Two Things To Know For Church Leadership

The Two Things You Should Know for Church Leadership

Reaching a Saturation Point

The two things are actually two frameworks.

I have spent the last couple of years reading every book I’ve been able to get my hands on related to Christian leadership. I have included with this a fair amount of the standard works on business leadership from Collins, Maxwell, Sinek, Covey, etc. As this is an area in which I strive to grow perpetually, I intend to continue paying attention to the larger conversation.

When you’re doing academic research, you eventually reach what I call a saturation point. After you’ve read a lot on a topic, eventually you stop seeing new ideas, you’ve already read most of the other works books are referencing, and you’ve heard most of their best stories and illustrations before in other places. I seem to have hit this point on current Christian Leadership literature.

There are a number of books I think are wonderful and worthy of engagement. But if you don’t have time to read twenty books, then one book on each of these two topics–or one that grapples with both–would take largely catch you up with current conversations about what Christian leadership should look like, according to contemporary research. My goal here is to write one post that captures an overview of contemporary thought about church leadership.

The two topics are:

  1. Murray Bowen’s Family Systems Theory
  2. Appreciative Inquiry

I’m going to provide a brief overview to both. If you are aware of the content in this post, much of what you encounter in the best writing on church leadership will sound familiar when you engage it.

Thing 1: Bowen Family Systems Theory

The question is not whether a current book on church leadership incorporates Bowen Family Systems Theory (hereafter BFST). The question is how eloquently and imaginatively they do it. Two of the greatest expositors of how to use BFST for churches are Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke. Both have written books now considered classics. Both built their work largely on a BFST framework.

So what is BFST? It is a framework for understanding families. For these purposes, a family is a living organism with a multigenerational emotional system. Some of the concepts of BFST apply to churches better than others, but it is absolutely the case that much of what is true of a family is true of a church.

BFST is a method you’d use to evaluate what’s going on, especially where there is conflict, though it also has great application for how leaders should be proactively.

Though BFST has eight concepts, there are three that are especially useful for church leadership. I’m going to focus on three here, but if you want to read all eight, I put a brief description of each at the bottom of this post for you over-achievers. The three are:

  1. Triangles. Triangles are the building blocks of larger emotional systems, which are actually large collections of interlocking triangles. A two-person relationship under tension will often reach for a third person. In a three-person triangle, tension can shift around between members rapidly. When there is conflict, one person or group will try to outnumber the opposing party by getting a third person/group on their side.
  2. Self-Differentiation. To do this well is to be able to look at yourself more objectively. You don’t want to get caught up in an anxious system and make reactive choices. You want to know who you are, what your values are, and to make rational decisions that are in line with the goals of the group, for the betterment of the group. Right now you aren’t just yourself. You’re the person they are looking to as their leader. You need to manage yourself and your emotions well. You have to be stable first so that they can reorient around you.
  3. Over-functioning / Under-functioning. Most of us gravitate toward one or the other, and it can take many forms. Some people over-function to compensate for the weaknesses or slacking of other people in a group. This actually leads the weak people to be weaker, as they feel either less empowered or less inclined to act. One pressures, the other caves, and both have increasing frustration that eventually reaches a breaking point.

Bowen Theory In A Nutshell

In a nutshell, here are some of the key ways leaders should apply BFST. There are two main areas to use it: pro-active leadership and conflict analysis.

In matters of leadership, it means you want to strive to be a non-anxious person, regardless of what your people are feeling. They will look to you, the leader, to know how they are supposed to feel and act. If a situation seems bad and the leaders seem panicky, the people think, “I feel anxious about this. He/she is a leader, and surely must have more information than I do. It’s probably much worse than I thought!” The opposite is also true. If everyone is anxious, but the leaders, while staying open and connected, seem solid, people will assume everything is probably going to be ok.

In navigating difficult situations, a leader should:

  • Make a decision based on core principles, not on the emotional climate. If appropriate, communicate the decision and the core principles behind it.
  • Stay calm. You being calm after an uncomfortable decision allows others to re-orient around you.
  • Stay connected. Pulling away from people who disagree with you signals that things aren’t ok. You should make concerted efforts to stay close to those you know disagree with your decision. Keep your patterns, routines, and above all, your relational points of connection.
  • Stay the course. If you’ve made a decision based on principles, then stick with it. If people see they can sway you through emotional reactivity, getting you to waiver, they won’t take other decisions seriously and will persist in behaviors that get them what they want, not necessarily what is best for the group or its future.

If there is a problem in a group, look for triangles. Any time there are three people in a situation, especially if one of them has more power than the others, there is a triangle. Who is trying to work against someone else indirectly? They’ll be forming triangles to force a desired outcome without having to deal with the person with whom they have a problem or a different point of view.

We’ve all seen it happen. Someone will say they have a problem over a “doctrinal issue” when we all know it has much more to do with a personal beef or some hurt feelings they had with someone. Make sure the issue is actually the issue.

Dysfunctional uses of power in triangles are resolved by getting the differing parties to deal with each other directly. Charles Siburt of ACU has borrowed from these concepts in one of his famous quips: “If you want to have less conflict, you’ve got to have more conflict.” The problem needs to be talked about by the people who are actually having the problem. Not emissaries or intermediaries.

Think about over-functioning and under-functioning. Who is taking on things that are not theirs to worry about? Is it to compensate for a weaker member’s laziness? Is it to push someone to the side so that they can get their way? Likewise, who is slacking and avoiding responsibilities that should be theirs? What is moving them to do this? What allows them to continue doing this?

If you, like me, are prone to pick up other people’s slack, a key question you should ask yourself:
How does my over-functioning help his/her under-functioning?

It doesn’t. It perpetuates a bad system. You cannot do more for someone else than they are willing to do for themselves. Well actually, you can. But it doesn’t make anything better and it eventually exhausts you. Many people who are under-functioning might be doing so to try and be peaceful rather than lazy. But no one wants to be someone else’s punching bag forever. People want to matter in the communities in which they take part. Systems work best when people are expected and empowered to take ownership of what is theirs, especially their own emotions, well-being, and destiny.

Thing 2: Appreciative Inquiry

Appreciative Inquiry does not have as much traction as BFST has had over the last decades, but I believe its influence is growing. Appreciative Inquiry is the best method available to discern a path forward for a pre-existing group of people that allows innovation without destroying the group itself in the process.

As all of our churches struggle with how to remain relevant even as we remain committed to core values which might drive us in unpopular directions culturally, this conversation is of enormous value. I have written extensively here at Kingdom Upgrowth about Appreciative Inquiry, sharing some examples of how I’ve used it to effect positive congregational change.

Appreciative Inquiry (hereafter AI) is a series of assumptions that lead to analytical actions which build on those assumptions. Depending on what authors you read, the number of assumptions may vary, but here are the 10 Assumptions of AI that I have utilized in my work, drawing from Mark Lau Branson. I have written separate posts for each of them to describe them more fully:

Appreciative Inquiry in a Nutshell

In process, AI involves listening well to your group, learning what they have loved, and what they value most about who they are. It means developing a vision in collaboration with your group that solidly incorporates the best parts of the past in some meaningful way. This creates continuity and makes innovation easier to accept. Interestingly, the new innovation might bear little resemblance to its past iteration, but by rooting the new vision in an appreciation for the past rather than a discarding of the past, it makes it easier for long-time members to accept.

Beyond this, a valuable insight from AI is that when we study our church, we are not white-coat lab workers dealing with a test tube. Even the fact that you are asking questions affects what life is like as part of your congregation. By asking questions that are positive in orientation, you get people to rehearse in their minds what they love most about your church, which actually does lead them to love it more and to feel good about it. In other words, the research process itself is part of the positive change.

If you’re trying to work through a dilemma related to vision and how to move forward, I really believe a healthy step is to familiarize yourself and your group with the assumptions of AI. Regardless of what method you use to make a decision, these assumptions provide a foundation on which you can build which your people are more likely to embrace.

For more information on how to use AI:

Ready to Go Deeper?

If you’d like to go beyond this post, here are some books to help you in each of the areas. To help you avoid decision fatigue, I am opting to include only a short list. All of these are high acclaimed:

Bowen Theory Applied:

Appreciative Inquiry Applied:

Applications from Both:

The Eight Concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory

Still reading?

For you over-achievers, here are the eight concepts of BFST with a brief explanation. These are obviously developed primarily with families in scope. For examples and a lengthier explanation of each, have a look at The Bowen Center’s website. As you read, don’t be surprised if you see some things that sound uncomfortably familiar. No family is perfect!

  1. Triangles. Triangles are the building blocks of larger emotional systems, which are actually large collections of interlocking triangles. A two-person relationship under tension will often reach for a third person. In a three-person triangle, tension can shift around between members rapidly. When there is conflict, one person or group will try to outnumber the opposing party by getting a third person/group on their side. Often, the solution is to get the two parties in tension to engage each other directly, rather than allowing them to apply pressure indirectly through third parties. People are anxious? Start identifying the triangles.
  2. Self-Differentiation. Groups default toward groupthink. People who are poorly differentiated will default toward what they think the group expects of them immediately, rather than acting on principle. A well-differentiated person, while recognizing ways in which he or she depends on others, stays cool, calm, and collected in the face of criticism, and sticks with a decision based on principle rather than on reaction and anxiety. “Regardless of how you feel about me, based on solid principles, this is who I am, and this is what I’m going to do.” It’s key for leaders.
  3. Nuclear Family Emotional Process. Stress and anxiety in a family can in negative relationship patterns. These usually take one of four forms:
    1. Marital conflict. An anxious spouse externalizes his or her anxiety onto the other spouse.
    2. Dysfunction in One Spouse. One over-functions and the other under-functions. One spouse pressures the other, and the other caves. This is less sustainable as pressure increases and the submissive spouse gets beyond his or her limit.
    3. Impairment of One or More Children. An anxious spouse projects their anxieties onto one or more of his or her children. This usually results in a view of the child that is either overly idealized or overly negative, leading the child to become an embodiment of the underlying family tensions.
    4. Emotional Distance. Because of family tensions, one or both parties move away. If one family member absorbs more anxiety, the others can absorb less. This results in some family members maintaining their well-being at the expense of others by refusing to participate and share the load of tension.
  4. Family Projection Process. Some families transmit their emotional problems to their children. The progression is usually: (1) the parent focuses on the child for fear something is wrong with the child, (2) whatever the child does, the parent believes confirms the fear, (3) the parent treats the child as if something is really wrong with the child. This creates interesting dynamics with the other siblings especially, who may be able to develop a more mature, reality-based relationship with their parents, as opposed to the one child receiving an excessive amount of focus and attention rooted in something that isn’t real.
  5. Multigenerational Transmission Process. Over generations, people are shaped in reaction to the over-functioning/under-functioning of their parents and grandparents. Some siblings have a more differentiated self and others have a less differentiated self which plays into how they themselves are parents to their own children. You could be, for example, “the most differentiated child of the most differentiated sibling.” Such patterns create the possibility of observing lines of family behavior on a large scale.
  6. Emotional Cutoff. Some people manage unresolved issues with their family members by totally cutting off emotional contact with them. Whether moving away, rarely going home, or being at home and avoiding contact and sensitive issues, it can take several forms. Relationships look “better” but it is a facade because the problems under the surface remain unaddressed.
  7. Sibling Position. The order in which a person is born among their siblings will produce predictably important common characteristics, based on whether they are the oldest, middle, or youngest, for example.
  8. Societal Emotional Process. This concept has larger non-family groups in view, such as work and social organizations. At a societal level, there are periods of progression and regression. What is going on at a societal level either eases or creates additional challenges at the family level.

Obviously, the list above is all primarily conceptualized with families in mind, but with many components you can see easy application to church settings.

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