Leadership Over-functioning

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I still recall with clarity a sign in the manse of my first appointment as an observing student pastor:
“Beware the barrenness of a busy life.”
It is a wise caution.  It is one, however, that I have struggled and still struggle to heed.
It is a caution that apparently many pastoral leaders struggle to heed!  The recent survey of Baptist pastors across Australia, commissioned by Australian Baptist Ministries, revealed some interesting statistics about these leaders:

  • 81% report working more hours than they are expected to work
  • 28% work 15‐30% more than their contracted hours
  • over a third of church pastoral staff (36%) work more than 30% over their contracted hours
  • working at least 60 hours a week was indicated by 16% of this third. [1]

If these figures (admittedly based on self-reporting) are accurate, pastoral leaders are working very hard, at least in terms of hours given to the job.  It may be that many of we pastors and church leaders are over-working.  That is, we may be working more hours than we need or ought, to the potential detriment of health, family and wider relationships, long-term sustainability, and godliness.
However, while over-work in terms of quantity may be a spiritual and emotional issue that many of us need to monitor, there is another “over” that can be a problem in our leadership.   It too may be damaging to ourselves, to others and to our biblical mandate, which is to “equip the saints for the work of ministry” [Ephesians 4:11 – 12].  And it is an “over” that is potentially one of the more subtle and covert causes of our over-work, our too long hours.  It is the issue of over-functioning.
What do I mean by this term?  It is a concept that emerges particularly out of family systems thinking.  Essentially it is the theory that in any given emotional system [2] one of the ways that we as individuals try to maintain ‘balance’ or ‘normality’ of the group is to either over- or under-function.  To over-function is, among other things, to do for others something that they are capable of doing themselves at any given time.  Under-functioning is to drop in our performance, below the level at which we are actually capable of functioning at any given time.  An over-functioner, among other things,

  • “Knows the answers
  • Does well in life
  • Tells the other what to do, how to think, how to feel
  • Tries to help too much
  • Assumes increasing responsibility for the other.” [3]

For example, driven by a desire for mission and ministry, we can overstep boundaries and always be ready to step in to make sure that everything goes “smoothly”, or appears to be “excellent”.  Or, reacting to the anxiety in a system that is occurring because of a new and inexperienced leader, we take over rather than coach or lead.  And this can all happen when matters are going quite well, let alone when things aren’t going. well!  So, one temptation for a poorly differentiated leader is that they step-up too often, in too many areas, shouldering too many responsibilities for people, telling them what to do, assisting too much, assuming control rather than providing leadership.  Over-functioners tend to micro-manage and over-scrutinize.
This kind of response is widespread in our general emotional systems.  Husbands and wives can over-function for each other to keep the couple relationship “stable”, to keep the two “one”.  Parents can adopt an over-functioning response with a troubled child so that the family remains in a comfortable ‘balance’.  While these might be an appropriate responses in the short term when a person is genuinely unable to ‘function’ at their normal level, if the pattern becomes entrenched it is a poor leadership response for reasons we will explore later.
What are the springs for this kind of emotional response?  Let me suggest a few.  First we may be uncomfortable with the discomfort of an emotional system that is not functioning ‘normally’ (that is, in its usual pattern) because of some change.  So, we ‘step-up’; take charge; begin to take on stuff we need not, and should not, do for others; make the decisions, etc.  Second, it may be that we begin to over-function because we are not comfortable with different ‘selves’ in a relationship.  We begin to over-function in an effort to keep the other ‘self’ ‘on track’, ‘in line’, ‘orthodox’, performing adequately, etc.  Third, we may be unhappy to wait for the other ‘self’ to step up, grow, develop, because the process of that growth disrupts the normal settled-ness of the group, and our comfort levels.
Perhaps one example of over-functioning in the Bible is where Moses, leading the highly anxious Israelites through the wilderness, seeks to take on all the responsibility for judging cases of conflict or disagreement. (Exodus 18:13 – 27).  He listens to the complaints.  He hears the cases.  He passes judgment.  Wisely, his father-in-law intervenes and suggest an alternative system that not only frees up Moses but builds up the capacity of others.
We may recall a situation in the New Testament where a similar pressure was avoided.  In Acts 7, anxiety in the fledgling Christian community erupts when Greek widows complain they are not receiving just support equal to that of the Jewish widows.  This conflict threatens to derail the apostolic leaders.  The temptation would surely have been to have ‘stepped up’, taken on extra roles, tell the group what to do.  What do they do instead?  They prayerfully reflect, refuse to compromise their God-given roles and decline to over-function.  They appoint others to take care of the tasks.
What about Jesus?  Did he over-function?  As I look at his speaking and actions, it seems to me that he did not speak for others, rarely told them what to do, did not take responsibility for preventing them making foolish decisions, did not ‘do for others what they could do for themselves’, and did not compel responses.  Rather he posed questions to get people thinking.  He challenged people to consider God’s standards but left them to make their own final choice (witness the rich young ruler whom Jesus let’s walk away).  He refused to judge between people.  He only stepped in when a person was not able to ‘function’ well in a certain area [eg. he healed people who could not heal themselves but called on people to repent or ‘go and sin no more’].  And ultimately, while He did for us that which we could not do for ourselves [died that we might be forgiven and reconciled to God], His call is still that we must respond by taking up our cross daily and follow Him.
Leaders who over-function are not good for church health.  And many clergy are chronic over-functioners.  When we fall into this automatic emotional response we fail in our call to disciple others.  Over-functioning tends to create the reciprocal chronic response of under-functioning.  We transgress our own and other people’s boundaries.  We step outside our role descriptions, let alone our biblical mandate as church leaders.  We limit the capacity of others to grow through ‘stepping up’ in their functioning.  We can tend to think, speak and act for others, often because we find it difficult to tolerate discomfort in them [congregations and individuals] as they learn to grow in wrestling with their need to step-up their own functioning.
Nor are leaders who over-function good for their own well-being.  The emotional response of over-functioning can push us to over-work, to the neglect of other longer term, more strategic responsibilities that are ours in this aspect of discipleship: the care of our families (John 19:25 – 27; 1 Timothy 3:5, 5:8), and the nurture of our own souls (Matthew 16:26; 1 Timothy 6:11 – 12; ; 1 Peter 2:11; 3 John 1:2).
Rather than over-functioning,  we are called to be leaders with a growing capacity to exhibit differentiation of self.  [4]  That is, we will develop an increasingly clear idea of what God is calling us to, who develop appropriate boundaries about what we will or won’t do for others, and who, while retaining empathy with the struggles of others, focus on the key biblical tasks of pastors and church elders: to engage in the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5), to make disciples (Matthew 28:19 – 20), and to equip the saints for the work of the ministry, so assisting them on the life-long journey towards maturity in Christ (Ephesians 4:11 – 13).
So I must perennially confront this challenging question: how much do I over-function as a leader?


[1]                 Sam Sterland, “Sustainable Leadership in the Australian Baptist Church”, NCLS 2015, 7-8.
[2]                 An “emotional system” arises when any group of people spend sufficient time together for the group                   to begin more automatic behavioural postures and responses to keep the group in ‘balance’.  It     involves the interplay of automatic responses that tend to occur in the face of the inevitable “anxiety”                 that will arise in a group as it faces the ordinary and extra-ordinary changes and pressures of the    human condition.
[3]                 Gilbert, Roberta M.. The Eight Concepts of Bowen Theory,  Leading Systems Press. Kindle Edition,         2004/2006, 17
[4]                 Differentiation of self means the gradually increasing capacity to be a more thoughtful separate ‘self’                   in the midst of the more automatic emotional patterns of behaviour that we all tend to adopt in our         relationships with others, especially when there is anxiety.  A differentiated person will, over time,       operate more out of thought-through values, clarified beliefs and principled positions than out of              group-think or emotionally driven responses to group anxiety.  They will have clear boundaries.

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