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

Navigators, Map-Readers and Family Systems

Written by: on June 3, 2015

Sometimes I simply marvel at the convergence of concepts and ideas. One feeds the other, provides understanding and forges new connections. This has been true of our reading this week. As I write this I am in Tigard, Oregon, a short distance from the Seminary. I’ve been here since Monday for a face-to-face for Pastoral Counseling, a GFES seminary course I am “adjuncting. The really nice thing is that I am doing all the online work and Dr. Frank Green is doing the F2F, so the days and evenings this week have been filled with work. There are definite connecting threads in our reading, however partly because of time and mostly because I need some sleep I am going to weave in a little family systems theory into my writing.


“It Starts With Uncertainty,” a dialog between Margaret Wheatley and Pema Chodron. “We are at a point where we feel very badly about who we are as a species.”[1] Thinking about family systems – both within the family and its applicability to institutions, particularly the Church, these words have a strong ring to them. The Church has long stressed humanity’s guilt, based in what we have done and truly in what we have left undone. Paul’s words in Romans, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” is among the first bible verses memorized by many. But Wheatley is not referring to guilt, something that I have done, but rather to shame, “We are at a point where we feel very badly about who we are as a species. This speaks to our identity or rather our loss of identity. Where guilt places the emphasis on I did that bad thing, shame is rooted in I am that bad thing.[2] Wheatley is alerting us to this dynamic and significant shift.


“First of all we need to listen to one another’s stories.”[3] If there is one thing that I am learning, have been reminded of and continue to realize is that I need to listen and learn to listen. It means simply dropping my agenda, my to do list to give full attention. I am still learning what that means, to be honest. Sometimes it means putting aside what I think is so important and sometimes it means being honest enough to acknowledge that I cannot give my full attention at that moment. Mostly it means I just need to listen and not talk. “The experience of really listening to another human being is the source of our willingness to love them.”[4]


Len Hjalmarson takes us into the realm of leadership and the crisis through the task of map-readers, cartographers, navigators and a doomed expedition with a lot of china and not enough coal.[5] In liminality we are neither here or there. We stand on a threshold[6] and once it is crossed we are not the same because of what we experience. This concept and understanding of threshold fits in with the Wheatley article, consider Hjalmarson’s words, “In liminal space identity is suspended.”[7] Could our liminal space be a contributor to our dis-ease about how we feel about ourselves? If our identity is suspended (and I agree it is) in what and how do we find it? Is our shame because we have misplaced our identity or even forgotten who we are?


Homeostasis describes our resistance to change. We talked about it in the Pastoral Counseling class. Hjalmarson’s helps us understand the cost of this resistance. The church (and even we ourselves) might seem to be fixed on what we think is necessary. This is, as Phyllis Tickle reminds us, often about doctrine. Every 500 years of so the Church has a rummage sale and discards what is no longer needed.[8] We are trying to figure out what is necessary for the journey. Perhaps we need to consider that what we think is necessary is not sustainable. Perhaps there is more for us to consider as navigators beyond what Barna or Pew Research point to for those leaving the church.


A key component in family systems theory is that the person in the family generally recognized by their actions or unhealthy behavior is the “identified patient.” However the identified patient is almost never the person alone that needs fixing. There is a system in place and so the key is to look at the relationships within the family and family of origin. It is process and relationships. It’s fascinating and it makes me wonder if Len’s writing and thinking might help us to recognize what we have ‘pinned’ as the identified patient might be pointing us toward a broader landscape. (I don’t know that the metaphor fully holds up but it is intriguing!).


The question Len Hjalmarson asks is perhaps the question we have been wrestling with and exploring over these past two years, “How do we walk with God into a new future – an unknown place?”[9]


Hjalmarson refers to Margaret Wheatley, “We instinctively reach out to leaders who work with us in creating meaning.”[10] If we have lost a sense of who we are, creating meaning will be crucial. Meaning might be essential if we are to find our way and remember who we are and to discover whom we will be. “Authority is a tool for making sense of things, but so are other human tools such as values and work systems.”[11] But rather than an end in themselves where the tool defines our value, Hjalmarson is pointing us toward influence, as MaryKate Morse did, authority in relationship, not in the sense of domination or manipulation but toward wholeness. I am reminded that Roberta Bondi wrote in her book, To Pray and To Love that our life and death are bound up with our neighbor.[12]

            [1] Margaret Wheatley and Pema Chodron, “It Starts With Uncertainty” in Shambala Sun, November 1999. Accessed April 16, 2015. http://www.margaretwheatley.com/articles/uncertainty.html.


            [2] Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead and The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go Of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are are good starters. John A. Forrester, Grace for Shame: The Forgotten Gospel provides a good overview.

[3] Wheatley and Chodron.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Len Hjalmarson, “Chapter 1” in Broken Futures: Adaptive Challenge and the Church in Transition, unpublished.

[6] I have been intrigued with liminal space since having Jason Clark in Missional Ecclesiology in my first semester of seminary studies. If I were to ever plant a church I would explore the possibility of naming it “Threshold Space. “ (Now you know!).

[7] Hjalmarson.

[8] Phyllis Tickle, The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing And Why (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2008). I do not have the book with me on this trip so I cannot give an exact page number. I am going from memory.

[9] Hjalmarson.

[10] Len Hjalmarson quoting Margaret Wheatley, A Simpler Way (San Francisco: Barrett-Koehler Publications, 1996) in the article “Leadership in the Chaordic Age.” PDF.

            [11] Hjalmarson, “Leadership in a Chaordic Age.”

[12] Roberta Bondi, To Pray And To Love (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1991).

About the Author

Carol McLaughlin

Carol walks this DMin journey from her locale in Gig Harbor, WA (USA). She is preparing for pastoral ministry in the Presbyterian Church (PC-USA), as well as teaches in the Online Learning Community programs at GFES. Part of the DMin Leadership & Global Perspectives 4 cohort (dminlgp4) her research and dissertation focus is exploring why baby boomers leave the church and what it means for their faith development. The views expressed here are her own.

7 responses to “Navigators, Map-Readers and Family Systems”

  1. Carol,

    Love your post. You are right on!

    I especially like your comments on listening to others’ stories. We need to do this regularly.

    On Sunday, I leave for a week of listening to Native elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I have three or four contacts that I received from some friends. I don’t know exactly how the week will unfold, but my hope is that I will sit down with several Native elders and simply listen to their stories. I don’t have an agenda except that I want to listen and grow from what I hear. This is a huge part of my research. I appreciate your prayers as I launch out on this great adventure. I will let you know what happens.

    • Bill…
      I will keep you in my prayers. Peace to you. You have demonstrated that you are a listener, so I trust that this time will be filled with listening — on your part and on the part of others, because you are a listener.

      I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of it, but I know Lenore Three Stars. She was (or still is) part of North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies (NAIITS). She now lives in Spokane, WA area. Maybe she would be a resource and/or connection for you. She also has family in SD. (Let me know and I’ll “introduce” you via Facebook :).

  2. Deve Persad says:

    Carol, I very much appreciate your engagement with this topic, especially considering the other things that are occupying your time this week. The possibilities, for the church, that could emerge from liminal space are intriguing to me as well. Therefore, I appreciate your comment/suggestion: “We are trying to figure out what is necessary for the journey. Perhaps we need to consider that what we think is necessary is not sustainable.” It would seem to me that it would take a particular kind of courageous leadership to be able to ask the necessary questions and also listen carefully for the important clues as to what is truly vital to retain. As Hjalmarson indicated in his articles, the idea of having a map, knowing where we’re going, may no longer be an appropriate manner to lead the church. So the question becomes, what tools would be necessary, if you were planting Threshold Space today?

    • Deve…
      That is such a great question… and at this point I don’t know exactly. I think part of the answer would be to invest in listening and taking it slowly. Perhaps that insight will come as I interview people that have left the Church and where does that intersect within context. I have just started reading “City of God” by Sara Miles. Reading it I am beginning to think – what is God saying from those on the streets?

      One think I know is that I need to learn how to be present – to listen, to be undivided, and settled.

  3. John Woodward says:

    Carol, what a wonderful post this week. There is so much in it that resonates with me. I was first struck by your comment about learning to listen. I can’t AMEN that enough, as I too believe that this is one of the great take aways that I’ve received from this program. I feel a much richer person for knowing that I can learn and have my thinking broadened simply by being attentive to others. Second, your suggestion that our program was really about “How to walk with God into the future” also hits it home. Again, this program — if nothing else — has helped me to know that there is no easy answers, and how to live with a sense of uncertainty – but uncertainty not as a bad thing, but a good place to be. It is a place in which one can grow and develop, and try new things. And I truly have learned a lot in these last two years. Thanks for putting into words many of the things that I’ve been pondering (especially with our Blog-Story post still due!).

  4. John,
    I am so grateful for this program and for the experience(s) we have all shared. Continuing to learn with you!

  5. Carol, great statement when you said “we need to consider that what we think is necessary is not sustainable.” I also love the story that Len shared regarding the explorers who are trying to find a northern trade route above the North Pole. They took along things that were not necessary and certainly were not sustainable in that climate. How often do we do the same things when we consider our leadership agendas. Much like David trying to wear Sayl’s armor. We choose the flashy looking China over the ugly but useful coal. Hum?

    Your statements about insecurity and uncertainty ring so true. As Len quoted the Canadian leadership guru Michael Fullan, “the two greatest failures of
    leaders are indecisiveness in times of urgent need for action and dead certainty that they are right in times of complexity.” I have seen both mostly do to insecurities.

    I just did a workshop where I included the latest study of Pew Research. Your focus of your dissertation probably has you in this type of data often. I shared in my workshop how much the church in the USA has lost its influence on the American society and how so many are leaving the church. I look forward to your dissertation in my efforts to help the American church.

    The bottom line is that we find our identity not in our titles or our positions but in Christ alone. When I center myself in Him and his words to me I come away more confident and less insecure as to who I am, and where I am going. Thanks Carol.

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