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Managing secrets maturely: Family systems theory for church leaders

Every pastor faces the constant challenge of how to handle personal and congregational “secrets.” Because of the unique relational nature of our work, pastors probably wrestle with how to navigate secrets more than any other profession. Who among us has not wrestled with how to negotiate the blurred lines between those who are our members, parishioners, acquaintances, friends or even perceived adversaries in our faith communities? Most pastors have pondered: Should I even be friends with my church members? How do I handle that I enjoy the company of some of my flock more than others? How do I avoid the conflict of interest or the appearance of fostering favorites? How does being closer to some of my members affect my pastoral work and how others perceive me? What is it like for those who are not in my closest inner-circle?

Further, how do pastors transition from meeting with a church member for a pastoral counseling appointment in the afternoon to sitting next to that same person in a board meeting that night? And what if that person is the church treasurer or the chair of the personnel committee and the pastor’s salary raise is being discussed at that night’s meeting?

Other professions like therapists, doctors and lawyers prohibit (or at least strongly discourage) such dual relationships. Therapists are mandated by strict professional ethics not to engage in relationships with their clients outside of their professional office. To varying degrees, doctors, lawyers and other helping professionals (those professionals who know intimate and or sensitive personal information about the persons they serve) are bound by similar ethics.

Many pastors negotiate this delicate relational landmine field by developing a few close, trusted friends, and then establish concentric layers of varying degrees of closeness with all other members. I know a few pastors, however, who refuse to develop any close friendships with congregants. One pastor, when invited to dinner by church members, routinely replied with this curious, rigid motto: “I do not mix business with pleasure.” Yikes! Can you imagine?

Secrets, stress, symptoms

Ed Friedman, a Jewish rabbi, therapist and leadership consultant, notes that secrets “bind anxiety” in any system. By this he means that secrets are an anxiety magnet. Consider your heart rate the last time someone asked: “Can you keep a secret? Do you promise not to tell anyone?” One of the problems with promising to keep a secret is that you have to have a Mensa-level memory and a watertight internal vault so the secret never inadvertently leaks out.

But it is far more complicated than that. The secrets that others ask us to harbor are not our only concern. Leaders must be equally concerned with, if not more concerned about, the personal secrets we carry in our own minds, souls, memories and hearts. Not addressing our private secrets will unequivocally affect both our spiritual well-being and pastoral work. Sooner or later something will ultimately trigger our unresolved secrets.

Systems expert Doug Hester notes that unaddressed secrets are “like a cavity in a tooth.” You may not be able to see it, but the symptoms are unavoidable. Like a cavity exposed to a cold or hot beverage, certain things will painfully trigger the secret to flare up. Hester notes that the only way to treat both cavities and secrets is to drill them out completely and apply a new filling. What reputable dentist would knowingly detect a cavity and not drill it out totally or simply put a new filling on top of the old decay? What purpose would that serve? Yet we all know leaders and congregations that do this very thing by actively avoiding naming and claiming their secrets and forthrightly addressing them.

A while back, I was picking up my son from school and the parent of a young man in my daughter’s high school approached me. “Do you know?’ she asked with a twinkle in her eye. “Do I know what?” I replied. “Do you know? Has anyone told you?” Again I replied: “Know what?” She said, “My son is going to ask your daughter to the prom tomorrow — promise that you’ll keep it a secret.” As soon as I agreed, the anxiety began to bubble up and ferment.

Does my daughter want to go with this young man? The whole next day I pondered how and when he would ask her. I wondered how she would respond (painfully remembering one of my own secrets: when I reluctantly agreed to go to a prom I did not want to attend). Well, the next day came and went and my daughter said nothing. Did he ask her and she’s keeping it a secret? More days went by — still nothing. Was the mom confused? Did the young man get cold feet? The questions ricocheted around in my mind like a pinball — at times consuming my attention. I had to let it go. Two weeks later the boy finally asked my daughter and she was thrilled. Phew! All this over a minor secret! Now, how do you think substantive secrets affect our inner spirit and nervous system? Friedman is right: Secrets bind anxiety!

Secrets in systems

Secrets are simultaneously both symptoms of and contributors to closed systems. Appropriately open systems are ordinarily healthier than inappropriately closed systems because they have fewer secrets. Further, cutoff between persons in any system germinates additional secrets. When persons cutoff from select persons (those they are not comfortable talking to), they usually talk secretly to others about those with whom they are cutoff (i.e., they triangulate others into their cutoff relationships).

Secrets in church families

Referring specifically to how secrets function in families, Murray Bowen, the developer of family system theory, in his book “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice” noted: “The greater the isolation, the lower the level of responsible communication between family members, and the higher the level of irresponsible underground gossip about each other in the family, and the confiding of secrets to those outside the family. Through pledging a confidence, a person becomes part of the emotional network around the family problem. The basic problem is the relationship pattern in the family rather than the subject matter of the secrets and confidences.” His observations, however, are equally true of church families. Bowen aptly notes: “In larger social systems, a ‘gossip’ is ordinarily one who came from an anxious gossipy family.”

So guess what? If you came from a gossipy family, you will probably wrestle more with how to manage secrets and gossip maturely than those who came from families with healthier boundaries. Bowen’s point reminds us why all leaders, but especially pastors, must:

  1. Pay constant attention to what we “absorbed” in our families of origin;
  2. Continue to work on our family genograms; and
  3. Routinely work with therapists, spiritual directors or pastoral coaches to keep our family of origin work both substantive and fresh.

Bowen’s writings for family therapists can be generalized for ecclesial leaders. Bowen writes: “Most family therapists employ some kind of working rule about not keeping secrets, and they find ways to communicate (i.e., expose) secrets in the family sessions.” What he writes of family therapists should also be true of church leaders: “The goal of a family therapist is to be a responsible person who knows the difference between underground secrets and valid, responsible, private communication and who respects the difference.”

One clear difference between a confidence and a secret is to know when persons are triangulating you when they should be communicating directly to the person they are complaining about. The best way not to be pulled into others’ emotional fields of secret keeping is to detriangulate or backwash the anxiety to its source. The following illustrations are effective examples of this.

When you discern that you are being triangled by someone, immediately ask, “Have you spoken directly to Jane about this?” Or: “Thanks for expressing this concern. How can I help you minister to Jane?” My experience is that rarely do people have any interest in speaking directly or ministering to Jane. So, instead you could say: “Before you get too far into this, I have a confession to make. When it comes to keeping secrets, I’m a leaky sieve.” And further: “Before you say much more, may I share what you are telling me with Jane and possibly others? Or are you asking me to keep this a secret?” These questions are very effective at smoking out the person’s real and not-so-hidden agenda: to complain about others and not speak to them directly.

Writing for therapists, Bowen says: “Family members are skilled at making individual communications outside the family psychotherapy hours. They will stop at the end of the hour to tell the therapist something ‘too unimportant for the family hour.’ They write personal notes, make telephone calls between hours, or find occasions to tell the therapist ‘secrets’ about other family members that the therapist should know, but that would be ‘hurtful’ if mentioned in the family hour. Not all of these communications are ‘loaded,’ but a blanket rule that the therapist will report all outside communications at the next family hour is successful in preventing emotional involvements that resulted from certain of these individual messages.”

Bowen writes: “Listening to such (secret) communications without response, pretending that one is not involved, does not fool an emotional system.” Bowen encourages therapists to pay attention to the anxiety around both revealing secrets from one’s own family and to the secret action plans demanded in differentiating oneself with family, colleagues and help-seekers. He wants therapists to pay attention to the connection between the two. I suspect he would say the same to all ecclesial leaders.

In “Generation to Generation,” Friedman wrote: “Family secrets act as the plaque in the arteries of communication; they cause stoppage in the general flow and not just at the point of their existence.” He also said, “Far more significant than the content of any family secret is the ramification of its existence for the emotional processes of the entire family.” This is why some family systems thinkers say that there are no secrets. That is, one may not know the specific content of a secret, but the process around the secret and the energy it takes to maintain it will surely surface, in some form, somewhere, sometime in any system. Benjamin Franklin is credited with saying, “Three may keep a secret — if two of them are dead.”

Friedman notes the following five consequences of secrets:

  1. Secrets divide families (and other systems).
  2. Secrets create unnecessary estrangements.
  3. Secrets distort perceptions.
  4. Secrets exacerbate other pathological processes unrelated to the content of the particular secret, because secrets generally function to keep anxiety at higher energy levels.
  5. Secrets create and perpetuate triangles.

Case story: A family secret

Allow me to close with a true story about my dad. My father was drafted into WWII in 1941. He became a first sergeant, anti-aircraft gunner in a Coastal Artillery Battalion stationed at Fort Schafter, Hawaii. He survived the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor and later survived the U.S. assault on Saipan. One Christmas, my mom bought him a set of CDs, “Songs of the WWII Era.” I was visiting at Christmas and got up in the night to get a drink of water. My father was listening to those songs as he sat in the dark in his recliner — the only light coming from the bulbs of the Christmas tree. It was unusual for him to be up this late and I wondered what these songs might be triggering in him. He seemed to be in a trance — or what Freud called “a screen memory.” A person having a screen memory looks like someone staring dazed or completely absorbed at a motion picture screen. I suspected he was having flashbacks from the war.

I lovingly put my hands on his shoulders and asked, “Where you are right now, Pop?” He replied flatly, “I’m in a pineapple field on Saipan listening to Tokyo Rose.” I knew he was disassociating.

“Can you talk about it?” I asked. “Our drill sergeant always said, ‘You’ll never forget the face of the first man you kill in combat.’” I knew something really bad was about to surface.

He continued: “While on Saipan, Japanese snipers in caves were picking off U.S. soldiers on the beach. I was ordered to gather a patrol and dispense the snipers. I led the patrol up the mountain trail when a Japanese soldier jumped up from behind some bushes. It startled us and several of us fired our pistols. We were about to leave when someone heard the man moaning. Being the first sergeant, it was my responsibility to investigate. The man was lying on his back suffering. I drew my Colt. 45 and finished him off. The drill sergeant was right. You never forget face of the first man you kill.” And then my dad began to weep and I just held him. “There’s more,” he said. “He wasn’t a Japanese sniper. He was a Saipanese farmer dressed in khaki clothes that, in the dark, looked like a Japanese uniform. We accidently killed a civilian!” Then he said: “I don’t want to talk about this right now. I need to go to bed.” I left for home the next day and we did not speak of it.

My father seldom discussed the war, even though my brother and I pleaded to hear his war stories. I had heard the thing about the drill sergeant’s comment before, but never connected the dots. My father kept this secret in his psychic cellar for over 60 years. It was his personal kryptonite that had to be sealed in a lead pipe and thrown to the bottom of the sea.

Months later my parents visited me in Texas. I took them to the Nimitz Pacific War Museum in Fredericksburg. On the way home I asked about that horrible event. “How do you know about that?” he snapped. “You told me last Christmas. Don’t you remember?” “I’ve never told anyone that story!” he exclaimed with a pensive edge in his voice. Now curious, my mom inquired: “What story?” And he told her. She was stunned. A dark heaviness hung in the car the entire ride home.

Months later she asked him: “Did you ever ask the Lord’s forgiveness?” He said, “No.” She called me and asked how that was possible. I did my best to explain disassociation and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A few days later, however, she called again. She said, “Your dad came to breakfast today and his countenance is different.” A burden was off his chest; he had finally prayed for forgiveness.

Around that time, with my dad’s permission, I published his story. An Army chaplain in Europe who was working with soldiers coming back from the Gulf War with PTSD read my article and began using my dad’s story in his work with these soldiers. In an email he noted that my dad’s story was helping hundreds of soldiers to heal. I shared the email with my dad and he wept tears of both deep sadness and ebullient joy that his story might help other soldiers. A few months later he died — just a few days after the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. In the days before he died he was having flashbacks of the war — barking orders to privates and corporals. I was with him the night that he died; he slipped peacefully into glory, forgiven and free of a secret that had plagued him for over 60 years. Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty he was free at last.

DAVID LEE JONES is director of the doctor of ministry program at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin.