By Robert L. Dibble
October 5, 2015—In 1996, Fortress Press published one of the more helpful resources in examining positive congregational relationships and the overall quality of church life, namely, Ronald W. Richardson’s Creating a Healthier Church. His application of Bowen family systems theory to congregational life enormously clarified emotional processes on the order of Edwin Friedman’s Generation to Generation (Gilford Press, 1985) and Roberta Gilbert’s Extraordinary Relationships (Wiley, 1992). Thankfully, all of these fine works are getting increasing use in seminaries to train and equip ministers for more effective church ministry.
Richardson’s companion book to the Becoming a Healthier Church is Becoming a Healthier Pastor (Fortress Press, 2005). Here again, he employs the same family systems theory to address the roots of personal issues that may hinder a pastor’s ability to function effectively as a leader within his/her congregation. The two chapters that comprise Part One address these issues and the difficulties common to them. Part Two is the heart of the book in which Richardson addresses the pastor’s own family of origin, a major but often hidden component in how one functions emotionally. For when anxiety rises, unresolved familial issues and old family patterns of functioning return, often unhelpfully. Richardson explores these patterns, how they operate in church situations, and how pastors can do their own family-of-origin assessment.
Our experiences in our families of origin have a large effect on who we are and how we function relationally as individuals and as ministers. In using personal examples from his own family, Richardson is frank about the challenges involved in doing this kind of work and discusses important issues and obstacles inherent in it. Another important contribution of the book is his attention to the process of self-differentiation, as well as how this self-differentiation can affect one’s ability to function in healthy ways as a minister.
Finally, this reviewer found the later part of the book very helpful. As a “systems theory practitioner” who is always looking for ways in which the theory can be appropriately taught and practiced in a congregational context, Part Three of the book provided practical advice on how I can serve as a “coach” to congregational members—both individuals and groups—in the area of family systems work. In this way, family of origin groups can become an essential element of more effective pastoral care ministry.
While written primarily for clergy, this book provides concepts helpful to anyone serving in any area of ministry—lay or ordained. Richardson presents the theoretical work in an accessible format and offers real-life (often personal) examples that help “flesh out” these concepts. It can be an enormous help in guiding a minister through the process toward greater emotional and relational health. One can only hope this volume will become a standard tool for analysis of patterns in ministerial behavior and developing strong personal effectiveness.
There is a warning label of sorts for this book. Among the many excellent endorsements, Seldon D. Illick writes: “One cannot become a healthier pastor without having the courage to understand and work on one’s self in one’s own family system” (emphases mine). So, reader beware; if you’re looking for another “quick fix” to being a more effective minister, this book is not for you!
Rev. Dr. Robert L. Dibble, is Coordinator and faculty member of the Leadership in Ministry Workshops (LIM), a clergy leadership development program. The Center for Lifelong Learning is the Atlanta site for the LIM workshops. You can read more about the workshops, or, register for this program at the program description and registration page.