The HEART of Vital Signs

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A serious understanding of the New Testament must encompass a grasp of a Jewish religious sect called the Pharisees.  Even a light reader of the New Testament quickly discovers that Jesus is often plagued by the group.  Jesus’ radical ideas of freedom, human worth and dignity cause conflict with standard religious groups of the day as well as government authorities.  When it came to opposing Jesus, the Pharisees usually lead the charge.

The Pharisees were a necessary group.  The Jewish people were no longer self-governed and the Pharisees offered much needed guidance and interpretation of God’s Law.  Long before Jesus’ time, the Jews had suffered a great military defeat that resulted in an exile to Babylon and the destruction of the First Temple.  When the Persians defeated Babylon 70 years later, King Cyrus allowed the Jewish people to return and rebuild the Temple.  The Jewish people regained culture and worship. However, they did not regain the right to govern themselves.  A foreign rule oversaw every aspect of their lives, including the rebuilding of the Temple.  This brought into question the Temple’s authenticity.  Aside from this problem, the Jews brought with them two practices that evolved during the exile:  the house of prayer and the house of study.  The house of prayer was a place for morning, afternoon and evening prayer.  The house of study was a place to explore the Torah.  The Second Temple evolved into a place for liturgical practice only.  The priestly class supervised the Second Temple.  And who oversaw the study of the Torah and became experts in the law?  You guessed it, our friends the Pharisees. 

But who could blame someone for taking the Holy Writ under serious study and attempting to apply the deep wisdom to modern human life?  (Isn’t that equivalent to attending seminary?)  Pharisees guided the common Jewish people in the “how to” of living out the promises of God.  They duplicated their work by functioning as a political party, advocating the preservation of Jewish thought and culture in a world dominated by Roman practices (the political authority of Jesus’ day).  Yet they sought peace with the Roman occupiers by discouraging any military force by the Jewish people.  Pharisees examined every aspect of Jewish life under the fine microscope of the Torah, constantly searching for more ways to please God.  Being a Pharisee wasn’t a bad deal, as a matter the Pharisaical way of life sounds like a blue print for the Christian faithful.  So why does Jesus have such harsh words for the Pharisees? 

The bottom line was lack of compassion.  The Pharisees truly believed that if all of Israel would adhere to their interpretation of the Torah (live right) then God would respond by sending the Messiah, who would establish God’s Kingdom on earth.  Naturally, the Pharisees believed that they had it right.  Instead of offering encouragement to those not quite on board, they offered judgment and harsh treatment.  This attitude is the root of Jesus’ disgust.  In addition, they assume that God’s blessings are to be earned.

“I am not sure exactly what heaven will be like, but I know that when we die and it comes time for God to judge us, he will not ask, ‘How many good things have you done in your life?’ rather he will ask, ‘How much love did you put into what you did?”
―  Mother Teresa

The United Methodist Church has rolled out its version of “right living” for churches called Vital Signs.  The check off list resembles God’s Kingdom on paper.  However, it does not address underlying attitudes, like compassion toward the least of these (children, elderly, immigrants, mentally challenged, for example).  Churches of any theological slant that adopt this attitude as a basis for ACTIVELY offering Christ will be the ones that thrive in this increasing multi-religious world.  The Pharisees had it right on paper but, according to Jesus, truly getting it right takes heart.


UMC needs Innovation and Innovation needs Vulnerability


The Pondering Prophet mascot is old (pictured above).  Not getting old, not slowing down…old.  This story illustrates my point.  I walked through his bedroom door (the interior garage door) to find him on all fours.  He looked like a new born calf.  When the exterior garage door rose for the morning release of the beast, he transformed from a newborn calf into a drunken sailor, walking sideways into the bumper of my car.  I was mortified.  I accompanied him throughout the yard so that his morning business was complete.  While I held him up in our back yard, I cried.  He’s old and every possibility ran through my mind…none of them good.  Anyway, I cried.  Not shed a tear, I was not just “upset”, I cried a river…loudly.   I live in a suburb with other homes as close as 15 yards from mine.  At any moment I could be heard sobbing by a neighbor leaving for work.   But I cried anyway; mostly because I needed the release but also because I felt safe.  All of my neighbors but one had dogs, most of them loved dogs and all of my neighbors loved (or had grown to love) old Moe.  I felt safe to cry.  More directly, I felt safe to be vulnerable, weak and unsure. My neighbors and I shared more than a property line; we shared a common passion and appreciation for the canine creature.  They would understand.  Heck, they may cry with me.  Reflection on that moment of vulnerability brought to my mind a blog post from Rev. Dr. Wes Magruder.  It was picked up by The United Methodist Insight.

Dr. Margruder’s sentiment

In his blog Dr. Magruder expressed his great doubt that the UMC can innovate.  He points out that the current United Methodist system is a “permission giving structure”; meaning blessings from certain people must at attained before new adventures are even considered.  And the UMC wants a sure bet.  The trouble is that the definition of a sure bet means numbers:  money counted and pews filled.  The UMC hasn’t been winning many sure bets these days.

Dr. Magruder makes a great argument.  And I too share the vision of a postmodern church that is not inhibited by the UMC rig-a-ma-roar.  But is there any redemption for our current set up?  Can we be United Methodist without the rig-a-ma-roar?  My suggestion beings with an exploration of a feeling called vulnerability, which is the key to successful innovation.

Dr. Brene Brown

Dr. Brene Brown is a PhD social worker that has written extensively on shame and vulnerability.  In her latest work, Daring Greatly, she speaks about the relationship between vulnerability and innovation.  Vulnerability is defined as the freedom to fail so that risk is welcomed, the anxiety risk brings is tolerated and if failure occurs the missteps become learning opportunities for other ventures (my original definition/run-on sentence!).  Dr. Brown’s amazing discovery on vulnerability within a system (that encourages innovation):  the vulnerability must be owned and exercised by the LEADERSHIP.  And that begins with an internal journey.  Dr. Brown speaks about a sense of worthiness that comes from within, not attached to the efforts, ideas or projects that someone may pour themselves into.  When a person knows they are worthy of love and are capable of loving, just knowing that they are enough fuels the sense of risk.  Risk becomes tolerable because those who venture toward innovation know that if failure becomes reality, if criticism is all they hear, they are still enough – they are still lovable, worthy, respected.  They are enough.  In this way vulnerability gives the courage to dare.

Dr. Brown broke it down quite plainly in her book Daring Greatly.

This idea is the opposite of a sure bet.  It means that leadership humble itself by telling tales of lessons learned rather than bragging about an increase in number from some past glory.  Or worst yet, bad mouthing the pastor that was before them or followed them because those numbers declined.  It also means that leadership speaks openly about risk, what it takes to tolerate the emotions that come with risk, and praise for those who risk and even fail.  Every new venture is presented to clergy and congregation as a risk, the opposite of a sure bet. Finally, bishops who practice the spiritual discipline of vulnerability choose districts superintendents who also practice vulnerability and would encourage pastors and laypeople to do the same.   This does not mean we do not think through new ideas, rather we make them welcome and we do not demand immediate success.

This attention to our inner journey and the freeing idea of vulnerable leadership creates a forum that allows for creativity, fresh ideas and innovation.  New ways of being the church that would capture the hearts of post moderns would be floated, modified and funded with hopes of eventual growth and economic sustainability.  Along the way the map may have to be modified, adjustments made and we will learn what NOT to do.  All of this courtesy of a spiritual discipline called vulnerability.

My vulnerability in the backyard yielded no human comfort.  Simply put, no neighbor heard or responded to my cry.  But the tears represented a release my sadness and fear.  Welcoming that moment of vulnerability enabled me to make that dreaded veterinarian appointment.  The outcome was positive.  Our pondering prophet mascot had an inner ear infection.  He is currently on antibiotics and steroids.  All is well.

May you welcome vulnerability today.

Pay attention to home happenings

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Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” ….er, I mean Telford…. “Come and see.” said Phillip.

Telford UMC is the epitome of a small country church.  It sets off State Route 34 in Telford, Tennessee.  Down the road and across the street is an abandoned train stop along a lonely track.  Half a dozen or so businesses once served this little community.  Now only Telford Diner still displays an “open” sign in the middle of many dilapidated storefronts. 

But don’t let the storefronts fool you.  Something new and exciting was happening at Telford UMC.  I asked for an interview.  They obliged.

Telford UMC is a United Methodist Church.  This means it participates in the Methodist itinerancy systemItinerancy dictates that pastors are sent or reassigned to a church every year.  These assignments are doled out by a hierarchy of superintendents (assigned to oversee small regions) and a bishop (assigned to oversee the larger region).   Telford is located in the Johnson City District which is the small region that is part of the Holston Conference, which is the larger region. 

During my interview with the leadership of Telford, they commented on the woes of itinerancy.  Much of the complaints sounded similar to a New York Times article from 1880.  At that time the Methodists were meeting to discuss amending the itinerancy system.  The article and Telford leadership expressed disappointment that relationships of trust are not cultivated because pastors do not stay more than 3-4 years.  (The average stay for mainline denominational pastors is 4 years.)  Although, itinerancy did work in their favor if they felt the pastor was not a good match for their pastoral leadership needs.  Telford, as many Methodist Churches, has had a long history of pastoral changes.

Enter Bishop Richard Looney.  Bishop Looney retired in 2000 from the highest ranks of the United Methodist Church.  After retiring as bishop he served on the Foundation for Evangelism at Lake Junaluska for 8 years. He came to Telford at the request of Bishop Swanson, and then realized that he wanted to serve a small membership again. The Telford leadership joked with me about his desire. They claimed it was an item on his bucket list.  In the United Methodist Church retired bishops rarely seek out small churches.  It is tradition that a bishop’s work load is equated with the status of their office. This means working in the upper echelons of the hierarchy. 

But Bishop Looney was open to something different.  Telford UMC was too.

 Telford soon discovered that doing something different meant giving up expectations.  Bishop Looney came with string attached.  He had prior commitments to the United Methodist Church at large that would call him away on Sundays and even weeks at a time.  Any other church may have complained or threaten a reduction in salary or turned him down.  Once again, Telford was open to something new and different.  For the first year The Reverend Millard Johnson filled the pulpit when Bishop Looney was absent.  After Bishop Looney had completed his time abroad, he returned to pastor Telford as a single pastor for two years. 

 Now Bishop Looney is ready to retire (or so he says).  The easiest maneuver for this 78-year-old pastor is to leave, as the itinerancy system would allow.  Every June new pastors are sent out and Telford would have gotten one.  But something better evolved.  Remember, Telford UMC is open to new things. 

Micheal and family

Enter The Reverend Michael Vaughn.  Michael Vaughn is a district manager for Pizza Hut, a father of five and a United Methodist local pastor.  Now he is the associate for Telford UMC, part-time of course.   He and Bishop Looney swap responsibilities every Sunday morning and Wednesday night.  Currently, Bishop Looney cares for the majority of pastoral needs. 

 With this division of labor, amazing things are happening at Telford.  Worship Leader and Lay Leader, Mark Cutshall reports that he enjoys the diversity of preaching and teaching.  He also has found time to train youth to work the sound booth because he has two pastors helping with worship planning.  Another example was found as I exited the worship center.  I asked why so many praise band instruments were off to the side.  Reverend Vaughn explained that he had time to revitalize the praise band because he was aided by Bishop Looney in the preaching and teaching department.  This effort makes him more accessible to the youth, which is a growing bunch at Telford (and not just because of the addition of Reverend Vaughn’s family!). 

During the interview I noticed Bishop Looney and Reverend Vaughn have a natural appreciation for one another.  Both comment that they have been students each of the other from time to time.  Bishop Looney did not realize that he was too comfortable behind the pulpit and followed Reverend Vaughn’s lead by adopting a lapel mic and preaching out front.  He reports a better connection with the congregation.  Reverend Vaughn has gleamed a great deal of wisdom from Bishop Looney’s years of service as well as his exhaustive expertise about the United Methodist Church. 

 The explosion of excitement and growth causes me to conclude that maybe Telford has stumbled upon one of many answers as the United Methodist Church addresses the drawbacks of itinerancy. 

 Itinerancy has been a long standing tradition for United Methodists.  It evolved because the expanding Methodist movement needed a pastor could cover a large territory, moving from church to church.  It further developed as a result of the explosive growth Methodism experienced as our nation moved west.  It has become a defining mark and part of the United Methodist ordination vows and polity. 

However, from a modern standpoint, itinerancy may have more draw backs as our culture changes.  Itinerant preachers of Wesley’s day were usually single men.  Today pastors have families that need dual incomes to survive.  Moving a pastor is difficult when a spouse is employed.  The view from the pew tells us that pastors need more time to build relationships (as submitted by the Telford UMC leadership).  Also, research shows that a longer pastorate produces healthier congregations.

 It seems obvious that The United Methodist Church would be wise to elongate pastoral appointments.  I propose that in addition to that wisdom, a serious investigation be underway to create a pattern of interim ministry opportunities, such as the one Telford UMC created.

Telford proudly displaying the results apple butter and soup canning. Proceeds go to benefit needy in the community.

 As Bishop Looney retires and Reverend Vaughn assists, a unique situation has birthed energy and excitement.  Lay people have a fresh breath of new leadership, while keeping consistency.  They have a year to say “goodbye” and “thank you” to Bishop Looney.  They also have a year to adjust to Reverend Vaughn.  Also, lay workers in the church have a year of extra pastoral leadership times two, loosening them up to invest in the future (like training sound booth workers and starting a praise band).  For Telford, this is a one year blessing and a unique opportunity.

 I propose we identify churches that would benefit from a pastoral leadership boost similar to Telford’s experience.  Specific goals and time limits of a dual pastorate must be set.  Intentionality is key.  What could a church benefit from a year or two of extra attention from two pastors (not necessarily full-time)?  The church could start a new laity visitation program, a food pantry, begin ministry with a specific age group or ethnic group.  The chosen goal must be one that is sustainable beyond the time limit of a dual pastorate to ensure long term growth.  With this opportunity churches could dream, set the goal and accomplish big tasks, thus changing the church culture from a family chapel to a thriving missional community.

 Another organic benefit is the feeling that the denomination is investing in the local church.  No longer is the hierarchy something foreign.  Rather, it becomes a group of caring officials that studiously monitor the process and using the information to benefit other churches.  Bishops and District Superintendents gleam insight, brag on the success by highlighting the church’s efforts and use those pioneering churches as shining examples when encouraging other small churches to dream.

 I appreciate all the efforts to revitalize churches.  We are blessed with many experts who study the trends as well as serious scriptural analysis.  But sometimes I think God speaks to us through things happening right around the corner, like Telford United Methodist Church, located in Telford, Tennessee, population 10,745.

Why not go down swing’n?


Survival for ancient humans depended on the ability to observe, learn and apply the lesson.  Caveman see friend get eaten by bear.  Lesson:  do not go into caves.  Cavewoman notice corn grow from kernel.  Lesson:  plant corn kernels.  So on and so forth….  Through the painful process of trial and error lessons were learned. 

The fuel for that promotion of human life was fear of death or harm to the individual or the group.  It was all about survival.  Once something worked it was ingrained, even ritualized into the evolving culture.  The status quo was born.  (And for good reason, who wants to be eaten by a bear?)  Survival equaled safety equaled success. 



That ancient desire for survival translated into other arenas of life as time rolled on and human communities evolved. 

 In Jesus’ day, success was defined by being physically well (to be sick meant you were punished by God), gainfully employed in an accepted profession (to be poor was to be punished by God), and blessed with many children (no offspring meant punishment by God).  See the pattern here?

 Jesus’ time also had a status quo about God.  Firm was the belief that obeying the law with perfect execution would bring about the Messiah, God reigning among us.  Many different groups (Pharisees and Sadducees for example) and their interpretation of perfection shamed other groups and individuals as if to say, “If only those other people would get it right, then all would be right.”  The old ways of works righteousness were familiar, comfortable and predictable.  The lines were clearly drawn as to who was in and who was out.

 When Jesus arrives on the scene he attracts those on the out.  He offers them grace, not judgment.  The status quo is so upset they kill him. 

 Just like the religious hierarchy of Jesus’ day, we have applied our ancient survival skills to our institutions, thus protecting the comfortable, predictable status quo.  Its human nature and now it’s a study at two universities posted on Freakonomics.com.  The study made creativity, novelty and newness a goal in the problem solving realm.  According to this study when creativity was expressed, novelty made people uncomfortable (even though that was the goal!). The study revealed an assumption: new ideas and practicality are opposites.  Compounding that barrier to novelty is the social cost

The article ends with the suggestion that institutions would be better served if they took time to learn how to accept new ideas, rather than investing time and new monies into innovation alone.  (Freakonomics.com)

 Survival, predictability and safety have become the standard of some religious institutions.  Some do not take into account anything more than making a payroll or paying a mortgage.  Whew!  Made it this month, now let’s work on next month’s stuff (same old worship order, same old sermon line up, same old Wednesday night Bible study).  That kind of thinking burns out good leadership and grows complacency

 Thriving is balancing those creative dreams with a well laid plan.  Wise risk taking, investing in dreamers AND doers, weighing carefully the costs, dismissing thoughts of failures, builds trust, energy and openness.  Most main line denominations are dying; why not go down swinging hard?  We just might be surprised.

–from one pondering prophet to another–

Sunday after Sunday; What to preach to a dying congregation?



Leadership seems to be a popular topic in dying denominations. The United Methodist Church is no different. Adam Hamilton addresses an annual conference with a teaching segment that uses outdated computer hardware to illustrate his point. He begins with this statement (that I abbreviated) “change…or die”.  Now Adam goes on to tell great stories about what is happening at his church. It’s inspiring.  I’m sure many church leaders left that gathering fired up with new ideas and energy….. but what churches unwilling to change?


Those churches would never claim this but they have chosen to die.  Any attempts to introduce innovation may fire up a few but create a divide as conflict would erupt over any change.  To these churches new songs, new ministries and new people are threatening.  Adam Hamilton’s wonderful address offers very little to pastors who find themselves in the pulpit of a dying, stiff necked congregation. 


Even the best “leadership” events seem to boil down to “how many did you…serve, preach to, equip?” and every stewardship drive is centered on the offering plate.  Numbers.  Sad to say, but sometimes it feels like THE RIGHT NUMBER IS THE RIGHT AND ONLY GOAL….whether that pertains to participation numbers or proceeds from the weekly offering. 


Worse yet this emphasis gives the impression that a pastor’s worth as a servant of God is based on these numbers.  This is unfortunate because so many gifted and graced pastors are appointed to churches that refuse to innovate.  Those numbers of attendance and money that slowly decreased in the 90’s are now in a full tail spin.  Preaching revival and leadership in this environment is counterproductive.  What is a faithful preacher to do?


I humbly submit this idea for preaching.  Pastoral care and preaching are not separate disciplines; rather they are organic to each other.  Allow the pulpit to reflect the healing and hope for brokenness found in the soul, in other words preach pastoral sermons.  Pastoral sermons differ from sermons with other purposes by creating a safe place in worship for the “exile”, “firefighter” or “manager” to be addressed.  (see the post on Internal Family Systems).  To put it more clearly, allow deep soul inspection without judgment by the preacher. Take a look at these differences:


  • Pastoral sermons accept the tension areas in being human (grief & loss, shame & guilt, for example). This unites the congregation.  Everyone has felt guilt at some time or another.  Everyone has lost a dream at some point in their lives.  The tone is understanding and empathetic, thus creating safety.  Leadership sermons often praise the boldness of leaders (Biblical and otherwise) and shame others for not getting on board.  This creates division as congregants try to figure if they are in the leadership group or the slacker group.
  • Pastoral sermons create a safety that allows comfort through facing the tension (a focus on what is, not what should be).  In contrast, leadership sermons shoot for answers and instruction on how to overcome. 
  • Pastoral sermons introduce the grace of God as a balm of healing.  Leadership sermons point to God as a leader to be followed and imitated. 
  • Pastoral sermon primes the pump for deep stories of hurt and personal hopes to be shared. It encourages vulnerability of the congregation with the pastor and with each other, thus creating trust.  Leadership sermons inspire people to dream about the future of their church.


The task of preparing a pastoral sermon is really a change in the focus of preparation.  Exegesis is important and never let it be overlooked.  But the question of meaning making must take the stage at some point in the sermon creation process.  When that happens, choose a lens that struggles with humanness. 


FOR EXAMPLE  this week’s lectionary text


Mark 7:1-8. 14-15, 21-23        A sermon that is more leadership focused may hone in on the traditions of the Pharisees verses the warnings of Jesus. (Maybe contrast also some Old Testament background on hand washing ritual?)  The preacher may then call upon the church to examine the traditions they have created and provide a standard (from scripture) for doing so.  This would be a cautionary sermon or a self check sermon (for the church or individual).


A pastoral sermon would do the same exegetical work but ask the question:  what spiritual needs are met by NOT doing these things Jesus warns the Pharisees about?  Jesus is cautioning us about something to do with our souls, our emotions, our human needs?  What is it? A good question pondered…..


Dividing the scripture up by the three portions of warning we ask those very questions of the text.  Mark 7:6-8 addresses a betrayal of God.  Mark 7: 14-15&23 addresses betrayal of self.  Mark 7:21-22 addresses betraying communal peace.  (Sound like the greatest commandment?) Within the context of community ritual (hand washing), my take on the sermon would be about feeling spiritually hollow.  Just as hollow worship is useless (on the outside), we often feel useless on the inside.  At some point most congregants have felt nothing inside their soul, dead, dry and lost. The preacher would present this human problem by claiming it for the congregation (everyone has felt this way; you are not alone) thus making worship a safe place for congregants to say to themselves what they would never utter in church:  “I feel empty inside.” Using the comparison of empty worship to an empty soul feeling, the preacher would address the human problem gently applying the balm of grace found in the hope offered by Christ.

Pastoral Sermon checklist

  • Does the sermon speak to the trouble associated with being human?
  • Does the sermon speak to something not readily shared in a group?
  • Does the sermon touch on emotion?
  • Is the sermon absent of judgement?  Do I use the word “should” alot?
  • Is God presented in a healing, hopeful way?


Preaching pastorally to a dying congregation may prove helpful if the preacher is searching for a paradigm for sermon preparation.  This paradigm keeps the focus off numbers.  But there is fruit.  The rewards are reaped when the pastor has more opportunities (given by the congregant) to listen to the soul, sit with their pain, and comfort their loss.  The “change” one would hope for in this situation is an openness among the congregants with each other.  The hope is to impact the church’s culture; making the community more open and sensitive to each other and God’s work among them.


—From one pondering prophet to another—


Maybe it’s time to move on pastor….


postit note goodbye

There is a different feel in the air when it’s time to move on from a ministry position.  It’s not that you had a bad day or that fatigue had caught your body and mind.  At best, you feel as if you have been exhausted.  It is time for fresh ideas, fresh insight and fresh blood.  At worse, the church or board has gone in a different direction.  You do not share their passion.  This story is a Japanese love story.  It may help you identify if the time to move on is now.

In the Japanese love story, The Crane Wife, a peasant sail maker is visited by an injured crane on a stormy night.  Unbeknownst to him, his care and release of the crane results in another mysterious visit during a second storm:  a woman at his door.  He cares for her and they become married.  This meets his deep need for companionship, for he had longed for a wife.  Later, when there was not enough food for two, she offers to weave for him a magic sail.  The only catch is that the weaving process must be done in isolation.  He agrees.  For a whole day and night, she weaves in silence and seclusion.  The proceeds feed them for six months.  When a pirate hears of this magic, he offers a sum that captures the interest of the sail maker.  Greed drives the sail maker to force his wife to again seclude herself and weave.  She had objected, stating that the process was too draining but his demands became unbearable.  This weaving took a long time.  For three days she wove in silence and seclusion.  Out of impatience the sail maker forces his way into the room and finds a white crane weaving the wind from its wings into the sails.  The startled crane wife flies out the window.  The sail maker loses his partner who knew him like no other and returned to loneliness.  The wife no longer felt safe.  The trust built when the sail maker cared for her as a crane and beyond was selfishly traded away. 

Just as the husband betrayed the wife, we betray ourselves.  We become more and more uncomfortable with ministry projects that drain us of our energy and creativity.  We bow to silly requests that eat away our time.  Our pastoral relationships are compromised because of politics. 

Experiencing these problems in ministry could be systematic of not setting proper boundaries.  If you feel that your boundaries are in place, then maybe it’s time to seek out other employment or service that feeds instead of drains who you are in ministry.

Have a good talk with yourself lately?


Spiritual Maturity through the lens of Internal Family Systems Theory

 We all talk to ourselves. Whether you perform a morning mantra in the mirror or a nightly review of the day, we all speak to ourselves internally. 

 The reason is because we have different parts that make up a whole.  There is a part of me that is very nurturing.  I find myself conjuring that voice when I’m feeling threatened.  Those internal words of assurance “talk me through it” or remind me of well taught coping skills.  There is another part of me that is very jealous of other’s success.  When that part surfaces, I have a conversation with it that is reassuring, yet appreciative of its contribution in making me who I am.

 This is just an iceberg tip when thinking about those internal conversations.  Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory is a helpful guide in understanding the human internal dynamic and spirituality.  The theory has found common roles that each of our internal voices play.  Learning to categorize internal voices in this framework is helpful as we attempt to create a safe place within ourselves. 

 Here’s a very introductive paragraph on Internal Family Systems (IFS) theory.  There are four roles or categories each identified internal voice will fit.  The protective/self management role is the manager.  Often the manager speaks criticism (positive or negative) focused upon improvement.  It also is interested in serving others over self.  The internal manager has a file cabinet of past experiences from which he/she will draw upon to protect the self.

The second role is an exile.  An exile is a side of ourselves that we do not which to share because that voice is weak, vulnerable or brings us shame.  My exiles are visual pictures of myself as a child and as a teenager.  The child is weak and needy.  The teenager is self conscience and angry. 

The third role is called into action when an exile is threatened and the manager is in over his/her head.  This voice is called firefighter.  The firefighter can be impulsive and seek out resources to soothe the pain of the exile. 

Finally, the theory predicates that each person has a self.  This is a leader that is capable of giving compassion, guidance, and acceptance to each of the parts.  The self is not enmeshed in the emotional drama; rather the self is independent and has a differentiated perspective.  Applying this theory to our internal dialogues means internal voices can be categorized as a manager, exile or firefighter and the self. 

Internal Family Systems

 What does IFS theory have to do with spirituality?

 The foundation for every human’s spirituality is the internal relationship we have with ourselves.  That relationship manifests itself in internal dialogue.  Those internal conversations reveal deeply held beliefs and values. Most importantly, it is an internal mirror.  How do we view ourselves?  Are we mostly selfish?  Do we give grace only to animals and children?  Are we enjoyable, loveable, and/or amicable?  How we speak to ourselves, how we view ourselves, how we treat ourselves is the lens through which we view the world around us and the divine.  IFS theory links arms with spirituality by acknowledging the spirit’s transcendence of the empirical world, beckoning that something else is not only out there, but something else is in here. 

With those thoughts in mind, here are some observations of spiritual maturity through the lens of IFS Theory.

  • Mature spirituality is a growing awareness of those parts (internal voices) that make up who we are.

By those parts, I mean that a spiritually mature person recognizes different internal voices that pop up.  In this next example the voice that emerges is a 10 year old boy.  The voice comes as a grown man returns home for a family reunion:

 Ahh, the family reunion:  glorious gatherings of people that you haven’t seen in years.  As the interstate mileage sign counts down the miles to your reunion destination, you begin to feel different.  While fond memories may gather, you note the strange feeling of self conscientiousness.  The moment you step out of the car, Aunt Gerdy calls you by your childhood nickname.  That title and the smell of her perfume return you to 1980.  You are 10 years old again.  That can be a good thing or a bad thing. But are you aware that it happens?  Can you give name and voice to the part of you that is popping up?  Is he/she a manager, exile or firefighter?

  • Mature Spirituality is expressed by questions, not answers.

 A spiritually mature person operates out of the understanding the growth continues throughout.  Often new experiences lead to opportunities to learn more about ourselves and all the parts that make us whole.  In this next continued example, the narrative questions the level of reflection.  In other words, spiritually mature people give the voices that pop up time, attention and fair examination.

Back to Aunt Gurdy calling you by that nickname and those feelings:  Do you reflect on Aunt Gurdy calling you “Tator” and the feelings that erupted?  Some people would have ignored those feelings or pushed them away.  But a careful look at those feelings and memories may spark internal growth.  For example if being called “Tator” evokes feelings of shame, maybe the self could listen to Tator’s story.  More than likely, he has been exiled by the manager with the expectation that an adult could emerge from the ashes.  In reality “Tator” and his/her story is essential to the identity of that person and not hearing the story creates internal conflict.

Spiritual maturity is the ability to sit with emotions and perceptions and listen to the story they tell.

  • Mature Spirituality is patient.

 The revelation of self discovery does not come all at once.  We believe that divine guidance puts before us learning situations.  A careful record of these uneasy emotions, memories or body reactions may reveal a pattern or unheard parts.  As we become more aware of these uneasy or uncomfortable parts it can become overwhelming and/or disconcerting.  We often have the desire to deal with these parts and try to move on, without extending our parts some grace and understanding.  This takes time and patience.

  • Mature Spirituality gives lots of hugs.

 Internal Family Systems Theory teaches that each part of us behaves a certain way for a very good reason.  Spiritual maturity looks for the positive contribution the voice makes in the ecology of all the voices.  Showing appreciation validates that part.  This appreciation builds good will and changes the internal environment.  For example,  my jealous part wants to hold me accountable to make sure I’m doing my best.  I thank it for the concern it shows and assure it that I’m on task.  With that internal statement made, the green goblin of jealousy settles and I find that I am truly able to be happy for those around me. 

 A mature spirituality greets all voices as Christ would, with open arms (even if they seem sinful or wrong to us).  Just the visual of a person hugging themselves as an abused child can have life changing effects.  Every time we give hugs to our internal parts, we imitate the healing work of Christ.

  • Mature Spirituality realizes we are not alone.

 Internal healing comes at the hand of God.  Our connection with God, the working of the Holy Spirit, through the power of Christ’s sacrifice, all work together towards the redemption of our parts for the glory of God’s Kingdom.  When we join God the Creator, God the Redeemer, and God the Sustainer in this activity of understanding ourselves better and loving ourselves better, our bond with God strengthens and our ability to love the other as we love ourselves is strengthened.  Spiritually mature people join God in this process and trust that in time God will work.  We simply walk through the doors that God opens, like Aunt Gurdy calling us “Tator”. 

 IFS theory gives us generous footing as we climb into a close study of our inner world.  It helps us value often overlooked internal places and the role those place play in our spirituality. 

thoughts from a pondering prophet

POSTSCRIPT:  If this article has struck a cord, I’d like to recommend working with a professional counselor that utilizes IFS theory in their practice.  If you live near the Asheville, NC area I’d like to recommend Dr. Russell Siler- Jones. 


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