Family Systems Basics about Money at Church 3: Triangles

How do you get more reflective about your experiences with money at church? This is the third of a series of posts briefly looking at some basic systems ideas in relation to church and money.

Triangles. A triangle occurs when the relationship between two people becomes troubled, and a third person (or group) is pulled in the manage the anxiety between the two. Given the high-anxiety nature of money in church life, we can expect triangles to show up frequently in this area – and they do. “Don’t you agree with me that the pastor is completely wrong about his approach to stewardship?” “How can we get our members to give more?” “Can’t you do something to help the treasurer improve her reports?” These are a few examples of triangles about money.

Clergy can’t opt out of these triangles; they go with the job. At the same time, it’s important to manage yourself within the triangles. You can find it easy to get caught up in the anxiety of others around money. However, a thoughtful response will always lead to better results than a reactive response. Triangles are not bad in and of themselves. They are part of human experience. However, the way you relate to others in the triangles you are in regarding money can create a different outcome.

Remember: you can’t change the “other side” of a triangle. In other words, you can’t change a relationship you don’t belong to. For example, you may agree that the treasurer could do a better job in her reports, or you may want to defend her to the member who is criticizing her. Yet getting caught up in bemoaning or defending will not help anyone make progress.

In addition, if you try to change the other side of a triangle, the situation often gets worse. People resist, consciously or unconsciously, our willful attempts to change them. In the case just mentioned, you can’t manage the dissatisfaction of that member with the treasurer. At least, you can’t do it without adding significantly to your own stress.

Finally, when you try to change someone else’s relationship, you carry the stress that belongs to the other two. Trying to do the impossible always creates stress. And you relieve them of the necessary responsibility for their own relationship. The only choice we have is how we function within triangles: relating directly to each party to the triangle, in as clear, open, and as consistent a manner as possible.

When the heat goes up, triangles increase and intensify. People try to recruit others for their side of the issue. There may be a triangle between the pastor and two factions regarding mission giving. Or the pastor, board and congregation about the stewardship campaign. Resist the temptation to avoid people who disagree with you on the matter under discussion. Don’t triangle people out. Don’t complain about people who are disagreeing or even behaving badly and don’t spend a lot of time listening to people complain about others. Relate directly as much as you possibly can, and encourage others to do the same.

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