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A Systems View of Congregational Life

Kenneth Gordon Hurto

In a series of letters written to his children during World War I, Hugh Lofting invents a creature called PushMePullYou, a fanciful animal that looks like a llama with two heads trying to go opposite directions at once. It is an apt metaphor for understanding this point: We pull together to create new life (literally in reproduction, figuratively in all our shared activities). We give of ourselves for a greater good. We also find out who we are because we are in relationship to others. Equally, we need to follow our own star, separate from our relationships. When we do, we are held back by our wanting to belong. It seems becoming a distinctive self threatens the “us.” Even more, if we follow that star, we become anxious that we may end up all alone.

How can you be you and I be me and we be we, all at once? It’s a classic approach-avoidance dilemma. It is an age-old question. It is the very nature of our existence. How we manage this dilemma shapes all that we do.

Dr. Murray Bowen, a Washington, D.C. researcher who studied families in the 1950s, introduced a theory of the family based on empirical observation. In time, the theory evolved to include eight interlocking ideas premised on the notion that there are two primary forces that shape our lives: The togetherness force and the self force. The togetherness force includes all the things we do to establish and maintain relationships with each other. The togetherness force pulls us close, favoring sameness and similarity. By contrast, the self force refers to all those qualities and actions that make us distinct individuals. The self force prizes uniqueness and diversity.

These forces drive our actions as we seek to find a balance between them. Often, they are in tension, within our own being and with those we love. Theologian Paul Tillich says much the same when he notes, “What is most characteristically human about us is the tension between the desire to be ‘free’—self-identifying and self-choosing—and to be ‘related’—to love and to be loved.”

Bowen’s Theory asks: How is a family—including the extended congregational family—trying to balance these forces? What is the interplay between connectedness and separateness? How can a congregation promote closeness so that no one dissolves? How do we help people live lives of integrity in which no one is violated? How does this family or group cope with the inherent tensions in the dance of self and togetherness?

This essay provides the reader with an overview of this thinking. Our goal is to offer a way of thinking about the issues of congregational life and the way individuals and groups function within them. To the extent that we can take a bird’s eye view of the emotional process of relationships within the congregation, we can be less reactive when things go wrong and think more clearly about how to right them. Put differently, we’ll be able to lead more effectively. We’ll frame right relations in the context of theory more than in a prescribed set of rules and behaviors.

When people come together and form relationships, is something truly new is born. We weave our lives together to create a living process. Our word choices reveal this is something new. At some discernible moment of closeness, the pronouns we and us appear. Indeed, the word family is premised on the notion that it is something far greater than the mere sum of its parts. A family may be comprised of persons, but it has its own group reality. Extrapolating from this notion, “we” can be a team to which one belongs, one’s class or race, even one’s nation, as in “we Americans.” Each shared togetherness is as real as each individual self.

Once the “us” comes into being, something interesting follows: Part of my sense of who “I” am depends on that “we.” I gain a sense of identity. I belong to my family, my congregation, my country, and so on. I even have T-shirts to prove it. With time and a growing sense of belonging I cannot even conceive of myself outside of the group identity. I will alter or sacrifice my desires and ambitions to further this sense of togetherness. Loyalty and team-playing are highly valued in our society. We prize mutuality and work hard to obtain and nurture it. One for all; all for one! is not just a romantic slogan; it is the very essence of our humanity. When we have it, life is good; when we don’t, life is hell.

As long as the things the group does together satisfy my sense of myself, there is no problem. However, the pull of being a separate self conflicts with the desire to belong. What I want is often not exactly the same as what someone else wants, nor even what the group declares is important. “Get off my back!” we shout, in resistance to being absorbed. “Don’t tread on me” remains a symbol of American independence. “Just leave me alone,” whines the unhappy teenager. Too much togetherness is no fun.

In family life, our position in the family determines who we are. Each of us is assigned a role that we play out every day. Because nature loves the quixotic, we are free to move beyond those roles but not easily or far. The family script can be a blessing or a curse, but it is real. We deviate from our roles at our peril, risking ostracism or pressure to conform. The togetherness force keeps us in line and the system in balance.

In a diverse and complex world, this dynamic can be truly confusing because we are also embedded in our fields of expectations. When we encounter someone whose family constellation calls for actions markedly different from ours, we wonder how they can possibly think and act as they do. We think they are strange and perhaps we put them down for being different. In congregational life, where many family constellations overlap, the ways different people are “supposed” to act not only diverge they can come into outright conflict and set the stage for even more tension, reactivity, and hard feelings in shared congregational life.

Unless we can step back and view the system cosmically, such variability is baffling. It’s not a malevolent or even conscious choice that drives such arrangements. It is just that relationship systems tend to stay in their orbits, prizing the harmony of today’s togetherness more than the challenge and promise of new ways of being.

Whenever people come into relationship, an emotional dynamic takes place among and between them. Intuitively we call that good or bad “vibes.” It can also be called the emotional field. The emotional field may be compared to an electrical or gravitational field, the dominant feature of which is that in time it becomes independent of and more significant than the actions of its constituent parts. For instance, gravity holds planets in their orbits around the sun. Once a planet has entered the system and found its place, the planet cannot adopt a differing orbit of its own accord—the gravitational field keeps it in place.

Similarly, in family and other intimate networks, once people have found their place in the family balance, they cannot simply will themselves or others to function differently. While system change can be initiated by individual members, natural resistance will keep everyone in their proper orbit. However, if a leader can function steadily in a new way, the other members of the system will adapt in time to a new emotional field.

Real change is about the whole system, not necessarily any constituent part. In the end, if the emotional field does not change, the system will return to its original status quo or the emotional balance before the onset of a change.

A question for anyone studying a congregation’s emotional field is: What scripts are being played out here? How has this congregation been “formatted” to allow certain things and proscribe others? Who can do what? How are roles predetermined? And what happens to someone who does not fit into or who violates that field of expectation?

Dealing with Change

Most of the time, when we try to explain why something happens, we rely on a simple notion that one event causes a subsequent event, but causality is rarely so simple. A better way to think of it is that all parts of a relational system cause each other and in turn are reciprocally caused by each other. The point is that if we are to grasp the dynamics of family and congregational life, we need to resist simplistic explanations. There is good news, however: When a problem occurs (more neutrally stated as a change in the status quo), we don’t have to know the precise cause. Left to its own devices, the system will restore its balance before long. This is why time heals many wounds.

The theory also suggests that in order to change an emotional field, we can exert pressure anywhere. In families and in congregations, we tend to focus our attention on something that is out of sorts. We tend to the “problem child” of the family or organization, which has the curious effect of organizing the whole system around that child or malfunctioning part.

Thinking relationally, we might be as well off turning our attention elsewhere. Does the choir sing off-key? Strengthen the religious education program. Your child doesn’t turn in her homework? Take up a new hobby. Seemingly unrelated actions can lead to profound change throughout the system. Evidence does support this notion. For instance, when parents work on strengthening their relationship with each other, their children do better in every way. Likewise, in congregations, acting up and out is often the anxious result of weak and unclear leadership. If a minister delivers a strong “Here I Stand” sermon or if the board has exciting priorities, people might agree to wear their name tags and rumor mongering might stop.

This notion of multidimensional causality also suggests that a period of imbalance or upset is necessary to change a relationship system. There is a silver lining when things go “wrong.” Possibilities arise that were simply not considered before.

Family events like births, confirmations or bar/bah mitzvahs, marriages, divorce, disease, changes in work or residence, or the death of a family member change the emotional field. The members have to find a new balance. The jockeying back and forth, say, to include a new sister-in-law at the family Thanksgiving dinner is an example of what goes on all the time as families cope with changes in their relationships.

In congregational life times of transition also stir things up and lead to both conflict and creative thinking. An episode of unprofessional conduct or an upsurge in membership throws everyone off balance. The natural reaction is to try to restore the old balance. However, if leaders stay calm, this moment of confusion can lead to better functioning all around. There’s nothing like a good squabble or a sudden, large bequest to force a group to attend both to how it gets along and what it values. Instinctively, we understand this by the way we create deliberate unsettling in the intentional election of new officers every year.

But there is no guarantee that a system will evolve after the emotional field has been upset; a system can just as easily devolve to a lower level of functioning. In times of great anxiety, families, congregations, and even nations frequently tear themselves apart before a new equilibrium is reached. This phenomenon, in which more people act out in increasingly immature ways, is called societal regression.

Early twentieth-century mathematician Alfred North Whitehead argues that reality consists not of things per se but the way they interact. This understanding is very much along the lines of Bowen’s theory. Our relationships, the many forms of “us” that we create over time are the substance of our reality. Individuals matter, to be sure. But individuals find their selves in relationships. The way the relational dynamic endures or changes and a person’s place in the relationship determines how a person functions.

This suggests two mistakes to watch out for: focusing on a person or persons as the singular cause of events and becoming distracted by the substance or content of an event rather than the underlying emotional process of the relationship. Far too often when families have difficulties, they devote their attention to the person exhibiting symptoms (bad grades, a partner’s affair, inappropriate words or touch, rebellion, irresponsible actions) rather than looking at the system of relationships and how the many parties involved submit to or even promote the symptomatic behavior. To illustrate: A congregant lights up a cigarette during worship. No one, including the ushers, says a word. After services, members complain to the minister or speak ill of the offender. It’s rare for a parishioner to ask: Why did we silently tolerate this? This simple example calls for a response such as: “Sir, smoking is not allowed.”

Other inappropriate behaviors are not so cleanly resolved, such as the church’s “party-man” hugging women at church parties; the parishioner who feels she just has to have a say, and a negative one at that, every time there is a congregational meeting; or the member who comes to church unwashed and odorous; or the lonely bachelor who insists that the minister take his phone calls at dinner time.

Systems theory, noting a tendency toward equilibrium, informs us that hurtful behavior continues because the system tolerates it. Troublemakers need to be called to account. If they go unchecked, it is not because they are inherently bad people but because responsible leaders have failed. For things to truly get better, the whole system has to reorganize and understand its own dynamics.

Emotional Triangles

Any relationship with another creates tension between the self and togetherness forces. The easiest and most natural way to ease that tension is to talk to a third party. When we talk about rather than to someone else, we create an emotional triangle. Triangles stabilize the emotional field. Bowen’s theory says you cannot understand human behavior until you think in threes. The triangle is the basic molecule of any relational system.

Typical examples of triangles include:

  • tattling, as when one child complains to a parent about her sister’s unwillingness to share
  • water cooler belly-aching about “management”
  • board room lamentation about lazy workers
  • e-mail exchanges between committee members about other members
  • gossipy neighbors disapproving of someone else’s new car
  • church members criticizing the religious education director’s way of telling stories to kids

Triangles can also be about ideas or events, anything that makes us anxious—the new carpet in your sister’s house, the government’s inability to balance the budget, or a congregation’s ecology program.

There’s nothing evil or immoral about triangles; in fact they’re inescapable. Whether you like it or not, you will both triangle and be triangled; it’s a way of coping. Much of the time, while a triangle may not resolve a problem, it can serve to provide a release of emotional pressure—thereby actually allowing one of the partners to approach the problem with less intensity and more creativity. This is why we hire consultants: We triangle them in to help us think more clearly.

However, many triangles are pernicious insofar as they are ways of not dealing honestly with one another. Wary ministers or church leaders will hear alarm bells anytime they hear parishioners talking intensely about each other lest they find themselves caught up in the drama of an unattended conflict.

The more intense a relationship is, the greater our need to bring others into the situation. A rule of thumb suggests that healthy families should have many triangles so the anxiety in the emotional field does not get stuck in any one person or idea. Living with others is often irritating as well as a blessing. The more ways we have to dissipate our anxiety, the less stress there is on any particular pairing. Put another way, the more friends we have, the less likely it is that any one of them will become excessively important to our well-being. The family unit tends to be more intense than other relationships; therefore it is more vulnerable to both healthy and unhealthy triangulation.

It’s not easy to tell the difference. One person’s blowing smoke is another person’s vicious gossip. Sometimes when we’re triangled into a situation, we find ourselves connected but manage not to take up the stress. Other times we get pulled in despite our best intentions.

One of the most injurious aspects of triangles is that the one talked about has no say (and often no knowledge) about what is being said about them. Often we’re told that what we’re about to hear is “just between you and me”—and our perception of the party talked about is forever changed. Once someone says, “Did you know the head of the preschool has a drinking problem?” you’ll wonder the next time you see that teacher, whether it’s true or not. This is why most family therapists and organizational consultants urge direct communication. To the extent that triangulation perpetuates secrets or promulgates falsehood, it can be a very destructive force. Hence the assertion “You’re only as healthy as your secrets!”

The secret is to be aware and managing your sense of self in the triangle. Remember that the purpose of the triangle is to delegate anxiety out of the dyadic relationship. If a person is not careful and tries to step into the problem, she may find herself on the receiving end of considerable hostility from her friends, who now blame her for their troubles. This phenomenon is well known to every police officer called to a domestic dispute; the moment she tries to intervene, the two warring parties turn all their angry energy on her, putting the helpful officer in danger.

The first rule of triangles is that anytime you try to fix another’s problems you end up with stress. You know it’s happened when in a moment of injured puzzlement, you say, “I was only trying to help.” Anyone in a leadership position is especially vulnerable to this trap. Recognizing when you are in a triangle and getting unhooked is an important part of congregational leadership.

Emotional Leadership

Every family, every congregation, and every group needs someone to be in charge. Theories abound as to what constitutes effective leadership. Typically leadership is described as a set of character traits like vision, assertiveness, and focus on goals. Bowen Family Systems Theory, particularly as developed by Rabbi Dr. Edwin H. Friedman, takes a very different approach. Friedman argues that leadership is an emotional process, not a tactical one. It is not about a particular set of techniques or tricks. It is not about understanding. It is not about power, per se. It is not about making others different or persuading or willfully directing them to do anything. It is about self-regulation within the relationship. Leadership is primarily about the management of self, being somebody and being present. Leadership requires being aware of and modulating how you function in the relationships that mean something to you. It is about differentiation.

Using an analogy from biology, every body has to have a head. The head’s function is to be clear about where it is going. The head defines the goal, the values, and the direction of the organism. A good head pays attention to what other parts of the body are saying—you cannot ignore a broken foot—but stays the course in terms of what it values and aspires to. The same applies to the head of a family or organization.

In family life, everyone functions better when there is a head guiding the body. Children always do better when parents love one another, have clear values, manage their reactivity to life’s stresses, and pay attention to (but do not focus on) the kids. Child-focused families tend to do less well, in part because they put the child (the least mature member) in charge of the family dynamic. In his early work, Bowen began to understand the reciprocal nature of systemic relationships when he observed that schizophrenic children improved as their parents worked to make their marriage more satisfying.

Similar things can be said of congregations: When the board is doing its job, the minister is on top of her game, and committee chairs understand their jobs and tend to them well, programs prosper, problems are addressed as they arise, chronic symptoms decrease, and acting-out children of any age do not call the shots. Conversely, when leadership is unclear and weak, the anxiety in a system is not contained and there is more acting out, more triangulation, less responsibility and self-regulation, and more conflict.

Leadership as self-differentiation suggests that the leader’s job is to be connected to but not defined by the emotional field of her family or congregation. The better defined the leader is, the more she understands what matters and the more she is able to choose wisely from a variety of options. She is better able to take stands and provide direction.

Moreover, if the leader has her head screwed on straight, she helps others to do likewise. The leader’s job, curiously, is not to pay too much attention to a family’s or congregation’s constituent parts (remember, she still has to be present), but to work on being clear about her own life values and direction. Of course, when the head is poorly defined and unclear, the body begins to develop symptoms.

For a leader to have a clear head, he must be aware. As we’ve noted, a person’s function is profoundly shaped by the emotional field in which he finds himself, particularly his family of origin, his primary family, and his work system (here, the congregation). These overlapping systems provide endless opportunities for a leader to work on his sense of self. Noticing what pushes his buttons, what makes him anxious, and how others react to him and trying to be clear about his life direction and values is the work of self-differentiation and the primary task of a leader.

Creating Healthy Relationships

Many essential aspects of creating functionally healthy groups and individuals, whether families or congregations, involve systematic thinking. The following are guidelines for fostering healthy congregations and families:

  • Anxiety is a part of life. A primary task of leadership is to cultivate the capacity to stay calm and non-reactive amidst anxiety. To the extent leadership works to keep others calm and value-focused, anxiety will not overtake relationships.
  • Symptoms (acting out, threatening behavior, chronic squabbles, under-functioning programs) reveal a lack of boundary regulation within the relational system. The issues and persons involved in a problem must be addressed in light of a family or congregation’s values, but care should be taken not to scapegoat individuals
  • Change is more than a matter of fixing a problem; it is about redirecting the life-course of the family or congregation.
  • Leaders can promote change by working on their own issues, clarifying what they value and the directions they want to go.
  • As leaders need to work on defining them selves in relation to the congregation, so too a congregation needs to define itself to itself and to the larger world. This is more than goal setting; it is the emotional commitment to have a clear head and heart.
  • Clarity of expectation defines what is acceptable or not acceptable in relationships. It makes it easier to respect each other and each other’s space.
  • Boundary regulation requires intentionality. Regularly reviewing policies and goals helps members become clear about purpose. Explicit rules reduce conflict. Routinely checking how members of a congregation are together makes it easier to function together.
  • Creating a healthy congregation requires real change, which will be resisted. You cannot will others to be different. Leaders need to be patient, thinking organically rather than programmatically
  • Life is a work in progress. There is no one way to create health and the tension of self and togetherness is never finally resolved. Healthy families expect and allow for change, have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and work to stay as calm as possible in the midst of confusing situations as they grow and change.
  • Finally, it’s all connected. We don’t have to get it all right. Just working to do one thing well helps everything else go better too.

Read Next>> Leading a Community in Right Relations

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