By Joey Olson
I was a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church and have studied Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) since 1990 when I heard Ed Friedman present his work at a Minister’s Week at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas. There were times when I am referred to by the cabinet as “the D. S. who knows family systems.” If you listen closely to what is said and not said in this statement, you hear that it can be blessing and curse. Recently, I was asked by a colleague to do a presentation on family system thinking at a district training day.
The title of my presentation was the same as this article. Early in the presentation, I asked how many had read “The Bridge” from Friedman’s Fables. I was surprised to learn that out of 22 participants only one knew the story. When I asked for feedback on the fable after I read it, some were already beginning to think about their own family. One woman said, “Well, it’s my family. My mother is dying and I am the oldest and I am doing it all.”
While a member of Edwin Friedman’s seminar in Bethesda, Maryland, I presented my family genogram and related it to Bowen’s eight concepts of family system theory. Of the eight concepts, the three that seemed to evoke the most discussion from this group of pastor’s and lay people were: differentiation of self, triangles, and emotional cutoff.
The key to the discussion of differentiation of self was Friedman’s statement: “Differentiation means the capacity of a family member to define his or her own life’s goals and values apart from surrounding togetherness pressures, to say “I” when others are demanding ‘you’ and ‘we’.” The discussion of triangles in church systems opened doors for clergy and lay to continue to become aware of communication patterns that can lead to dysfunction and stuck ness. The subject of cut-off began with discussion of individual family members and led to insights about the need of leaders to be connected.
Why present Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) at a church workshop? I have asked myself this question as I struggle to find ways to communicate the theory in meaningful ways. One answer to the question came as I was conducting a supervisory session with a pastor that seemed to be getting ‘nowhere.’ As this pastor sidestepped issues, I asked him how he dealt with his family of origin issues. His response was that he didn’t have a clue to what I was referring. I later mentioned that interchange to the president of a United Methodist seminary I was visiting. Her response was that she didn’t think their students graduated with adequate appreciation of the importance for ministry of insight into one’s family of origin.
I have come to value the journey into my own family of origin and the lessons I learn in my continuing study of BFST. More than just a tool in my toolbox, it is a framework for viewing life that reveals a world filled with adventure and full of surprises. One evaluation that I received from the recent training day was: “I feel like I have been given a treasure box.” A willingness to begin the work of family exploration is a treasure indeed.
Joey Olson was formerly a District Superintendent in the United Methodist Church before moving back into pastoral ministry. She was long-time member of the Colorado Springs Leadership in Ministry workshop. This review was originally published in the LIM newsletter summer 2008.
The Center for Lifelong Learning offers the Leadership in Ministry Workshops. Information and registration for the next Leadership in Ministry Workshops at the Center for Lifelong Learning can be found on the “Courses and Events” listing.