The bind of courage: Family systems theory for church leaders

In the tradition of Murray Bowen’s systems theory, Peter Steinke authored “Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What.”

Bowen believed that human beings possess the capacity, in varying degrees, to differentiate — an innate and evolving drive to become distinct, mature, balanced selves, sufficiently separate, while simultaneously remaining healthily connected to one’s families of origin and others. Steinke’s book rightly focuses on how the leaders’ being (how they function in anxious times) can, at its best, inspire a system to think and behave more maturely — or, at its worst, infect it with paralyzing fear. Steinke reminds us that although anxiety is contagious, so is calm, mature leadership. A system can “catch” either one from its leader. Edwin Friedman, rabbi, family therapist and author of “A Failure of Nerve,” aptly notes, “a body follows its head.”

This article explores the relationship between family systems theory and courage because we live in remarkably anxious times and need a word to guide us.

Understanding courage

One way to define courage is: to act bravely in the face of threats and fear, or despite dangerous consequences. Therein lies the rub — by definition, acting courageously involves dangerous consequences. Without real threats or danger, it isn’t courage.

One of the most disappointing things about human beings is our reluctance to get involved, even when justice is at stake — or maybe especially when justice is at stake. I’ve moderated session meetings where elders ordained to vote their conscience remained resolutely quiet because they didn’t want to challenge a gratuitous idea promulgated by the congregation’s largest donor. I’ve witnessed junior faculty members abrogate their voice in faculty meetings because they had not yet been granted tenure. I have seen pastors wither when asked to question or report unethical actions of powerful ecclesial leaders because they feared reprisal. We have all witnessed this bind in others and experienced its piercing grip on our own consciences. Have we not all wrestled with this question: I want to do the right thing, but what will it cost me?

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote of costly grace in “The Cost of Discipleship,” he was not writing in perfunctory platitudes. Against the roiling advice of his friends, he returned to Nazi Germany — directly into the ominous storm of deadly danger, threats and consequences. His courage cost him his life. More recently, Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny has demonstrated similar courage and resolve. Both men knew that in order to change a system, they must function courageously within that system — being calm and courageous no matter what.

A third example of a leader who paid the cost of courage is Martin Luther King Jr. On January 30, 1956, in retaliation for the success of the Montgomery bus boycott in Alabama, violent segregationists bombed King’s house while his wife and children were home. It’s one thing to lead a social justice movement that rocks the boat and puts oneself in harm’s way — it’s entirely another, however, when your spouse and children become targets. Even the most emboldened cause-fighters would ponder if it is worth going forward. Yet King remained resolute.

The bind of courage

As I watched the trial of the officer found responsible for the death of George Floyd, what I call the “bind of courage” surfaced repeatedly. As concerned bystanders witnessed the life literally drain out of Floyd, they tried to persuade the coterie of officers to let him up. Some spoke more boldly than others; all felt some degree of helplessness due to the power differential. All expressed some degree of subjunctive angst: they wish they could have – and felt they should have – done more. They understood intuitively that “the system” threatened them from doing more. Many acquiesced, remaining on the sidewalk as instructed, and resolved simply to record the unfathomable, nefarious event on their cellphones with despair and regret in their hearts. Sadly, these flummoxed and brokenhearted citizens will never be the same. How could anyone witness what they saw and not be forever haunted — not just by witnessing a senseless, unjust death, but by eternally wondering: “Could I have done more?” How does one ever mollify or heal such nagging ruminations?

There is an inseparable relationship between Bowenian family systems theory and courage. The intrinsic link is clear when you understand Bowen’s concept of differentiation of self, which he sees as synonymous with human maturity. Mature people are brave people that can define themselves clearly and take a stand.

Differentiation of self

In “Family Therapy in Clinical Practice,” Bowen articulates differentiation of self in two distinct ways: internally and externally. Differentiation within oneself, is the capacity to manage the emotional and thinking world within oneself as one matures. And, differentiation outside of oneself involves managing the delicate dance of external relationships with other persons. In other words, in order for persons to act and think maturely in relationships, they must be mature in their inner selves, and vice versa. It would be incongruous if an internally immature person was very mature in relating to others.

Of differentiation of self, Bowen writes: “It defines all people, from the lowest to the highest possible level of human functioning, according to a single common denominator. This has to do with how the human handles the intermix between emotional and intellectual functioning. At the highest level are those with the most ‘differentiation’ between emotional and intellectual functioning.”

Bowen understood highly differentiated persons as possessing certain capacities. They have the capacity to:

  • Define one’s basic self clearly.
  • Take a stand.
  • Manage anxiety nonreactively (possess emotional objectivity, without defending or counterattacking).
  • Think rationally rather than respond reactively.
  • Make decisions based on well-defined principles.
  • Monitor, regulate and modify one’s own function maturely (be self-focused rather than other-focused
    and non-blaming).
  • Stay connected or related to all (but especially key) persons in the system.
  • Maintain healthy, separate boundaries.
  • Maintain healthy, balanced functioning in the system.
  • Maintain person-to-person relationships.
  • De-triangle (not get hooked into the emotional fields of others).
  • Employ an element of surprise when defining self or taking a stand.
  • Resist promoting, facilitating, advancing and maintaining secrets.

So, what does differentiation of self have to do with courage? Everything! All of these capacities require a high degree of tenacious courage.

 Bowen’s 13 capacities of differentiation of self have served me well as helpful guideposts since I first memorized them over 20 years ago. I routinely employ them as self-accountability lenses when faced with difficult decisions — especially ones that demand courage. Turning them into provocative questions is prophetic. In this situation, what would it look like to:

  • Clearly define myself?
  • Take a stand?
  • Manage my anxiety calmly?
  • Make a decision based on ethical or moral principles?
  • Maturely regulate my functioning?
  • Try to stay connected to all in the system?
  • Maintain appropriate and healthy boundaries?
  • Refrain from either under-functioning or over-functioning?
  • Maintain person-to-person relationships?
  • Intentionally avoid unhealthy triangles?
  • Refuse to participate in destructive secrets?

When processing each of these questions thoughtfully, one can actually feel the bind of courage. Being true to ourselves and true to our core values will always pinch and cost us something. Are we willing to pay the price?

According to Bowen, courage is demonstrated in various and sometimes paradoxical ways. There is the courage to:

  1. Take a principled stand;
  2. Step back from the fray;
  3. Disturb and disrupt;
  4. Forego a quick fix and seek adaptive interventions;
  5. Remain open and vulnerable;
  6. Care;
  7. Sense sabotage and withstand systemic resistance;
  8. Engage in the fight;
  9. Go to the fight but remain quiet;
  10. Or not go to the fight at all.

Remaining calm and nonreactive equips us to make well-reasoned choices.

Case study: Fear and courage

In seminary, I worked as an emergency room crisis counselor. Many of the persons I evaluated were brought in by the police. These persons were often agitated, on drugs, or unhappy about requiring a psychiatric evaluation. We crisis counselors depended on the police to protect us from volatile patients.

There was a young Black man who routinely hung around the ER and was a regular at the crisis center. I never had any problems with him, but I know the hospital security and local police found him annoying. One night as I was leaving work, I heard a disturbance under a stairwell and investigated. Several officers were holding his arms behind his back, and appeared to be hurting him. They were encouraging him to stay away from the hospital in the future.

I sheepishly spoke up, asking: “What’s going on here?”

“This is none of your concern, counselor. You best move on.”

“But he’s in pain. Don’t hurt him,” I retorted.

“Be on your way counselor!”

As I reluctantly walked away, I heard cries for help and painful moans from what sounded like fists hitting flesh that gnawed at my conscience. I turned to go back, but hesitantly paused for a moment, caught in the bind of courage. I eventually acquiesced to the fear that was twisting my gut into knots. I felt horrible, but not horrible enough to muster up the courage to take a stand. I got to the parking lot and felt sick. Although that happened over 40 years ago, as I write these words, the nausea is back. That feckless moment changed my life. I vowed that I would never be that pusillanimous again. For the most part, I have diligently kept that vow. I am different today — hopefully possessing higher levels of differentiation and therefore more courage to be my authentic self.

The cost of being calm

In “Let Your Life Speak,” Parker Palmer writes: “What a long time it can take to become the person one has always been! How often in the process we mask ourselves in faces that are not our own. How much dissolving and shaking of ego we must endure before we discover our deep identity — the true self within every human being?” I am now more the person I have always been. Not finished yet, but on my way.

 The George Floyd cases of the world, however, have exposed a potential flaw in being calm and courageous no matter what. As I watched the bystanders dutifully remain on the sidewalk, acquiescing to formidable systemic forces, I wondered if not being calm could have saved Floyd’s life. One brave citizen actually had the courage to call the police on the police, but Floyd still died. It wasn’t enough.

I wonder what would have happened if the calm bystanders actually became a righteous mob and more forcefully challenged the police. Sadly, however, history has taught us that all systems, but especially recalcitrant ones, seldom change with mere calm.

We’ll never know, of course, but more forcefulness may have predictably escalated the systemic anxiety and violence, and more people could have been arrested, injured or killed.

This is why the bind of courage is so complicated. In the moment of decision it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to know precisely what to do or how to calculate the consequences. Floyd was not the only soul abused and tortured that day. Every concerned bystander who watched in abject horror, caught between their nagging conscience and their paralyzing fear, was forever scarred.

How we respond to fear and consequences is a window into our authentic self. Being true to our core values will awaken the bind of courage.

David Lee Jones is affiliate professor of pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Nashotah, Wisconsin.