July 10, 2017—The Center for Lifelong Learning (CLL) offers the Leadership in Ministry (LIM) workshops as part of its Pastoral Excellence Programs. LIM uses Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) as a theory of practice for ministry leadership. Rebecca Maccini serves on the faculty of LIM at the Atlanta site. Rev. Maccini shares her thoughts about BFST and ministry leadership.
CLL: At what point in your ministry did BFST become a significant part of how you approach ministry, interpret context, and use as a personal resource?
Maccini: I began ministry in the U.S. in 1993 and was introduced to BFST through listening to Larry Matthews [founder of LIM) on a cassette tape from an ABC presentation in 1996. I began to use BFST in 1999 when LIM began in New England. It took a number of years to grasp what it was about, and to learn to use it more wisely, rather than using it as an excuse to blame others or a ‘dysfunctional system.’
I have been in LIM in New England since its beginning. I find the workshops encouraging and always bring new thoughts. I go back to notes from the LIM workshops often. I have found the church books that use BFST extremely helpful. I have read the Review and Expositor issue several times. I think about theory as I prepare a sermon. The mental construct of pastor-congregation member-text triangle is essential to my preparation. Through the conference of my denomination, I led a group of clergy for several years using BFST as the basis for the group. This was a growth experience for me and keeps me excited about ministry and probably helps me stay where I am.
CLL: In terms of your current ministry setting, to what extent did BFST aid in being able to remain in place for a long tenure?
Maccini: I am fortunate to be in a very positive ministry, a ‘plum’ as Edwin Friedman might put it. I have done my best to use BFST during the challenging times and the times when conflict has arisen. I have also grown in emotional maturity and I credit learning about triangles, multi-generational family process, reactivity, and emotional process as giving me very good tools for my own personal growth. I think that if one can get clear about what are a pastor’s responsibilities and what are a congregation’s responsibilities and also learn to be more flexible and light, it goes a long way toward being able to remain in a pastorate for a longer period of time.
CLL: Which concept in BFST would you say have been the most helpful in navigating a long pastoral tenure for you?
Maccini: I think differentiation of self. I choose this one as I recall a powerful example occurred early on when I first learned Bowen theory. My husband and I were co-pastors at the time. The matriarch of the church died. She was also the matriarch of the town and her sons and daughters considered both their parents (their dad had died about 10 years before) valuable citizens of the area.
The eldest daughter, who had come from across country when her mother was dying, yelled at one of my husband in the hospital, telling him that he wouldn’t have his job without her mother’s support and that he never realized how sick her mother was. He let her vent and did not say much back with her except that he was sorry about her mother’s mortal illness. When it came to planning the funeral, the daughter met with me, and I recognized that this family was full of anxiety and intensity and that there was much more going on that what was on the surface. I spent four hours with the daughter planning for the funeral, basically being present to her. Plans that were made at that meeting were later canceled by the daughter, and the daughter claimed that I had made a promise to her during the meeting that I didn’t keep. (I experienced this as sabotage.) It seemed like an act of will for both co-pastors to stick to our vision– to provide a meaningful memorial service for the congregation and the community for a church member for whom we greatly respected. Keeping in mind that there was enormous anxiety in the family and that the eldest daughter was the primary one reacting to the anxiety was important to help us, the co-pastors, keep focused on our job and goal, to provide a meaningful service. A year later, the eldest daughter came to us and apologized for her behavior around the time of her mother’s death.
CLL: Can you describe how you perceive BFST to have been a resource for you as a pastor?. In what ways has the theory been helpful? How do you make use of it? How does it make a difference?
Maccini: BFST gives me a great lens to look at what is happening around me. When there is conflict, I ask questions about Why now? Has there been a change and anxiety is on the rise? Are homeostatic forces in play? When times of anxiety arise and crazy things happen, I expect them and do not over react to them. I most often seek to get clarity when conflict occurs or when something happens that I feel extremely strong about (reactive), I use the constructs of the theory to think about my own reactions. I also believe that through BFST I have learned to ‘hang in there.’ I take time to observe, process, and recognize that change does not happen immediately and that people need time also to think about what is going on around them. I intentionally tell church leaders what I see happening more so that my perspective as leader is in the works.
CLL: What other thoughts do you have about the idea that BFST can be a resource for pastoral leadership.
Maccini: I love the idea of BFST as a resource for long-term pastoral leadership. From my experience, one has to be engaged in BFST for a long time before one can get benefit from engaging with the theory. Also, my real interest in the theory came when I embarked on an incredibly challenging parenting experience. That is what cast me into the theory in a real way. It was, for me, engage with the theory or go down with the ship because I needed a good lens to look at what was going on in my family. After six years of engaging with the theory, I began what is my long term pastorate and I believe that BFST has helped me to remain in this pastorate because I have been able to be lighter in and about ministry, but I may be wrong because I do believe that this church is a ‘plum’ church in so many ways.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry workshops in four locations: Atlanta, Boston, Portland OR, and West Virginia. To learn more about the Leadership in Ministry workshops click on the link.