Rowman & Littlefield, 280 pages
Reviewed by Erin Keys
There are a number of books on congregational life that claim to “think systems,” but not all of them actually do. Systems theory, or, more specifically, Family Systems Theory – the theory developed by Murray Bowen, a psychiatrist interested in developing a science of human behavior – is inherently complex and difficult to explain outside the behemoth of Bowen’s own textbook on the subject. Often one needs to study the theory for a number of years to truly begin to understand how to apply it to life and work. For this reason, many of the “systems” books available to ministers are not representative of a true systems approach to congregational leadership because they do not take the time to unpack the theory in its entirety. Thankfully, Reeves’ book does not fall into this category.
Reeves clearly states that he is offering insight into congregational leadership that is only guided by systems theory, and this is evident in the book. Useful ideas from Family Systems Theory are highlighted (triangles, differentiation of self, the challenge and reward of learning to see the system as a whole versus an individual perspective) and their practical application to church life offered. Throughout the book, Reeves manages to walk the thin line between offering too shallow an explanation or one that is too in-depth to maintain the attention of someone who may be new to systems ideas. This is not easily done, and there were numerous places in the book where Reeves’ insights were useful in helping me see situations in my own context in a better way. Specifically, the chapters on diagnosis, change and preaching are excellent portals for helping a minister shift perspective around some of the more challenging aspects of congregational life.
What could have benefited this book would have been more emphasis on the essential tenet of Family Systems Theory, which states that work toward differentiation must involve direct engagement with one’s own family of origin. I was surprised Reeves did not mention this in his chapter, “Working on Yourself,” as that would be the most natural place to include it. The serious student of Family Systems Theory will know that no effort toward differentiation within one’s congregation is lasting without connecting it back to the minister’s family. This is an unfortunate oversight and the chapter on “Working on Yourself,” tends to focus on more on the routine ideas of self-care as opposed to truly working on self.
Nonetheless, readers interested in learning more about systems thinking will find in this book a helpful primer by which they can begin to play with systems ideas in their work and, if interested, start to explore them in more depth by reading the works of Bowen or Rabbi Edwin Friedman. The practical tips, real-life examples and ability of Reeves to get outside of his own systems enough to provide clear thinking about them can be a very useful tool in helping any reader of his book to do the same.
Erin Keys is the minister of Capitol Hill Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.