Early Training with Consistory on functioning appropriately

Consistory meets twice a month, and the first of these meetings has a focus on Discipleship/personal growth and “Elder’s” work. I (Pastor Pete) do a teaching/training component in each of these meetings.

A very early one had us looking at our animal personality profiles so we could understand each other’s ‘wiring’ or ‘natural tendencies’ better. A recent one (this is being written in May) had us looking at the ‘mandate’ of Elders as laid out in our ordination forms and supporting scriptures. Somewhere between those two I led a training/reflection on what I call Over-functioning and Under-functioning. I thought I’d share the written material that I went over with Consistory so the rest of the congregation could be acquainted with the ideas as well.

“Over-functioning and Under-Functioning in church leaders and the church as a relational system.”

My general introductory explanation of the psycho/social aspects of this:

When I am over-functioning, I am taking action beyond my reasonable responsibility. When I am under-functioning, I am letting others take responsibility for areas where I should be taking it. This could be happening with respect to decisions, tasks, emotions or other areas of life. Over and under-functioning is often a habit learned young and carried into all of life as ‘normal.’ So it can be very hard to recognize. In fact, many of us are raised with the expectation that we will be over-responsible.

Examples from life:

If the clear household understanding is that I as a teenager am responsible to pick my clothes up off the floor of my room and bring my laundry to the laundry room in a basket, but another household member does this for me without me asking them to, they are likely over-functioning. In that, I am learning it is ok to under-function because someone is willing to function for me even though I am capable. Side note: If I ask the other person if they could please do those tasks one time, then I am not underfunctioning and the other person is not over-functioning. Or if I am sick or otherwise temporarily incapable, they are not necessarily over-functioning. Then they are helping out.
If I, as an adult, am responsible to pack the camping gear that someone else has gathered out of the house into the vehicle ( a clear definition of roles ) and the gathering person comes out and starts reorganizing the packing job, they are over-functioning and I, if I passively accept them doing this, am under-functioning. If I restate that packing is my responsibility and I prefer to do it my way, I am reestablishing the boundary and my responsibility.
If I, as a pastor, have a pre-agreed understanding with the worship leaders outlining who does what then if I start doing anything that has been designated for someone else, or do a lot of micromanaging to make sure they all did their part, I am over-functioning. If I over-function consistently in this, one day I will wake up and realize I am really really busy, but I will think it is because of “those lazy incompetent people who are no longer doing what they are supposed to.” It will be hard for me to see that I actually ‘taught’ them to under-function.

Personal Church Experience Story:

Some years ago I served a congregation in which the chair of council had been over-functioning for quite some time. I should have known something was amiss, but at the time I contacted him about doing a short term stint ( I was not an STM yet ) at their pastor-less church I was desperate for work. He hired me right in that first call, told me what my salary would be, and the length of the agreement. I even asked him “Don’t you have to run this by your council first?” and the big clue I overlooked was “No, they will agree to what I tell them.” Sure enough, I learned the council would rubber stamp retroactively anything he reported having done. After I started I found out he had ‘fired’ the previous short term pastor, who was an official STM! Council had not resisted that either. It ended up happening to me too, when, 4 months into a 6 month agreement, he called me one Monday and told me not to come back. He was an extreme over-functioner and the council were seriously under-functioning. But they kinda liked it. It made meetings short and easy!

So that is the concept illustrated in various ways. Functioning is really about recognizing boundaries and responsibilities.

Theology of over and under-functioning:

When I am over-functioning, theologically I could be described as being caught up in a saviour complex. At some level I am acting like the church’s well-being and very survival depend only on me, and I am sacrificing for her survival. That is not really the case. Many pastors over-function in that way, and many churches welcome that over-functioning — even expecting it as standard operating procedure. When I am under-functioning, theologically I tend to be driven by a helplessness that has no salvation in the picture. I tend to see myself as a victim, as insufficient, and can’t or won’t see a way of doing things differently. Yes, we do say we are to “Let go and let God” but that does not mean we are passive and under-active. There is a balance to be found, where God is in the driver’s seat of salvation of souls and churches, and we are doing our part, but not as if success is only possible based on our action.

Challenges the pattern creates in churches:

Physical and psychological toes get stepped on when there is serious over-functioning in a church. The over-functioning individual(s), often pastors and other key leaders, also begin to suffer burnout, might become resentful of ‘all those who are not pulling their weight’ in the church, and the spiritual and relational health of the congregation freezes and even declines. Over-functioning folks stick their noses deeply into decision making processes or activities that are not their responsibility, and those making that decision or leading that activity start to interpret that as a lack of trust. Over-functioners also just do things without consulting others they should really check with, so lots might be happening, but there is not much of a collectively identified motivation to it. Meanwhile, those inclined to under-fuctioning ‘get’ to be bewildered, and try to stay out of the way of all those over-functioners, and might just give up on trying to do anything because they feel reprimanded or micromanaged when they try take some responsibility. They too might become resentful. Clashes between overfunctioners might lead to resignations. Lack of clear boundaries about who is responsible for what, and lack of allowing them to actually be responsible can also cause people to step down. And so on. (In person I will give two specific examples of where I think I have seen this in action. I have touched on them in a previous meeting. Because they are specific I will not put them in writing that will likely become shared. I am ready to be told otherwise if I have misread these situations.)


We will talk about these when we meet. One solution comes from very clearly and carefully defining role boundaries. Another comes from learning about emotional boundaries. Another comes from learning to ask yourself some questions like: Why am I involved in this? Is it really my responsibility? And more…

Helpful background reading from Christian authors: https://www.emotionallyhealthy.org/overfunctioning/ https://www.faithwalking.us/recognizing-your-response-to-anxiety-overfunctioningunderfunctioning/
March 2019
Pastor Pete VanderBeek

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