A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 1

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 8, 2005

I’ve been interested in Family Systems Theory for the past couple years.  It has been very influential in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at Bethel Seminary, where I am a student.  Although I haven’t had the priviledge of taking a course in that program, I have a number of friends who have turned me on to the theory.  As a result, I’ve studied it in my spare time, believing it to have some helpful insights into healthy church systems.  A systems approach to family was developed primarily by Murray Bowen.  Later, Edwin Friedman applied the theory to church systems.  Later, folks like Peter Steinke developed things further. 

Why should you care? Well, if we want to move away from commodified, individualistic, programmatic approaches to Church, then we need to have a communal approach to church health.  Since oikos (household or family) is a key New Testament metaphor for understanding church, insights into healthy family systems could help us move towards healthier churches. 

Instead of delving into all the nuances of systems theory as it applies to church, I’m going to limit my exploration to church leadership.  Many of the problems in our churches are rooted, in part, to our church leadership.  The clergy/laity distinction creates a "double theft" in which congregants are robbed of their calling as ministers while "clergy" are robbed of the freedom to be human. 

This can be seen most clearly in examples of infidelity.  When a pastor commits infidelity, usually it is seen as his problem (allow me to stick with a masculine example, though it could apply to a woman as well)–one that has nothing, if anything, to do with the church as a system.  That same pastor could go into a therapist with his wife and be told by the therapist that the infidelity is THEIR problem–not just HIS problem.  Often, there are relational dynamics at play that go beyond simply blaming the husband for his infidelity. For example, they both may have contributed to a long process of emotional alienation.  After years of marriage, the wife may have stopped seeking emotional intimacy with her husband and begun to find it in her group of friends.  The pastor may no longer find his marriage warm and comfortaning.  Furthermore, at church he is expected to live up to a high standard.  As the spiritual leader, he may find himself unable to meaningfully connect with others–since churches rarely treat pastors as piers.  Disconnected emotionally from his wife and unable to find healing relationships at church, the pastor succumbs to temptation–a woman at his church gives him the friendship and intimacy he has been craving. 

Usually when this happens, the pastor is required to repent before the congregation.  He is then either asked to step down or commit to a lengthy restoration process.  When a pastor commits infidelity, and begins the process of restoration, how often is the church brought through a process of healing?  Churches that have had pastors "fall" into infidelity sometimes have a history of pastors falling into infidelity–this indicates that these churches have unhealthy patterns which foster infidelity: emotional alienation for their leadership, high expectations, etc.  Do churches ever ask themselves the role they played in the infidelity? 

Seminaries are increasing their efforts at character development among clergy–since moral failure and burnout are seen as a more pressing issue than faulty theology.  Perhaps we should start looking elsewhere–at the very systems that foster moral failure and burnout.

More on leadership in church systems tomorrow…

for further reading . . .

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5 Responses to “A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 1”

  1. Chris on November 8th, 2005 6:44 pm

    Did one of those guys who write on systems theory use the concept of “double theft”? Because I remember coming up with the idea independently, so it’s weird that someone else conceives of it that way.

  2. Van S on November 8th, 2005 9:25 pm

    Nope, that was me saying that, not them. I’ve used that metaphor alot since you suggested it…and even referenced it on this blog. I cited you then, but didn’t this time.

  3. Gregg on November 8th, 2005 11:38 pm

    So, if you stole Chris’ metaphor once before and now shamelessly took it again, is that ‘double theft’, too? Hey now, maybe we need to look at the systemic nature of your blog to track down some of the coinage impingements.

    Just kiddin, but seriously, thanks for the nod to my pet topic. Go family systems! I’m eager for tomorrow’s installment. Any chance you’ll explore how triangles work within the Bowenian view of family systems theory? (the example that came to mind with the religious leader & infidelity situation is that triangle between the pastor-the congregation-and the infidelity issue…with everybody’s focus–or ‘anxiety’ as the theory conceives it–on the infidelity, the question becomes, “What’s not getting discussed because infidelity has taken center stage?”)…sorry, I’m tipping your hand…I’ll hold my breath for a day.

    [Oh, one other thing, you meant "peers" not "piers", right?]

  4. Chris on November 9th, 2005 12:19 am

    I like your development of the idea. I was only asking if these systems theorists were using the metaphor, because then I might have more evidence for my theory that the government is stealing my ideas and selling them to publishing companies. Also, I invented the Internet.

  5. Van S on November 9th, 2005 12:04 pm

    Nope Gregg, I meant “piers” the particular church in question is an oceanside church.

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