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A Systems Approach to Leadership, pt 2

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : November 9, 2005

There are several key ideas behind family systems theory:

  • Every member of the system effects the system, and therefore influences other members. In other words, everyone is mutually influenced.
  • The whole organizes the parts. 
  • Within the system, there are two distinct forces at play: the need to be close or connected, and the need to be distinct or seperate.
  • The more self-differentiated the individual, the more healthy the individual within the system.  Self differentiation is an important compontent of emotional health.
  • When anxiety exists within a system, TRIANGLES form.  A triangle happens when person A has conflict with person B, then one of them will bring in person C to reduce tensions between A and B.

I was going to talk about self-differentiation today, but since Gregg brought up triangles in a response to my last post, I’ll talk about triangling.

As I’ve said, a triangle
happens when person A has conflict with person B, then one of them will
bring in person C to reduce tensions between A and B. Triangling is all
about shifting burden and blame.  Usually, one person ends up the
scapegoat and receives all of the burden. 

Pastors are the great burden-bearers of their congregation.  The pastor is usually involved in all sorts of triangles.  In part, this is because the congregation looks to the pastor as Mr. (or Mrs.) Fixit.  Pastors are also willing to enter into triangles because they like helping and they like to alleviate conflict. 

In a situation of clergy infidelity, a triangle may be formed between the pastor (A), the spouse (B), and the congregation (C).  Usually, all of the anxiety centers on the pastor.  Or as Gregg pointed out in his response to my last post, a triangle can be formed between the pastor (A), the congregation (B), and the infidelity (C)–and as everyone’s anxiety centers on the act of infidelity, deeper systemic issues are ignored.  Instead of using it as an opportunity to explore systemic health and to bring healing to all those involved, often the pastor is scapegoated and as he is ousted, the congregation assumes that all of the problems have left with him.  The congregation never examines the deeper systemic problems within the church that may be fostering dishealth.

Pastors often end the scapegoat in congregations–they become the primary burden-bearer.  This tension usually builds until they burn out or leave.  Even in the healthiest churches, it is the pastor who is usually responsible for alleviating the problems of the church.  If a pastor is particular popular or powerful, s/he is able to find an alternative scapegoat to take the burdens of the congregation–the church treasurer, a powerful board member, etc. 

Because of this triangling tendency, more effort is spent finding fault and casting blame as a means to restore peace (defined as the absense of conflict) than in building healthy relationship and fostering authenticity as a means to establishing peace (defined as wholeness and health).

Tomorrow, I’ll delve into self-differentiation and the ways in which church leaders can help foster healthy systems without being the burden-bearer.

Mark Van Steenwyk is the editor of JesusManifesto.com. He is a Mennonite pastor (Missio Dei in Minneapolis), writer, speaker, and grassroots educator. He lives in South Minneapolis with his wife (Amy), son (Jonas) and some of their friends.


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