Leadership • Family • Church

Systems Theory and Emotional Process:  Addressing Personal and Vocational Life (For Clergy, Judicatory, Congregational, and Motivated Leaders)

by Larry Foster

"Getting It Right" and Other Similar Stories

          The clergy turf is tough. It is not easy to know when you are "getting it right" or being effective in the ministry. People who evaluate ministry do it in different ways.  Some point to results in such qualities as changed lives, mature faith postures, faithfulness, dedicated lives, ability to inspire, or sense of well-being.  Others who judge clergy functioning count attendance, budget figures, building size, program spectrum, or location perks.  The measure of clergy "success" is a puzzle for many.

The puzzle becomes more complex and challenging as one listens to priests, pastors, nuns, and rabbis.  Rabbi Edwin Friedman noted the similarity of clergy stories.  Interviewing for a secretary, a pastor discovered the personnel committee had already hired one.  A rabbi returned from a week away to find a major decision had been made in his absence on a new building project. A miffed member complained of not being visited in the hospital even though he did not tell anyone that he was there. A well-liked old man turned to his pastor at a budget board meeting and said, "Reverend, why don't you take a pay cut?"  A middle-aged rector working with a frozen budget, dipping attendance, and a spouse questioning their marriage, found his daughter passionately attracted to a ne'er-do-well male. A worship committee received several complaints about "stodgy" hymns.  For Friedman and a growing number of others, understanding this emotional interlock and the symptoms that can show up, lead to strategies for healing. Systems Theory has become a frame of reference or way of thinking that offers a deep and broad-based perspective for clergy leaders.

Notably, clergy leaders frequently find themselves entangled with relatives, parishioners, and hierarchies. What unites all clergy are the common emotional processes in our relationship networks or "families." Friedman has suggested that these emotional processes are intricately interconnected and can "jam" or override community satisfaction and the spiritual message. 

Leadership and effectiveness for clergy today can be promoted by understanding the matrix of these forces acting on various family systems.  A family systems or natural systems model offers such a benefit for clergy.

Family Systems Theory:  A Way of Thinking that Leads to a Way of Being.

          Friedman's popular books, Generation to Generation:  Family Process in Church and Synagogue, and, Failure of Nerve:  Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, take a family systems model derived from the family research by the late Dr. Murray Bowen, and apply a fresh understanding of the puzzles that perplex clergy.  Initially, Friedman described three interlocking emotional systems in which clergy are simultaneously involved:  the clergy's own family, the congregation as a relationship system, and families in the congregation.  Functioning in all three systems occurs on the same emotional current.

          Expanding on his first ground-breaking book, Rabbi Friedman later addressed the process in society from a family systems frame of reference, particularly during times of increased anxiety.  His last book, Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, applies Bowen Theory to the emotional process in our civilization that impinges on leadership, institutions, and families. He described a cycle of increased chronic anxiety in our civilization, the reactivity to higher levels of anxiety, and the herding that results followed by blame displacement.  Finally, the process moves to find a quick fix, or leaders who promise a fix. Quick fixes rarely work in societal emotional process resulting in the promotion and  feeding of the chronic anxiety.  For Friedman, the current challenge to societal regression involves how we conceptualize phenomena in the first place which governs what we do about it. The contemporary stuckness of our thinking along with the cycle of increased anxiety is counter-evolutionary for our species.  For Friedman, what optimizes our progress and getting unstuck, is well-differentiated leadership and the spirit of adventure.

          Friedman used Bowen's natural systems theory to integrate his own thinking. His books and writings have now become part of curriculum in many seminaries. Pastors in a number of parishes have found helpful insights and strategies in looking at anxiety and emotional triangles from a different point of view.  Friedman used family systems concepts "…to teach a way of thinking about the human condition that ramifies through every aspect of ministry and integrates administration, preaching, officiating, and counseling through the notion of self differentiation." He presented a way of thinking which moves in the direction of reducing the blame on conditions while integrating strengths for functioning in clergy leaders. The family or natural systems approach promotes objectivity in working on one's self and one's own functioning.  The goal is to move toward a well-differentiated self in service of the community.

Clergy are Uniquely Positioned to Promote Health and Healing

          Clergy have access to natural forces for well-being because of their position in the various "families."  First, clergy relate to at least three generations over time. Second, clergy serve a spectrum of people, some who function well, and some who do not function well.  Third, clergy are intimately involved in profound rites of passage--birth, death, marriage, retirement, geographical relocation.  Fourth, the minister is also the spiritual leader.  No other position has these emotional coordinates in the community.  This gives ministers a unique angle for promoting natural forces for healing.

          The benefit of a natural systems approach for clergy leadership and family issues is not learned in a conference, from a book, or in a brief study. "Organic" to day-to-day human relationships, learning a more systemic way of thinking relies strongly on mentoring or coaching.  The self definition/self regulation process eludes being packaged or cloned.  It is an adventure toward maturity with the high potential of optimizing better functioning, clearer boundaries, less stress, greater personal responsibility and increased resiliency.  For example, a pastor found himself in conflict over finances and a building program.  Conflicts increased as did the pressure to over-react.  Through systems coaching he led the congregation through the tension and the new building was completed.  He reports improved relationships with family and parishioners. In this case coaching with the larger integrated view of an emotional system was beneficial and it worked out well.


When it comes to being successful or effective in the ministry, how does one measure it?  Might there be another way of understanding the most ecumenical experience we have going---growing up in families and seeking wholeness in life?  The resource lure is with us.