We were created for relationship. The book of Genesis begins with God creating the earth, its creatures, and humans—all having interdependent relationships with one another. As we read further on into our Bible and beyond, we witness all kinds of relationships between humans—loving, violent, confusing, compassionate, and everything between—continuing into our present-day faith communities. Human nature has not changed much in two millennia, which makes our Scripture stories excellent for exploring emotional systems in our preaching.
What is systems theory?
The first thing we need to define is what we are talking about. You may have heard the terms “family system,” “emotional system,” or “systems theory” thrown around and they are all talking about the same thing when we use it applied to congregations. The concept is from family systems theory that is used in therapy, and the ideas of Murray Bowen. Bowen describes family systems theory as “a theory of human behavior that views the family as an emotional unit and uses systems thinking to describe the unit’s complex interactions.”1
However, as much as we want to say it is, the church is not a family. Peter Steinke describes it this way, “Families are more committed and intense. Their relationships are repeatedly reinforced and deeply patterned. Nonetheless, like a family, the church is an emotional unit. The same emotional processes experienced in the family operate in the church.”2
Now, think about how each of us comes from our own family system, and then we bring those expectations, wounds, and dysfunctions into the congregation’s emotional system. No wonder pastors leave or are forced out: pain that is not transformed is transmitted. Each person in the congregation brings in their own set of wounds with no interest in transformation. When we zoom out and look at the emotional system as a whole, we are better able to understand the interrelatedness of the parts, as well as the anxiety that is held in the system.
Anxiety, triangles, and differentiation, oh my!
Anxiety is one of the main features of any system. The system is constantly trying to keep itself stabilized. Think about your faith community as a baby’s mobile. If you pull one of the animals, the rest of them move because they are all attached. If you remove one of them, the mobile will wobble, trying to regain its equilibrium. If you shake it, some of the strings might get crossed and the animals will be tangled, unable to function.
Oftentimes, when there is anxiety in a relationship, it needs an outlet to help it stabilize and therefore a third party (person or object) is drawn in to shift the burden. This becomes a triangle. Triangles are the building block of emotional systems because they are neutral and more stable than a dyad when it comes to burden shifting. Triangulation happens when one party seeks to bring one of the other parties on their side against the third party in the triangle. Triangulation is manipulative and often secretive. For example, talking behind the pastor’s back and not being willing to talk to them directly. There is a great article by David Lee Jones that explores triangles vs. triangulation in more depth.
Differentiation of self helps diffuse triangulation. Bowen defines differentiation of self as “Families and other social groups greatly affect how people think, feel, and act, but individuals vary in their susceptibility to “groupthink,” and groups vary in the amount of pressure they exert for conformity. These differences between individuals and between groups reflect differences in people’s levels of differentiation of self. The less developed a person’s “self,” the more impact others have on his functioning and the more he tries to control, actively or passively, the functioning of others.”3
How do I preach this?
There is a lot to learn in systems theory and there are many resources out there to dig deeper. Preaching about naming anxiety, modeling direct and healthy communication, and having self-differentiation can help bring dysfunctional patterns to awareness of the congregation.
There are also many Bible stories that lend themselves to introducing these concepts to your congregation from the pulpit and drawing similarities to your systems. Here are a few suggestions (by no means exhaustive):
- Biblical families: Abraham-Sarah-Hagar; Isaac-Rebekah; Esau-Jacob; Jacob-Leah-Rachel; Joseph-Benjamin; and the list can go on. You can use a genogram to outline the relationships between these generations.
- Conflict in Hebrews scriptures: Genesis 3:8-13; Exodus 17:3; Numbers 14:27; Numbers 21:5.
- Jesus’ practicing differentiation of self: Matthew 5:1-7:29; Matthew 8:20-22; Luke 14:25-27; Luke 4:43; Mark 3:31-35.
- Conflict in early Christian communities: Acts 6:1; 1 Corinthians 1:11-13; Jude 16; Galatians 5:20; Philippians 2:14; 1 Timothy 6:20.
- The Bowen Center for the Study of Family
- Leadership in Ministry at Columbia Theological Seminary Program
- Creech, R. Robert. Family Systems and Congregational Life: A Map for Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019.
- Friedman, Edwin H. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: The Guilford Press, 1985.
- Maynard, Dennis R. When Sheep Attack. Rancho Mirage, California: Dionysus Publications, 2010.
- Steinke, Peter. How Your 21st-Century Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems, Second Edition. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2021.
- Steinke, Peter. Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.
- https://www.thebowencenter.org/introduction-eight-concepts [accessed August 2, 2023].
- Peter Steinke, How Your 21st Century Church Family Works: Understanding Congregations as Emotional Systems (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021), 3.
- https://www.thebowencenter.org/differentiation-of-self [Accessed August 2, 2023].