. Viewed through the lens of family systems theory, Oscar was the whistle on the steam boiler: When pressure built up in the system (church), old Oscar would sound off and bellow out his angry hot air. Like a canary in the mine, Oscar was a friend in disguise.

The congregation I served was a bit dysfunctional in that people failed to take responsibility for their own feelings and thoughts. This was especially true among senior adults in the congregation. And so, when things in the church did not suit them, older adults spent a good bit of time talking on the phone – and talking to Oscar.

Instead of talking to the pastor or Sunday school teacher or committee chairperson, they picked up the phone and started calling one another – knowing dependable Oscar would eventually express their views in a small volcanic eruption – and they could remain anonymous.

Oscar was more than glad to oblige. He enjoyed his “leadership role” in the church. Interestingly, he never tended to get upset when he sounded off; he would just give you an earful and walk away. If the pressure was really significant among older adults, he would threaten to leave the church.

Oscar was my friend. He alerted me to tensions in the older adult segment of the congregation. This was enormously helpful. Thanks to Oscar, I always knew how older adults in the church felt.

This reveals the great advantage in viewing congregational life through the lens of family systems theory. Things are never as they seem in a congregation because congregations have hidden lives. We know this from marriage; when a couple argues over taking the trash out, it is rarely about the trash.

In the case of my congregation, as I became a trusted pastor, more people in the congregation began venturing into my office – and Oscar sounded off less often. I developed a couple of listening sessions for people to simply tell me what was on their minds. The first few were planned on Sunday evenings – when the percentage of senior adults was high (and Oscar didn’t attend because he didn’t drive in the evening).

At first, no one in the listening sessions wanted to talk, and when they talked it was about inconsequential matters. With time, as trust built among us, these sessions began altering the communications systems in the church, especially among older adults.

When the listening sessions produced a consensus about something that needed to be changed, and could easily be changed, I got busy and changed it. Thus, senior adults began to understand that talking directly to the pastor had a significant benefit for them.

No, I never displaced Oscar from his position of “great esteem” in the congregation – nor did I want to. But his whistle-sounding activity was significantly reduced in the church as we all learned a more responsible and effective way to communicate.

And what of the pastor who does not possess a family systems lens? Well, bless his heart, he spends all his time ignoring Oscar and the concerns he expresses – which only ramps up the concerns of anonymous senior adults – which increases the pressure in the system – which empowers Oscar to sound off more often and more loudly – which ramps up …

The ministerial treadmill is a killer. Ministers who see congregational life through the lens of family systems theory are much more likely to survive in the tangled web of ministry.

Ron Crawford is president of the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. This column first appeared on his blog.

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