Daniel Wegner is a Harvard sociologist who has developed the concept of transactive memory. He observes that people have the habit of storing memory outside their bodies…in other people’s brains. Wegner did a study in which married couples were given lists of words to remember. In a second group, married couples were split apart from their spouses, paired with a stranger, and those pairs were asked to remember the same list of words. The result: married couples working together had a lot better chance of remembering the list of words than people paired with a stranger. Why? Transactive memory. “Honey, would you remind me to pick up the kids from school?”
The problem is that transactive memory is a poison to the church.
Wegner theorizes that in any given family system, people are assigned the role of expert in a given field. You know how some families have the techno-crazy teenager who can operate every gadget in the home, so that when a new smartphone is purchased, they just hand the phone to the teen and say, “Figure this out for us?” That teen becomes the memory bank for how all things technical work in the home, and consequently, that person’s expertise in the assigned field grows over time. Sometimes a family member is assigned to be the family historian, remembering who said what to whom and when. Someone may be appointed family doctor, remember which medicines work for whom. Someone is assigned to be the spiritual authority, remembering what the family believes and values.
In the church, transactive memory is hard at work as well, but not necessarily to our betterment. Because in the church, we have the habit of assigning the clergy the role of expert in the faith, relieving our own minds of the burden of remembering. What does the Bible say? What do other faiths believe? What is the church for? These are mental tasks assigned for storage in the mind of the Pastor. That’s a pretty big weight to hand off, because:
1. Salvation depends on it, and
2. It empowers the paid religious professional with a power that no one person should have over another.
It’s like handing out the responsibility of remembering how to eat or breathe. Are we sure we want someone else doing that for us? Perhaps the habit of remembering and practicing faith is too important to assign to any one member of the family.