Richard L. Bergstrom, D.Min., President, ChurchHealth
In 1988-89 my family and I made two cross-country moves at our own expense. I had left one toxic environment to find myself in a completely dysfunctional organization. As the old saying goes, I had leaped from the frying pan into the fire. At the end of a year with this organization, I packed up my family and headed north – back home to Bellingham, Washington, where we still owned a home.
During that tumultuous year, I learned the four hardest but most important words to say within any organization – “It seems to me….” Everything about the organization was crazy-making. I discovered the words, “Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.” You had to learn in that environment to deny your emotions and not trust your observations. Amid the dissonance I felt, I read Ann Wilson Schaef’s book, The Addictive Organization: Why We Overwork, Cover Up, Pick Up the Pieces, Please the Boss, and Perpetuate Sick Organizations. I observed that the harder people on the inside worked or tried to fix the organizational culture, the sicker and more addicted to it they became. I discovered my own tendencies toward co-dependency in this environment, enabling the behavior of the leadership in order to survive.
My job involved marketing the publications and church consulting services of a parachurch organization. Each time I was away from the office, I began to write down my observations and impressions of what was going on back at headquarters. It was a means of survival for me, as nothing seemed normal there. I recorded my observations on a legal pad, using the phrase, “It seems to me….” Over a period of several months, I had accumulated ten pages of these observations, all beginning with the words, “It seems to me….”
Sharing these observations in a dysfunctional environment can be very threatening to staff or employees who depend on the organization for their livelihood. We left a church to join this organization, raise support and move to Southern California. We couldn’t risk alienating the leadership. But at the same time, it was becoming un-survivable. I decided to share my observations with senior leadership, but not until I had secured an assignment with another non-profit ministry that agreed to send me back to the Pacific Northwest as their area director. I shared my feedback in a non-hostile, non-threatening manner, taking ownership of my observations. I concluded my presentation with “Things I would want to know before joining this organization.” I came up with a list of 22 items – and then resigned. Ironically, after hearing my report, the leadership urged me to stay, but the train was about to leave the station, and I had a one-way ticket out on it.
As I look back on that painful year of ministry, I realize that I was essentially functioning as an internal consultant to them. I concluded I could only state those things if I were leaving. That may not have been the case, but it didn’t feel safe to stay. I still have that ten-page document in a notebook. It serves as a reminder of how difficult and yet necessary it is to be able to speak truth to power in a toxic environment. I have since used those four words in my church consulting ministry to capture my observations and impressions for preparing my report. But I’ve also learned four more significant words to clarify and confirm my comments. Those words are, “Help me to understand….” That allows the hearer to clarify further what I feel is true about them and explain in detail from their perspective. A word of caution is in order, however. It remains unsafe in many environments to speak out about workplace problems without jeopardizing your job. You’ll need to judge how much risk you are willing to take in your place of employment. Otherwise, you may find yourself in the position of the man in a cartoon from that era who arrives home at the front door greeted by his wife. He is carrying a box with the contents from this office inside and says to his wife, “I told them the truth, and they set me free.”
Richard Bergstrom is President of ChurchHealth, a non-profit organization founded in 1995 to bring health and growth to churches. He can be reached on the contact pages at CHonline.org and Re-Ignite.net.