Why People Circle the Wagons During Difficult Times? The Challenge of Imaginative Gridlock! Part 1 of 2






The meaning of idioms generally alters as time passes, but sometimes the original meaning is also based on a false premise. The idea that settlers of the west were often threatened by marauding Native American tribes and had to “circle the wagons” for protection is something of a myth. This idea has been perpetuated by many western movies that showed settlers in conflict with native tribes who would attack circled wagon trains in their territory. In fact, however, many Native American tribes were friendly to the settlers, and initially welcomed their presence.

With the passing of time the use of this idiom has come to identify a group of people who are experiencing crisis and the cease to communicate or relationally engage with people who are outside their relational circle. This is a common behavior that I have the opportunity to experience as a leader when attempting to lead a congregation of people who are experiencing crisis. When it comes to organizational change I fully embrace Family Systems Theory as it relates to how all people within a relational context are connected and they influence the behaviors of others in their relational community.



In the past ten years I have the opportunity to lead congregations that have suffered crisis situations dealing with leadership and issues related to a culture that began to become regressive meaning that they began to function in a way that was more about keeping the status quo versus being on mission. They create “gridlocked systems” which imaginative thinking becomes stuck and Edwin H. Friedman states that three characteristics mark this kind of system: (1) First, they begin to practice a never-ending treadmill of trying harder to create change. The tendency is leaders and people will become frantic as they attempt to change all of the peripheral things they think needs to change rather than deal with the adaptive issues that relate to the cultural issues that must change. An example of this type of behavior would be a church that is attempting to have new comer lunches in order to connect with people but the culture of the ministry has become such a closed system the real issue is there are no people who are inviting and welcoming new people into their areas of ministry. There are not enough newcomer lunches to fix a culture that is uninviting. Friedman states, “The treadmill of trying harder is driven by the assumption that failure is to the fact that one did not try hard enough, use the right technique, or get enough information.[1] (2) Second, attribute of an imaginatively gridlocked relationship system is a continual search for new answers to old questions rather than an effort to reframe the questions themselves. Innovations are new answers to old questions; paradigm shifts reframe the question, change the information that is important, and generally eliminate previous dichotomies.[2] (3) Third, characteristic of gridlocked relationship systems is either/or, black-or-white, all-or-nothing ways of thinking that eventually restrict the options of the mind.[3] Rigid dichotomies are always an indicator that there is something wrong in the original orientation concerning an issue.

Remembering the Future: Breaking Gridlock


“Not much happens without a dream,” Robert Greenleaf says, “and for something great to happen there must be a great dream.” The vision is a way a group defines itself and chartering its purpose. It has to be bigger than any one leader. The vision can only be stewarded by leaders who are well differentiated themselves. This means that leaders who are leading through a relationally gridlocked system must be a non-anxious presence while leading a paradigm shift to a new future. In a gridlocked system there will be individual people who never distinguished the difference from the former “Primus Leader” and the church. Matter of fact, they could even have had a horrific relationship with the previous leader and continue to define the success of the church based on the old paradigm of the former leader. This becomes a form of circling the wagons in that the is a regressive wall to any new attempts to a new future. In order to lead in a healthy way a leader must commit themselves to three emotional practices:

  • First, the leader that is leading change must be committed to “stewarding ones-self before stewarding the vision.”[4] Being a dreamer and one who is attempting to lead into a new future can only be effective to the degree that a leader functions with integrity and promotes responsibility in others. Peter L. Steinke writes, “The leader achieves this by defining self, regulating one’s own anxiety, staying connected to others, stimulating their resources, and staying the course.”[5]What does this mean? If a leader has an issue with control and is a perfectionist, you will create more anxiety in an already distressed system and you create a cataclysmic implosion. The leader is not to dominate others but rather is to function to affect the group so that resources are energized and their functions are promoted. Because of the leader’s position in the system, it is the leader who can most affect calm, focus, and change in the group.
  • Second, the leader must speak the truth in love. Leading through gridlock means that you as the leader will have individuals who find a source of power in the midst of gridlock. They will function well in the midst of chaos and will even elevate their own emotional responses whenever their position of power in the system is threatened. It is important that you speak the truth in love in regards to this behavior because not doing so will erode the credibility you have within the system to lead into a new future. If you are a leader that fears conflict or has a need for others to like you this will be challenging. When working through conflict I have the team present to process this in order that there is no reinterpretation of what was discussed. It is important that you as a leader do not personalize the reactions of others. To do so will set you up for your own vulnerability to overreact and create more anxiety in the relational system.
  • Third, use every opportunity to teach and model healthy thinking and behavior. When churches and organizations get to the place that gridlock has overtaken them remember that you as the leader must educate and equip them to something that may be very foreign for them to grasp. For instance, in one situation I had to lead through everything was buried under spiritual language. In this context the devil was blamed for everything to the degree that there was more discussion about Satan than there was about one being a bully or acting out in an inappropriate manner. When was there was debate it was common for people to declare, we just need to pray and trust the Lord.” I do believe in prayer and I do trust the Lord but I quickly was able to discern what they really feared was the dissonance that comes with healthy community. I had to help them identify when we were debating issues if something was a Problem to solve or a tension point that we need to manage. This team of people came to the place of no longer talking in terms of the either/or but instead they began to embrace the genius of the “And.”

I would encourage any man or woman who is leading through a church or organization that is struggling with “imaginative gridlock” to have relational resources of overseers and colleagues that you can connect with in order to do emotional and spiritual check-ins in order to remain differentiated.

Here is a final thought and that is Paul’s prayer for the Colossian Church in Colossians 1:9-12, has become a point of encouragement and strength while leading through gridlocked emotional systems. It is a reminder to me that there is a grace that God has in helping us remain connected and Hope Filled while breaking through gridlock. I made the decision to be a contagious carrier of HOPE!


[1] (Friedman 1999) p. 35.

[2] (Friedman 1999) p 37.

[3] (Friedman 1999) p 39.

[4] (Steinke 1993) p 118.

[5] (Steinke 1993) p 118.


Works Cited

Friedman, Edwin H. A failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. New York, New York: Seabury Books, 1999.

Steinke, Peter L. How Your Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute , 1993.

About PastorAl

Al Soto has been married to his incredible wife Valerie for 30 years and they have five sons and one grandson. Al has been in Local Church Ministry for 35 years as both as a Lead Pastor, Associate Pastor, and for five years as a Regional Overseer for his denomination. He has a BA degree from LIFE Pacific College and is currently completing an MA in Leadership & Spiritual Formation from Vanguard University. He currently resides in Lincoln, CA where he is the new Lead Pastor for one of the Campus locations for Bayside Church. He continues to coach High School Football for the Lincoln Fighting Zebras for the Junior Varsity Program and is facilitating Leadership training and coaching as well as facilitating Spiritual Retreats. His hobbies include Golfing and Scuba Diving as well as he is a veracious reader. His Life Statement is “Real Success is Helping others to Succeed!”
This entry was posted in Church, Leadership and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Comments From Facebook

We are all here because we are not all there!