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One of the most frustrating things about serving as an overseer is when you make one small mistake and it gets blown out of proportion. I’ve often said (tongue in cheek) that one of the common joys of being an overseer is that you get to fail in front of everyone.

I want to talk about positive sentiment override. That’s probably an expression you have not heard before!

I have served as an overseer in two assemblies. In the first, I was repeatedly frustrated by the fact that tiny mistakes were blown into big issues.

Where I currently serve as an overseer in another part of the country, my small and even medium-sized mistakes do not become huge issues.

I guess it baffled me for a long time: why the difference?

To be perfectly candid, I blamed it on the group in the first assembly. I thought they were too critical, too unforgiving, too cold. Some of that may be a valid assessment of where some of God’s people had room to grow; but then I learned about positive sentiment override.

What Is Positive Sentiment Override?

Positive Sentiment Override is a phenomenon first documented in marriages by a marriage researcher called Dr. John Gottman.

Psychology??

I know: you maybe have some alarm bells going off. You’re wondering, “What, Caleb is bringing psychology into assembly truth?” Allow me to speak to this for a moment.

First, if you’re from the all-psychology-is-evil-we-only-need-the-Bible camp, I just ask you to do one thing. Hear me out this time. If you hear anything contrary to a sound Christian worldview or anything contradictory to the Scriptures, let me know. Because what I’d like you to understand is I’m referring to well-researched human dynamics — not psychological theories from godless men and women. There’s a difference.

Second, you’re probably wondering how this could ever tie back into assembly truth and how we function as overseers. Well, in 1 Timothy 3:4 one of the requirements of an overseer is that he has to “manage his own household well.” Well, this is one of the characteristics of a well-managed household: positive sentiment override. So it makes sense that God requires us to do this well at home because it is also a relevant characteristic of healthy assemblies. Again: hear me out if you’re doubtful. If you find fault with anything I say, let me know.

Defining PSO

Coming back to the topic: positive sentiment override is what happens when you have enough positive sentiment in a relationship that when something negative happens, the negative is overridden by the positive. That’s why it is called positive sentiment override (PSO).

Let me give you an example: Fred shoots you a text on Thursday night saying, “Hey, can you announce that my mom is awaiting a diagnosis for a major medical issue and she needs our prayer?” Sunday comes and you stand up at the end of the Lord’s supper to make the announcements and you completely forget to share Fred’s prayer request. Right after he texted you, your son got home from a friend’s place and you were catching up with him and the announcement just fell between the cracks. It’s an honest, human mistake.

With PSO:

Fred is going to walk across the circle after you’re done the announcements, give you a warm greeting and say, “I can tell you must be busy! I sent that announcement request and it looks like you maybe forgot to share it. Do you think you could just make sure it gets announced later today because this is a big concern for our family.” You apologize, reassure him, make a note of it on the spot. He says, “No problem, I forgot stuff all the time too. They say there’s two things that start to go when you get old: the first is your memory and I can’t remember the other.” And later you make the announcement and a year later Fred has not even remembered that you ever had the moment of forgetfulness.

Without PSO:

Fred stomps across the circle. You see him coming and something is triggering in your brain but you can’t quite remember what it is. “Hey Fred!” Fred says, “What happened to the announcement about my mom?” You apologize, “Ohhhhhh, I am sooo sorry. I had your text and planned to announce it but in the bustle of Thursday evening I totally forgot to write it down on my announcements notebook.” Fred says, “Sometimes I wonder if you even care at all. My mom is maybe dying and you can’t even remember to make one simple announcement about it?” A year later, Fred asks you to make another announcement and adds a barbed comment recalling your previous failure to announce his mom for prayer…

You see, when you don’t have PSO you actually have negative sentiment override. Meaning that even a neutral issue like forgetfulness is now perceived as a negative.

People Are In One State or the Other

People are always in either a state of positivity that overrides the negativity OR they are in a state of negativity that overrides the positivity. When you have PSO it acts as a buffer against irritability. When you make a mistake or mishandle a situation, people will give you the benefit of the doubt with PSO. Without it, they’ll take even something that is neutral and interpret it negatively. PSO is the opposite of having a chip on your shoulder.

In fact, now that I think of it, I was reading about PSO in the Bible just the other day. 1 Peter 4:8 says, “Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins.” (ESV)

Now here’s the kicker, are you ready for it? You cannot manipulate positive sentiment override. You cannot turn it up or down directly. But let’s say you recognize that this is an issue either with a few folks in your assembly, or maybe even with most of them. As in, it’s a cultural problem. What can be done?

Three Things That Create Positive Sentiment Override

According to Dr. Gottman, in observing thousands of married couples interact, there are three things that couples with strong PSO do well. And you’ll see how these immediately tie into your shepherding as an overseer because they all come back to love. And remember, “love covers a multitude of sins.”

Love Maps

The first thing that couples with strong PSO have done is to get to know each other very well. They have maps of their spouse’s world because they are interested in their spouse’s world, and their interest is genuine.

Not hard to translate this to the Lord’s people. The more that we, as a group of overseers, have shown interest in the lives of God’s people and taken time to get to know them, to map out the details of their lives, the better we will have positioned ourselves to create positive sentiment.

Think about it: if someone cares deeply about you and has taken an interest in you — if that person makes a mistake, how much more forgiving are you going to be? A lot, right? Much more forgiving than of someone who you believe doesn’t care about you at all.

So showing a genuine interest in people is a major contributor to PSO. Now, my home assembly is quite large and this is very challenging to do. But I know one of the things that we need to work on here is to make sure that all of the members of the assembly that we serve have at least one overseer or shepherd who is showing a sincere, meaningful interest in their lives. It’s so easy for someone to fall between the cracks — either people that we find difficult or even people who are steady. Steady christians are never any bother and require very little upkeep or help and are reliable. They can fall between the cracks too; or their kids — just because we know we can count on them we start to assume they’re not needing any of our attention.

So “love maps” sounds very marital. Maybe you want to call them “sheep maps”. For me, the saints that I know well: I know I have positive sentiment override with them. What concerns me in the case of my home assembly is: does every sheep have at least one shepherd in our assembly who has somewhat of a map of what is going on in their life?

Fondness and Admiration

On the marriage side, fondness and admiration are about creating affection and respect between each spouse.

Bringing this over to the assembly side of things, this about creating a culture of appreciation rather than a culture of criticism.

As overseers we have to watch this — we tend to keep an eye out for problems, for error, for wrong attitudes. We’re looking for stuff to fix or address. So it’s easy to allow criticism to become the default lens through which we survey the assembly. One of my fellow overseers, Randy, has been a really positive influence on me in this way. He readily notes what is going well and is able to express gratitude for that. I tend to blow past the positive and concern myself with the negative. So working with him has been a real eye-opener for me to help me realize how much my perspective in this area needs to shift.

Criticism is like cancer: it spreads and it is lethal to positivity. When you have an assembly that is characterized by contempt and criticism you have an assembly in dire need of an attitude adjustment or it is eventually going to implode on itself.

On the other hand if we as overseers can build and promote a culture of appreciation and respect this is going to go a long way towards creating that positive sentiment override.

Again, this is a definite growth area for me personally. I’m not great a giving compliments. I tend to notice and reflect on the negative moreso than the positive. But I’ve appreciated the reminder that I need to be encouraging others, affirming them, appreciating them and expressing admiration for the things that they do well. And truly, when we stop and think about it, there is so much to be thankful for in many of the lives of God’s people. Maybe we, I, could just learn to put words to that gratitude more frequently.

This would help create more positive sentiment.

Bids for Connection

The final piece that moves the needle towards positivity is around bids for connection.

This one has been especially helpful for me. I’ve come to learn that many requests for shepherding come as very, very small signals. Often nearly invisible. At least I find they can easily be missed. It’s much rarer to have someone come out right and say, “Can we go out for coffee? I need your help on something.”

No, what people often do is they make these little bids for connection. Like little hints. For example, a young brother from our assembly recently went through a transition in life and just in the course of conversation mentioned, “It’s like I don’t really know what to do with myself now.” That little piece of information is a bid for connection: it’s a request for help. Sometimes it’s body language: someone bowed over during a meeting or looking downcast. Sometimes it’s a comment on Facebook or some subtle cue in a text message.

When you see a bid, you can do one of three things:

  1. you can respond helpfully,
  2. you can respond negatively, or
  3. you can ignore it.

Responding negatively can be a tricky one. Sometimes attention seeking behaviours can be a bid. I remember a long time ago seeing a wife start dressing immodestly. My first thought: someone needs to address the modesty issue. As it turns out, she was competing with her husband’s pornography habit for his attention. Now do you see the dress as a bid for connection? In this case, confronting her for being immodest would have been a negative response that would have contributed to negative sentiment override. But: going in with curiosity and care, looking at her dress as a bid for connection, would have been a helpful response. Of course, in a situation like this you’ll want to approach it with your own wife alongside you.

Now I’ll tell you what actually happened in her case.

Nothing. 

It’s actually this response that is the most concerning. Most of the time, we are quite mindless of this whole bids for connection process. It’s not obvious. But when we fail to catch bids and respond then eventually people stop making the bids. They can only conclude that we don’t care enough to see them asking for help. This is going to lead to disgengagement, possibly feelings of rejection. Now we’re definitely moving towards negative sentiment override.

But: when we catch these bids and respond, this tells people that we care. That they matter. They believe that we’re aware of them. That they are on our radar as shepherds. And that helps them to feel cared for, to feel more secure, to feel that their presence and their contributions matter in the assembly.

So, bids for connection: learn to catch those tiny signals and respond positively.

Let’s recap and then wrap up.

Positive Sentiment Override

PSO is not something you can manipulate directly. Rather, we need to think about our love maps (that’s sheep maps or brotherly love, in this context). How well do we know what’s going on in the lives of our people? Then we looked at creating an assembly culture of respect and appreciation. And finally, we need to catch those little bids for connection so that we’re responsive and caring. As we improve in these three areas, we’ll create positive sentiment.

PSO means that when conflict comes up, you’ll have much more ability to effectively repair that conflict. You’ll have influence over those who are involved.

Really, what this all comes down to is we are making more room for grace to be at work. When we show care, when we show respect, and when we show interest in the lives of others: this is us expressing the care of Christ. So the saints then begin to experience Him through us. But it also creates more room in their hearts for our own humanity. So we don’t need to worry about being perfect or trying to masquerade like we have it all together or like we know exactly what to do in every situation. Because what we’ve accomplished in the process of mapping out their lives, and modelling respect, and responding to their needs is that we’ve gotten off our pedestals and shown them that we’re human too. And that being in relationship with them means a lot to us.

That’s a powerful relationship dynamic that we can create and grow in our assemblies today to help foster unity and peace and love.

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About the author

Caleb Simonyi-Gindele

An overseer himself, Caleb's mission is to help other elders lead their local assembly through some of the unique challenges of the 21st century: both doctrinal and shepherding. More about Caleb.