Imagine that we’re in another session of the leadership development workshops. By now, participants are getting to know each other, so it’s safe to take the next step, to name together the impact of these pressures on our families. After all, the real issue about these pressures is how they are experienced, and our reactions to them.

These are typical responses from a cross-section of workshops and conversations:

“We don’t have any real time with each other any more, not even regular meals together. On my job, we’re all focused so hard on the bottom line, we don’t know each other, don’t want to know each other. It’s all about numbers. Between work and kids and husband, my whole day is about time management, just getting through each day. Here I am, forty-five, well-educated, good money, but I don’t have any place where I can have real conversations. Where’s the meaning?”

“My husband and I live scared. He and I are squeezed between our own bills, including saving for our own retirement, helping to pay for our kids, schooling, and taking care of all four of our parents.”

“I’m patching three part-time jobs together. One to pay for child care, one to pay for health care, and one to pay for everything else. I’m always behind on the bills. My time with my kids is mostly in the car. I dread the future we’re giving our kids.”

“Out of work, I watch a lot of TV, spend too much time on the net. I get anxious, so I want to go shopping, or start smoking again. I’m starting to gain weight again. My husband goes silent, hits the bars and who knows what else. I’m getting more afraid of him, will he take it out on me and the kids? The kids won’t talk with me like they did when they were younger. I know several moms who are drinking heavily. It just gets crazy.”

“Joe and I are gonna die before we pay off our student loans. Why get married? Why have kids?”

“Both my kids are driving me nuts. Acting up bad in school, the older boy’s now getting in with the gangs. I took off a half day from work and went up to the school, but they couldn’t help much, what with all the cuts. The counselor told me she has three hundred kids to advise, teachers have a hundred fifty kids a day. God help us. I’m scared to death I’m gonna lose both my children: gangs, drugs, drive-bys, prison.”

“Before all this happened, all four of us would help out at the pantry, but now we’re out here, asking other pantries for help, broke, hungry and homeless. Amazing.”

Impacts on Our Institutions

Let’s say you’re a pastor, or a local union leader, or a respected school principal or teacher leader. How do these impacts on your member families in turn impact you and your local mediating institution?

In your institution, are there gatherings where members can safely tell the story of what is happening to them?

A root problem is that in most of our mediating institutions, we are strangers. In our congregations, the chit-chat at coffee hour is perhaps the most superficial time of the week. In church or union meetings and teacher-parent conferences we usually focus only tasks or program. We swim in organizational cultures of isolation, in denial that these public pressures turn our individual hurts into commonly-held suffering.

By ignoring and denying these fundamental realities, we submerge them, and they reappear in unhealthy, even addictive, ways. We’ve been molded by our economy and culture to view these pressures as individual and mostly moral issues, best dealt with in the “privacy” of the home or the pastor’s study, one casualty at a time. We ignore an enormous at-hand opportunity to discover the power of our stories, the power-among of respectful relationality.

As a result, our local mediating institutions suffer from lack of energy, imagination and creativity; much of what we do is not mission but maintenance, and the way we do it is bureaucratic rather than transformational. Leaders and members alike suffer, in my view unnecessarily, from worn-out and dysfunctional modes of organizational culture. Many leaders and members burn out and walk away: “I’m a recovering.”

The steps we’re working with in these blogs are brief pictures of how to create a culture of institutional creativity for organizing in the 21st century, to help deal with the Great Destruction. Here are some of the basic questions of this process:

Are our people strangers to each other? How well do we really know each others stories? Do we approach new people, and young people, with answers, or questions?

Is our institution organized to hear our own and non-members hurt? How do we learn to guard privacy yet address the public dimension of our pressures?

Is individual therapy the only purpose of hearing those stories? Do those gatherings include step-by-step analysis of patterns and systemic causes? Are we interested in our institution in learning how to turn “private” pain into public agenda, how to get real-world levers on some of the major pressures of our time?

How much fear does our institution carry about changing our organizational culture? Will we clutch and seize up, insisting on “this is the way we’ve always done it?” Or will we risk, listening to our people’s cries, and open ourselves to a life-giving process?

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1© Dick Harmon, 2013. All rights reserved.

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NOTES FOR BREATHERS #3: Impacts of Pressures on Families & Institutions (by Dick Harmon, a lead teacher in our “Ecology of Grace and Justice – Organizing in the Biocommons Course”)

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