Addressing the Symptoms: Family Systems Theory in Church Process

Mark Tidsworth
Pinnacle President

Have you been trained in Family Systems Theory applied to church process yet? Many church professionals are looking through the Systems lens to accurately understand concerns and challenges in congregations, intervening in effective ways. We are grateful for those interim pastors, consultants, coaches, and denominational ministers who are working this way, raising the likelihood of fruitful ministry in congregations. One the other hand, we regret that we are receiving too many calls regarding lingering issues which church professionals did not address during the opportune time, leading to painful fallout. Certainly, working from a Family Systems perspective may be more difficult in the moment. Yet, this approach yields greater harvest for the kingdom over time. Perhaps an illustration will help.

Early in my consulting work, I was delighted with an invitation to consider a consulting project with a well-known church in its denomination. After talking by phone with a couple leaders, an initial meeting was arranged. They were in an interim time, with a fine traditional interim pastor in place. There previous pastor and associates left due to conflict and they wanted to move beyond that experience. Their presenting concern was the choir. These church leaders described the choir as acting-out, running-off one new director after another. They described them as being a unit unto themselves; having gone rogue, so to speak. They wanted me (consultant) to meet with their choir, working through these problematic issues. I listened, floated potential ways we might do this work, and left the meeting promising to send a proposal for working together, pleased at the opportunity to work with an interesting church.

Later, while discussing this congregation with my colleagues in consultation, Family Systems oriented questions rose to the surface. What is it about their relational system that allows the choir to go rogue? What’s the role of leadership in this congregation? What are the operational unspoken rules that create an environment wherein this can happen? Asking these questions led me to several conclusions. The choir was not asking for help, believing they were just fine. Consulting with them would be like court-ordered counseling, rarely helpful until the client believes he/she has a problem. And, why did this church need an outsider to address its concerns? I could be the heavy handed outsider called in to get the choir in shape, but the same dynamics which allowed them to function this way would remain.

So, my proposal to church leadership was essentially a proposal for me to work with them; church leaders, on finding their voice and developing leadership capacity. Since leadership was not being exercised by the leaders, leadership was rising up elsewhere. Leadership always happens in congregations….from someone and somewhere. Unfortunately, these congregational leaders responded with a “No Thanks,” response. Over time, they continued a downward slide with plenty of conflict, preferring their familiar operating and relational system over systemic change. Though this is a negative example, it illustrates the need for a systemic approach to church process.

There are some excellent training programs in Family Systems Theory as applied to church process. If you are in church leadership, we recommend you take one in. May we be effective stewards of the leadership opportunities placed before us in God’s vineyard.