Misreading Family Systems Theory

Over on Standfirm there is a thread about Kevin Martin’s article on Family Systems Theory and the present climate in the Episcopal Church. I have been studying Bowen Family Systems Theory since 1978. I teach it at the school. It can be misread in a superficial way as a technique for handling conflict which is content neutral. Matt Kennedy is critiquing that sort of use. The theory has flaws like any conceptual system and tends to be a bit philosophically naive and like most social science theories blind to the border between description and prescription.

Bowen Theory does say that the quality of thinking in an emotional system is related to the level of chronic anxiety in the system. The theory does not really maintain that content doesn’t matter. It simply says that in highly polarized situations anxiety rather than thinking is running the show. You need to be relatively calm to really think.  The goal of this conceptuality is to help people have the thinking function be a little more independent of emotionality. Bowen Theory is very counter-cultural in that it doesn’t teach that healing comes from emotional catharsis as in Greek Drama or Psychoanalysis but from getting a little perspective and thinking independently of one’s own and of other’s emotionality. Family Systems Theory is not soteriology though there are points of contact. It has its own integrity in its own domain and is an important dialog partner with Pastoral Theology but is of course no substitute for theology. Below is  is piece I wrote some time back on how Family Systems Theory is misread by leaders in TEC among others. 

Family Systems Theory and the Crisis in the Episcopal Church


The Rev. Leander S. Harding, Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology

Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry


In a recent video interview on Standfirminfaith.com the bishop elect of Virginia, Shannon Johnston. The bishop elect makes extensive reference to his approach to leadership which is heavily influenced by the Family Systems Theory of the late Rabbi Edwin Friedman. I teach Friedman’s book in the course on Pastoral Leadership at Trinity and have been a student of Family Systems Theory since 1978 when I became aware of the work of Dr. Murray Bowen. My 1989 Ph.D. thesis, Christian Nurture Revisited has a chapter on Family Systems Theory.  


Ed Friedman was one of Dr. Bowen’s students and pioneered the application of Bowen Family Systems Theory to congregational life. Friedman’s book, From Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, has become easily the single most influential text about leadership in religious systems and is taught in seminaries that represent a range of denominational and theological commitments. Dr. Friedman was a regular at the “baby bishop school” and I believe the concepts are still taught there. The bishop-elect of Virginia is convinced that a model of leadership informed by Family Systems Theory can help ameliorate the destructive conflict in the Episcopal Church. I believe he is correct but I also believe that a superficial understanding and application of the theory has added immeasurably to the current conflict.


One of the basic insights of this approach to leadership is that leaders tend to behave in similar ways in their families of origin, in their present family and in the leadership position they occupy in the church system to which they belong. Problems and creativity move across these three systems like ripples on the surface of a pond. Likewise anxiety is contagious between all three systems. Chronically anxious systems are those systems that have poorly defined leaders. There is a kind of Catch 22 effect at work because chronically anxious systems instinctively sabotage the self-definition of their leaders.


 Chronically anxious systems tend to descend into more and more entrenched patterns of dysfunction “from generation to generation.” A “self-defined” and “well differentiated leader” can start a dynamic in the system in the direction of less anxiety, more creativity and better overall functioning.  Friedman was part therapist and part comedian and he was fond of saying that problem solving in a chronically anxious system was like a “brainstem storming session.” In a chronically anxious system, people are stuck in flight, fright or freeze mode and are reactive rather than responsive. There may be a lot of rationalization going on but very little actual thinking, and the dysfunctional leaders in the dysfunctional systems tend to be reactive rather than thoughtfully responsive. Leadership tends to operate on the desire to appease the “togetherness forces” and typically “gives up self” in order to avoid conflict. “Peace-mongering” was one of Friedman’s epithets for dysfunctional leadership.


Friedman’s prescription for effective leadership which leads to healthy, functional and creative emotional systems was to coach leaders to take leadership stands based on well thought out and integrated values and principles while staying in touch with the system. In order to do this one has to develop “more of a self” and become able to be a “non-anxious presence” in the systems in which one is a leader. The absolute high road to being an effective leader for Friedman is working on defining a self in your family of origin. This involves the hard, years long, work of understanding the relationship patterns in your family of origin and re-working relationships with parents, siblings, grandparents and even generations that are only present in the family by legend or reputation. Defining yourself in your family of origin involves defining a self while staying in touch. Friedman echoes Murray Bowen when he says repeatedly that it is easy to define a self and easy to stay in touch with the other members of an emotional system, and it is the hardest thing in the world to define a self while staying in touch. Adult children who have alternated between avoiding visiting their parents and disastrous home visits in which they quickly revert to being truculent adolescents know the kind of challenge involved. 


Friedman warns again and again, as did his mentor Murray Bowen, against using Family Systems Theory as a technique or an ideology. At the heart of the vision of creative leadership of both Bowen and Friedman is an invitation to do hard personal work in the family of origin. Friedman worried about a “too serious” hearing of Family Systems Theory in which people would study the theory and then think they had a set of tools that could be impersonally applied to manage the emotional functioning in a system. The challenge of Family System Theory is to be a change agent by changing yourself and how you respond to conflict. To hear Family Systems Theory as a technique for “handling” conflict or “handling” others is to hear it in the “too serious” way that Friedman warned of and to increase rather than decrease the chronic anxiety and emotional dysfunction in the system. This is I think exactly what has happened in many church circles and especially in the national leadership of the Episcopal Church.  


There is one image in Friedman’s book which has been chronically misread and which is the centerpiece of the “too serious” and counterproductive application of this theory to leadership in the church. Friedman was trying to explain the dynamic in systems when someone takes a stand based on principle and conviction. For instance, an enabling wife of an acting-out alcoholic is coached by Friedman to cease trying to change her husband’s drinking patterns but rather to focus on her own input into the system. Instead of hiding the bottle she is coached to “define self” and say what she is willing and not willing to do based on well thought out principles and values. Under Friedman’s coaching she says, “honey, your drinking is none of my business, it is your life and if you want to proceed on this life-threatening course of behavior that is your business. I am just worried about what will become of me and the kids if you have a wreck or ruin your health with your drinking. If you will double your life insurance I promise never to mention your drinking again.” Friedman coaches the wife that she can expect not only the husband but all the other members of that emotional system from her parents to his boss to work together to get her to resume her “over-functioning” and “over-anxious” responses. She must persist and be steadfast if any change is to come.

 Here comes the significant metaphor that has been so misheard and is so significantly responsible for the making the present crisis in our church much worse. Friedman uses the metaphor of General Chuck Yeager and the sound barrier. When the sound barrier was being approached the aircraft would experience more and more turbulence as the plane closed in on the critical speed. Pilots would drive their aircraft to what they thought was the limit and then, afraid that the airplane would shake apart, back off without breaking the barrier. Yeager believed a physicist friend that it would be smooth on the other side of the barrier and put on speed just when most pilots were backing off and became the first to break the sound barrier.


I believe that a large number of leaders in the Episcopal Church have heard Family Systems Theory in a “too serious” way. They have heard well that all leaders can expect resistance and sabotage, the turbulence of the Yeager metaphor, and will prevail by pouring on the speed on pushing ahead when they meet resistance. They have heard that they should not be distracted by the “content” of criticism but should pay attention to the emotional process and should above all be self-defined and persist. They think that smooth sailing is just around the corner. They have not heard the challenge that leadership involves staying emotionally connected to the members of the system, especially those with whom they are most emotionally uncomfortable. They have not heard the warning that this leadership theory is primarily about controlling one’s own emotionality and not a recipe for handling or manipulating others. The result is a generation of leaders on all sides of the current polarization who think that leadership consists of taking a bold stand and persisting in a damn the torpedoes full steam ahead mode. When resistance arises and the ship threatens to shake apart they are convinced that smooth skies are just ahead and they pour on the speed. They will not be able to perceive that they have not done the personal and relational homework necessary to really make a positive contribution until the wings come off as they now are.


 When I teach Family Systems theory in my classes I warn against what I call the “Yeager heresy.” I caution the students that being rigid, inflexible and unwilling to accommodate reasonable criticism is not the same as taking a principled stand. Giving in always to maintain peace is reactive and anxious, and so is never making any accommodation. The full speed ahead damn the torpedoes rhetoric in the Episcopal Church is a symptom of an anxious and reactive leadership. Good leaders say, “This is what I think and believe, and this is what I am willing to do and not do” in such a way as to leave others the room to do the same thing. Good leaders have to have the strength of their convictions, which is something different from the desire to leave the opposition behind in the wake of their sonic boom. Family Systems Theory can make a contribution to understanding leadership in a conflicted church but not as merely more information or a superficial technique for managing the opposition but as a challenge for leaders to work on their own emotional and spiritual maturity and to respond thoughtfully rather than react emotionally to conflict.


In my assessment the current clearest example of leadership in the Anglican Communion which exhibits the principles of Friedman’s vision is the statement of the Windsor Report which says in so many words to the Episcopal Church, “You have acted in ways which put in question your continued membership in the communion. The communion is now going to work together to make clear what it means to belong to the communion and then you can decide whether you want to belong or not.” Now we are finding out whether the leaders of the dominant party in the Episcopal Church will react or respond to this challenge and whether the leaders of the minority party will react or respond to that action. The emotional and spiritual maturity of a lot of people in the church is on very public view.  



6 thoughts on “Misreading Family Systems Theory

  1. Thanks to Greg for all the blogging magic over on Standfirm including the original video that I commented on. For many years the book which has introduced Bowen Family Systems in church circles has been Ed Friedman’s “From Generation to Generation”. It is a fine book but it is not the first book that I now use because I think it is too easily misinterpreted. I like Ronald Richarson “Becoming A Healthier Pastor” and by the same author “Creating A Healthier Church” I think these volumes are less prone to the kind of self-serving misreading that I have outlined and critiqued in my article. I also recommend the books by Roberta Gilbert including “Extraordinary Relationships” and “Extraordinary Leadership” and “Connecting With Our Children”. All of these books present Bowen Family Systems Theory as a challenge to become “present and accounted for” in the relationship systems to which we belong in a way which requires what in the Christian religion is called repentance. I hear in church circles a lot of palaver about “non-anxious presence” etc. but it seems to me like they say in Texas all hat and no cattle.

  2. Spot on! It took me several years to realize that I was using systems theory in a self-serving way. My epiphany was that what I thought was taking a “principled stand” was really a form of reactivity to the anxiety of the system and the criticism I was receiving. Leaders often bind anxiety to rules, ideologies or someone else’s idea of what a leader should be. Roberta Gilbert’s Extraordinary Relationships put me on to the idea of “choice” being a sign of thinking. For too long I thought along the lines that I “had” to do a certain thing as a leader because of some theological conviction.

  3. Thanks for this mature reflection. I hear all sorts of uses of Friedman’s work in my circles. Some take it to mean conflict (even just disagreement or animated discussion) is a sign of an “anxious presence” and must always be diffused without regard to the content (which seems to be the exact opposite of what Friedman taught). And you note here that Friedman can also be cited using the Yeager approach to blast through resistance as if the smooth air is up ahead if we only have the courage to slam on the gas. I so appreciate here your wariness of “technique” removed from context and content.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s