Let’s be honest. Nothing is working like it used to. In the Christian faith, clergy and their supervisors are desperate to get people back into worship. A little history might be useful.
I went to college in the late 80’s, and after discerning a call to ministry, I headed right to seminary. While I was in school for those seven years, "church" began to look different; reflecting some of the cultural changes that started in the 60’s and 70’s.
One example is contemporary worship. Thanks to the glorious success of places like Willow Creek, baby boomers were flocking to contemporary services. My training in contemporary worship came, not in seminary, but later while serving a congregation who took up an interest in it. I have nothing against my formal training. Most of it was good.
Around the time I graduated seminary, denominational leaders were starting to wake up to the fact that declining membership numbers were not turning around. The solution was to introduce every four years a new conference-wide program to address the decline. In fact, I can’t remember at a time in my career that we weren’t trying to address the decline.
As far as I can tell, the response has been rooted in anxiety; a fear based response. It’s difficult to know what is driving the decline today: shifting cultural dynamics, or an anxious church. There is a difference. The former is a problem to be solved. The latter is a self-fulling prophesy. Anxiety has a way of making our perceived fears come true.
Our inability to reverse the decline has not been from a lack of trying. My goodness! We have tried all kinds of things. We brought in this consultant, and that consultant, and introduced this program, and that program, and offered this training, and that training. There was a time when local congregations could make money if they were attracting new members. If a congregation was having success, they simply organized a conference on site and congregations from all over the world would flock to find out how they did it. While there are a few places that continue to offer this model of "what works for us", it does not work for everyone else.
The problem was implementation. You can’t take what works in one congregation and transfer it to another. The ideas and concepts did transfer, but the results did not. This approach had its roots in the franchise business model. Not unlike McDonald's where you can set up a franchise anywhere and guaranty customers the same experience and results in every location. The latest craze is the satellite church model where you try to reproduce what you do in multiple sights. This works if everyone is being directed by the mother ship. And, to be fair, while those who lead the training I attended over the years never explicitly said they wanted us to reproduce their success, those who attended did make a go of it.
The effort to embrace developing business models geared towards consumerism missed the fact that our biggest commodity is relationships. What every congregation offers is a transformed life rooted in relationships. In our pursuit of anything that will work, we were blind to the relationship process of human behavior and failed to train our leaders in the developing, scientific research. We weren't able to see at the time that the content we were trying to implement was being undermined by an emotional process.
After completing seminary, I was excited to be ordained and felt ready to lead and develop congregational life. I began introducing new ideas and worked to foster creativity in the congregation. It became clear that I was spending more time addressing challenging behavior then I was implementing new ideas. It was as if there was a connection between my pursuit of implementing change through new ideas and the reactivity I received from certain members of the congregation. I was clearly missing something, and I needed a framework for thinking about it.
I attended a conference back in the mid 90’s that helped me transform my leadership. The presenter said, “Good leadership rises above the anxiety of the group.” I’ll never forget it. I wrote that sentence down and taped it to the dashboard of my car! That presenter was Rev. Peter Steinke and what he was teaching was a systems model of human behavior. It had its roots in Bowen Family Systems Theory.
Bowen Theory (its shorter title) is a theory of human behavior. The concepts are based on the family as an emotional unit. Each person plays their part, but the family operates as a whole. If you want to understand the behavior of one person, you look at the relationship system. People like Pete, who studied Dr. Murray Bowen's ideas, began to realize that the same concepts that applied to families applied to other relationship systems, like the church (which is usually made up of families). Sometimes the problems people are having with family members spill over to their relationships in the church, or the school, or the government, or any other social agency. Leaders of these institutions become the lightning rod of an anxious, relationship process.
I’ve spent almost 20 years researching Bowen Family Systems Theory. For me, it provides a way to think about congregations. It just makes sense. If the church is ever going to be vibrant, it will need to think systems. Understanding behavior in the context of relationship systems is what leaders will need to do to be successful in their calling. So, instead of complaining about the state of the church and the decline of mainline congregations, I decided to do something about it.
For the past two years, I’ve offered a program called Clergy Consultation Group. Once a month I teach the basic concepts of Bowen Theory and help participants learn how to apply it to the congregation, and yes, even the family.
This fall I will be offering the program again. This time, I’m excited to announce that there will be two options: an in-person option and, new this year, an online option. In both options, the program is offered for 2 ½ hours once a month. Most of the time is spent with me teaching one of the eight concepts of Bowen Theory. Each month, one participant will have the opportunity to apply the theory either to their congregation or family.
What can you hope to gain from this program? The answer comes from Dr. Murray Bowen who developed the theory. I’ve reworked the word "family" and applied the quote to congregations. The meaning remains:
A congregational leader is someone who has “the courage to define self, who is invested in the welfare of the [congregation] as in self, who is neither angry or dogmatic, whose energy goes to changing self rather than telling others what they should do, who can know and respect the multiple opinions of others, who can modify self in response to the strengths of the group, and who is not influenced by the irresponsible opinions of others. . . [A leader] automatically generates mature leadership qualities in other[s] who are to follow.” Family Evaluation, 342-3
To register for the Clergy Consultation Group or to learn more, go to https://www.thecenterforfamilyconsultation.com/programs/clergy-consultation-group/