“Open” & “closed” systems

When I directed the doctor of ministry program at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, we employed Bowen family systems theory in several ways. We introduced the basics of the theory to every student in the doctoral methods class, and students were required to conduct a systemic assessment of their research site as part of their project proposal. Since most D.Min. projects attempt to change something in a congregational system and since change predictably produces anxiety and resistance, we wanted students to anticipate both of these systemic forces with a plan to address them before beginning their projects. One helpful way to understand and use systems theory’s chief constructs in congregations is to employ them as lenses for seeing, understanding, assessing, and addressing both the health and pathology of particular systems. In fact, I routinely use systems concepts in my interim work and in church officer training.

One of Bowen’s more helpful concepts is his understanding that all systems have areas where they can be both “too open” and “too closed.” Bowen believed that healthy systems find an organic balance between polarized extremes. The metaphor of a harbor is helpful. Every harbor has a channel with buoys that mark the deep water. If a boat wanders too far right or left, it hits shallow water or a sand bar and runs aground. This is true not just of waterways but of all emotional systems. And it may be particularly true given the current polarized climate in our faith communities, politics, society and culture.

As is the case in many of Bowen’s concepts, be careful not to preference one construct over the other. In our current culture, we generally tend to hear “open” as better than “closed,” but a wise person once noted that “a window nailed open is as dangerous and useless as one nailed shut.” Thus systems can simultaneously be unduly “closed” in some areas, yet “too open” in others. One of the hardest affirmations of systems theory to understand, embrace and employ is that there are no good guys and no bad guys. Rabbi Friedman once said, “There can be no disease process without a host cell.” What both of these ideas point to is that systems theory, properly understood, is a “non-blaming” theory. Systems theory notes that the larger system is always, to various degrees, responsible and culpable for its decisions.

I once heard of a large, influential Northeastern church that hired a “superstar” young pastor. Not long after he arrived, he asked the church board to install a shower in his pastor’s study because he runs on his lunch hour and he wanted to shower before returning to work.

At substantive financial cost, the board granted his wish and installed the new shower – but it also came with a systemic cost. Expanding his office meant that several of the associate pastor’s offices that bordered his got reduced. For his office to get larger, the other pastors’ offices had to get smaller. And here we see the nuances of “open” and “closed.” While the church board was “very open” to accommodating the new pastor, they were simultaneously too “closed” and blind to anticipate how this would predictably affect their other staff who had faithfully served this church long before the new pastor arrived. Several of the staff resigned not long after this decision. Wouldn’t you?

As I share this story in seminary classes and seminars, people react viscerally by focusing their frustration on the young pastor. “What a jerk!” people often blurt out. What takes longer and different eyes to see, however, is that an entire church board approved his request. “There can be no disease process with a host cell.” So where does the real disease lie? The church board functioned as “the host cell” that allowed this questionable request to be approved. Narcissistic requests and demands can only be realized if a “host cell” allows it. When I consult with hurting churches I often ask church leaders, “Why are you so accepting of unacceptable behavior?” My point is that Bowen correctly and astutely understood that healthy “openness” and “closedness” must function in interconnected balance.

Let’s compare and contrast “appropriately open” and “unduly closed” systems to draw a sharp distinction between the two. Understand, however, that healthy systems have to have some degree of “closedness” in order to regulate boundaries and set limits, and conversely systems that are “too open” are susceptible to viruses, intrusive pathogens and disease. I offer these descriptions as a way to see, understand, assess and address these systemic polarities.

Unduly closed systems are generally understood as those that have the following features: dominance, sameness, fusion, herd mentality and group thinking. Such systems discourage equality, change, differentiation, independence, questioning, speaking up, taking a stand, rocking the boat or expressing concern. They tend to promote immaturity, repression, stuckness, triangulation, gossip, parking lot meetings, factions and secrets. People do not feel safe to question or disagree in such systems for fear of disapproval or retribution. Such systems tend to be reactive and anxious (even if it is hidden beneath the surface) because information is not shared freely and secrets bind anxiety.

Leaders tend to dominate or over-function, which causes others members of the system to acquiesce or under-function. A few at the top are disproportionately responsible for the many. Such systems often have people who function as dictators or peace-mongers at the top, and may have unduly rigid boundaries. Closed systems breed fear, anger, repression, paranoia and suspicion. They tend to acquiesce to the least mature members or those who hold the most power (who are often the most immature). Closed systems are marked by incessant blaming of others and usually seek a quick fix to conflict rather than managing anxiety maturely. Closed systems are “deadly serious.”

Appropriately open systems are generally understood as those that value change, transparency, diversity, differentiation, questioning, disagreeing, discussing, pondering, expressing concern and giving voice to all. In open systems, people feel safe to express concerns, disagree and raise questions. Information is shared openly. Open systems encourage and value appropriately open and flexible boundaries and discourage undue rigidity. Open systems value, promote and welcome direct communication, “I statements,” responsibility for one’s own functioning in the system and non-reactivity.

In open systems, leaders can take a stand. Leaders and members stay connected to each other by discouraging domination, triangulation, gossip and secrets. Open systems promote and value playfulness, mystery, paradox, challenge and adventure.

David Lee Jones is a fellow in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors and previous director of Austin Seminary’s doctor of ministry program. He currently serves as affiliate professor of pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.