Clear, Calm, and Connected - (Paul Walters and Robert Holley) -- A Review


CLEAR, CALM, AND CONNECTED: Reflections on Church Leadership. By Paul E. Walters and Robert F. Holley. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2020. Xxi + 147 pages.

                "Clear, Calm, and Connected": Is that what church leadership really looks like? Those of us who have spent a significant amount of time in ministry (I've been the senior minister of three congregations over a span of twenty-three years) understand that church leadership is rarely clear or calm. As for connected, well we often feel rather detached from things. Nevertheless, it is possible to reach that state of being so that church life and ministry can be fruitful and rewarding.

                Over the years, family systems theory has been applied to church life with some success. The authors of this book, one of whom is a friend and colleague in local ministry, have been teaching and using family systems theory for some time in their own ministries. This book—Clear, Calm, and Connectedoffers readers a useful compendium of reflections that can be used by congregations and church leaders as they seek to be effective in their ministries.

                The two authors of this book are Paul Walters and Robert Holley. Both are Lutheran pastors (Evangelical Lutheran Church of America). Walters currently serves as the senior pastor of Lutheran Church of the Master in Troy, Michigan. Holley is a retired Lutheran pastor and a facilitator for the Healthy Congregations organization. They co-authored a previous book titled Called by God to Serve (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2004).

                The authors begin the book with a prologue that introduces us to the basic core concepts of family systems theory. They do this effectively through story, which is something that at least Walters is adept at since he has been trained in story-telling and has participated in the Moth Story Hour events. The story spun by the authors concerns the relationship between a pastor and her congregation’s music director/organist. They were in conflict over the choice of hymns, and this is creating a problem for the church. The question of how to resolve the conflict in a way that benefits everyone. It is in this context that we are introduced to such concepts as a triangle, cutoff, multigenerational transmission, self-differentiation, and more. In the book as a whole, we encounter these areas of concern along with family projection, emotional process in society, and nuclear family emotional system. In the story, the pastor (Miranda) was able to use family systems theory to bring resolution to the conflict.  

                While the prologue introduces the concepts, the chapters themselves are designed to stand on their own. The authors note that the chapters can be read in any order, depending on the circumstances. They suggest that these chapters could be used in congregations to start leadership team meetings, committee meetings, or board meetings. If you are of the mindset that a church meeting should begin with scripture reading, the good news here is that each chapter begins with a scripture reading relevant to the chapter. There are twenty-one chapters in all, most of which are around eight pages in length. This makes them useful for initiating conversations at the beginning of meetings. All one needs to do is choose a chapter that fits the moment.

                Now, this is not a primer on family systems theory. If you’re looking for that you’ll need to go elsewhere. But, if you’re seeking wisdom that can open dialog and lead to more effectiveness in the ministry of the church, this is a most useful book. You don’t necessarily need to be trained in systems theory to effectively use the book with a congregation, as the chapters provide information to help one navigate the concepts present. I can say that as one who hasn’t had an in-depth introduction to systems theory, I found it clear and understandable. Again, the use of story throughout the book will carry the load, as the stories illustrate the concept in ways that are quite clear. Thus, as you read about a triangle forming in a congregation, you begin to understand what a triangle is, how it might affect relationships in a congregation, and the recognition that one will need to either avoid being drawing into one or resolve them before they get out of control. They write that a triangle occurs when two people can’t deal with the anxiety existing between them, so they “enlist a third person to be on their side and support them over the other” (p. 117). We’ve all been there in one way or another.  

                The titles of the chapters are intriguing. One of my favorites was "Has Your Church Been Vaccinated?" I read the book during a pandemic while the world awaits a vaccine that many in the United States at least suggest they won't get. So why a vaccine for a church? Well, the chapter with that title deals with "nuclear family emotional systems." The point here, remember that the authors are involved in Healthy Congregation training, is that a healthy congregation needs a strong immune system. It needs people in the congregation who can remind others in the congregation how to behave and stay healthy. They write: "In a healthy congregation, there are individuals who function as white blood cells do in the human body to fight infections. Sometimes these cells produce antibodies to fight the bacteria. Other times, the cells surround and overwhelm an infection, thus providing a protective shield for the body." (p. 82). Yes, it is helpful if you have people who can stand up and serve as white blood cells. Many a pastor would rejoice at such an immune system.

                This is the kind of book that is rich and accessible. Clear, Calm, and Connected is informative and thought-provoking. It’s written in a way that draws in the reader through story and then reveals important concepts in ways that congregants can easily grasp and understand. This makes it a most useful resource for congregations and other entities beyond congregations. Understanding the systems that exist and how they affect relationships inside and out is important to successful living. While a primer on systems theory might be useful for some, it’s not necessary to make effective use of this resource that should bless many a congregation and clergyperson.


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