In a previous Outlook article, I noted several key points about Murray Bowen’s family systems theory:
- It’s based on cellular biology, not psychology.
- Bowen said his “cornerstone concept” was “differentiation of self.” He explained that he arrived at his theory by comparing how humans mature by comparing it to how cells “differentiate.”
- For Bowen, the terms “highly differentiated” and “highly mature” are synonymous
- Bowen describes 12 “core capacities” of persons who are “highly differentiated/highly mature.” One of those capacities is to live a reasonably balanced life — a life with no prolonged “over or under-functioning.”
It’s this crucial capacity that I want to address here.
Take a moment to ponder your life — its daily practices, rituals, routines and rhythms. After being away from home for a while, have you ever had the epiphany: “When I get back home I’m going to change some aspect of how I live or work” — and then, despite your good intentions nothing changed?
I practiced as a pastoral counselor for 12 years. One issue that brought couples into marriage therapy was the division of domestic chores. You know the kind: taking the garbage out, doing the laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, etc.
I routinely asked this question: “What percentage of the time do you think that you do the laundry?” Often each spouse said about 80 percent. I call that “distorted-perception math.” And to be honest, who does the laundry the most is not what brought them into therapy. It was really about not feeling respected and appreciated — concerns about fairness of time and responsibilities, and about their over-functioning or under-functioning.
Finding a healthy life balance is a perpetual challenge. Bowen noted that only mature (i.e., “highly differentiated”) persons ever achieve it. He observed that, just as healthy organisms routinely enjoy “organic balance,” health and maturity in persons and families could be assessed by considering the degree of balance in their lives. A life out of balance is seldom a healthy life.
Since its inception, AL-ANON understood Bowen’s concern about balance, because there is probably no more profound example of a family being out of balance than when one of its members is actively addicted. In every alcoholic family, there is sure to be some degree of enabling — often severe. Friends and family members of addicted persons routinely “over-function” through actions that “take care of” addicted persons rather than caring for them. Father and son psychiatrists, Thomas Patrick Malone and Patrick Thomas Malone, in their book “The Art of Intimacy” argue that, aside from times of authentic disability or sickness, mature persons do not want to be taken care of. It is condescending and disrespectful. Rather, mature persons prefer to be cared for.
Conversely, mature persons do not want to have to take care of other adults, but prefer to care for them. Taking care of adults is exhausting — but caring for people is loving and life-giving. I distinguish between enabling and healthy helping in this way: “I will continue to help you as long as you make sound and mature choices. As soon as you begin making poor choices, however, the ways in which I help you will change immediately.”
Enabling is why AL-ANON crafted and promotes the concept of “detach with love.” Here’s how it works. A husband routinely misses work due to excessive drinking. One night he is so drunk that he misses his own driveway and parks the car on the neighbor’s lawn. Embarrassed, ashamed and too frightened to confront her husband directly because of his predictable roiling and threatening responses, the wife dutifully removes the car from the neighbors’ lawn, calls the landscaper to fix the divots and notifies the husband’s boss that her husband is “too sick” to come into work.
AL-ANON coaches such spouses to leave the car on the neighbor’s lawn and, when he finally gets up, calmly say (maintaining a “non-reactive presence”): “Oh honey, I noticed that you missed our driveway last night. You may want to get our car off the neighbor’s lawn as soon as possible. Your boss called wondering where you were so I told him you’ll call him back as soon as you are able. And can you please call the landscaper to repair the Smith’s lawn?” Such coaching attempts to bring this family back into balance by not covering for other persons’ unacceptable behavior. Second, firmer boundaries are created to help addicted persons “bump into the consequences” of their unacceptable behavior. Notice there is no nagging here. Finally, such coaching attempts to empower enabling persons to take up for themselves, clearly define themselves and take a stand.
So what does this have to do with ecclesial leadership? Well, for starters, the church is an addictive organization. Because of some Christian work ethics and certain flavors of “servanthood theology,” ecclesial leaders often over-function in the giving of themselves for very compelling and “scriptural” reasons.
Imagine this scenario. In an interview for a pastoral position, the search committee elucidates why they love and miss their previous pastor so much. Someone says: “He’s amazing! He ran the worship bulletins, fixed leaks in our roof, painted the steeple, mowed the lawn and changed the letters on the church sign each week. He always helped clean up and turned off the lights because he was always the last person to leave the building.”
You immediately know that if you accept this new call your work is cut out for you. But isn’t that what healthy pastors are supposed to do? Or are we instead called to establish good boundaries by holding up a mirror so our congregations can clearly see where there is unhealthy over and under-functioning, while simultaneously helping them address the imbalance? The problem is that certain theologies or expectations of church staff are like the warped mirrors in a carnival fun house that distort one’s true appearance.
Here’s Bowen’s point and concern. When leaders egregiously over-function in one part of the system, some other part of that leader and some other part of the system has to be under-functioning. When a pastor takes care of a congregation instead of caring for them, profound systemic imbalance and damage occur. When leaders over-function by taking care of others, they predictably under-function in self-care.
Through the years I have accepted calls like that, but always noted in the interviews that I don’t run bulletins, fix roofs, mow lawns, paint steeples or change weekly sermon titles on the church sign. Several search committees have bristled, but I remember one person declaring: “Good for you! I never thought that was our pastor’s job. I just never said anything.” That person ultimately stood up for me when the predictable systemic backlash surfaced. I actually heard her confront another in the hall one Sunday, saying: “Don’t you get it? If our pastor is doing all those things, he has less time to do what we really need — worship and sermon preparation, prayer, administration and visitation.” My defender clearly understood Bowen’s point — when one part of a system over-functions, another part of the system must under-function.
So what’s so bad about such a pastor? Isn’t “going the second mile” our Christian duty? Here’s what’s wrong:
- Unhealthy over-functioning in one part of the system mandates under-functioning in other parts of the system.
- Such over-functioning sets up the next pastor (hopefully more healthy and balanced) to appear less giving or caring.
- Not only does such addictive over-functioning cause under-functioning in the church system — it equally causes under-functioning in that pastor’s spiritual, devotional, professional, personal, relational and family life.
I suspect we have all witnessed some version of the following. A church calls the poster-child of an over-functioning pastor. Her children routinely come by the church after school asking her to do something she promised — and her predictable response is heartbreaking: “I’m sorry kids but something came up. I’m still working on my sermon. I said I’d give the invocation at Cub Scouts this afternoon, and I have a session meeting tonight. And you know I’m behind on writing my book.” The kids’ sullen faces say it all. And I think we hear the words of Harry Chapin’s “The Cat’s in the Cradle” resonating in our minds: “We’ll have a good time then son. You know we’ll have a good time then.”
Ed Friedman noted that all pastors have “helper genes.” It’s in our DNA to be compulsive helpers and fixers. One of the greatest challenges to achieving reasonable life-balance is addressing the homeostatic forces operating in any system’s particular emotional field.
Here’s a simple test to assess where you are over-functioning or under-functioning. Remember: where there is one, there has to be the other. If you are over-functioning in some part of your life, you have to be under-functioning somewhere else.
OK, here’s the test. Declare publicly that you are no longer going to do some activity or chore, or that you are going to decrease the amount you do it by half — and watch what happens. The predictable systemic resistance or blowback will often be profound. Systems usually respond to such announcements with: “You change back or else!” Learn to expect clever sabotage and creative passive aggression. The degree of systemic pushback is a good indicator of how much the system has come to expect, depend and rely on your over-functioning.
My son and daughter asked us to get them each a dog, and we did. Acquiring these dogs was preceded by the same question parents have long asked: “If we get these dogs, do you promise to help pick up poop, feed, walk, brush and wash them on a regular basis?” You know where this is going — that covenant soon mysteriously deteriorated, in part because of my proclivity to over-function and because I have two artful dodgers for children. I tried the power of suggestion, I tried humor, I tried sarcasm. Eventually the remedy demanded a “come-to-Jesus meeting.” The systemic resistance was unbelievable — because I routinely over-functioned by doing all the work while simultaneously allowing their under-functioning to prevail. That meeting worked for a while — but then predictable mission creep surfaced again. I still have to do systemic tune-ups — because it’s a constant challenge.
So, what’s a church leader or parent to do? Years ago I tried something that has really worked. I crafted my own job description and worked on defining better professional boundaries and personal rhythms. For years I got angry that I stocked our home refrigerator with water bottles while my family would take and not replace them. One day, after I had dutifully stocked the fridge with water bottles, I went to grab one but there was none. I had what I call a “Popeye moment”: “It’s all I can stand and I can’t stand no more!” We now have an “if you take one, replace one” rule that generally works. Some issues mandate taking a stand before we can correct our dysfunction.
Here’s another little litmus test that has helped me when interviewing for ministry positions. I begin by bringing my own job description, asking if we can review it in the interview — saying something like: “I have learned after many years of ordained ministry that I function best when I follow these time-tested pastoral rhythms. I need x number of hours at home to prepare worship and write my sermon. I need x number of mornings in the office and I need x number of hours for pastoral visitation. I need x number of hours for administration and x number of hours to prepare my Bible study. I like to pick up my kids from school and I need daily family time. I also need time for prayer and personal devotionals. I request Fridays and Saturdays off but am on-call 24/7.” You get the idea.
I have learned the following three incredibly helpful things from this practice: healthy systems and mature search committees welcome my frankness about my pastoral experience and that I can define myself and my work schedule so clearly; “enmeshed systems” and immature search committees react very negatively; and I fare much better in mature systems than in immature ones.
DAVID LEE JONES is director of the doctor of ministry program at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin.