Living out of both a theoretical and theological mindset is a challenge. There is always a risk involved. But there are also benefits. Theory together with theology, describing human behavior, help us move towards a unified understanding of the human condition. The rewards are great for the individual who can expand their appreciation for the cosmos. In my experience, many people who are theoretically minded appreciate the insights of theology, and those who are theologically minded appreciate the insights of theory. In either case, the rewards are for the individual who can learn to define a self to important others as they continue to ask questions and expand their view of the universe.
The application of Bowen Theory to congregational life.
Beliefs and Anxiety. My first real effort at learning Bowen Theory was in 2003 at a clinic for clergy. The facilitator encouraged each of us to work on defining a self in our congregations. At the time, I identified a particular belief I perceived to be different from the congregation. While I was intrigued by the idea of carving out a self in the midst of the congregation, at the time, the perceived cost was overwhelming. Articulating a belief to those who disagree is an emotional challenge. I would soon discover that becoming untangled with those who agree with me is also an emotional challenge. This opportunity introduced me to the interplay between beliefs and anxiety. Our automatic responses to anxiety determine our behavior (what we say or don’t say, do or don’t do). For those who are struggling to articulate a theological belief which is different from important others, Bowen Theory offers a way to think about moving forward.
It’s not personal. Bowen Theory has helped me learn not to take it personally when others are upset with me. It’s also helped me learn not to take it personally when people love me. The truth is, how we behave towards each other has to do with the relationship system. There is strong scientific evidence pointing to feelings being the result of a chemical process in the brain and body. They come and go. Sacred texts teach believers how to engage in more thoughtful ways to others; a more principle-based and less reactive response. Core values give us more options to our automatic urges. Bowen Theory provides a unique way of understanding this process through the concept of triangles. As people shift in the triangles in response to anxiety, the positive and negative variances we develop for each other are the results of reactivity. It’s really about individuals who are committed to being the best self they can be in relationship to others. I think there is space in most religions to help people be their best self by using both a theory like Bowen’s and their own theological values and beliefs.
Keep calm and blame. I wrote an article a couple of years ago for Family Systems Forum on how blame functions in a relationship system. When we blame, we single out specific individuals and identifying them as the problem. When we blame, we sluff off any responsibility we have concerning the problem. For blame to work, you need a triangle: you need one person who is willing to accept the label of scapegoat and then two additional people who agree to blame the third person. In the Christian tradition, Jesus commented on how easy it is to see the speck of dust in the other person’s eye and how difficult it is to see the giant redwood in our own eye. Good leadership works on changing self, not others.
When is helping not really helping? With his concept of the emotional process, Bowen identified four mechanisms for managing anxiety. The “dysfunction of a spouse” reveals how two people can get caught stuck in the position of under-functioning and over-functioning. It’s reciprocal, so the one who is over-functioning will keep it up as long as the one who is under functioning allows it and vice versa. When it comes to helping others, when is helping not really helping? In what ways do we undermine others by doing for them what they can do for themselves? How do we know when we are over or under-functioning? People of faith are called to serve others. Bowen Theory provides a way to think about this reality.
Thinking Congregations. In a way, this blog serves as a weekly opportunity to think about the interplay between theology, theory, and application. In some ways, it assumes a greater knowledge of theology and a lesser knowledge of theory. This is why I focus on theory more than theology. It’s my hope that congregational leaders bring to this blog their own theology and work to apply theory to it.
What needs to be researched?
Theories need to be proven. Bowen Theory is no exception. It requires researchers like you and me to run experiments in our families and congregations that are reproducible. Here are samples of the experiments I’d like to run:
- Dr. Murray Bowen describes in his writings the concept of differentiation of self and then develops a scale of differentiation. Every human being can be placed somewhere on this continuum of basic human functioning. Furthermore, he suggests that couples marry at the same basic level on the scale. Does this also apply to congregations? Do congregations attract and retain individuals based on a level of differentiation? Do leaders in a particular congregation have a similar level of differentiation? Or is it possible to have a congregation and leadership with a range of basic level of differentiation? How would one measure this?
- If human beings are as predictable in their behavior, is it possible for a leader to accurately predict how individuals in the congregation will respond to change? If the answer is yes, then a leader would be able to strategize how to respond to the reactivity of the congregation as individuals respond to change. If this is possible, which I believe it is, seminaries and other training programs can better equip leaders to understand the emotional process of change.
- When we talk about congregational growth and decline, what forces are at work? In what ways do the forces for togetherness help to increase or decrease congregational size? When we talk about building a community, is there room for individuality and if so, does the force for individuality help congregations to grow?
- What role do regional organizations play in the health of a local congregation? How do they influence the relationship systems in local congregations in positive and negative ways? In what way does the functional level of a regional officer help or hinder a congregation? From a systems perspective, how would one measure the effectiveness and the difference?
- I recently heard about a study where neuroscientist looked at the effects of different teaching styles on students. They placed specially designed wristbands on each of the students to measure their skin/sweat response as well as their pulse. As the teacher went through their presentation, the researchers used the wristbands to monitor each student to see which methods were useful and which were problematic. Theoretically, learning decreases as stress increases. Wouldn’t it be fascinating to do this study for clergy? Think of the knowledge clergy could gain about what the congregation is up against when listening to them. Even better, clergy could run this experiment at Thanksgiving when their family gathers around the table!
- Dr. Bowen believed leaders are most effective when they are emotionally neutral. To what extent do staff do better in a congregation when a congregational leader is emotional neutral? How would one test this theory? How can emotional neutrality be measured? If Bowen is accurate, and I think he is, it offers another way of training clergy to be more effective as they work on increasing their basic level of differentiation. I believe this is an idea worth exploring.
What other experiments are you interested in? What experiments have you run? In what other ways is Bowen Theory useful to you as a congregational leader? Please include your thinking below in the comment section.