The 3/12/120 principle

Jesus had several size circles of people around him, and he spoke to each of them differently. He had three disciples, Peter, James and John, who he explained things to at a different and deeper level than any others. He also had the twelve, who he sometimes would give a secondary explanation to for a parable he had told a larger crowd. Beyond that there seems to have been a group of about 120 people who were also serious followers, and not just part of the crowds that gathered to see spectacles and gain gossip fodder and tales to tell back home.

Outside of those three groups, there were whole categories or groups of people that Jesus would address in a woe-giving way, such as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and other religious leaders, or in a caring, healing way, such as the sick and broken  and troubled who came to him needing help. There were also the crowds…

What I find interesting in that is that this is often a very different way of operating as a spiritual leader than is expected today of pastors. Maybe we need to reconsider…

Today, long term pastors are expected to know their entire flock, and often are expected to spend more time on the ‘trouble makers’ to get them on board and in line. By the way, this is a different group than the ‘troubled’ though there is some overlap. Some troubled people have such massive needs and lack of ability to help themselves let alone act well on received help that they too can drain a lot of time from a pastoral leader.

In earlier blog postings I have been pretty clearly identifying that there are trouble makers and troubled people in the congregation. Every congregation has them.

But what I get by way of feedback (even in my own mind, because I’m a guy who likes to help) is the urge or question of ‘why not put extra time into such folks’ to help them understand and come on board instead of leaving them expressing anxiety on the sidelines. Well, I believe that pursuing of the resistant to be an ineffective use of time. I will only invest time in such folks if I get clear signs from those for whom the trouble light is flashing that they are ready to learn and grow and move on. Then I have lots of time as some of you know.

So, a couple of weeks ago, I began thinking about this issue in light of how Jesus led. And I see no sign in scripture that Jesus would go seek out those who were not ‘getting’ what he was doing and try to persuade them. No, instead, he speaks in a way that gives an impression that he would watch all those he met carefully, asking the Father, “is this one whom you have given to me?” or “Is this one of mine?” and somehow those people’s response to Jesus would be an indicator to him that they were or were not. Think of the Samaritan woman, or his process for calling the disciples, or his spotting of Zacchaeus. Think of the time he pointed out that an entire area was resistant.

I have come to think of this way of being as a leader as the 3 12 120 principle of leadership. In today’s environment where the pastor is expected to be ‘chaplain to all’ and to be very politically balanced in relating to everyone, this is going to be an unpopular principle. But it is one I was operating on, before I even noticed this biblical evidence for it’s validity. Here in Nobleford, I have been working closely with the chair and clerk, sharing what I see and strategizing together, sometime with the full executive, and that group is close to my equivalent of the 3. The Transition Team is my version of the 12. They are being given a different level of insight than anyone else, and they at this point know the most about what is in my head and heart about all this. My impressions are based on life experience and on reading and research, yet very much connected with scripture. The 120 is more like the preaching event, where a larger group hears what I have more directly derived from scripture and somewhat from life.

I become more and more convinced of this principle’s validity as I go on in ministry and especially in Transitional Ministry.

If you can relate to this principle, maybe you can also share or imagine some of my joy and excitement when I started reading a new book while waiting for the power to come back on this past week, and a day later for the internet connection to come back. The author, as I mentioned Sunday night, is the one who first began writing about ‘anxiety’ or anxious emotions in a group that was not functioning well, and noticing how debilitating that was for a group trying to work it’s way out of a problem. He also began to see that how leadership responded to that anxiety made a key difference. If the leader becomes part of the anxiety, or if the leader is deaf and blind to it a solution is not likely. Here’s how the author says it:

“I began to see that the same emotional processes that produced dysfunction in an institution when the leader was anxiously reactive or absent could work in reverse.” 1

He discovered that if a leader stopped focusing so much on trying to convince others, or motivate them in the same way he was motivated, and instead was primarily focused on their own being and presence in the group, a good outcome was much more likely.

“not by focusing on techniques for moving others but by focusing on the nature of his or her own being and presence”2

“these criteria have to do with a leader’s capacity to avoid being regulated by an institution’s emotional processes as they are transmitted and reinforced from generation to generation.”3

The institution will have its ways of pushing back against a truly good leader, as anxiety increases. The leader needs to distance themselves from that anxiety while still caring. The author says, after reminding readers of the saying ‘no good deed goes unpunished’ that “chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better!”4

And then the clincher, that I read as a supporting of part of my 3 12 120 principle. The author was a Rabbi, church consultant, and did many years of leadership consulting work with military organizations, political organizations and churches. Heres what he says, and my translation below it:

“These insights led to a major shift in my mode of consultation with regard to both families and work systems. With families, I stopped creating encyclopedias of data about all their issues and began to search instead for the member with the greatest capacity to be a leader as I have defined it. That person generally turned out to be he one who could express himself or herself with the least amount of blaming and the one who had the greatest capacity to take responsibility for his or her own emotional being and destiny. I began to coach the “leader” alone, letting the rest of the family drop out and stay home…. I found that … it is the integrity of the leader that promotes the integrity or prevents the “dis-integration” of the system he or she is leading.”

In plain English: he learned that finding the emotionally healthy people (also referred to as well connected while also differentiated) who were willing to take responsibility and working with them had a positive effect on the whole group. He no longer chased down the dysfunctional ones and spent time on them. No, he spent time on those who showed leadership qualities, and as they began to understand and lead by example, the whole organization had less anxiety.

Good stuff!

1A Failure of Nerve, Edwin H. Friedman, pg 18

2A Failure of Nerve, Edwin H. Friedman, pg 18

3A Failure of Nerve, Edwin H. Friedman, pg 18

4A Failure of Nerve, Edwin H. Friedman, pg 19

4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. George Lubberts
    Mar 24, 2014 @ 18:24:06

    I think that some people may see the 3/12/120 principle as a way of the leader escaping his (supposed) responsiblilty to the 120 (the rest of the congregation or group) but we must not forget that:
    a) a good leader delegates and
    b) that Jesus was more than willing to relate to (or with) any of those outside the 12 or even outside the 120, but he did spend most of his time with and effort on the 3 and 12, (that was delegating).
    However, I believe that a pastor still needs to know his flock, but a pastor’s primary purpose is to lead the church by teaching and delegating to the leadership put into place by God. Can we expect a pastor (whose tenure may be 7 years, more or less) to know the flock as well as the elders who spend most of their lives in the flock? Will the flock allow the elders to know them as well as some expect the pastor to know them?


    • pastorpete
      Mar 25, 2014 @ 09:49:18

      Thanks for commenting George. I like getting responses.
      Anyone who would argue the “responsibility to the 120” understanding would be challenged by me to show it from scripture. Except for the woman who ‘snuck up’ on Jesus, it seems to me that he only paid attention to those out of the 120 — or the crowds — who came declaring their need for help and their faith in his ability to help.
      I agree very much that a good leader delegates or passes various responsibilities to others while training them how to do it. The sending of the 72 is a place where Jesus demonstrates this in my view. The sending of the Holy Spirit is Jesus continuing to do that.
      I like your final provocative question about elders knowing the flock. In my view it is unfinished Reformation business that we have not fully accepted the title of prophet priest and king for ALL believers, all believers represent Christ to each other, and that it is actually the Elders who should know the flock best. But alas, the flock tends to want the Pastor.
      What “a pastor should know his flock” means to the pastor and the flock is often different. I agree it is important. It is the crucial question here. Maybe I’ll make that my next blog post in a couple of weeks. (I’m away next week)
      Thanks again.


  2. Fred Lozeman
    Mar 25, 2014 @ 20:23:02

    I am still thinking about Edwin Friedman’s conclusion that “chronic criticism is, if anything, often a sign that the leader is functioning better!” That might be true in a dysfunctional group, but I am having a hard time applying this as a general principle. What about applying this conclusion in Jesus’ ministry? Although he was under constant criticism from the theological leaders, he clearly was not from the general population.


    • pastorpete
      Mar 25, 2014 @ 21:14:54

      That is a good thing to puzzle over Fred.
      We just looked at Exodus 5 Sunday morning, where Moses starts acting on his calling, and it ends up with his own people mad at him in v 21. So he was doing right as a leader in God’s eyes, but receives the scorn of the people. This will happen numerous more times in the rest of Exodus (and Numbers) several times coming close to mutiny. The Hebrew people are enslaved to a master who is not God, and that master has made life harder for them as part of a kingdom power struggle with Israel’s God. But the people — in their stuck and trapped state — blame Moses… who in turn blames God.
      Where I apply what Friedman says, in Christian terminology, is that a Christian leader who is doing what God has called them to do, will face this kind of pushback. It is part of the burden of leadership. The key is for the leader to have sufficient internal security in their own relationship with God to be able to endure that resistance and not ‘buy into the anxiety.’ Even Moses does not always succeed. Second key is to have sufficient trustworthy accountability partners who also understand this dynamic that the leader can be encouraged in persisting – for the right reasons.
      What Friedman says is I think applicable only in the context of trying to lead an anxious, dysfunctional group. Resistance to one’s leadership is not in any way an assurance you are right or doing right. That is not automatic. It is not what I hear him saying either.
      As for application to Jesus’ ministry, no we don’t have a lot of examples of the general population or “the crowds” being critical in that way, so I don’t have much to say there.
      What I see though is that those who “knew their brokenness” or deeply knew or felt “their need for a saviour” were drawn to him. And on the other side those who felt self-secure and comforted in the salvation God was going to “owe” them for their obedience to traditions and “rules made by men” and external shows of righteousness while their insides were corrupt were horrified by what Jesus taught. Grace threatened their security. So, someone who prophetically calls out the brokenness of a group and calls them to reject their enslavement to masters that are not God and experience and accept God’s mercy and grace in response to their contrition — if the group is not ready to open up — that leader can expect the same kind of resistance.


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