July 19, 2014

Comfort from Above

This whole ethnography project has caused my head to spin a bit. As I have blogged before, I am studying the Church in Crisis. More specifically, I am studying my church as it transitions through a leadership and financial crisis. I have looked at my church through various lenses over the past 8-9 months. I have written on different aspects of my church -- from marketing to image and reputation management to relationship issues. I am currently seeking understanding on member experience and perception or how the organizational crisis response shapes member experience and perception.

The requirement for this project included interviewing subjects to gain insight and understanding. I didn't want to do that part because I thought interviewing was too personal, too emotionally-connecting for me. I am an introverted person. According to Myers-Briggs, I am an INTJ (INtroverted, Thinking, Judging) personality type.

From 16personalities.com:

"It’s lonely at the top, and being one of the rarest and most strategically capable personality types, INTJs know this all too well. INTJs form just two percent of the population, and women of this personality type are especially rare, forming just 0.8% of the population – it is often a challenge for them to find like-minded individuals who are able to keep up with their relentless intellectualism and chess-like maneuvering. INTJs are imaginative yet decisive, ambitious yet private, amazingly curious, but only if their interest is piqued."

Source: http://www.16personalities.com/intj-personality

Asking questions would seem at odds with my personality type. We love to question, to think, to study. We just prefer to do it inwardly, within our own minds, and not outwardly with other people. I don't put a lot of stock in these personality profiles normally, but I have to say that much of what I have read about INTJ's does align with my way of thinking. My son says there are better personality tests such as the Big Five, etc. He is more the Psychologist than I am, but I understand his point: Myers-Briggs is so limiting, sorting all people into 16 different types of personalities. I digress...

The part of this research that interests me most deals with the hypothetical questions, the whys. I want to understand outcomes, why certain things happen, and what comes out of the experience. So for me, the research part, the digging, the studying, the contemplating -- all of these aspects -- thrill me to no end. I am all over the research -- what I don't like, what scares me the most -- is having to get personal with people. I do not want to get that close to my subject, that personal with the details of the individual experience.

Ethnography, by its very nature is a process of research that places the individual at the very center of the research. The formal definition of ethnography is:

the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures.

I agree with this definition to a point. The formal approach to ethnography was to be a distanced observer (think Jane Goodall sitting in a jungle observing her beloved Chimpanzees). Ethnographers, traditionally, didn't cross the boundary and get personal with their subjects. They observed them and took very detailed, very scientific notes.

However, over the last twenty or thirty years, ethnography has changed to include far more personal observation or participant observation. Interviews are a very big part of the process. In my course, the project specifications included personal interviews. The thought of having to sit with people and actually ask them personal questions scared me to death.

So what does my ethnography project, my fears on interviewing and Psalm 23 have in common, you ask?

Well, I will tell you...

Psalm 23
A psalm of David.

1 The Lord is my shepherd;
    I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
    he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3     He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
    bringing honor to his name.
4 Even when I walk
    through the darkest valley,

I will not be afraid,
    for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
    protect and comfort me.
5 You prepare a feast for me
    in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
    My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
    all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord

I love this psalm. It is one of the first pieces of Scripture I memorized as a new Christian. I have recited it often over the course of my life. There are so many wonderful verses in it, but my favorite verse is 4:

Even when I walk through the darkest valley, I will not be afraid, for you are close beside me. Your rod and your staff protect and comfort me.

Verse four is a great verse to recite whenever you are afraid or in need of comfort. The Lord is always near to us, to comfort us. He listens to us, and with His presence, we are protected, we are safe. He guards us with His rod and staff. In doing so, we are able to survive walking through those deep dark valleys, even through the shadow of death.

Interviewing people requires a great deal of comfort. The one who listens, must also be comforting. The interviewee must trust the interviewer. There must be a mutual understanding whereby personal experience can be shared without judgment or without persecution.

I have learned a valuable lesson over the past several weeks of interviewing. I would have said that I wasn't necessarily a good listener before I started this project. INTJ's tend to be introspective. They don't always like to display their emotions. They are uncomfortable around people (extroverts mostly) who do.

In ministry, being compassionate is so important. There are too many hurting individuals out there who need someone to listen to them, just to listen and to care about what they are saying/feeling (not to agree necessarily, but to understand).

As I have gone into the interview process, the Lord has allowed me, privileged me to get close to the people I am interviewing. I know that my research questions were not that good -- probably not even the right questions for the study. Yet, what I received back was tremendous. I listened intently while other people shared their story with me, their experience. I didn't judge them for it, I just accepted what they were saying as "true."

I hate that popular culture saying:

"reality is perception"

but in this case, I believe it is true. For the people I interviewed, their reality was their perception. It was unique and personal to them. It encapsulated their life experiences, and yes, it was biased, it was shaped, and it was colored by many other factors. It was, however, their own perception.

I have come to realize that I can listen to people and learn from them. I don't have to be right all the time. I can let people be themselves, be on their journey with the Lord, and accept them right where they are -- in the moment. I don't have to worry about getting too close. I can love them, I can uphold them, I can cherish them for the wonderful people that they are -- and in doing so -- I am acting as a good shepherd to the flock of Christ. I am using His rod and His staff to enfold those the Lord has allowed me to get to know. It is an amazing and wonderful thing to be used by the Lord in this way.

So as I consider my life today, this one thing stands out for me. Every single person the Lord brings to me has been brought into my life for a reason. I am privileged to know them. It is an honor to listen to them, to share their life with them, and to enjoy them for a season or many seasons. My prayer is to continue to learn to affirm, to accept, and to enfold all of those the Lord brings to me. My life is enriched for the better, and I am blessed through the experience. God is good, so very good.

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