Thursday, January 15, 2009

More Thoughts on Trust and Obedience

Roger Dooley, president of Dooley Direct, LLC. has an interesting on the psychology and biochemistry of trust. The post I think bears directly on our conversation here on the role of obedience in confession and spiritual direction. While not always immediately applicable, his blog, which combines "knowledge of emerging phenomena like neuromarketing and social networking with decades of hands-on marketing experience" brings an helpful perspective to pastoral work.

Dooley asks, "Want your customers to trust you?" Well, if you do, "Demonstrate that you trust THEM!" While the immediate concern in the post is with marketing, it is based on sound science and so, I think anyway, it is applicable to pastoral life as well.

As I argued earlier, obedience is the fruit of trust. If this is the case, then (as Dooley work argues) clergy can foster a healthy and appropriate form of obedience in a parish context by our willingness to first demonstrate that we trust our parishioners to be responsible for their own spiritual formation and direction.

I was first introduced to the idea of spiritual self-direction in the writing of the late Fr Adrian van Kaam. In one of his earlier works, Dynamics of Spiritual Self Direction, van Kaam argues that necessarily all spiritual direction must embrace an element of spiritual self-direction. Like it or not, I cannot live a spiritual life for someone else nor can they live it for me. I can pray for you certainly. But I cannot pray for you in the sense of praying in place of you praying.

Practically this means that if I hope to offer any direction to someone, I have to trust them to make their own decisions, to live their own life. And so again, if I want you to trust me, I have to first demonstrate by my words and deeds that I trust you.

"This may seem counterintuitive," Dooley argues, "but there's sound neuromarketing reasoning behind it." His argument is based in what he characterizes as the function of the "seemingly magical neurochemical, oxytocin, which is a key factor in forming trust relationships." Dooley quotes the work of "Paul J. Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University and unofficial oxytocin evangelist."

As a young man, Zak "was the victim of a small-scale swindle. He now concludes that a key factor in getting him to fall for the con was that the swindler demonstrated that he trusted Zak." He quotes Zak that

The key to a con is not that you trust the conman, but that he shows he trusts you. Conmen ply their trade by appearing fragile or needing help, by seeming vulnerable… the human brain makes us feel good when we help others–this is the basis for attachment to family and friends and cooperation with strangers. "I need your help" is a potent stimulus for action. [From The Moral Molecule - How to Run a Con.]
According to Zak the biochemical basis of trust is found in what he calls "THOMAS - The Human Oxytocin Mediated Attachment System." He continues:

THOMAS' effects are modulated by our large prefrontal cortex that houses the "executive" regions of the brain. THOMAS is all emotion, while the prefrontal cortex is deliberative… THOMAS causes us to empathize with others, the key to building social relationships.
Sales (Dooley's concern) and pastoral care (our concern here) are "NOT a con game" and any salesperson (and spiritual director or priest for that matter), "who treats it as one is unlikely to be successful for very long." It might sound unimaginable, not to say offensive, to suggest that any spiritual director or priest might see his or her work as a con game, it is not unheard of that some do betray the trust put in them by spiritual children and parishioners. (The literature on clerical misconduct refers to the misconduct on a great sin against the trust people place in them. But I leave this for any other time.) In both sales and pastoral care "building trust IS an essential part of the . . . process, and anything that we can do to foster that will pay dividends" in whether or concern is financial or spiritual.

So how can we build trust?

Based on Zak's work, Dooley suggest that we can do this first and foremost by "behaving in a transparent and trustworthy manner." From the point of view of developmental psychology, a child develops a sense of trust in their parents through the parent's consistent, demonstrated willingness and ability to meet the child's physical and emotional needs. And so, we can say that a key to behaving in a trustworthy manner is consistency in manner and expectations for those who are entrusted to our care. In many parishes, to take only one example, Liturgy more often than not does not start on time. Or, and more significantly, in some communities there might be clearly different expectations for different groups in the parish. For example, "converts" are expected to fast and come to confession, but the vast majority of the parish who were baptized as infants are not.

Ironically, the problem with holding one group in the parish to relatively minimal standards is not simply that it divides the parish into factions, but that the priest does not extend that liberality to all. Liberality, it is important to stress, is not an end in itself. Part of fostering trust is not only leaving people free, but doing so intentionally and with a clearly and publicly articulated explanation of what is being done and that this is being done because the priest trusts his parishioners to direct their own spiritual lives.

A conversation about the role of trust in spiritual direction and confession is also a conversation about leadership. While I will have to leave a fuller discussion for another day, effective leadership emerges out of a sense of vocation (personal & communal). At a minimum, vocation or calling is the idea that my life is part of a larger story that is told primarily--though not exclusively--by God. Viewed vocationally, the story of my life, embraces not only me, but you, the whole human family and all creation.

In order to foster trust between us, I must trust you and to do this means that I must come to see that this larger story isn't simply something of which I am a part, like a character in a story. Yes, I find myself, my vocation, in this larger story (again, like a character in a novel) BUT I also find this larger story being told in the small details of my own life. In other words, trust requires that I am come to see myself both a character in the story, and the story itself.

So much of the violence that we see in human life, and in the life of the Church, is I think because we live lives absence a sense of our own vocation--absent any tangible sense of a call that orders my life (both from outside AND within), what else can I do but impose what is inside me on what is outside of me?

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

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