Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: Pygmalion and Golem Go To Church

Poor Pygmalion.

He was the Greek character from Ovid’s ancient narrative poem called Metamorphoses. Pygmalion was a victim of his own talent; such a gifted sculptor that he fell in love with the statue he sculpted.

Modern researchers love this ancient story of Pygmalion; finding in it a great metaphor explaining what they’ve discovered in social science research. This is where the phrase, “Self-fulfilling Prophecy,” originates. Evidently, when we believe something will happen, or more accurately, when we believe someone is a certain way, then we unconsciously arrange our behavior in accordance with this belief. When we believe a person is witty, then we tend to laugh at his remarks. When we believe she is smart, then we tend to ask her insightful questions. When we believe they are full of potential, then we present them with opportunities to demonstrate their ability. This is the Pygmalion Effect. (To learn more about the research, see Robert Rosenthal’s study with teachers and students. A brief summary is found in Psychology Today, Published on April 18, 2009 by Ronald E. Riggio)

The reverse of the Pygmalion is also true. We might call this Pygmalion’s evil twin. The Golem Effect happens when we believe less about a person or group, thinking he/she/they are destined to failure, are not very bright, or are stuck in unhelpful patterns. When leaders persist in the Golem Effect, seeing their congregation as unwilling to change (or other negative perspectives), then leaders unconsciously relate to this congregation as if this is the gospel truth. This is the Golem Effect.

What if Pygmalion and Golem went to church?
More accurately, these two are already there.
The Golem Effect appeared recently in a consultation with a pastor. He’s concerned about the church, coming for a consultation on what might be done to help. I could summarize his perspective about them this way, “They are happy as they are. They don’t want any help from anyone outside the congregation, though they are declining quickly. I have very little hope they will change.” I don’t doubt this pastor’s description of this church, based on what he described. But what will happen if this pastor retains this point of view? Unconsciously, he will select evidence from his experience with this congregation which confirms this viewpoint. Yes, this is the classic self-fulfilling prophecy. Certainly this pastor cannot change this congregation simply by believing differently about them. Yet just as certainly, this pastor is unlikely to participate in an effective change process while believing these things about them, thereby squandering his leadership opportunity. This is the Golem Effect at church.

The Pygmalion Effect is at church too.
We are working with a congregation which has declined. They are a lovely bunch of people, with great love for each other and their community. Yet, they are older and discouraged and unsure about the future. In our discussions, one person piped up and said, “We received a phone call from the new church starting in our community. They wondered if we would sell them our facility.” This comment triggered a new insight for this church. They began to play with this new way of looking at themselves. What is it about this place, and then about us as a people, that a new church would see this and us as assets? This led to recognition of many great assets among them: a building and property without a mortgage, a sizeable group of people who meet regularly for worship and love one another, a willingness to change given their reality, etc. When they looked at themselves as a new church developer would (You mean I don’t have to go find a core group to start this church? They are already there, along with this great facility? Luxury!), their appreciation for potential fruitful ministry rose dramatically. This is the church who is now corporately practicing the Pygmalion Effect.

I believe it’s time to use what humanity knows to strengthen our congregational leadership. Actually, we are a part of a faith movement which provides everything we need to practice the Pygmalion Effect in our leadership. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, leaders frequently seized the opportunity to call people up to a better way of life, all the while believing God would provide what they need to follow God’s call toward the promised land (notwithstanding Jonah).

Leadership has influence. Leadership is influence. The leaders’ beliefs about individuals and the entire congregation inform the decisions, perspectives, and relationships of those leaders. Knowing this, we can’t ignore it. What do we really believe about the people with whom we partner in this mission of God for world transformation? May our love for God and God’s people, mix with our belief in God and God’s people to transform us into effective leaders who influence people and congregations toward the kingdom.

Mark Tidsworth,
Pinnacle Leadership Associates