"My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together." “When I hear people say politics and religion don't mix, I wonder what Bible they are reading.” (Archbishop Desmond Tutu)

"And what does the Lord require of you but to do justly, and to love kindness and mercy, and to humble yourself and walk humbly with your God?" Micah 6.8

"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Philippians 4.19

"Work out your salvation with fear and trembling." Philippians 2.12

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Transactional Analysis and the Priest’s role in fostering spiritual maturity.

One of the most profound things I have read recently was a comment that wasn’t about priesthood but which says a great deal about it, “We will see more clearly when we set the church the right way up, the laity first and the clergy as the people who service and enable them.” (Francis Dewar, “Called or Collared”)

Commenting on Isaiah 40.30/31, Young men may grow weary and faint, even in their prime they may stumble and fall; but those who look to the Lord will win new strength, they will grow wings like eagles; they will run and not be weary, they will march on and never grow faint Dewar notes, “I believe that the task of the parish priest at its most basic is to encourage and promote an ever deepening engagement [in dependence on God and in independent spiritual growth] among the members of the local church, and to promote their common life and worship in such a way as to enable this process and not prevent or hinder it.”

I am particularly interested in the preventing and hindering element of that statement.

The first church I ever went to nurtured me through a Christian commitment and the mother’s milk of spirituality and I was very happy there for about six years until I began to get a nagging sense that I needed to go deeper: I began to wonder whether I was stuck at a particular level of Christian understanding. Was this a church which peaked at an initial establishing of a living faith but did not develop its members further? Many years later, in another part of the country entirely, I was an occasional visitor at a church so similar in its churchmanship as to be uncanny and I had exactly the same feeling: two large evangelical congregations, seemingly flourishing with wonderfully effective youth organisations but a huge turnover amongst the adult congregation. Was it just me or were people not being encouraged into the next step of discipleship, a mature reflection of faith? Was the menu of religious instruction and discipleship too limited? Certainly in both congregations I noted a resistance amongst the leadership to tackle some of the big issues of the day and how the church or individual Christians should respond to them and an unwillingness amongst some of the congregation to be troubled by such conversations. Indeed, engaging some adult members of the congregation on issues that the church should be taking a lead on revealed quite a shocking lack of an understanding of the relationship of the church to the concerns of the world.

No more than two miles away from this second church is a much smaller congregation. It is quite unique in the diocese and has a reputation as the “last-chance saloon” of Christianity. The congregation here has a significant minority of people who have been damaged by the institutional church and theirs is a faith born out of suffering. I have noticed some of the adults who were at the neighbouring church turning up here: some, but not many. This congregation is characterised by spiritual maturity, a maturity within individuals but which translates to the character of the church. Here are people who are theologically literate; who show high levels of social engagement and emotional intelligence.

For different reasons a member of the clergy might count themselves fortunate indeed to end up in either of these churches, although both present significant challenges and the challenge for each church is the opposite side of the same coin from the other: how does the first church move its people beyond their current levels of spiritual maturity and how does the second church deal with those new to the faith?

It is probably worth noting that both these churches - and probably the bulk of those who fit the same model - are gathered churches and the local community are not significant players. It might be easy to see why.

At some point on the intervening continuum we probably find most other churches: the churches I am involved with would fall somewhere in the middle ground, and these “average” congregations usually contain people of widely varying degrees of spiritual maturity.

What does being a priest mean in these three models and what are the challenges? Well, according to Dewar it’s about getting the congregation into the right mindset so that issues of spiritual maturity become a three-way process: the individual, the priest and God.

Many years ago I was lucky to follow a practice-based counselling qualification. One of the models of counselling – and one that really made sense to me – was called Transactional Analysis and part of its rationale is to enable people to identify their default position in any given relationship, particularly where those relationships are problematic. There are three basic options, or ego states: Parent, Adult and Child and we can slip from one to another unconsciously depending on the natures of our varying relationships. Understanding our default positions and why we behave in those ways helps us to move more effectively into the ideal ego state, Adult.

One of the roles of the priest is surely to foster in his congregation is a condition of extra-dependency: this is where individuals depend on a person or object outside of themselves for affirmation, confirmation, protection and sustenance (as in our childish phase - whether we are an actual child or in Child-ego role). The priest needs to encourage that extra-dependence to be on God, not on the priest, the prayerbook or the church building - the process of spiritual maturity. But there is also an intra-dependency where the dependence is within oneself as a responsible, self-actuating adult. These need to go together: each feeding off the other and moving deeper and the priest is working with these dependencies, encouraging others to grow to a mature and adult sense of self-awareness and a mature and adult relationship with God.
It seems to me that in those churches where people have reached a level of maturity and have plateaued, members of the congregation might be held in a dependency relationship with the clergy: the clergy take on the role of Parent, either more nurturing or more criticising but essentially seeing themselves in a position of managing or controlling those around them: the sacerdotal view of priesthood with its emphasis on bestowing personal spiritual power on the priest may well contribute to this. Unless the priest is aware of this and if the congregation collude with the priest as the fount of wisdom, knowledge and the initiator and driver of activities, that congregation – made up of its individuals – won’t flourish into spiritual maturity. They can fall into the Child role, characterised by a lack of independence and a willingness to be told what to do, how to think, what values to espouse, even an expectation of being directed.

One could also argue that in churches characterised by a greater spiritual maturity, such congregations – made up of their individuals – may be taking the Parent role following the theology of the priesthood of all believers in a very literal sense. An unwary priest here might find themselves on the back foot and fall into the role of compliant Child when faced with a situation where they feel surplus to requirements and follow the line of least resistance or, worse, the rebellious Child, petulant and easily offended and upset, trying to get their own way against a seemingly immovable force, the synergy of the congregation.

One of the key principles of Transactional Analysis is the notion of O.K.ness: (I’m O.K. and you’re O.K.) Where does that leave a member of a congregation if he/she picks up the message overt or covert from the vicar that they are not O.K. or for the vicar to pick up the same message from members of the congregation?

The Parent and Child states have lots of feelings, usually influenced by the past. Those feelings may not be appropriate or useful in the present. Some people describe the Adult state as almost without feelings. It is cool and objective, a reflection of the Logos, part of the divine Word revealing the truth. It decides whether the feelings and reactions of the Parent or Child states are useful in the present. Others suggest the Adult does indeed have feelings as useful parts of their abilities, the appropriate and useful feelings of the here and now.

There is a misunderstanding about the Adult state which sees it as the ideal which rejects the other two. That is not strictly true: it needs to be informed by the Child and the Parent but the Adult state is the best state to decide which state to be in. When should you leave Compliant Child to tell a home truth? Or leave Nurturing Parent to let someone stand on his or her own feet? Perhaps your parents told you not to talk to strangers, but now you're a vicar - perhaps the rule does not apply. The Free Child's intuition suggests possibilities but the Adult state tests that out. The Critical Parent may reject possibilities but the Adult state tests that out.

In terms of ministry, a conscious Adult persona seems to me to be the ideal for helping others to mature spiritually because it sees the danger in controlling (Critical Parent) and in the line of least resistance (Compliant Child): it recognises the dangers and pitfalls of responses based on both Child and Parent and because it is consciously objective it will choose a neutral approach of language and tone.

Let’s go back to where we started with Dewar, “I believe that the task of the parish priest at its most basic is to encourage and promote an ever deepening engagement [in dependence on God and in independent spiritual growth] among the members of the local church, and to promote their common life and worship in such a way as to enable this process and not prevent or hinder it.”

“We will see more clearly when we set the church the right way up, the laity first and the clergy as the people who service and enable them.”

However, in most congregations the number of the laity actively seeking that deepening level of spiritual awareness is probably quite small: what proportion of those who regularly attend Sunday worship will also attend Lent or other study or Bible study groups or house groups, parish away-days and the like? The development of spiritual maturity can not start and end with the Sunday sermon. So how does the priest lead the horse to water and make it drink?

Too be continued ……..


  1. I have avoided Myers-Briggs (or is it the Higgs-Bosun?) like the plague, but I'm a great fan of Transactional Analysis. (After all it has Anal in it, and I'm all for getting to the bottom of things). It has been incredibly helpful in my dealings with PCC's and the mysteries of church congregations and priests alike.

  2. Make them thirsty, then you don't have to lead at all, just stand by with buckets, the full and the empty that they can go fill for themselves and others.

  3. ...apart from that... TA can be a useful analytical tool to look at situations retrospectively and to reflect with. Not so hot as a basis for preparing. Contexts have too many variables and in truth, we rarely occupy one of the positions entirely. More often we are a combination of all three states going on at once to some degree, the context being most influential in deciding that which has dominance. Perhaps people get stuck because they need to feel that they have arrived, have learned that which they need to and don't really want that tedious return to childhood state and the teenage search for identity... Hence the awful tendency to seek that which affirms our world-view rather than information which challenges it. Or reflecting in trinitarian styleee, we're happy with the Jesus state, find the Father business too demanding and don't really fancy a return to the Spirit of childhood?