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The "Beagle Principle"
Thomas F. Fischer, M.Div., M.S.A.
"Alligators." "Antagonists." "Clergy Killers." Whatever their designation, it’s almost always negative.
Certainly the results of their actions can be negative…extremely negative. Alligators will bite. Antagonists will counter and sabotage virtually every mission-driven ministry initiative. Clergy Killers direct their efforts to undermine ministry leaders with their ongoing engagement in clerical thanatologistics.
Whatever the negative effects of these individuals, perhaps it is helpful to back up, disengage from the anxiety of the moment and ask,
- “Is there a better way?”
- “Can leaders, especially Christian leaders, find a kinder and gentler way to denote these individuals?”
- “Is there a more positive classification which might help leaders and others to deal more positively with negative ones?”
- “Is there a designation which might leave the door open to facilitate a better Christian witness and ministry to such individuals?”
Try calling them “Beagles.”
A Beagle owner myself, I have lived with “Josh” for almost three years. During that time, I have found that one feature about Beagles is that of all canine species they are perhaps the most lovable, predictable and incorrigible.
When Josh was nearly nine months old, my wife Cheryl decided to take Josh to obedience school. Upon arriving at the first session, the trainer began the class with introductions. Each one present introduced themselves and their animal. After introducing six other dogs, the trainer then hesitated, took a look at Josh, and then looked incredulously at my wife and said with a tone of disbelief, “And my, my, what do we have here? Look everyone, it’s a Beagle!”
Aside from the trainer’s obvious sense of humor, the trainer made an important observation. “It’s a Beagle!”
The Beagle Principle
This observation was important because it demonstrated a bit of essential insight for this dog trainer. Having worked with numerous breeds for many, many years, she knew the capacities, limits, habits, proclivities and possibilities of behaviors for many canine breeds. As for Beagles, she knew that you can teach a Beagle, but not very much. Though lovable, Beagles simply follow their noses. No matter what the obstacles, dangers or consequences, a Beagle will always be a Beagle. They don’t really listen to anyone. They just follow their nose. Virtually nothing can change this, either. Why? Because it’s the nature of Beagles.
To Josh’s credit, he did learn one thing from a six-week course. He learned how to sit on command…at least for a couple of seconds. Considering he flunked “rabbit school”…twice, my wife and I resigned ourselves simply to accept Josh on the basis of the “Beagle Principle.”
The “Beagle Principle” developed from the realization that Josh’s behaviors were somewhat limited.
- Can Josh do dog tricks? No! Why not? Because he’s a Beagle!
- Can he behave himself like other dogs? No! Why not? Because he’s a Beagle!
- Can we keep him from following his nose and eating other animals’ food? No! Why not? Because he’s a Beagle!
- Can we keep him from always begging and jumping on our laps for food? No! Why not? Because he’s a Beagle!
Results Of The Beagle Principle
“Because he’s a Beagle!” is the core insight of the "The Beagle Principle. The realization that “he’s a Beagle” has given my family—and especially me—a whole new outlook on Beagles in general and Josh in particular.
The Beagle Principle has made me face the fact that whatever expectations I had for Josh, I must accept that “he’s a Beagle.” My other dogs may be able to follow my commands, engage in more controllable behavior and, in general, be more well-behaved. But Josh, well, I guess I can’t get bent out of shape because of the things he does—or doesn’t do—no matter what I try to do to change his behavior. After all, The Beagle Principle reminds me, “He’s a Beagle!” After a year of practicing The Beagle Principle, I have to admit that as stupid, unteachable and disobedient as Josh is, he’s a Beagle. And I love him.
Applying The Beagle Principle In Your Church
Perhaps designations such as “antagonist,” “clergy killers,” “alligators” and the like are more a reflection of those using the designation than the ones designated. Noted international church conflict consultants such as Dr. Richard Blackburn of The Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, as well as secular researchers from the noted Harvard Negotiation Project note that negative, pejorative name-calling is not a helpful thing.
Instead, widespread use of these designations can have numerous negative effects. A short listing of negative effects might be:
1) First, these assigned designations tend to keep individuals entrenched in an anti-negotiating stance;
2) Second, these designations heighten levels of anxiety and increase unhealthy polarization between disagreeing sides;
3) Third, these designations distract leaders away from healthy solutions and toward attitudes and actions which actually create an atmosphere for increased antagonism;
4) Fourth, these designations give some important insight into the one using the designations, insight which rarely evokes an air of Christian respectability;
5) Fifth—and perhaps most important—these designations may draw us away from a Biblical pattern of grace-based reconciliation according to the model of Matthew 18 et al.
What if, instead of calling such individuals “antagonists” or the like, congregational leaders responded, “He (or she) is just a Beagle!”?
Comparing the uncontrollable actions of an individual to the characteristic way of the Beagle may appear to some to be inappropriate, unkind, or downright mean. “How dare one call someone a Beagle!” “That can’t possibly be Christian!”
Certainly, the intent is not to call someone a “dog.” Nor is the intent of The Beagle Principle to belittle. Instead, properly understood, The Beagle Principle becomes an effective tool to maintain a non-anxious approach to ministry…and the antagonism virtually every minister and leader faces.
Understood from this perspective, The Beagle Principle introduces a little bit of humor into an area of ministry which is seriously lacking in levity. This is specifically one of the intents of The Beagle Principle: to inject a little bit of levity into those who might oppose, hinder, or stifle a grace-based ministry.
What if The Beagle Principle could help Christian leaders achieve that end? Wouldn’t that make use of The Beagle Principle worthwhile?
When leaders responding to the anxiety of antagonists begin to say, “It’s just a Beagle thing,” they can crack a smile, get a little relief from anxiety, and be better equipped for dealing with the subversive ways of antagonists…I mean Beagles!
Other Effects of The Beagle Principle
As the leader becomes more cognizant of The Beagle Principle, the resulting non-anxious confidence can spread among the leadership. This confidence may then result in a greater propensity for self-differentiation and resilience. As this confidence builds, leaders and congregations will be better prepared and equipped to stay the course of ministry…even when overwhelmed by Beagles!
The Beagle Principle also has, among other things, important ramifications for a grace-based congregational emotional process. One of the most difficult experiences for ministers and members of congregations is trying to remain non-anxious in congregations dominated by anxious emotional processes. Such processes are maintained and energized by name-calling, scapegoating, and designating individuals who oppose their ideas as “evil.”
If such emotional processes are to change, it must come from people who are able to differentiate themselves from these destructive highly anxious emotional processes. A first step may be to put things into a more constructive—and less anxious—perspective: “We just have a Beagle problem!”
Changing the problem—like changing a Beagle—will not be easy. In some cases, unfortunately, it may not even happen. But, whatever the consequences, you just have to love a Beagle. After all, God does!
Infuse Grace Into The System
The highest use of The Beagle Principle is to facilitate a way for the Gospel to become more dominant in congregational family systems. Because this principle can help to reduce anxiety and the tendencies for individuals to resort to heavy-handed law, The Beagle Principle may be an important tool to put some of God’s grace back into emotional systems clearly lacking in grace.
Of course, the most important manifestation of grace is a willingness to forgive “seventy times seven” (Matthew 18). Though Christians, as Scripture says, must constantly be on guard against instruments of Satan, the “many antichrists” mentioned in I John 4 and the “Jezebels” and usurpers of the Kingdom of God, even if they are Judases, Christians are called to minister the Gospel to them according to the pattern of love demonstrated by God.
If Christians have condemned individuals with labels and stereotypically loaded designations such as “alligator,” “antagonist” or “clergy killer,” they are less able—and, perhaps, less willing—to really receive grace to minister to these individuals.
The Spiritual Trap
Perhaps receiving grace to minister to Beagles the greatest danger facing Christian leaders. Many Christian leaders have difficultly standing up to negative leaders, let alone ministering to them. In perhaps too many cases, pastors say that they cannot remain in a church anymore because they just can’t continue to look at the Beagles.
In more cases than one might want to admit, the bigger problem is not the Beagles. It’s the pastor. The pastor’s problem is a spiritual one which focuses on the most important issue of ministry: grace. The problem, specifically, is that pastors become unwilling to forgive and grant grace…especially to Beagles.
Certainly it is easy to fall into this trap. St. Peter did as he asked Jesus to justify a limit on forgiveness. Jonah succumbed to this trap even after the people of Nineveh repented. Though others in the prophetic tradition also succumbed to this trap, perhaps the most tragic realization would be that any pastor—including yourself—might fall into this trap.
If you do fall into it, the problem is no longer the antagonists. It’s you.
The Blessing Of Beagles
God sends antagonists—I mean Beagles—as a blessing. Though the blessing may be very well-disguised, if it were not for Beagles, pastors and other Christians would have no training ground to practice grace.
Jesus, in Matthew 5:43-45, said,
"You have heard that it was said, 'Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.” (NIV)
Practice the Beagle Principle and begin experiencing the “Beagle Blessing”—the ability to put enmity and antagonism into a grace-based perspective which will love all God’s people the way God loves you—like a Beagle!
Thomas F. Fischer
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This page was revised on: Tuesday, October 05, 2004 11:02:09 PM