What books do people who use Bowen Family Systems Theory as a framework for congregational leadership recommend? To find out, I reached out to authors, teachers and coaches who work with clergy and congregations. Below is an interesting list of books that touch on Bowen Theory and systems thinking. What books would you add to the list?
Rev. Richard Blackburn – Executive Director, Lombard Mennonite Peace Center
A key recommended resource for clergy who are committed to managing self in the midst of congregational anxieties would be Differentiation of Self: Bowen Family Systems Theory Perspectives, edited by Peter Titelman. The book assembles a stellar array of essays, by some of the top Bowen theory practitioners, illuminating the cornerstone concept of systems thinking. The book is valuable for clergy and other leaders who have found family systems theory to be a reliable compass for navigating the challenges of family, congregational and organizational life in these increasingly anxious times. It is essential reading for all who want to deepen their understanding of the concept of differentiation, as a foundation for staying on course in the ongoing effort to be true to self, while honoring others.
Larry L. Foster, MA, D.Min. – Retired Pastor and Current Curriculum and Development Coordinator for ELCA Systems Academy
Around the time Dr. Murray Bowen was doing his research (1954-1959), Eric Hoffer, an intellectual stevedore, who worked on the docks of San Francisco, wrote his classic book, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements, which could be considered a kind of precursor (or observational intellectual parallel) to observing societal movements as they occur over time.
Hoffer offers some psychological analysis behind the phenomena of mass movements (or shifts in society), leadership and the emotional forces at work in shaping social structures and processes. While not seeking a “science of human behavior,” he provides a larger picture of social phenomena around the same time Bowen and others researched the puzzle of living relationships. According to Hoffer, in his famous “social psychology” book, persons of words and persons of action can be persuasive as well as coercive in starting a movement for good or ill. He discusses fanaticism and extremes in societal causes. With strong argument and observation, he describes the conditions that have led to major oppressive mass movements. People who are frustrated, angry, self-rejecting and empty are set up to latch onto a group or organization that is “beyond themselves.” This involves rejecting the current state of affairs, remembering a better past and looking for a better future. People who are frustrated that society is struck, messy and without purpose follow those who blame the leaders and institutions that are in place. In his descriptions, he references major historical movements such as Christianity, communism, Judaism, fascism and others that spiked in dominance over the centuries.
“The situation is not unlike that observed in children and undifferentiated adults where the lack of a distinct individuality leaves the mind without the guards against the intrusion of influences from without.” “The go-getter and the hustler have much in them that is abortive and undifferentiated. One is never really stripped for action unless one is stripped of a distinct and differentiated self.” On the other hand, he writes, “It is strange to think that in the Judaic-Christian movement for the malady of the soul the world received a miraculous instrument for raising societies and nations from the dead—an instrument of resurrection.”
Eric Hoffer became an observer and participant emerging at an interesting juxtaposition in time with other “larger picture people,” researching human functioning following World War Two and the beginning of the atomic age.
The Rev. Carol P. Jeunnette, Ph.D.
The focus of Dr. Jenny Brown’s book, Growing Yourself Up: How to bring your best to all of life's relationships, is clear from beginning to end. It is about growing one’s self up: what it looks like, what it takes and what makes the slow process so challenging and yet so important. It isn’t about helping others to grow up, although that might happen as a by-product when one grows one’s self up. Although Dr. Brown’s thinking is rooted in Bowen Family Systems Theory, it is less about Bowen theory and more about working on one’s own maturity.
The first part of Growing Yourself Up lays the groundwork for understanding the relationship foundations of adult maturity. By the end of Part I, readers have been introduced to the central ideas of Bowen theory through client vignettes, personal examples and approachable writing. Part 2 considers maturity for the first half of adult life: leaving home, the single young adult, marriage, sex, and parenting. Parts 3 and 4 look beyond family, and addresses maturity in the face of setbacks. Part 5 focuses on maturity in the second half of life, and Part 6 moves toward questions of helping others and the larger society. Although the volume is not written for clergy and congregations, Dr. Brown addresses the importance of spirituality and is clear about her own beliefs and principles.
Each chapter ends with reflection questions, and the end of the book itself has seven appendices. These include additional material on connection and separateness, guiding principles, the continuum of differentiation of self, family diagrams and Biblical reflections on relationships.
Growing Yourself Up is a great introduction to the way of understanding human behavior developed by Murray Bowen. After re-reading it, I have been putting together a list of people to whom I want to send it, and I’m considering purchasing three or four additional copies to have on my bookshelf in the office at church. However, I’m thinking that if I hand it out to everyone, I will miss the point. Perhaps others would be better served if I spent time working through those reflection questions, thinking about my own relationship system and most of all about my own maturity, immaturity and work on self. Hmmm….
Emlyn Ott - Executive Director and CEO, Healthy Congregations, Inc., Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology and Leadership; Director of Doctor of Ministry Programs at Bexley Seabury Seminary, and Affiliated Faculty, Methodist Theological School in Ohio
Margaret Marcuson has put together a thoughtful piece that clearly demonstrates the circumstances that clergy face in Leaders Who Last: Sustaining Yourself and Your Ministry. She shares situations that are clearly recognizable for clergy leadership. She both frames questions and encourages the development of curiosity in a way that is firmly centered in differentiation of self. She provides understanding, thinking and practice that contributes to the evolution of both basic and functional self capacities. I like to use basic books about theory (Gilbert, Papero, Richardson) in pastoral care classes that I teach in the first or second year of seminary, but I think of Dr. Marcuson's work as a great addition for the last year of seminary where fieldwork has been a part of the experience. Her work resonates with those who are new to ministry or who desire a fresh perspective on continuing experiences.
Ron Richardson – Author, Retired Pastoral Counselor, and Marriage and Family Therapist
I strongly recommend Dr. Murray Bowen's book Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. It is sort of the Bible of the theory. It is not an easy book to read, and most people do not have the patience to read all of it. If one is a dedicated reader, then it would be interesting to read the chapters in it in the order of their original publication. I did this to get a sense of how Bowen's thinking developed from standard psychoanalytic thinking (which was also my original training) to a full statement of his own theory. However, if one is motivated only to read a few chapters, then I recommend Chapters 16, 20, 21, and 22. There are many interpreters of Bowen theory (like myself), but it is always best to study directly his own words and thinking. This will give insights and nuances that many interpreters may miss. In reading these chapters, the key for church leaders is to replace the word "family" (and its cognates) with the word "congregation." Similar transpositions (like "pastor" in place of "therapist") would also make the theory more relevant. Because Bowen's theory is about human beings in their relationships, and not just the specialized world of psychotherapy, it is relatively easy to see how his work applies to us in the church. I regularly re-read this book. I always get new insights with each reading.