Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Navigating the Surreal

Written by: on October 22, 2021

Monday, I returned to my virtual desk after five weeks of family leave. One of the first emails to greet me was a tirade from a superior in my organization accusing me of undermining our organization and threatening action against me unless I immediately responded to their email. All this based on their interpretation of a letter from a support congregation questioning a new process of financially supporting international workers like me. They assumed I expressed disagreement with this new process since the letter said the church had had a conversation with me. They had copied the interim director and co-associate director of my team along with my immediate supervisor. I was floored.

My interim director had sent me an email immediately upon receiving this tirade—don’t respond to this person. “Instead, please share your experience with me of what unfolded with this church.” So, I began recounting the conversation, a conversation where I had actually expressed my support for this new process and encouraged the congregation to give it a chance.

All of this has happened in the same week as we have been reading “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. In five sections, plus a helpful introduction, conclusion, and appendices, Kahneman dives into the world of better understanding errors of judgment and choice, with particular attention paid to what he describes as both the marvels and flaws of intuitive thought. He contrasts the fast thinking of intuition (which includes perception, memory, and the mental shortcuts of heuristics), naming it System 1, with the slow thinking of effortful deliberation or System 2.  He then, in Part Two, elaborates and updates the work he and his thinking and writing partner of fourteen years, Amos Tversky, investigated during the 1970s on how people make judgements, especially in uncertain circumstances, making use of different heuristics. In Part Three he jumps into the limitations of our minds—understanding this limit to be our tendency to overestimate and be over-confident in what we think we know and understand about the world. This argument forms part of the foundation of what he contends in Part Four—we’re not really as rational in our thinking as we would like to think, even in topic areas like economics which seems so objective. He uses two species to bring home his point—the made-up Econs who live in the world of theory, and Humans who engage reality. Thinking of problems in isolation from each other and the choice of how one frames a situation both influence the way in which decisions are made by these species. This part of the conversation brought me back to Friedman’s emotional processes and systems theory. In the last section, Part Five, Kahneman explores the fascinating tension between the experiencing self and the remembering self. Understanding this tension opens the pathway to better understanding the experience (or lack thereof) of well-being. I’m very curious to look more deeply at this section based on his comment that this has implications for social policies aimed at the well-being of communities (an aspect of my NPO). In the conclusion, Kahneman the consolidates the implications stemming from the distinctions he has outlined in the earlier sections between the two systems of thinking, the two species, and the two selves. In the Appendices he shares the two key articles written by him and Tversky that laid the foundation for this book and Kahneman’s Nobel Prize.

Kahneman’s work has helped me to slow down, to move from System 1 intuitive interpretations to more deliberate System 2 considerations, of the surreal start to my week. I am still not certain what is going on in the mind and spirit of my superior. But, as I slowed down in my evaluation of the situation, I could see how the intuitive side of my mind wanted to draw on the affect heuristic and base my response on my feelings of severely disliking the way this person made assumptions about me and my actions (I was also aware of the defended leader dynamics in me based on last week’s reading of Walker). I’m grateful for how slowing down to System 2 thinking helped me stay mindful of our cohort’s conversations, reflections, and written engagements with one another over the past few weeks. I became aware of how I am carrying you all as a community inside me, and to attend to the community of the Trinity who sustains me. This helped me to stay in a less anxious place (Friedman) and write what I think was a more helpful response to my interim-director’s query. The full outcome remains shrouded for now. But I feel better equipped to pay attention to how I am making my judgments and decisions and to the need to slow down when under pressure.

About the Author

Elmarie Parker

19 responses to “Navigating the Surreal”

  1. mm Troy Rappold says:

    Elmarie: The timing for this book’s message and your professional situation was fortuitous. I’m glad the book helped you to take a beat and respond appropriately. The human impulse would have been to become angry and immediately take a defensive posture. Great job summarizing the insights from Kahneman’s work; I also benefited from this book. I have a tendency to rely too heavily on fast thinking and not slow, deliberate, logical thinking.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Troy, for your encouraging words. What did you find helpful in Kahneman’s work to utilize in shifting from fast thinking and to slow, deliberate, logical thinking when needed?

  2. mm Andy Hale says:

    Elamite, as you reflect on the “slowing down” process to move into System 2, what are the most helpful practices in that transition? Besides Jedi mind tricks, what works for you?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Jedi mind tricks, hey? Is that your secret? 🙂 I wish I had that skill. I appreciate you asking this question…it helped me to reflect more deeply on how things unfolded in me over the course of the week. In this situation, the practices that helped me the most were:
      1. taking several deep, slow breaths to bring down my blood pressure and adrenaline that shot up as I read the email (my husband works on trauma resiliency using a bio-physiological model, so this is one of the tools that research shows helps one’s body and mind relax under pressure and shift from reaction to mindfulness)
      2. Another tool from that school of thought is called ‘grounding.’ It’s a way of helping your body reconnect to what is substantive and real/tangible around you…again, helping your mind and body to move out of flight/fight mode and fast thinking mode to more deliberative thought and discernment. My grounding practice is to walk–I’m a kinesthetic learner, so walking helps me to slow down and reflect/think/pay attention to the Holy Spirit instead of just react.

      I took a long, long walk where I tried to pay attention to what my fast-thinking reactions were to this situation. I noted them, and then offered them to Jesus and asked for the Holy Spirit’s help to discern what to do with that reaction (surrender it, investigate deeper layers of it, look at another dimension that rose to my attention while contemplating the previous two options–this is especially where our cohort’s conversations and reflections replayed in my mind).

      And, I asked Jesus to teach me how to pray for this colleague. My Iraqi friends have taught me a lot about praying for and demonstrating love towards one’s perceived or actual enemies. I’m challenged by their witness every day, it seems, to keep growing in my own discipleship of walking in the way of Jesus. One of the things that came to me at this point was just a deep awareness of a kind of pain this person carries in them that leaves them very rigid and defended. That is sad to me. It helped me to have some level of empathy for this person.

      I also asked Jesus to remind me of who I am in him and to search me and raise to my attention anything I needed to be aware of in myself from this encounter. What was the Holy Spirit’s invitation to me in this situation. All of this in combination helped me to slow down, to reground me in the reality of the Triune God at home in me and me held in the palm of God’s hand. This helped to remind me that this person’s reactive email isn’t what defines me, nor is it the last word on my life, no matter the outcome. That helped me to stay in a less anxious place through the week as things unfolded.

      My interim-director, who is a peer in our organization to this person who wrote the email to me, was really amazing to work with on this situation. Because of the above personal work, I was able to write a calm email to her explaining my side of things. I was also able to articulate how the reactive email impacted me and the concerns it raised for me about the potential ‘dominos’ that could fall from this email. She did an excellent job of remaining non-anxious…at least in her interactions with me. And, as is appropriate in our organization, she responded to her colleague’s email with the facts regarding my interaction with the congregation in question (which included a review of my emails with them). She then sent a separate email sharing the impact this reactive email had on all of us, laid out a more appropriate way of handling such things in the future (including not ever threatening a subordinate again), and recommended this person send a written apology to me.

      I still don’t know how this colleague will respond to the evidence of what my actual words/conversation with this church were…and they may never acknowledge the harm they caused me or apologize. But today, at least, I am at peace. I still have the challenge in front of me of how I’ll work with this person in the future, especially if they never acknowledge or apologize for their false accusations. So, the journey continues.

  3. mm Jonathan Lee says:

    Hi Elmarie,

    thank you for the great thoughts and connections on describing the tension between the experiencing self and the remembering self. I agree that slowing down in situations like this and thinking through things is always helpful. Glad to hear that engagement with the cohort community is bringing strength in your world. I feel the same way and find strength through this cohort.

  4. Elmarie,

    Wow, your ability to move Kahneman’s concepts into practice reveals that these concepts already were operating in you. You helped me see that system 1 thinking is inherently isolating, and system 2 thinking is inherently communal. It seems that slowing down allowed you to see the communities of support around you and within you. Do you recall a time you were able to slow down and invite your communities into a volatile situation?

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Michael, for your comments. Your reflection on System 1 thinking being islolating and System 2 thinking being communal is a helpful added detail…thank you for that. In response to your question about inviting my communities into a volatile situation, yes…I have had that experience several times (understatement :)) across the years of being in ministry. Every time it has been a helpful experience (except for the very first time when we were all too young to have a clue about any of this)–helped to ground me, think things through and not just react, stay attentive to my contribution to the dynamic and own that (and keep on growing), stay more humble that I would be if left to my own devices, sort out what I had agency in and what was the other party’s work to do, and find my voice to be as authentic as possible in the situation at the time with as much maturity as I had at the time (and learn how to be more kind/generous to myself since I’m my own worst critic). I’m grateful for what I’ve learned along the way–part of which has been the type of diverse community I need around me to both stretch me and show me what grace looks like when I haven’t been able to give it/receive it for myself or another.

  5. mm Roy Gruber says:

    Elmarie, I can sure identify with the desire to react when someone falsely accuses me.I hope you get a quick resolution. I admire that way you incorporate our past reading (i.e. Friedman) into your current reading and how you have already found helpful application from that. When I read your post, I thought of the triangle Friedman discussed as you navigate a relationship with a congregation and a supervisor. May God give you wisdom and discernment in a complex role.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Thank you, Roy! I appreciate your prayer for wisdom and discernment…much needed in this situation for sure. Thankfully, by late Friday, at least one part of this situation was clarified and resolved. We’ll see about the other part (see my response to Andy for further details, if you wish).

  6. mm Eric Basye says:


    Well done! And, I love how quickly you were able to apply it into your context. Your experience and Kahneman’s teaching provide some great reminders for me in my day to day life and leadership.

  7. Kayli Hillebrand says:

    Elmarie – How discouraging to come back from your family leave to such a strong accusation from someone who did not have the full context. I’m glad you were able to recognize the different facets of the readings we’ve been in and utilize the skills and knowledge they’ve provided in such a tangible manner. I hope your easing back in over the course of the rest of the week was smoother.

  8. mm Nicole Richardson says:

    Elmarie, Oh. My. Word. After I read your first paragraph I felt emotions well up in me from my past that could resonate with your present. It seems that this book was blessed timing. Please celebrate your awareness for the need to slow down. Your skill in connecting to our other readings is awesome!
    As you might imagine, I wonder if you have any hand holds on the chronic anxiety of the system your supervisor is experiencing? What are the things you can claim for yourself as “self-differentiation” from what came at you?
    Before this unfolds, can you map out a thinking plan that can help you establish boundaries for yourself before you engage?
    I so appreciate your willingness to be so honest.

    • Elmarie Parker says:

      Hi Nicole…thank you for your supportive words, and for your perceptive questions. I think, given the role this person plays in our organization, that they project the chronic anxiety we systemically have over a perceived shortage of financial resources. I say perceived because during covid19, giving/donations has/have exceeded expenses by a significant margin. Organizationally, we did take several important steps to reduce our expenses, but even with that the systemic anxiety remained high. This is an anxiety in the system that predates covid19, but I think the pandemic has accentuated what is already present (in the same way that it has revealed so many other things that were present but perhaps more hidden before the pandemic).

      For me, the self-differentiation work I’ve done this week has included recognizing the above dynamic and that I can’t fix that in this system. That’s been clear for quite some time :). But, I can remain less anxious and self-differentiated on the foundation of experiencing again and again across the years the ways in which God provides for God’s mission in the world. My part is sharing the story of how I’m experiencing God at work in the Middle East and the intersections I see with life in the USA and inviting people to be an active part of the adventure. I’m not in an influential enough role in our organization to have much impact of the practiced theology (a theology of scarcity) that has been in place for a lot of years, but I can use my influence in how I talk with local congregations and presbyteries about God’s work in the world and it has been such a gift to experience their eagerness to be a part of this in so many different ways. So, instead of ‘trickle-down economics,’ I’m praying for the impact of a ‘trickle-up theology of abundance.’

      For your last question, take a look at my response to Andy..I think it engages your question about mapping out a thinking plan. I don’t know if my personal work this week was quite as precise as the word ‘plan’ conjures up in my mind, but it was the process I followed to shift from fast to slow thinking on this challenging situation. I’d value your thoughts on what you read of that…if you have time with everything you have on your plate this week.

      • mm Nicole Richardson says:

        You continue to amaze me with your thoughtful processing!! When we talk next week we can share more on this. I will pray for the trickle up abundance!!
        And I pray you continue to stand firm in the knowledge it isn’t for you to fix.

  9. mm Denise Johnson says:

    Well done Elmarie! First, let me just say how very sorry I am about what your supervisor said. Those type of comments are so very hard to process well, especially when they feel so unprovoked. You did such a masterful job tying in this last week’s experiences with not just Kahneman but Walker, and Friedman, too. Slowing down to process and decipher what belongs to whom, and how to respond in a healthy way is a never ending process. You are so right, the value of community lightens the load and makes the journey more possible. Blessings

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