Leadership • Family • Church

A Living Seminar: Charting a Course in a Changing World

by Larry L. Foster MA, D.Min

Change:  A Human Dilemma/Opportunity in the Faith Community

In times of rapid change, some things don't seem to change much.  For many church leaders, particularly clergy, I hear familiar expressions of tiredness, low energy, vague direction, resistance from people they lead and serve, marital stress, and diverse tasks.  The perception of clergy is that of being in a rut while facing reactivity in family and congregation, even the judicatory.  I recognize that leaders in positions of responsibility vary in their functioning energy. Life is a challenge. It's difficult to imagine when this hasn't been the case. I believe most church leaders are dedicated to the "cause" of their commitment.  After 42 years in the ministry, I have come to understand that in fundamental ways, not much has changed among the laborers in the field, many of whom remain imaginative and effective as they serve and lead. Clearly some leaders do better than others in their efforts to lead. While change has changed in terms of speed and complexity, in my experience most challenges remain the same. For example, I believe there has been and always will be a basic desire to know about life and its working processes, and, to maintain a sense of self-integrity critical for survival and well-being in life.

As dilemmas for church leaders have increased, many thinkers and professional helpers have been making efforts to address this challenge in faith communities. In his latest book, A Door Set Open:  Change Grounded in Mission and Hope, Dr. Pete Steinke, a national church consultant, suggests our moment in church history finds people with less time to think.  He describes the increase in "non-places" and more events.  Media intrudes our days and nights. The principle of clarity regarding ministry and mission often has less underpinning of thought, reflection, and motivation.  Congregational mission can “drift,” allowing crises to exhaust energy. Steinke suggests vision fades and survival instincts emerge. On the other hand, where there is vision and direction, along with mature leadership, the congregation functions in a more life-giving and hopeful way.

In our "market economy" there is a vast array of “fix-it” approaches available to religious leaders and followers. Books, conferences, seminars, courses, or retreats are offered to help most of the dilemmas being expressed.  A major challenge with the literature and activity aids is getting beyond just fixing problems. For example, people in congregations often produce relevant as well as irrelevant positions in staking out a mission and using funds. The emotional climate can often polarize into "camps." People react into conflicting postures or even into sides that won't quit until they prevail, i.e., win. Books and resources emerge in this climate offering pathways or perspectives to help the tension or conflicts in systems, families, and congregations, in order to reconcile, restore, or survive.  I recall Rabbi Friedman saying “Much thinking around solving relationship problems ends up being administrative, managerial, or technical advice-giving.” It seems then, that the conventional approaches to our dilemmas have limits.


The late Rabbi Friedman in his unfinished book, Failure of Nerve:  Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, describes a process view of reality in which leadership that is creative and imaginative to get a system "unstuck" from its doldrums and “imaginative gridlock” will predictably be sabotaged in some fashion. Strong, clear, and open leadership can provoke disturbances in relationships. Ironically, an indicator of a leader doing well is the very reaction to any positive or creative initiative the leader or leaders take. On the other hand, when leaders are weak, anxiety storms create a "toxic" atmosphere. In this atmosphere I believe families and congregations are  challenged.  Basic character and faith stories that have been anchors are impacted. Judicatory leaders spend much time just mending the fissures in this atmosphere.

When leaders take initiative in turbulent times and draw reactions, a major pitfall to progress is adapting to the immature forces perhaps, as well as calling in consultants too soon.  I agree with Friedman when he suggests that the times we live in are regressive with more violence, litigiousness, child focus, and chronic anxiety. Under the pressures of modern living, these conditions lead people into reacting, herding (emotional groupings), blame displacement (finding fault), and looking for quick fixes. The cycle leads to more chronic anxiety in the social atmosphere.  For Steinke, these emotional system processes set up triggers for anxious reactivity within congregations.  Some triggers are leadership style, money issues, worship conflicts, or building projects (He lists 10 to 13 in the literature).

To Make a Difference:  Toward Positioned Emotional Maturity

What is critical in this dilemma is how life tensions are handled or managed while moving ahead. Bowen Theory has much to do with understanding the level of maturity or level of differentiation in key leaders as they respond to the reactions that always show up, whether mild or severe.  In the context where a congregation is positioned in the social field between family and society (while each congregation has members connected to systems outside the congregation;  and clergy are positioned in unique emotional coordinates as spiritual leader), the opportunity is huge for lending a hand to the future. In other words, spiritual allegiance and emotional maturity promote direction, meaning, and integrity toward the evolution of our species and promises of the faith.

The belief is that connecting natural systems theory to scripture allows one to explore leadership in the church with profound consideration of emotional fields. This approach creates a living seminar. There is always interaction in relationship systems.  Families and congregations can be seen as relationship systems where forces for individuality and forces for togetherness are always in play. Theory moves toward making theology concrete in understanding the human phenomenon.

Friedman claimed that his basis for a religious philosophy is that "life seeks life."  For him, getting out of a rut goes in the direction of using the strengths in the system rather than focusing on the pathologies. Progress takes on the "adventure," of going beyond emotional forces that keep a family or congregation stuck.

The natural and emotional systems character of this view of leadership has a salutary effect on individual and relationship functioning. It has given me a framework to put ideas and experience together for managing personal and professional functioning.

In Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue, Friedman expresses a new way of thinking about the dynamics of home, work, and congregation.  His ideas and thinking bring fresh insights, open new strategies, free the imagination, and promote what is being called differentiated leadership.  For Friedman a connection exists between “stuckness” and the thinking process that is both conceptual and emotional. Here, then, is a way of thinking that offers a challenge that can shift our orientation for how we think about relationships and set our life goals.

A Living Seminar

My clergy seminars over the last 23 years on Family Process and Natural Systems for Clergy and Church Leaders offered a way to chart a course in a changing world. This work (continuing education) continues to connect “life seeking life” processes of an emotional or congregational system with fresh language for spirituality and theology.  As suggested, principles set into the Creation guide one through what Friedman described as civilization’s emotional barriers, such as data deluge, empathy traps, and diminished self. Even more, I believe the Bowen/Friedman Axis provides an integrated pathway for “equipping the saints” in this challenging world where as the congregation goes, so goes the world.

In short, Bowen theory is an integrated way of thinking about a process toward better functioning in facing our dilemmas.  I recognize not everyone sees it this way or is drawn to the perspective.  For others though, it offers a platform capturing the appeals of a natural systems way of thinking, (i.e.,Bowen Theory) and its application in the thinking of Rabbi Friedman, or as I have termed it, the Bowen/Friedman Axis.  As I have come to see it,  the appeals of Bowen Theory and its application include: 

       1.  A larger picture is presented:
Bowen Theory provides a way of thinking about life, about relationships, and about emotional process. Emotional process connects to the tides, moon, stars, seasons, etc.  The focus is on process more than content or structure. As a lens, the theory moves beyond labels (diagnosis), includes more variables (“but not everything that shines”), and avoids reductionism.  As an attempt toward a science of human behavior, Bowen's aim was to become more objective about the natural processes in our lives (families) which have always been there.  Researching one's family includes the building of a family mosaic while working on relationships (anxiety and self-differentiation).

       2.  It is universal in applying to all humans:
A Bowen perspective moves beyond culture, gender, race, and other conventional dichotomies.  Working toward a science of human behavior, Bowen conceived the scale of differentiation which describes variations among individuals and groups.  Symptoms are viewed on a continuum making differences in symptoms more quantitative than qualitative.  Bowen commented, “Schizophrenia is in all of us.”  Dr. Michael Kerr wrote about “unidisease.” Rabbi Edwin Friedman stated that self-differentiation is a broad spectrum antidote for all symptoms.

       3. The theory has depth:
The family emotional process is part of a multigenerational process rooted in evolution.  All living things connect to the beginning.. Relationship patterns can be seen over several generations.  Thinking goes beyond cause and effect, linear associations.  One considers possibilities and strengths rather than deficits and pathologies in understanding the factors that promote survival and better functioning.

       4.  The emphasis in applying the theory is on self-work:
Training programs in Bowen Theory stress three things:  clinical work, an orientation or theory from which to work, and the clinician's own work on family/self. Doing one's own work on an ongoing basis is necessary in order to work with or coaching others.  These principles apply to clergy, therapists, and parents as leaders in their systems.  The assumption is: that one can only lead, counsel, parent others to the extent the person is working on one's own self.  Life  becomes an ongoing laboratory where one can begin to take responsibility for self. In addition, one's own maturity can increase, superseding efforts at skills and technique.

       5.  The process moves back and forth:
As one learns theory (it takes a while), and begins to apply the thinking to important relationships, one notices the process going back and forth over time. The aim of raising one's level of functional differentiation involves effort and time through coaching since one can easily become stuck in the process. This approach is an action/reflection process going beyond academic understanding (coursework, textbook) of theory.  Knowing theory, according to Bowen, becomes the “technique” opening up one's repertoire of responses in the laboratory of life and in one's functioning position.

       6.  The theory puts one back into one's family of origin:
“You can't go home again?”  More likely one never left!  The most formative and significant site of our learned functioning develops in our primary family. For a motivated person, working on differentiating a self in the family of origin, i.e., the emotional system, good things have a “ripple” effect in all other relationship systems.

       7.  The coach replaces the expert (couch to coach):
Working on one's self in an emotional system over time, a person will rely less on  expertise and technique and more on basic theoretical principles.  The person who's done the work (years), might become a coach. And the coach continues to learn alongside others since there is so much to learn in a lifetime.

       8.  It keeps one thinking: 
Bowen theory (and Rabbi Friedman’s application of the theory)
does offer a lens in viewing life and relationships. It encourages one to think in a natural systems frame of reference and toward remaining more objective in intense situations while staying connected to the system. Being able to function in a less anxious emotional posture over time contributes to what can be called higher functioning in a group.  In the process of thinking systems, a way of thinking becomes a way of being.

Bowen Theory joins with its application (and possible expansion) the insights of Rabbi Friedman regarding congregational leadership and healthy congregations.  This seminar offers both theory and practice with time for interactive observing and inquiry dealing with the challenges that predictably show up in ministry.  Case studies are included that focus on the congregation, family of origin, and other connected families.

Larry Foster